A 1994 edition of Nouse breathlessly reported that Labour Students, “the most influential political society in campus politics”, were in chaos after their AGM failed to fill important posts on the executive committee. A one page editorial on the issue gravely warned that the recent election of party leader Tony Blair, and his commitment “to jettison the central plank of Labour’s constitution, Clause Four”, threatened to dramatically split campus Labour into left-right factions.
With all due to respect to the current Labour Soc, it’s difficult to imagine one of their AGMs producing anything like that sort of interest today. The same goes for the York Tories.
Party lines seems to have little to no impact on the political dynamics on campus and banners, rosettes and national ideology are rarely seen except when they are duly trotted out for Freshers’ fair. None of the candidates in the YUSU elections would dream of claiming they were running on a party ticket. Can you imagine posters urging you to vote Labour for Service and Finance? It would be bizarre in York.
Yet it’s the reality in student politics across the country. The student union at Oxford is regularly dominated by Labour majorities, while at large urban universities like Leeds the political societies have huge clout and their support is desperately sought for the passage of union motions. At the NUS level the picture is even more stark. Current NUS Vice-President Wes Streeting (tipped for presidency next year) is a regular at Labour Party conferences and sits on the executive committee of Labour students. Both Conservatives and Socialists also have sizable followings. The arguments in the NUS are party political and very, very bitter.
It’s difficult to see how York’s overtly non-aligned culture can be anything other than a good thing. The arguments we hear are silly enough already. But before we dismiss the role of parties altogether consider the other two major mass democracy events this year: the NUS referendum and the Hackwood affair. In both we saw highly organised campaigns emerge to compete vigorously for the student vote – and in both the main organisers were made up of the core members of campus Labour and Conservatives. Our campus political parties may be of a low profile, but don’t underestimate their importance or their influence.