Radicalism is a dirty word in British youth politics today. Three days ago, the NUS threw out a proposal to drastically restrict its campaigning and representative powers by an approximate ten-vote margin. Frustrated by this slim defeat at the annual conference, Labour Students, ‘independent’ Labour affiliates and other centre-right groups have already drawn up plans for an extraordinary conference to attempt to pull the changes through.
NUS radicalism has been so eroded over the past decade, however, that there’s barely been a murmur of fuss has been made about all of this outside the narrow alley of student politics: as a former NUS rep for Goldsmiths commented, ‘It’s been coming for a long time.’
Whilst all of this has been going on, massive cutbacks have been tabled to funding for higher education, particularly second degrees.
The worst-hit organisations will be Birkbeck College and the Open University – traditionally where hard-up students and young people go for re-training, for a second chance at broadening their personal and economic potential through education. That second chance is now being scavenged to divert cash to other parts of an already under-funded education system, by a government which recently shelled out £28bn to float Northern Rock. Over 170, 000 mostly part-time students will be affected. A spokesperson for Birkbeck university, where over a third of students have ELQ status, said, “these cuts will have an immediate and detrimental effect on all part-time students and the government’s skills agenda. Classes will be vulnerable to closure, choice will be reduced and the student experience will be impoverished.” For the NUS, however, this news is firmly on the back-burner: why bother criticising a Labour budget when the next gurning Labour-Student star has just been elected?*
Young people under 30; people in training or looking for work; the inexperienced and exploitable. We are people in desperate need of representation and support, and we are being staggeringly let down on both fronts, by the NUS and by our government. The reasons behind this are simple. We are an extremely valuable and wide-ranging market demographic, and we are, for the most part, politically docile: it’s the stuff policy planners’ wet dreams are made of. In any society with finite resources, it will always be easier to shaft someone royally rather than make long, expensive and unpopular moves towards the sort of systemic change that would make things fairer. This time, it’s the under-30 slice of the population pie who are being shafted, and we ALL know what BASTARDS are to blame, don’t we?
That’s right. Us.
Yes. We are partly responsible for what has happened to youth politics in the UK today, conspiracy theorise though we may. To pretend otherwise would be immature and pathetic. We allowed ourselves to be bought. We allowed the adults to fob us off with booze, toys and gadgets, and then, because they made us panic that those things might be taken away, we allowed ourselves to be scared into a life of frantic commercial servitude – taking more exams, doing more and harder work and fighting harder for our places in the food chain than any generation has had to in the past. We made that choice. We made it when, in the last two general elections, far more of us 18-to-20-somethings than any other single group chose not to turn up to vote. We sent a message that we didn’t care; we told them that they could fuck us any way they wanted, and we promised to secretly love it.
Hell, I’m not patronising: even *I* wasn’t there. As I recall, I was wired on Jameson’s whisky and caffeine pills, trying to study for my summer exams whilst bingeing, starving myself systematically and hurting myself in some childlike effort to weed out a particularly virulent attack of SYAT (Standard Young Adult Trauma). I regret a lot of things, and a few people, that I did when I was eighteen; I could pretend that I was so distressed that I didn’t even remember to vote, but that would be utter rubbish – I remembered all right, I just didn’t care, and I’ll have to live with that hypocrisy until GE 2009. I lay down and let the system fuck me for far too long as a kid; it won’t happen again. I’m not saying it’s easy. I know it’s not bloody easy. But we can’t give up on the notion that things can change, or that our votes and actions and decisions count towards what our political leaders decide to do with us.
We have been cheated – we have allowed ourselves to be cheated – of our political identity, and the NUS reforms that are still on the table emblematise that cynical, fuck-me-please-if-you’re-going-to attitude that we’ve developed towards the older generation. What’s happened to the NUS over the past few years is this attitude in action. We’ve turned from what had, since 1922, been an important locus of comment upon government policy, particularly education policy, towards deliberately working with New Labour and not criticising their fantastically divisive and unhelpful education reforms in order to further the careers of NUS politicians, bring in cash through advertising and other schemes, and win countless establishment pats-on-the-head for our tireless delegates.
Barring a few hard-working revolutionary splinter groups [ENS LINK], the NUS has become as politically vacuous as the model United Nations or those dreadful Young Enterprise corporate-training schemes. It has functioned since 1997 as a finishing school for aspiring toe-sucking Blairite sycophants, set on making their own careers in politics not because they want socio-political justice but because they believe that they themselves deserve power. This is not what we need, as young people trying to stabilise our lives, struggling through university or other forms of career development. What we need is cross-border representation and our own, enfranchised political voice. What we need is a trade union – a real, enfranchised trade union – focused on the needs and specific problems of young workers, including but not restricted to students. But it won’t happen unless we want it badly enough.
*As a drinker and a gentleman, I feel obliged to mention that newly-elected NUS golden-boy Wes Streeting did once buy me a vodka-and-orange in a bar after a rally. Wes, wherever you are: I’m not on board with your politics, and I think you’re a dangerous sellout, but I undeniably owe you a drink. Put your people in touch with my people.