We’ve all heard that line from Henry Kissinger: “University politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”. So I was intrigued to get party leaders from the Labour, Lib Dem and Tory student associations round a table for an hour.
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from them all. I had an image of the 16-year-old William Hague who spoke at the Tory party conference 1977, where he had the entire conference in raptures, and who was always destined to be Tory party leader from that moment on – and, naturally, became leader of OUCA en route. Henry Evans is leader of OUCA now: uber self-assured, engaging and personable, one could easily imagine him becoming a Tory MP too – as he is honest enough to admit is his aim.
Interestingly, the Tories are the only group that has a single all-powerful leader. The Lib Dems, reflecting their love for all things compromise, have two co-chairs; Ed Watson describes himself as the “Nick Clegg” figure to his co’s “Simon Hughes”. By this I assume he means he represents the centre-right of the party, not that he’s widely hated by students. Labour’s co-leader – confusingly another Evans (Jack, no relation to Henry) – is the only one to (sort of) rule himself out of a career in politics, saying “I don’t think I’m good enough”. This provokes sympathy and reassurances to the contrary – not what you’d expect in the Commons. So these guys don’t hate each other, which is doubtless a good thing. Indeed, OUCA and OULC recently even went for a crew date to Jamal’s. Hopefully they can put aside their considerable political differences and agree that the food there is utterly rubbish. Ed rather sadly laments that no one ever asks the Lib Dems to go on socials (“We’re kind of left out of this stuff but there’s nothing new in that”), not even their new Tory friends.
So what is it that motivates these people? Political party leaders have to send out copious emails, organise everything – and yet no one recognises them. Being one, it seems, would be like being President of the Union without the ‘glamour’. Obviously they’re all very interested in politics, and committed to the policies of their parties – though Jack admits he wasn’t sure what party he supported when he arrived at Oxford. He likes the idea of OULC being a device by which constructive anger at the coalition, whom he credits with “getting me angry about politics” can be expressed.
Henry emphasises the pleasures of “making policy documents”, sent, possibly in vain, to Tory HQ, and the interesting speakers he gets to meet. Ed likes the constant debate, which means you “always find your views being refined” – though not sufficiently to back tuition fees. His take on them is simply that “we made huge mistakes”. Though giving the coalition a “tentative thumbs up” he’s refreshingly happy to criticise his own party. When Jack discusses the prospect of the Lib Dem party facing electoral “annihilation”, Ed honestly admits this “might well happen”. He refuses to rule out what many on the left of his party would hate, either – the prospect of the Lib Dems and Conservatives not challenging each other in certain seats at the next election. Many think this would spell the effective end of the party.
So how are the parties doing in the Oxford world? One obvious gauge is membership numbers – and, by this criterion, there really is no contest. Henry proudly flaunts OUCA’s 800 members. He claims they are pretty engaged too – “well over 200” appear regularly at their weekly meetings. OUCA certainly has a formidable reputation – though this may put certain people off as well as encourage them to join. Ed comments that, “from the outside, it can seem quite insular and some people have the impression that it’s very much people of a certain type” who participate in the organisation. Henry concedes, “there are a fair few” from public schools but is predictably adamant that there’s no shortage from state schools either. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage from anywhere, in truth – something OULC and OULD must be envious of. Jack says OULA have just over 250 members – a figure he seems proud of, whilst admitting to being “surprised at how many members OUCA have”. Meanwhile, Ed says he doesn’t know how many members OULD have, though from his tone it seems fair to assume the number is under three figures.
Part of the reason for this great discrepancy lies in the strong social element to OUCA’s weekly meetings. These are called Port & Policy for a reason – and the port comes first. Henry says the strong social dimension to OUCA is “one of its great strengths”. But doubtless, if Andrew Neil (who just made a BBC documentary on the importance of Oxbridge connections for MPs) came to a ‘P & P’ session he’d be horrified. The contacts you make at OUCA can’t fail but be an aid to those who dream of careers in politics.
One of the few political issues the three are in some agreement if is the danger of what Jack terms “conveyer belt politics”. Increasingly, the route to success, in all three of the parties, is to become a special adviser after leaving University, gradually moving your way up until you are parachuted into a safe seat. But such a system risks entrenching the Oxbridge elite, thereby making the politicians seem ever more detached from the real world. Jack describes going to a Labour conference – “who are the Labour up and coming figures? Special advisers, former Labour students, often from OULC. There is a big risk and that’s why we as a party can be alienated from our core vote.” Far from saying the Lib Dems are any better when it comes to this, Ed says “most of the Lib Dem leadership who haven’t gone down that route were in the city, which is hardly any better”. Henry disagrees with the others about the severity of the issues, citing examples such as Alan Johnson and Ken Clarke. But as the others point out these are men of a different generation; the backgrounds of the rising political 40-somethings today, regardless of party, can barely be distinguished.
The notion is pretty depressing: that political careers can be destroyed before they have even begun by failure in an Oxbridge interview. But if this remains true it is excellent news for these three.