About a month ago, current President of OUCA Jack Matthews wrote a very interesting and informative article about his considerable experience of being a Conservative and involved with OUSU and the NUS. If, like me, you are a libertarian or you identify with the political Right, it makes very disturbing reading. At first, he describes the shock of other members present when he declared his political affiliation at hustings. This is fair enough; there are not many committed Conservatives involved with the student union. However, he then goes on to list a shocking number of occasions on which members of the NUS have behaved disgracefully to those that they disagree with politically. You can read the full article here; I strongly suggest you do so. Note that one of the worst things that NUS delegates have done is not even listed; in the OxStu released that same week, it was revealed that one unnamed member told another right-wing delegate that they “hoped she would be the next Tory to die”. Amazingly, despite knowing an awful lot of people who I will never see eye-to-eye with politically, I have somehow never found it necessary to express the sentiment that their life is worthless because of this. I was disgusted by all of this, but not surprised in the slightest. Anyone who has had the misfortune to be under the age of 30, regularly active on social media, and even the slightest bit right-wing will have undoubtedly have seen various Facebook groups directing a level of venom at anyone associated with the Conservatives that I have rarely, if ever, seen directed at the Left even by the most committed Tories.
This might not seem like that much of a problem. People do stupid things at university, and then they grow up and enter the real world and realise that people have different beliefs about things and that’s actually okay, and not a sign that they’re the metaphorical (and quite possibly the literal) spawn of Satan. At least, that’s how it should work out. Unfortunately, in practice it doesn’t quite work like that. Those who are most involved in NUS politics are, if OUSU is anything to go by, likely to be heavily involved in the Labour Club at their respective universities. These are the people who are most likely to be swept up for a party internship, or work as a special adviser, or whatever it is people do when like me they’ve done a PPE degree without giving a moment’s thought to what on earth they’re meant to do when they graduate. Until now I had dismissed people who accuse MPs of “never having worked a proper job” as not being sure what sort of proper job they actually wanted their MPs to have done. However, I’m starting to realise why these jobs are actually important. They force you to go out into the world and get on with people who don’t wear a red rose in party conference season during some of your most crucial formative years.
It is possible to go from the Labour Club to your university Student Union, and then the NUS more nationally, and then to work after graduation with the Labour Party, and then possibly into a parliamentary seat without ever having left a left-wing (well, as far as you can call the Labour Party left-wing these days instead of just hating the Conservatives) echo chamber for the best part of a decade or so. This is not a good thing. We saw Jack Matthew’s tale of NUS conferences where they threatened to “build a bonfire and put the Tories on the top”. If you go through the developing phases of your political career considering it acceptable to joke about murdering political opponents, or else dehumanising them in whatever manner takes your fancy, by the time you actually get to Parliament you are not likely to be able to approach your job with the requisite maturity. Although what is televised (i.e. Prime Minister’s Questions and the major parliamentary debates) appears highly combative, most of the work behind the scenes is done by cross-party select committees where cooperation is necessary. Is it possible to cooperate and negotiate to implement policies for the benefit of the whole British public- yes, some of whom are Tories- if you consider the people on the other side of the table to be something close to subhuman? I don’t think so.
I’ll be honest- I’m not sure what can be done about this. Human tribalism is a very primal instinct, and we all need our causes and identities to rally around. However, the self-perceived moral superiority by not all but a significant minority of the modern Left is not conducive to healthy political discourse. For now, there are two things I can suggest. The first is to follow Jack Matthews in saying we need more right wingers in the NUS. If you started ranting in your workplace about executing political dissidents, it is safe to say you would not keep your job for very long. We need a shift in the political balance of the NUS in order to make sure that it is not an environment where these sorts of remarks are tolerated either. Remember, it stands for National Union of Students, not National Union of Socialists; and plenty of students are right wing too. The second suggestion is my plea to those within the NUS who do think that it’s okay to marginalise people that they disagree with. A sizeable number of people in this country are Conservatives; it’s one thing to say that they’re wrong, another thing to say that they’re evil, and another bloody thing entirely to threaten to put them on a bonfire. The Labour Party has managed throughout its history to retain a reputation for being compassionate- deservedly so, given that they gave us the Welfare State and led us through periods of social reform. However, if the sense of pride in that legacy leads to open contempt for those who think differently, their reputation as the “nice party” may be impossible to keep.