Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Student politics

Two people on my friends list have either taken the plunge or are thinking about taking the plunge into student politics, so I've been reviewing my own thoughts about it. (Recommended link for those who are thinking about it themselves: What sort of student politician are you?)

I did my undergraduate degree at Cambridge, but was lucky to end up with an upper second after the time I put into various extra-curricular activities. Along with various temporary musical and vaguely religious commitments, I was the second president of the Diplomacy Society which is still going strong; I was the founding president of one of many incarnations of the Irish Society, which apparently gets reinvented every four or five years; I served briefly (until I realised I was overcommitted) on the committee of the Science Fiction Society (with deborah_c and nick_barnes); and also was a college rep and committee member for the Fisher Society (the student body of the Catholic chaplaincy).

But in those heady days, politics was what really interested me. It seems so long ago now; I know there are people reading this who are too young to remember Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister, and who may have difficulty relating to the sheer revulsion felt for her by many people of the centre, never mind the left. I believe things have changed these days, but Cambridge student politics at university level was very politicised between the "University Left" coalition, which included not just the (relatively left wing) Cambridge Organisation of Labour Students but also various other factions; the SDP/Liberal Alliance, of whom more later; and the Cambridge University Conservative Association, who to the dismay of the left (broadly defined, ie including me) managed to win the presidency of the students union in 1988. The fact that the winning Tory candidate was a loud Glaswegian lesbian almost added insult to injury.

The elections for the Clare College JCR committee took place a week or so later, and I had decided to stand as the External Officer, ie the person responsible for links with the central university students union and with the National Union of Students. At the time I regarded those who had achieved high office in student politics as exalted beings, clearly specially selected above the rest of us. I had not taken in the simple truth that the only really essential thing you need to succeed in politics is the desire to succeed in politics; if you have that, then sooner or later luck will come your way, though obviously if you pick a larger rather than a smaller political party and ally yourself with rising stars within it you will get lucky more quickly. Nobody stood against me for this particular exalted position and I got 70% of the votes. (Two other positions were uncontested and both got around 90% of the votes cast; I suspect I was too nerdy, or in some cases perhaps just too unknown.) My future wife ran for Women's Officer and lost; my future sort-of girlfriend ran for Treasurer and won.

Clare College was a small community of about 450 students and my main role was giving moral support to our president against the immature impulses of some of the younger committee members. (The president, very sensibly, stayed well out of politics after graduating and now runs a chateau in the Dordogne.) It also meant participating in meetings of the central students union council where you could actually make policy on behalf of Cambridge University and try and get the National Union of Students - or, more boringly though more operationally useful, the University authorities - to take it seriously. I also got myself elected onto the Societies Syndicate, a nice little committee which has the task of giving start-up grants to student societies (four-fifths of which would then fold, of course, but there you go).

Now comes the bit that many people who were adults at the time will have forgotten. There used to be a political party in the UK called the SDP. They were founded in 1981 as a splinter group from the Labour Party which in those days looked unelectable (I know, ancient history; now the reverse is the case). I had become a bit of a fan by staying up late the occasional night to watch by-election victories which they seemed to have frequently. At the time, under Foot and in the early Kinnock years, the Labour Party looked unreformable; also for me the crucial issue was switching to a proportional election system, which seemed then (and still does) just to make much more sense, and would prevent a government as extreme as Mrs Thatcher's from ever winning power again. (Interestingly, as far as I can tell from Paddy Ashdown's pubished memoirs, Tony Blair still doesn't understand this.) But once at Cambridge I joined not the SDP but the old Liberal Party, which just somehow seemed more comfy.

As an elected officer at college level, who was also a Liberal member, of course I was then of interest to the university SDP/Liberal hacks looking for candidates for future elections. This was a very bad year for the two parties as a whole, as in the wake of Mrs Thatcher's stunning third election victory in 1987 the leadership of the Liberals and most of the SDP - though unfortunately only a minority of their MPs and worst of all not including the leader - were negotiating a merger between the two parties to produce what are now the Liberal Democrats. However I was persuaded, with little difficulty, to run for election for my first time as a partisan candidate in the choice of Cambridge University delegates for the National Union of Students Conference in winter 1988.

I was one of a slate of four candidates, for twelve places elected by preferential vote (single transferable vote in some dialects) of all the university's students. I was, I think, a modest 7th or 8th in terms of first preferences but had easily enough support to be one of the lucky twelve. I then stood for and won the exalted position of the Cambridge University delegation's official leader at the conference; I'd spotted this as being something nobody else would be much interested in, with the only responsibility being to get people out of bed in time for the conference sesions (admittedly I wasn't completely successful in that) and a job that looked much more impressive on the CV than it was actually worth (almost the only time I have made such a calculation).

Nowadays the NUS holds only one conference a year but at that time there were two. Part of the reason for the change was what happened in Winter 1988. The conference came just at the moment that Mrs Thatcher was introducing the Poll Tax, a local government tax that was (such a stupid idea I can hardly believe I'm typing this) a flat rate of several hundred pounds per adult, and had I think already done so in Scotland. Lefty Scottish students, with no Conservative ministers to protest against, instead disrupted the last evening of the conference by occupying the platform. It's not as if this prevented the conference from doing anything useful, but it was still rather a shock to have proceedings interrupted by direct action.

In due course, I was persuaded to stand for the position of Deputy President of Cambridge University Students Union the next year, a sabbatical position, ie paid and full-time. The incumbent was actually both a Liberal and also at Clare College, but in fact it was his predecessor who actually persuaded me to take the plunge. (They are now respectively making games machines for English  pubs and merchant banking in New York.) Unusually the election was a straight fight between the three main parties, me representing the Liberal Democrats, with University Left represented by a fellow Ulster Catholic (now a chemical engineer in California) and the Tories by their current candidate for Hammersmith and Fulham. Of course, I did nothing else for two or three weeks before the vote other than campaign. When I did win (I was ahead of the Left guy on the first count, and got loads of Conservative transfers which saw me safely in on the second count) I was completely ecstatic for three days. I had joined the ranks of the elect. Or, rather, the elected.

Well, I wish I knew then what I did now. My year as a Deputy President was one of the most miserable of my life. It wasn't just that the Left were vocal and nasty on the students union council to an Executive where three of the four sabbaticals were Liberal Democrats. (The Left weren't even a majority on the council, which also included eminently sensible people like djm4, but they were the loudest and best organised.) It wasn't just that a new gruesome student tabloid newspaper was founded that year and took cheap but very nasty shots at us every week. (I see its disgusting founder turned up on a Guardian list of the young new rich four years ago, but has been quieter since.) The fact that my father died that year was not the fault of the students union either. No, really the problem was me; I wasn't organised enough to take on the role of seeing political projects through to a  conclusion, and while I liked the talking side of things - usually, though not always, depending on who I was talking to - the doing side of things was not my forte. It did at least give me my first experience of management, in the very congenial form of the two staff of the CUSU shop (since, alas, closed) so at least I felt that the people side of things was something I handled well.

Being a CUSU sabbatical was I think a formative experience for all of us; it's striking that all four of us who were in office that year have veered away completely from what looked like the obvious career paths for us at the time - the President, a law graduate, is now Head of Corporate and Community Affairs at the Premier League, while her friend who was one of the other Deputy Presidents was a management graduate and is now a lawyer; while in a weird bit of symmetry, I studied astrophysics and am now a political analyst, while the other Deputy President (who was also at Clare College) was a lefty political science graduate and is now the science correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. My immediate predecessors I've mentioned above; my successor was a radical Green who is now a high-flying civil servant in the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. Her successor was another bloke at Clare who I persuaded to stand for the office, and he seems to have been one of the most efficient holders of it.

Anyway, you live and learn. Subsequently doing an M Phil and Ph D taught me much more about time management than I had learnt as an undergraduate or student politician. I dipped my toes in student politics again as a Ph D student in Belfast, but now knew enough not to take it too seriously. I'd still recommend it as an interim career choice for people who are better organised than I was then, and particularly those who either won't take it too seriously or who will use it as a springboard to other things. Some time in the future I will post about my experiences as a candidate for election to public office in both 1990 and 1996.

Enough for now. writing this has taken two Sunday evenings. More autobiography to follow...

Tags: life: autobiography
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