David Lewis says that university Conservatives need to be productive and engaged when it comes to their students’ unions, and calls on them to provide the voice of reason.
For too long student unions have been seen as the uncontested, unaccountable platform for left-leaning Labour students. But only when conservative and reasonable-minded people actively engage with student politics can we reshape the union agenda and enable new passageways into the Conservative Party for young people.
The bias against common sense and reasonable ideas is indeed, at times, off-putting and intimidating. There is a very real sense that what is accepted as practical and common sense in everyday life is treated with scorn and contempt within the students’ union bubble. Questioning the causes and the policies of this cell has in the past opened one up to ridicule and pejorative labeling. This is why it is more important than ever for conservative-minded students to find their voice and stand up for something reasonable and relevant to students, the majority of whom fall outside this union bubble.
It is easy for such people to give up on engaging in sheer disillusionment. What is less helpful though, yet understandable is those who idly criticize the activity of students’ union without doing anything meaningful to engage. There is a perception that many are simply the ‘anti-squad’, who from behind their keyboard, or among themselves, only speak out at what they are against. I fear decades have been wasted this way. The student conservative message has to be more than this. With little direction coming from the party, and no particular tradition of young conservatives engaging in student politics, those of us who genuinely care must seek to find our own positive message and an engaging alternative to the stale and irrelevant status quo which attracts so little interest from students.
This is exactly what conservative-minded students at Kent University are doing.
A growing group of us at Kent are finding our conservative cause within our students’ union. This is not an organized movement, or one at all involving the national party. We are trying to make the conservative brand accessible and relevant at a level that we understand better ourselves than those in CCHQ, and without the support of CF.
Many students known to be conservative-minded have overcome the bias against their association and have overcome the odds to get elected in key positions. This has been achieved through much hard work and effort. At Kent we have conservative-minded people elected in key positions such as LGBT officer, and three out of four ‘democracy zone’ chairs–Union Council seat-holding roles.
These are exciting times. We are defining our cause as we attempt to make student’s unions more relevant to the wider student body. We are a growing group of young conservative-minded people, adapting to make a success out of a conservative message within the institutions most immediately available to us.
We are determined to find constructive ways of reforming our students’ union and promoting causes we believe are at the heart of the university experience.
Our message does not come straight from NUS or a political party. Rather, we are creating our own tradition, and attempting to change the landscape of the student political scene at university.
This is not to say that Kent Union is a comparatively bad students’ union. The problems Kent Union has are typical of students’ unions across the country: left-wing bias, democracy deficits, poor engagement, and alienating political action (such as an attempt by our VP Education to ban BAE from promoting employment opportunities to our brightest science and computer science undergraduates.)
This is why efforts cannot stop in Kent. There is scope for co-ordinated efforts across the country for conservative-minded students to make a difference at every university students’ union.
Why does this all matter? What is happening at Kent is quite extraordinary. Our conservative political societies are thriving and our success and relevance in student politics is ever-growing. With the Conservative Party fighting two years of critical elections this year and next, we in Kent our broadening the Conservative appeal through engaging with our community and detoxifying the party brand, so sadly felt by young people, through the positive work we are trying to achieve in student politics.
Anybody still in need of convincing as to why Conservatives should get involved in student politics should pay a visit to Kent and see for themselves how our positive work is affecting association membership.
We must not become complacent. We must continue to find our voice and deliver it through the authenticity of our conservative-minded individuals. Conservative students are starting something at Kent that can do so much good in our union institutions and for the national party. What we have achieved so far must continue and inspire others to carry it on. Who knows? Years down the line we may have a proud Conservative tradition in students’ union politics. What we are doing at Kent may just change the landscape of student politics.
David Lewis is a Kent Union councillor and chairman of the union’s Community ‘zone.’