Jacob Turner and Jamie Susskind
Co Chairs of Oxford University Labour Club
The Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) has a long and colourful history. With nearly a century of activism under its belt, OULC remains a proud political force in Oxford politics. Former members include luminaries ranging from Rupert Murdoch to Iris Murdoch, Barbara Castle to the brothers Miliband.
In 2009, OULC remains a great organisation to be involved in. With more campaigns, seminars, speeches, discussions, and socials than you could wave a red flag at, we are truly a club for everyone with a social conscience. But like all organisations, OULC is not immune to atrophy. We have, in the past, been accused of insularity and close-mindedness, and although they are often unfounded and exaggerated, we know that these criticisms are not entirely without basis. But at the same time, we know that in order to improve any institution, it is first necessary to recognise its faults.
Though OULC is traditionally characterised as being to the left of the national party, it is in fact a pluralist organisation, encompassing a range of views from Blairite to Bennite. No self-respecting OULC member can enjoy being written off as a ‘Trotskyite’ by a student journalist who meets their word quota by peddling Oxford clichés. But though we always welcome internal debate within OULC – as shown by our policy forums – there are ideals which we all hold in common: social justice, equality of opportunity, civil liberty, and a belief that we are stronger together than alone.
Despite what is sometimes said, we are not the mouthpiece of the national party. While our views broadly accord with those of the Labour Party, many OULC members will have real and significant qualms with the party line on one issue or another. Nor are we blind to the challenges that face the national Labour Party – but just because our electoral future is uncertain does not mean our ideas are wrong.
Political apathy is not a problem in Oxford University. Just a glance at groups such as Oxford Students for Liberty, Oxford Amnesty International, and Oxford Students for Darfur attest to this fact, and we pleased to say that many OULC members are active in these movements. OULC actually has the most members of any student Labour Club in the country – but we believe it could be larger still. For us, it is time that the Labour Club took its place at the epicentre of progressive politics in Oxford.
For many years OULC has had a ‘no platform’ policy with many of the other political groups. In practice, what this meant was that OULC did not engage in any forms of debate or discussion with the other political parties within Oxford. In our view, this policy must come to an end. If we are confident in the strength of our ideas, then we should be willing to voice them – the fact that we vociferously oppose certain political groups within the university is the very reason why we must engage with, not ignore them.
We know that our challenge this term is to show the students of Oxford the same side of OULC that we show the residents of Oxford every Sunday morning when we go out campaigning. For this reason, we propose to hold a debate with the Oxford University Conservative Association at some point this term. The outcome of the debate itself is not, for us, the key issue. The object of this is to demonstrate that we are willing to engage with other political parties, and show that we are a serious political force within Oxford.
It is our view that no one’s political views should be defined simply by what school they went to, or what area they grew up in. OUCA’s popularity is more social than it is doctrinal, whereas one of OULC’s great strengths is that it encompasses people from a wide variety of backgrounds. As well as standing up to those who would make themselves our opponents, we also have to embrace the other societies that share our outlook. We now actively encourage a guest audience at our meetings, and we have a number of outreach initiatives on our termcard, including joint events with the International Relations and LGBT Societies.
The dark side of unrestrained capitalism is here for all to see. Many Oxford students’ cast-iron careers in banking or the financial sector suddenly seem much less realistic – and much less attractive. The swing toward the voluntary sector, the Civil Service and organisations such as TeachFirst bears testament to this. OULC continues to provide an opportunity for anyone who is dissatisfied with the state of the world, and is interested in the idea of social justice, to have their voice heard in a friendly atmosphere. Perhaps now more than ever our message is a pertinent one.
Publications officer, Oxford University Conservative Association
I love OUCA, and I think it is more serious and more diverse than any other student political society. No, really. Five years ago, even a diehard member wouldn’t have been able to say the latter half of that sentence seriously, and today, to those who know the Oxford University Conservative Association only by stereotype, it still sounds preposterous. But it’s true.
While OUCA has a long and illustrious history, boasting such past presidents as Nick Robinson, Dominic Grieve, and of course, Margret Thatcher, no one can deny that a decade ago it went through a low period. Speaker meetings nearly ceased, and Port and Policy devolved into four guys in a smoke filled room, with the two that weren’t passed out drunk shouting at each other and hiring in strippers. The shame of it all is that not only has this tarred the Association’s reputation within the University, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Conservatism.
Like the broader conservative and Conservative movements, OUCA boasts a healthy internal debate, and a wide spectrum of ideological diversity. We argue over the proper size and role of government, the role of the Church and the monarchy, the environment, the economy, foreign policy, and so on ad infinitum. We have Thatcherite –Cameronite divides, British Conservatives and foreign conservatives, neo-cons, paleo-cons, and the new and ever-growing group, former leftist sympathizers who have begun to question their position, now that even Stevie Wonder could see how badly the past twelve years of Labour government have screwed up the country.
The upshot of all this is that, thanks to the hard work of a few good Political Officers, Port & Policy has transformed into a gathering of upwards of a hundred people per week in which real debate occurs. There is rarely any consensus, and there is always excellent representation of both sides.
This is helped by the fact that OUCA has no platform: there is no official party line to which members are expected to adhere, or which is promoted over any other. Speaker invitations likewise reflect this, representing a wide range of opinions within the right side of the political spectrum.
The speaker events of this term speak to the increased seriousness of OUCA more than anything else. During Trinity Term, OUCA has or will offer talks by Viscount Monckton, John Redwood, Daniel Hannan, and Michael Howard, and continues to host a series of charitable fundraisers for the Army Benevolent Fund. While the Union seems content to slide into an increased offering of B list celebrities and politicians alike, OUCA, especially under the current president, Anthony Boutall, has gone from strength to strength as a forum for real political discussion.
A few terms ago, there was a great deal of debate, manifested by a few decisive elections, about the question of reform in OUCA. It has since become apparent that the real reforms came about when the organization as a whole re-embraced its political seriousness and its guiding, Conservative philosophy (a lesson the national party might benefit from). There is a reason why the involvement of the membership has gone from dozens to hundreds, why more women hold committee posts now than in recent memory, and national Conservative figures have begun to patronize the organization again. Successful transformation, in the shape of committed officers and renewed purpose, has taken place in the past few years, and growth has followed.
One of the fundamental challenges faced by Conservatives is that holding a political philosophy which largely asks the government to leave people to get on with their own livees, we often find it difficult to get our adherents involved politically. The problem with accepting this is that if those on the right sit things out, we wind up with the situations like the one the government is in today.
The country is finally beginning to wake up to the necessity of Conservatism, both electorally and philosophically, and OUCA has now reemerged on the University political scene resurgent in force and seriousness. Those in the University who have questions or even problems with us would benefit most by engaging with us, rather than relying on stereotypes.
It only takes a glance down a list of UK Prime Ministers to sniff the political heritage in Oxford. I suspect every college population is at least generally aware of the political talent is has produced in years past, if not forcibly reminded by a suitably large portrait of it in the hall. It is probably a reasonable assumption that as we sit in our lectures we are surrounded by the ambitious few (or many) who fully intend to continue this tradition, and have set their foot upon the ladder by signing up at freshers’ fair to a throng of university groups.
And they well might. Students here have good reason to expect success if politically ambitious. Where better to secure a bit of experience alongside the prospective illustrious few? But isn’t this the point? A few. Despite the occasional pigeon-hole attack, can the average oxford undergraduate say that student politics has a great effect on their being? Certainly there is opportunity for those who wish to participate, but does the situation in the university in part reflect one problem in politics itself? The disconnection between the politician and the public.
Of course this can be instantly denied in that a student here is probably more inclined than the average voter not to change the channel when the news comes on, to know the odd cabinet minister’s name, to even have vague ideas on what an ideology might be. But it seems that actively participating in student politics remains the pursuit of but a few.
Perhaps a deserving successful breed of super-humans who manage to blitz reading lists, absorb newspapers daily, listen earnestly to numerous prestigious speakers and remain composed in a week punctuated by president of this’ drinks and Trinity ball of that. I don’t doubt this; you can count on a few super-humans around here. But neither do I doubt that amongst those with a keen-interest are some whose CV will list more societies and political groups that can possibly make for a heartfelt commitment to one. And does it matter to the rest of us? Is the reason for this constant calendar of events and drinks and parties a plea for more people to take an interest when they just don’t. Of course in the big real world it matters, but in student life, whether because of our own apathy or not, we feel that politics is still only relevant to the dedicated few.