YES! – Charlotte Cooper-Beglin
In Wadham, my college, there’s been a spurt of overtly ‘political’ motions this year. The SU has deliberated topics as the Israel-Palestine situation, the propriety of Julian Assange speaking at the Union given his accusations of rape and the arguably transphobic attitudes of the British press involved in the Lucy Meadows case. We’ve also seen a controversial candidate for Treasurer condemn such “bureaucratic and ideological motions” and argue (in a quote from Cherwell) that “SU money is for everyone, not just those with an agenda.”
So is it right for the JCR to be a political body? I believe so. Firstly, how on earth could it not be? Even in its most basic form, it is a body designed to represent the interests of students and to allocate the resources afforded to it as it sees fit according to the students’ wishes. This in itself is a political task; often the judgements we accept as received wisdom have implicit values and assumptions in them, and even if the JCR was used to the greatest economic benefit of the whole student body, this decision in itself embodies its own political principles.
Politics doesn’t have to mean narrow party political allegiances either. When we vote to reimburse women for the morning after pill, for example, we are politically endorsing principles of reproductive freedom.
It’s also hard to draw the line between issues that affect us as a student body and high politics. National political debates are often discussed through the prism of university life. Israel-Palestine was raised through a discussion about pressuring the university to support the BDS (Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions) movement in order to not use our funds to support oppression, and also involved discussion of how this would affect Israeli students, and of the academic and cultural impact of such a decision on Oxford students. Similarly rape culture, victim-blaming and the Julian Assange case were raised through discussions of the Un- ion’s programme, the incidence sexual harassment among students, and Wadham’s zero-tolerance motion.
Having said this, I don’t want to limit this to an argument that the JCR is implicitly political in its everyday workings, true though I think this is. I also believe that it’s a good thing that JCRs can have their own political identity, such as Wadham’s radical/left-wing/feminist identity.
Sure, there’s a lot that frustrates me about student politics. It can be over- intellectualised, naiÌˆve about the world and involve just a minority of students. But there’s also much that’s great about it. It’s likely that our time at university will be the most time we ever get to dedicate to politics. Historically students have played a role in some of the biggest protest movements, and we shouldn’t just embrace an apathetic stance. JCRs are also in many senses unique as their small size means anyone can attend and have their voice heard. As a small body of students living together in these circumstances, yes we should be tolerant, open-minded and independent, but we shouldn’t shy away from politics. To confront political issues big and small in such an open and participatory democratic forum with the people we live with is an opportunity we shouldn’t pass by. Whoever said life and politics were separable anyway?
NO! – Alexander Rankine
A JCR fulfils many roles: loving community, welfare support, representative in rent negotiations, den of college egos and source of angry clean up exhortation emails thereafter. To say that it should never act in a way possible of being con- strued ‘politically’ is too high a bar to set. Rent arguments are political, how the food budget is spent is political. JCR elections are pretty political.
By a ‘political’ JCR then we shall mean one in which agendas irrelevant to the direct interests of members are pursued. For instance, where does your JCR take positions on the following matters?
Firstly, financial considerations, ranging from the allocation of the budget to issues relating to what col- lege charges members for food and accommodation.
Secondly, the way JCR members act towards each other. Are certain forms of behaviour or language otherwise legal in the world outside expressly condemned by the JCR as a whole (rather than merely in the JCR during meetings)?
Thirdly, issues loosely relevant to Oxford University as a whole: should Julian Assange, Nick Griffin or Psy have been allowed to come to Oxford events to speak?
Finally, issues of generic importance beyond the cloisters. Does this JCR support nuclear energy? What is this JCR’s position on the coalition government’s deficit reduction strategy?
For each question award 0 points if your JCR never does this, 1 if sometimes, 2 if often. Less than four and your JCR isn’t really doing its job. 6+ and it is getting into political territory.
You will notice that as the points go up, the JCR’s power to directly affect the lives of its members diminishes. The JCR normally plays an important role in rent negotiations, it has some limited power of influence over its member inter-personal conduct. On the other hand, the Oxford Union does not really care what your JCR thinks. The world does not even know that it exists.
The amount of ideological verbiage at JCR meetings is also likely to increase with irrelevance. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some students feel passionately that certain issues, even if only loosely relevant, need an airing. And the level of political debate in most JCRs is actually quite high, much higher than in most student contexts, and definitely much higher than parliament. Opinions idiotic, hackneyed or inflexible are shown up if a few wise people deign to come to JCR meetings. To hear the brightest in college hold forth on public policy is definitely one of Mill’s ‘higher pleasures’ (sorry, prelims again). Then again, maybe that’s just because Corpus has Nick Dickinson.
There is always a danger that as the JCR divides itself over unimportant matters that something more important than the fight for Marxism- Leninism or the compulsory skin branding of JCR members with their privileges, relevantly ‘checked’, is lost. Unity. Just because a majority backs something, the irritated minority feels aggrieved that their JCR represent opinions they do not themselves support.
This in turn directly affects the core welfare competencies of JCRs. There is also a manifest loss of JCR credibility if it devotes a great deal of time to passing judgement on the wider world. JCRs should spend more time navel-gazing.