The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

The toxicity of student politics

Ex-Co Chair of Manchester Labour Students, Ally Routledge, details the scenery of her journey through student politics

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Manchester Labour Students (MLS) has regularly grabbed the headlines of this paper over the past 18 months, and increasingly for the wrong reasons. But it was not always this way. I went along to my first MLS event because I wanted to help put Labour into Government, to give people in this country the leadership they deserve.

My first experience of student politics was a cold, wet Saturday morning, knocking on doors in Withington. I loved it. This was not shouting from the side lines. We were talking to voters and changing minds. Despite the relative doom and gloom of the 2015 election, I took pride in the fact that Labour won a seat from the Lib Dems in the the constituency in which I campaigned for the very first time.

I joined MLS in campaigning across the North West, even giving up the two weeks before my first year exams to spend every day persuading the voters of marginal seats. I did it because I enjoyed it, and along the way I made some great friends. We did not agree on everything — the Labour Party has always been a broad church — but we respected each other’s opinions.

I made so many friends that I went to help them campaign at the National Union of Students Conference. Here, I experienced first-hand the toxic side of student politics. I had delegates that I didn’t even know approach me, blame me for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, and hiss when I tried to campaign for one candidate. They felt that any Labour member was fair game.

Despite defeat at the polls in 2015, I enjoyed my time in MLS, so much so that I decided to run for Chair. I was incredibly humbled to be elected as Chair of the society by the people whom had made my first year so enjoyable. However, when I returned to Manchester two months later, something had changed. The first question that everyone asked me was who I voted for in the 2015 Leadership contest. Suddenly, we were a house divided: you were a ‘Red Tory’ or a ‘Corbynista’. There was no in-between.

Amongst our Freshers’ events that year, and after the sad death of Michael Meacher, MP for Oldham West, my Co-Chair and I decided to make campaigning against UKIP in that seat our priority. I would have loved to report that every member of the society was enthusiastic about this opportunity to campaign in the first by-election after the General Election. Unfortunately, a few individuals decided to hold ‘alternative’ Freshers’ events, without inviting the Co-Chair or myself, branding themselves the ‘Labour Left Students for Corbyn’.

There, individuals spread rumours that I was a bully and that Manchester Labour Students was an unwelcoming place. If these people had come to Oldham with us, they would have seen that all we wanted was to elect a Labour MP and to drive out the divisive narrative that UKIP was spreading.  I informed our Students’ Union of these events going on without us being invited and they assured me that they would intervene. Nothing happened.

I wish that these meetings were the only problem that I faced in my time as Co-Chair. Sadly, this was not the case. Around three months into my term, I was asked directly if I had slept with a previous Co-Chair, who happened to be a man, and was told that this rumour was being spread around MLS and actually being believed. This misogyny was just the tip of the iceberg: I was shouted at in meetings, harassed in the SU building, and pestered on a daily basis about the state of MLS.

My name was spread across both the student and national press, with newspapers obtaining my personal phone number and calling me relentlessly over the Christmas break. Unsurprisingly, my male Co-Chair was never accused of sleeping with anyone, and members behaved completely differently when he spoke or chaired meetings. And, despite their anti-harassment policy, again, the SU did nothing.

Throughout my year as Co-Chair, I was in regular contact with my Students’ Union. I spoke to five different members of staff about how I was being treated. They were fully aware of the misogynistic bullying I was facing on a daily basis and yet did nothing to intervene, support me, or look out for my welfare.

However, when a friend of one of the SU sabbatical officers had a complaint, a meeting with MLS’ committee was set up within a week. I wanted to be involved in the Students’ Union, but they just helped the people who wanted to push me out. I was asked by various people as to whether I was going to run for one of the Exec elections, but I replied with one question: why would I want to be involved with an SU that has let me down time and time again?

I joined MLS because I wanted a Labour government — not to be labelled Blairite scum, questioned on how I won my election, or to feel a wave of anxiety every time I got an email or Facebook notification. Sadly, this is what I will remember from my time in student politics.

  • Anon MLS member

    I have also experienced similar things in MLS and seen first hand how the student union fail those students time and time again. Really disappointing.

  • JB

    Awww didums.

    Try being a student with right of centre/ conservative views, especially at postgrad level. You might get to understand how we feel every single day.

    • Anon mcanonface

      Wrong?

      • JB

        … because there is a ‘correct’ form of political opinion one can have.

  • Interferometry

    I think a little more context is warranted;

    Attempts last year by assorted delusional student trotskyists to split the Labour club into one or more fragments while engaging in personal attacks against the previous committee were both pointless and damaging to MLS as an active society. Shouting at meetings and censure motions became a regular occurrence, and many members just stopped getting involved.

    As Ally identifies, recourse to the bodies of the student union was essentially nonexistent unless you attracted the patronage of one of the sabbatical officers. Last year a young member had students from a particular sect at the university publicly promoting a far-right hit-piece blog that targeted her with deeply offensive claims about her personal life. In any other world that sort of behaviour would have been grounds for serious disciplinary action; here it led to a stern email.

    Ally and her clique however were far from spotless in their running of the Labour club. During her tenure as co-chair, new members (disproportionately likely to be Jeremy supporters and new to Labour) were made to feel unwelcome both at meetings and at events. Given her veneration of the #LabourDoorstep above, it’s surprising the number of new members who turned up to one of the few MLS campaigning events that were publicised to the wider society in reasonable time only to be sidelined, talked over or, I kid you not, literally cropped out of group photos like they’d never been there. Members initially promised support for their train tickets on campaign away days found Labour Students financial support, for a favoured few almost too cheap to meter, evaporating as soon as it became clear they were ‘the wrong sort’ of Labour Student.

    Years ago a friend of mine, when she first became involved in Labour through a LS club in another city, went on one of these #LabourDoorstep campaign days and afterwards at the social heard figures involved with NOLS (the national structure into which local Labour Students clubs affiliate), apparently each assuming she had been brought along by one of the others, discussing how they could use their influence to ‘lose’ travel funding meant for a disabled young member they didn’t like in the hope that it would discourage them from attending events in the future. As someone new to politics at the time of that conversation the sheer casualness and ‘normalcy’ of it haunted her afterwards. How many other young members received this treatment at their hands, tried and sentenced at some dinner party by half-pissed student hacks who’d never so much as met them?

    I wish I could say either her or my first impressions of Labour Students were improved by our time as members.

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