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27th March 2017

The toxicity of student politics

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

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.

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