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15th October 2023

Lack of organised student presence at the Conservative Party Conference: Is our generation becoming less politically vocal?

In the 1980s, student political organisation in Manchester was rampant: but at the Conservative Party Conference, it seemed like students are decreasingly involved in politics and protests
Lack of organised student presence at the Conservative Party Conference: Is our generation becoming less politically vocal?
Photo: Ella Logan-Wilson @ The Mancunion

Shouts of “Tories Out!” and “F**k the Tories!” rang out in Manchester’s city centre while the Conservative Party conference took place on October 1, and I was angrily cheering along. The weaving route started around the Engineering building and turned left at the well-known Oxford Road McDonald’s (a fan-favourite for a drunken serving of chicken nuggets) before continuing down the back of Manchester Central, and ending at a canal-side stage for speeches. 

As I spent Monday morning drinking Lemsip in an effort to regain my voice before a 10A.M. seminar and plastering my sore feet (after my valiant attempt to keep up with all the chanting and walking), I began to contemplate what this protest had meant. Obviously, it was an attempt to show the Conservative Party how unwelcome they were in Manchester, but it seems to me that it represented the overwhelming sense of political discontent and despair people are feeling at the state of the world. 

Classic chants of “You say ‘cut back’ we say ‘fight back’!” were interspersed with “Refugees are welcome here!” and “Palestine will be free!” Different groups are bound to have differing chants depending on their motivations but the sheer volume of complaints is indicative of how dissatisfied people are. Transgender rights banners were next to placards welcoming refugees. Extinction Rebellion had a group to protest the lack of commitment to climate policy while Stop the War was marching against nuclear weapons. The public no longer voiced anger only towards the Government’s incompetence and economic mismanagement, but broad rage at how awful British and world politics seem to be. 

When I contacted the Manchester Socialist Workers Student Society they estimated that they had over 150 members marching with them. Students came from from Glasgow, Bristol, and Edinburgh, to name a few. Yet there was no organised presence for Manchester students.

I want to be clear that there were definitely Manchester students in attendance including unaffiliated students. But what confused me was that at a major anti-Tory protest, just up the road from  the University, there seemed no attempt to engage students who did not have links to organisations. Members of both communist and socialist organisations and Labour Party members were out in full force but the student body as a collective didn’t appear represented. This is a shame, because it would have been brilliant if the Conservative attendees at the conference got a sense of the wider student dislike at what they are doing to our country, and to our future.

Back in the mid-1980s, my mum was a student at the University of Manchester. She recently gave me an insight into her time here, during the heyday of student political participation. After moving to Manchester to study, she closed her Barclays account and picketed the Oxford Road branch due to their financial support of apartheid. She would take coaches down to London to participate in protests and marched at the famous Clause 28 protest in Manchester Albert Square, against Margaret Thatcher’s anti-LGBTQ+ policy. Her and her friends were not affiliated to a party (and not involved in any ideological societies) yet regularly attended protests. 

The level of discontent with the government is still apparent now, but the amount of participation by the student community does not seem to be the same as it once was. The difference between then versus now is the frequency of casual political participation. My mum recalls that her friends weren’t Politics students but people who took subjects like Maths and Psychology. She herself was a ‘combined studies’ student with a focus on Geography. These students weren’t socialists or communist affiliated, but instead just people who were upset with the way things were. 

There is a legitimate question of whether the 1980s era of student political participation was as widespread and prevalent as has been suggested: nostalgia is known to exaggerate actualities. But my mother assures me that the campus was abuzz with activism from students who just felt strongly about the local, national, and international issues. 

Whilst the hanging of effigies of Margaret Thatcher was reserved for the more ideologically extreme, the rest of the student population seemed to be part of politics and protest. Can the same be said now?

I hear near-constant complaints about the Tory party and the cost-of-living crisis from students. In all fairness, I am a Politics student so this type of discussion is bound to take place, but I hear these complaints come from students studying a broad range of subjects. So why did Sunday feel like it lacked non-party or ideologically affiliated students? 

Are we too focused on intellectual debate instead of marching the streets, being politically vocal, and demanding change like our predecessors? And if so, will our generation be the one to bring about change?


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