All posts by Amaan Ali

An Insider’s Look: A Long Weekend of Student Politics

Cross Party London Youth Debate

It all started on a Friday.

While many students were heading off to one of the local watering holes, including “Radar” night at the former University of London Union, I opted instead for a trip to a room in City University.  The sparsely occupied lecture theatre hosted a panel debate among the regional chairs of all major political parties. In true London fashion, Nigel Farage’s UKIP was not represented, while the Green Party was – by incoming Birkbeck SU Welfare officer and Young Greens regional co-chair Sofiya Ahmed. It was duly noted by the floor, however, that the Greens do not constitute a major party.

The impartial chair (a confirmed floating vote) and the floor posed questions on topics such as the economy, employment, the housing crisis and education.

The most entertaining part of the night was when Will Dyer charmingly defended the Liberal Democrats and the governance of coalitions. He stated that the Liberal Democrats had protected the country from more radical Tory cuts, stopped the foundation of a Maggie Thatcher day and instituted a low tax band for working people.  He had a genuine love of the party, despite it being the least trusted by most students. Students turned away from the party after Nick Clegg’s tuition fees U-turn, which even saw an apology and subsequent viral video. Needless to say, I was not convinced by Will’s message that the Lib-Dems are the rightful stewards for his nation, although I must give him credit for the most uses of the word ‘anchored’ in a sentence.

Luke Springthorpe of Conservative Future defended the current government. Despite being pro-union, he praised zero-hour contracts for their flexibility, adding that such work was ‘better than no job’. He wrote off criticisms of DWP sanctions, saying the sanctions were probably there to stay. Springthorpe remained highly sceptical of the left proposition to use taxation as a stimulus for housebuilding.

Ria Bernard(@riab_22), a speech and language therapist and joint leader of London Young Labour, held the fort for camp Miliband. She maintained the current party line of a more moderate austerity. She said the cuts were ‘too fast, and too soon’ and Help to Buy was an interesting idea but problematic. When I told her that my plans for the next morning involved going to protest the party’s proposition of £6k fees, she replied with a shrug, “6 is better than 9.”

The three major parties all avoided the toxic term – “social housing” . Sofiya, however, did not shy away. She stated that the Green Party would ditch a £100bn trident renewal, instead spending £6bn on half a million new homes and plugging the £20bn NHS deficit. Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP has also made these suggestions. In response to the Tory panelist’s defense of apprenticeships, Sofiya expressed concern that some apprenticeships are low quality, and the employers just use young people, not providing adequate skills or education in exchange for the cheaper labour.

At the end, many debates continued in the pub. I left somewhat swayed to the Green cause.

#FreeEducation Protest in Birmingham

Saturday morning was the earliest of its kind since I had been bothered to go doorknocking with #labourdoorstep. This Saturday called for walking action against Labour. NUS London, in association with the Student Assembly against Austerity and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, called for a demonstration on the doorstep of Labour MP Liam Byrne in Birmingham.

Byrne is the shadow minister for Higher Education. His contribution to the Labour 2015 campaign was a commitment to lower the tuition fees’s upper band. His constituency is Hodge Hill.

There was an overwhelming amount of local support for the Demo. Regional support came from the Black Country Young Greens. A local Trade Union head and schoolgirl were among the opening speeches at Birmingham University.

The coach journey up to Birmingham came courtesy of the UCL union. UCL ‘defend education’ songbooks circulated for rounds of poorly tuned Trotsky-esque songs. It was a delight to see seasoned Birkbeck Activist Alex Owalade squirming at the singing, having heard it all better the first time round in the 1980s. The Marxist tone of the travelling demonstrators was echoed by the red patches pinned to a number of students’s lapels, supposedly the sign of international student resistance. Over the long journey, protesters discussed strategies for progress with NUS London as well as the viability of a demand for free education.

The communal feeling was very much disappointment with Labour. The demand for free education involved a complete turn-around from tuition fees to replace them with free education and living grants – such as would have been the deal for many of Birkbeck’s mature students had they had the chance to go for a degree at age 18.

The marching route headed through the town centre. Shouting for an end to student debt and austerity, cries of “Cutback! Fightback!” went on strong. Multiple megaphones, a sizeable crowd, a conch (like from Lord of the Flies) and an exuberant drummer kept pace and spread the message of anti-austerity through the city’s main shopping areas.

There was even an attempted entry into the Council and an impromptu incursion into the Library. The brand new central library, an impressive addition to the city, is facing cuts to its librarians agreed as part of Labour austerity.

Last Monday, a meeting at Birkbeck launched the @bbk24hr campaign: Birkbeckers aiming for a return of 24 hour access to the library computer rooms as exams and deadlines loom.  Watch out for more organised action on this campaign.

NUS London Update

Last week, at the height of SU electioneering, a meeting took place in a cramped meeting room on Malet St – and this time it yielded significant results. The gruelling two and a half hour meeting was for the executive of NUS London, the devolved area of the National Union of Students.

The NUS London Area Council had been floundering for some months following tensions on the council, divided along racial lines. Then, as certain members of the NUS Black Students’ campaign progressed onto national conferences and discussions, the area group was left rudderless. It was not until last month that the organisation had fresh life breathed into it by resident activist, Alex Owolade. Alex was the long-running Black Students’ Officer at Birkbeck and continues to be active in the campaigns. He also heads up his own organisation, Movement for Justice, which recently spearheaded a campaign against the Harmondsworth detention centre.

While campaigning for an end to racist deportation, Owolade has been mending the NUS London body since early this year. It is widely believed that NUS London was “set up to fail” by NUS National, according to a member of the Democratic Procedures Committee. Its foundation came as a response to the dissolution of ULU last academic year. Since then, only three meetings of council have taken place – the latest of which was the result of Birkbeck’s own efforts, hosted by us on the 21st February. Owolade and a handful of other Birkbeckers have been busy reaching out to further education colleges across London, preparing for a fully-engaged NUS London to mobilise FE colleges to be part of the national student movement.

Following on from the Council, the executive laid groundwork for a visit to the constituency of Liam Byrne, shadow higher education minister. Coaches funded by several key London student unions will be going up to Birmingham on the 28th of March, demanding a stronger Labour commitment to free education.

At the end of the meeting, attendees cast votes to decide upon the new London area convenor. Following a discussion on the validity of job-shares, Alex Owolade and Hannah Sketchly, outgoing UCLU democracy and communications sabbatical officer, were appointed to the task. “Modest” objectives will follow an expected resurgence of student action in London. Birkbeck will continue to reach out to FE colleges in every quarter of town to get their voices heard.

More to follow.

What about the Welfare? #BBKelects

A week ago Monday, the Birkbeck hustings saw two big personalities take to the stage to argue the merits of voting for them to become the 2015-16 Welfare Officer. There had been some significant competitive steam on the Internet in the runup to the hustings after Darren Shaw of the Psychology society and Steven Hayden of the Law Department released campaign videos.

I’ve been at Birkbeck for a few years now and this was the first time I saw campaign videos as part of social media campaigns on Facebook, despite having regularly seen it from friends in more conventional universities. Although one of the competitors was a first year at Birkbeck, both contenders at the hustings were grown men.

The first year, Hayden, had tried to court my vote over a pint by evoking negativity around the other candidate, just prior to the opening of the two-week polling period. This bitter attitude continued into the hustings, where candidate Shaw heckled Hayden in Jamaican Patois for making a passing insinuation of his inability to run the Welfare portfolio on the basis of his successful Psychological society.

A week later, it materialised that both these candidates had stood down from the race. Steven Hayden, regardless of his opinion of Darren Shaw, made a good point that the Welfare Officer position would entail a great deal of work. Housing, he stressed, was the main area of issue for Birkbeck students.

We will never know what either would have brought to the job beyond rhetoric. Hayden and Shaw’s supporters were keen on discrediting the other on the grounds of an “All Flash, No Substance” argument. The Law clique affiliated in the Students Not Profit slate passed accusations on Darren on the basis on his having different Facebook profiles; meanwhile, Tony Halliday’s changing array of names, which ended up as Steven Hayden on the bill, raised the same questions of integrity.

Regardless of what truth was in their names, there is only one recognizable union name left standing on the Welfare bill. Sofiya Ahmed is a 3rd year PPH student and Kashmiri liberation activist. She was originally Anti-Fascism, Anti-Racism Officer at Birkbeck before ascending to joint Women’s Officer of NUS London. Her base in the Islamic society and politics department gives her a real chance of winning. The question remains: What do Birkbeckers expect of someone in this important role? As she did not attend the hustings, there is little clue of what is being offered beyond a generic commitment to “free education”, among other buzzwords seen on her flier.