Sunday, 1 May 2011

When politics gets in the way of reform: lessons from Student Pride

Now the royal wedding has passed, it feels like the national conversation is turning squarely to the local elections and AV referendum later this week. In line with the temperature rise outdoors, this debate is becoming increasingly heated.

I’m quite enjoying a flurry of Green Party activity: canvassing voters, press-ganging my loved ones to help me stuff piles of direct-mail envelopes and yesterday, manning a stall here in Brighton with LGBT Green colleagues at Student Pride 2011

I confess it was my first visit to Student Pride and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. First impressions were worrying: the VIP-only champagne lounge that most people seemed to have access into (I never saw the delights), free slices of pizza handed out faster than club flyers and streams of staff from event sponsor Ernst & Young dashing around trying to look busy.

But then the students arrived and I have to say how impressed I was with them. Whilst everyone was obviously enjoying their weekend away meeting new people, there was a tremendous appetite for political action. Caroline Lucas drew the loudest cheer from the audience for her introductory address and she succeeding in marrying some of the fiercest concerns of the audience to the wider political issues facing the UK.

Of the other speakers, John Amaechi, the ex-NBA sports star cum political commentator definitely proved himself worth following more closely. When talking about homophobia within the school system, he struck a challenging yet mature stance. He argued that we need to understand the motivations behind children’s fear of difference and work to problematise casual homophobia as thoroughly as we have with racism. He pointedly resisted the urge to demonise anyone. At an event where the need for positive LGBT role-models was frequently cited, his involvement was a sound choice.

Of the main political parties, only ourselves and the Liberal Democrats made a decision to attend and speak directly with students. In quite a savvy move, I noticed that the Lib Dems were eager to detoxify their brand, as their display consisted of around 90% Yes to AV material. Whilst we gamely offered to help with selling the AV campaign and had some considerable success in changing minds, I have to confess they were less respectful to us as we were to them!

What clues did our experience hold for the election? Mainly, that the Green Party enjoyed a deepening level of support amongst the students here. Yet this was tempered by the realisation that many of these same students rejected AV vigorously. When we talked about how AV would benefit the smaller parties, it became apparent that a great deal of people still didn’t know much about the issues. Comparing AV to X-Factor voting works wonders, however!

Most concerning was that nearly all the students we spoke to who came out automatically against a “yes” vote argued that it was because the Liberal Democrats were championing it. That was the most shocking part of my experience - how visceral the sense of betrayal and subsequent hatred has become towards them. I honestly don’t see how this level of toxicity towards the key architects of this referendum can be defused before Thursday. In the short term, this rejection of the Liberal Democrats can reap us some political dividends, but the loss of momentum towards electoral reform threatens our longer-term prospects much more. Things are about to get much harder.

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