For the next three and half months, the general election will dominate every area of public life. Years of strategy and planning and comical manoeuvres and blunders – along with all the social movements and demonstrations and faintly dissenting occupations of public space – will be watered down and blended together by politicians and the mainstream media into a moment which combines ideological blandness with procedural unfairness. This weekend’s hint from Labour that it might replace tuition fees with a graduate tax was a clear example of what is to come – policies undoubtedly rooted in the demands of real movements, but a pale shadow of what anyone actually wanted.
Perhaps the most tedious and futile thing about general election periods is the refusal of pretty much every charity and left-leaning NGO to recognise the broader picture, instead insisting on campaigning around the election as themselves – seeking to mobilise their own supporters over their own narrow set of objectives.
In reality, May 2015 will witness a vote about whether or not Britain’s welfare state continues to exist in any form: on one side will be the washed-up and unimaginative remnants of post-Blair social democracy, on the other a well-honed ideological vision for a privatised society. For Dominic Dyer, however – Chief Executive of the Badger Trust – it is a moment in which “Badgers [will] take centre stage”. The Badger Trust will, accordingly, be campaigning seat-by-seat for candidates which oppose the badger cull – in doing so swinging few, if any, seats, for a mixture of opposing political parties.
If all one cares about is the welfare of badgers, this kind of general election campaign can work as part of a lobbying strategy. But applied for any organisation that wants to see more than minor changes, it is a dead end. The National Union of Students (NUS) is the most glaring example: having produced a manifesto of demands ranging from free higher and further education, to ending immigration and asylum restrictions and effectively abolishing private providers in education, it is making no attempt to mobilise its members in any meaningful sense beyond the ballot box.
An accompanying toolkit for NUS’s “days of action” before the election underlines this in almost comical terms: its suggested actions include running mock car boot sales and coconut shies; direct action and occupations are not mentioned once. In fact since 2010, NUS’s only serious attempt to mobilise its membership on a national scale has been to march a few thousand students to Kennington Park in south London under the banner of ‘educate, employ, empower’ in November 2012.
Back in December, there was a flurry of news stories about the voting power of university students. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a report which seemed to back up NUS’s strategy of focussing entirely on getting students registered to vote, while quietly dismissing its somewhat ‘out there’ claim that “students could swing 200 seats” in May.
There is no particular reason to believe that students will all vote for a single party: the interests of an Eton-schooled Oxbridge student are almost as different as it is possible to imagine to those of a working class student at London Met. But where students do turn out for one party overwhelmingly (44% of them voted Lib Dem in 2010, 16% more than the general population), vanishingly few will do so because they have been told to vote in one way or another by NUS. If political parties are going to promise the abolition of tuition fees, they usually tell people about it themselves.
Even if students did vote entirely for a single party, there are just 9 ‘student seats’ in England (where students are more than 13% of the electorate) in which either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats are first and Labour second, in which the student population exceeds the majority of the incumbent party. Outside of these constituencies, any attempt to swing the seat is reliant on the population at large.
A closer look at the data reveals that students’ impact on constituencies where they are most highly concentrated is by no means straightforward. Labour should benefit overall from the student vote, but with many young Labour voters switching to the Greens, the split vote could benefit the Conservatives in some constituencies. In 2010, a similar swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats increased a wafer-thin Tory majority in Reading East.
What if, instead of trying to swing a handful of marginal constituencies which are likely to swing anyway, NUS organised another big national demonstration, followed by a series of direct action targeted against the government, putting education funding at the top of the national agenda on the eve of the election? Many of the policies that NUS now advocates are very basic elements of social democratic consensus before Thatcher came to power – but they are now radical, outsider demands.
The only way to put free higher and further education on the political agenda – or rent controls, or a progressive taxation system –is by building a mass, combative movement. In orientating themselves so wholly towards voter mobilisation at the general election, organisations like NUS are fighting on the worst possible terrain: where the ideological consensus is far enough away that no politician of government might give them what they want unless there is external pressure, and where the number of people they can mobilise to vote will probably not make a meaningful difference to the result.
It would be irresponsible to ignore the election. In the era after the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s, this ritual is, sadly, the closest thing that ordinary people ever get to directly deciding who runs the state. But the slick-looking, professionalised mode of election campaigning pursued by NUS and other leftwing NGOs is out of step with the need for something which many social movements identified almost as soon as the Coalition came to power: a move away from single issues and towards a broader sense of class solidarity and opposition to austerity and neoliberalism.
In the current context, it is not glossy brochures or lobbying strategies that are needed, but politically calculated mayhem. And the “outdated” trade union movement’s strategy of honestly advocating a vote for a political party, while – in theory at least – having a means of holding that party to account, seems almost refreshing, and looks like it will have far more of an impact on the election than badgers and students ever will on their own.