Fighting for communist politics – University of Birmingham guild council elections
Very recently I was elected by the students at the University of Birmingham to serve as a first-year guild councilor for the University’s guild of students. Unlike most left candidates in student elections, I refused to adopt a reformist agenda. As a Leninist, I perceive elections to be first and foremost an opportunity to agitate people’s consciousness. I, along with comrades in Communist Students, was adamant that I wasn’t interested in putting forward ‘respectable’ and ‘reasonable’ policies in order to narrowly scrape a position onto the guild bureaucracy; I wanted to put forward politics that would make people think.
In my campaign materials I openly declared myself a Marxist and a member of Communist Students; despite the fact various people on the soft left encouraged me to drop such labels, as they thought it could cost me the election. I also refused to alter two of my key policies – the advocacy of freedom of speech/association on campus and the campaign for a more democratic guild. I was told that talking about reforming guild structures, so that the board of trustees (a body which is unelected, which can overturn decisions made by the guild, and whose members are mostly non-students) is either abolished or elected, was a ‘hard sell’; ergo I shouldn’t mention it to students, as they’d find it ‘boring’. On the contrary, I found that most students were aghast at the fact Birmingham is the only university in the Russell Group to have a body, made up of university management, which can overturn democratically agreed student decisions.
My advocacy of the freedom of speech/association on campus caused a lot of ambivalence amongst various lefties. Some comrades took it upon themselves to commend me for standing up for this, and for actively voicing my opposition to the suspensions imposed on students who took part in an occupation last year, whilst helpfully reminding me that my policy could be misinterpreted as advocating the freedom for unsavoury groups, such as the ‘rape apologist’ SWP or the ‘racist’ Young Independence, to organise on campus; or as advocating a deviation from ‘safe spaces’ (freedom of speech could lead to someone getting offended). It is scary that such Stalinist ways of thinking passes for common sense on the left nowadays, but that is where decades of defeats and demoralisation have led the movement. Many comrades have lost confidence in their politics; they don’t believe they can win people over through debate.
Unfortunately, guild electoral regulations mean candidates cannot be endorsed by an organisation, as that could provide them with an “unfair advantage over other candidates”. Such rules undeniably hindered the type of campaign I was trying to run, making the process much more individualised. As a lone communist, I obviously accepted help from friends, including people in the Green Party and Left Unity. Whilst I greatly appreciated their assistance, I think it is fair to say that, when they were arguing for free education, a lot of ‘We can afford it’, ‘Germany reversed their tuition fees’ and other such reformism came out their mouths. So, whilst I tried to avoid a reformist agenda, I think the campaign inevitably drifted into centrism from time to time.
Had I been allowed to be officially endorsed by CS, then perhaps things would have worked out differently. I also think that, had CS been in a stronger position, and had the guild allowed non-students to campaign for me, we could have drafted in volunteers from outside Birmingham who were on the same ideological page to help out with the canvassing and thus make the campaign message more coherent.
Ultimately, the campaign was a success. Two first-year councillors were elected: the candidate who secured the first position was from the Jewish Society and polled 190 votes (45%), I won the second position with 140 votes (33%), the candidate from Labour Students got 90 votes (21%), while ‘Reopen nominations’ polled 11 votes (3%). I’m not going to claim that all 140 people who voted for me have been won over to the ideas of communism. Indeed, many did so because they knew me, they were vaguely left, or because I was the only candidate they saw campaigning. In fact, the overwhelming majority of students didn’t vote at all; the election for first year guild councillors only attracted a paltry 1.3% turnout.
Despite these qualifications, the campaign did draw some serious people out of the woodwork. A batch of students did express their support for the ideas of Marxism and hopefully I can continue to have a dialogue with them now the election battle is over.
By the time you read this letter, I’ll have already taken my seat as a guild councillor. I’ll have also just moved a motion of censure against all the sabbatical officers, at my first meeting, for deciding to cancel guild-subsidised coaches to the upcoming free education demonstration in London, because it ostensibly breaches the National Union of Students ‘safer spaces’ policy.