Any man to have braved the library’s little boys’ room may have noticed the scribbling there which reads: “I don’t believe in the left wing or the right wing, I only believe in KFC’s wings”: proof if proof were needed that not all at Sussex are interested in the divided world of politics. But – for the students more concerned with Cameron’s Cuts than the Colonel’s Chicken – just how well does the university accommodate different schools of political thought?
The very fact that The Badger has been able to speak with representatives from the SWP, the Greens, Labour and the Conservatives demonstrates that a cross-section does exist, but that is not to say that all four parties enjoy the same kind of publicity on campus, or that this is necessarily a bad thing. The issue of political diversity is an interesting one because it raises a number of questions, all of which are without out straight-forward answers. For example, does the university exclude or marginalise right-wing sympathisers?
And, if this is the case, should we be outraged; or should we respect an institution that at a grass roots level stands up to what many perceive to be a Conservative government unprepared to listen to its students? We may also want to think about the disparity between the politics of student activists and those of the universities top-brass, as well as the difference between party politics and single-issue politics.
Sussex was one of the first of a new wave of universities to spring up during the swinging sixties, almost as though it were waiting for a time as free-thinking and liberal as itself. Right from the word “go”, Sussex was unabashedly left-wing, and as it prepares to celebrate its fiftieth birthday next year, how much has changed?
Some may be surprised to learn that a Conservative society exists at Sussex, especially in light of recent events. There hasn’t always been a right-wing presence on campus however, and it in fact is a relatively recent phenomenon as the society was only established last year… in a dark room where its founders couldn’t be overheard no doubt. But keen to hear what life was like for supporters of Cameron and company in a traditionally liberal university, The Badger spoke with President of the society, William Prothero. Prothero claimed that: “There is a problem with representation. While the university is – for the most part – tolerant and encourages diversity within race and religion, this does not always extend as far as politics, which suffers from a ‘ban everything culture’.”
However, this may not be a conscious decision on the part of a university which has its roots in the liberal sixties. To illustrate his point that not all sides of the argument are given an equal voice, Prothero spoke of the fact that there exists a ‘Friends of Palestine’ group but not a ‘Friends of Israel’ equivalent. And that students are up in arms (if you’ll pardon the pun) about the presence of NATO employee Jamie Shea on campus, but were prepared to listen to Sean Oliver of Sinn Fein fame debate with the UUP.
At one point Prothero explained how it would be interesting to invite someone really controversial to Sussex, like George W. Bush, but that this was not plausible because no guarantee could be made that he would not be harassed. It is an interesting point, and this idea of “the good guys vs. the bad guys” is open to debate. For example, there exists an “Is Thatcher Dead Yet?” website (www.isthatcherdeadyet.co.uk), which is morally questionable to say the least – and it certainly wasn‘t a Conservative’s idea.
Such antagonism – ironically, one might think – almost makes it ‘revolutionary’ to be a Tory with the ‘ban everything culture’ to which Prothero alluded being a distinctly illiberal concept. A point which was also made was that if Conservatives are indeed ‘evil’, then so is a third of the population. While Prothero agreed that both discussing political thought and protesting had their place, he felt it important to distinguish between the ‘democratic left’ and the ‘revolutionary left’, the latter being a euphemism for the ‘violent left’, before adding: “the majority of students are moderate, very few are radical and most are left wing in a controlled sense.”
The President of the Conservatives at Sussex went on to make the point that: “There are always two sides to every story and true Liberalism is about hearing both sides, but that’s easy to forget”.
Not all will agree with this sentiment however; indeed, Socialist Workers Party (SWP) member Simon Englert doesn’t. Englert made the point that we are always hearing the other side of the argument by nature of the fact that we live under a Conservative government and that not hearing from them on campus would be preferable. However, he was at pains to stress that this was not depriving them of their right to have a voice and should not be confused with refusing to provide them with a platform to operate. Englert stressed how important it is to get away from this idea of left against right politics.
“A lot of political activism comes from students who aren’t aligned with any part and this is a positive as it helps to get to the bottom of things, you don’t need leaders to tell you how to do things – ordinary people are more creative.” Indeed the SWP isn’t so concerned with party politics but with class politics. They “stand with the oppressed always, see the struggle and try and make the change.”
Englert was quick to dispel the idea that Sussex being a liberal uiversity might somehow help their cause, opining that: “Liberalism doesn’t work in our favour.”
He went on to say that the class divide brings has its own ramifications, and that the SWP tends to appeal to the working classes – something which is difficult at Sussex, where the majority of students are middle class. It is unlikely that the SWP and the Conservative party will agree on much – indeed the mere suggestion that they agree on anything may prompt a tirade of angry letters in next week’s Badger – but if the two parties do have anything in common, maybe it’s that they both have to deal with public misconceptions.
For example, although members of the SWP are often seen campaigning in library square, Englert maintains that the party holds little power on campus and that it certainly does not “punch above its weight.” In terms of the relationship between students and the university’s powers that be, “there’s nothing unique about Sussex in that its heads try to crack down on student activism, although our management took it further than any other in the country: they refused to meet trade unions for a very long time and riot police were introduced, along with injunctions to make occupations illegal.” …So much for liberal Sussex then!
So what do the Party that hold power in Brighton, the Greens, think? The Badger caught up with Green Party member Alastair Cannell, who agreed that the Conservatives had less of a say but added: “its what people want to get involved in, its equally undemocratic to try and balance things up by having more parties of the right.” The Green party at Sussex however, spurred on by the recent election of MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas (or “Superwoman” as Cannell describes her), would appear to be thriving.
“Things are definitely on the up for the Greens. Last year we had about twenty people on the mailing list, now we have three-hundred,” commented Cannell. Though obviously delighted with this continued success, Cannell agrees that there is a place for politically-minded students who do not wish to affiliate themselves with one particular party and believes “there is a place for revolutionaries.” Indeed, the Green Party’s core values reads: “Electoral politics is not the only way to achieve change in society, and we will use a variety of methods to help effect change, providing those methods do not conflict with our other core principles.”
Rob of Sussex’s Labour Club, said this: “It’s really great to marry party politics with marches”, but maintained that, despite being held up as a political university, there is very little unique about Sussex‘s political activism. Indeed, there exists a certain degree of voter apathy and the voter turnout rate amongst students was low in the last election, but for Labour at least, interest on campus would appear to be rising. Brown stresses, however, that: “We must stray away from simply looking at party politics and the left vs. the right and that by occasionally looking at single issues on campus we can agree on a lot more.
The unity aspect is very important and there are lots of occasions when we all come together and see student politics become a real force.” However, Brown believes that party politics should be at the heart of long-term change and while he acknowledges the role of highly political groups operating outside of party politics like the Anarchists, Secular society and religious societies, he believes that to bring about greater levels of change, these groups need to work within mainstream politics.
In trying to uncover how politically diverse we are here at Sussex, The Badger spoke to the left, the right, the red, the blue and the green and came to the conclusion that yes diversity exists. It may not be as great as in other universities but this can be explained by the very simple fact that most students nationwide and at Sussex are more inclined to believe in liberal politics. Realistically, though, how many students are going to believe in a Conservative government that has trebled tuition fees? Very few.
And while Conservative students may feel inadvertently threatened by the great weight of support for ‘the other side’ that is not to say they aren’t being given a platform to express their views. Sussex has always been a university with the left-wing sympathies, just as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bristol and Warwick are associated with the right and that is fine. Beyond party politics, Sussex has students representing many different political standpoints who help diversify matters even further and one shouldn’t assume that parties on the left all think alike, because they all have their very separate agendas. Single issue politics will continue to bring parties of different opinions together and party politics will divide them again but, for the time being at least, diversity does exist at Sussex.