Staying Engaged: activism after university

By Sarah Collins

There is a new generation of radicalised youth in Britain. Growing up aware of Thatcher and how hated the Tories were, people in their twenties will remember the year 1997 and the great celebrations which occurred all over the country when Labour came to power. Indeed, Michael Portillo being kicked out of Parliament was the third most watched television moment between 1963 and 1999 and even at the age of 10 I remember it. However, it was that very government which radicalised a generation – not the Tory government under John Major before it.

Speaking to two young workers, and drawing on my own experience, this article will  examine how the activists of the student movement which began at the beginning of this millennium have taken those experiences into the workplace and are currently continuing the struggle in a very different environment.

Cat Boyd is 27 years old and works for the public sector in Glasgow. She graduated from Strathclyde University in 2008. Here, she explains what sparked her interest in student politics. “I got involved in the anti war movement when I was a student at Strathclyde. I suppose I’d always considered myself left-wing. My parents had both been involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and I remember going to see Nelson Mandela dancing in the rain in George Square, the year he was given the keys to the city of Glasgow. I’d always considered myself an anti-capitalist as I believed in the slogan ‘people not profit’. However, it was the war in Iraq that changed everything for me and made me more aware of my political convictions. Five days after my eighteenth birthday, I watched on television as the Iraqi skyline lit up, orange with bombs dropped from US fighter jets. I couldn’t believe what was happening; in the back of my mind I thought that our demonstrations had won the argument. It couldn’t happen. Witnessing the power and might of UK-US imperialism, and watching imperialist nations ignore international law, ignore the voices of the people and persecute ordinary civilians, to oust a dictator who had been armed with British and American weapons, I couldn’t stand it. Seeing the state’s “contempt for democracy,” as Chomsky put it, I knew that I wanted to be more active in trying to stop their imperialist might.”

25-year-old Suki Sangha, who graduated from Strathclyde University in 2009 and now works for an ethnic minority housing charity, was also radicalised by the Labour government’s invasion of Iraq.

“I got involved in campaigns against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at university. The driving force for me was the erosion of our civil liberties which came from the ‘war on terror’ and particularly the racist backlash of this.”

Like many of us, Cat sometimes found it hard to deal with the ‘peaks and troughs’ of the political movement. When many activists are together and full of ideas, it can be difficult to realise what the correct political focus should be and what tactics should be used.  With fewer people it is easier to come to decisions but it can feel like you are an irrelevance because of your small number. Cat explains: “For the majority of that time, I couldn’t fathom how I’d gone from these mass demonstrations in Glasgow and Gleneagles to a meeting of four people in a small pub just off campus. I moved to Bilbao and met young people: socialists, anti-globalisation activists, squatters, anarchists, Basque nationalists. The people I met inspired me to continue to be involved in politics. It isn’t so much that the personalities in politics make the movement, but that the circumstances that you find yourself in, will shape your consciousness.  When I returned to Glasgow, I joined “Stop the War” at Strathclyde Uni. Again, we were small – ten to twelve people. But I still believe we made an impact. I remember a time when Adam Ingram, former defence secretary, came to speak at the Union and had to hide in the toilet for an hour until our protest had been moved on. It was small, but it was significant.”

Suki describes how the practical nature of the student movement was important to her, “organising events, demonstrations and direct action was alien to all of us at one point. However, after a few months, it became second nature. We sent those who govern our society a clear message that we were against their imperialist adventures, and we showed solidarity with those opposing imperialism around the globe. By doing so we could give confidence to the people of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan who had been at the forefront of the attacks by the West.”

The student movement is vital for wider struggles because it radicalises whole waves of people who can express their opinions in more direct means than workers may be able to. From Iraq to Palestine; anti-cuts movements to the philosophy of education for the masses; feminism to defending the right to protest, there is a whole plethora of campaigns which students can get involved with. The experience of going to college or university, meeting people from different backgrounds, learning new things and being independent (sometimes for the first time) is eye opening and can lead to people becoming deeply politicised. Many current politicians were once ‘radical’ youth in their day. But don’t let this put you off! From student activism one can carry on the strategy and tactics learned on campus into the workplace, and shape the methods used in the student movement to fit different periods, environments and focuses of the worker.

It is important to remember that the kinship felt between students and workers is stronger than ever before. Firstly, more students are now in some form of employment – with 75% of all students working to make ends meet at some point in each academic year.[1] It can only be assumed that this figure will rise with the increase in tuition fees in England. Secondly, workers who are parents of these students are able to make the link between increasing tuition fees/rent and the attacks on their own pay and conditions. And, thirdly, more people in the workforce now have attended some form of further or higher education than previous generations; therefore, they can appreciate the radicalisation process which can take place for students. However, there may be a shift in this statistic with falling college and university places[2] and less graduate employment over the next few years.

Nonetheless, leaving university, student activists can feel alienated and apprehensive about not having the ability to be politically active and agitating throughout the day.  Cat explains how being confined to a job with little opportunity of doing direct political activity was hard to adapt to, particularly at the beginning of the recession when it was becoming difficult to find employment in the first place. “I left university in 2008, as the global economic system came tumbling down. I didn’t really know where to go, or what to do. I started working in pubs, part-time, and cleaning. Then I got a job in the public sector. I became a workplace representative for Public and Commercial Services Union.”

Like many graduates since 2008, one of the biggest problems for us was under-employment as well as unemployment. However, the despair felt at this time, had to be harnessed. Personally, I graduated with a law degree but had to work fulltime in a restaurant as well as volunteering in two places in order to keep my CV relevant. However, this didn’t quench my thirst for political activism. But, it did mean having to be more creative and putting my head above the parapet alone instead of with my fellow student activists. Starting a bar workers branch of Unite the Union and remaining active in a socialist organisation helped this.

Cat notes that, “nearly every one of the activists I met during my time at Strathclyde university, is still politically active. And now on that campus, four years after I graduated, there is still a thriving anti-austerity and radical student group.” However she goes on to explain that the rage she felt when watching news reports from Iraq, is the rage she still feels, although now it is tempered with a sense of organisation. “Resistance is not futile, but it must be organised from the grassroots, led by the wider movement. It wasn’t a question of will I still be politically active, but how?”

Cat, Suki and myself knew that we wanted to carry on being politically active after university. And we also knew that we were well trained enough to be able to do this. It can be difficult to adjust to being part of a political movement which is strongest on the campuses and structurally weaker outside of student politics, but that is why it is so important that activists are strong and committed enough to carry on with their convictions once they graduate.

Cat became a shop steward for PCS and got involved with the wider anti-austerity and trade union movement. Currently she balances her time between fulltime work, trade union activities and anti-cuts organising. She is the chair of Coalition of Resistance in Glasgow, an anti-austerity and anti-privatisation organisation which tries to link the struggles of communities, students and workers.

Suki’s advice to students leaving university is also to join a trade union. “Being in a trade union is not always as ‘on-street’ active as student politics, but it has its own merits in terms of building networks in the wider community and society and it is very important. Even if you are not based in a workplace, Unite’s Community Initiative is a good opportunity to get involved. Young political activists must try to gain influence within trade unions in order to put forward progressive left-wing policies. Activists gain respect by being vocal and challenging the bureaucratic structures of the union; but it is also so important to build respect amongst the rank and file by taking an active part in the bread and butter issues. It’s difficult to strike the right balance, but it is absolutely essential that young activists do strike this balance. Without young activists, the trade unions will not survive until the next generation.”

One of the most significant elements of the new radicalised generation is the number of young women who are leading the movement, both on campus and in trade unions. The old patriarchal bureaucracy of the student unions is being broken. It is now vital that this process quickens within trade unions and helps to rejuvenate them. Without this radicalised new generation, we will not be able to face the tasks ahead in a society which will not fully recover from this global financial crisis.

Cat recognises that “the importance of our task is sometimes overwhelming, and although there are times when I can’t figure out my place in the anti-capitalist movement and I wonder how I can make any impact in the global anti-capitalist struggle from my tiny city in a small corner of the earth, I know that every activist has asked themselves these questions, and it makes us stronger.  We are not dogmatic, we need to search our lives and our small worlds for ways to resist: for ways to employ a theory of praxis.”

[1] NUS ‘Student Experience Report’ 2008, http://www.nus.org.uk/PageFiles/4017/NUS_StudentExperienceReport.pdf p.33.

[2] Vasagar, Jeevan ‘University Applications Drop Amid Higher Tuition Fees’ 9th July 2012, The Guardian.

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