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On the other hand… Political apathy and the NUS Demo

On the other hand takes a look at political apathy amongst young people and the NUS Demo which attracted just 21 students from Cardiff University. Do we really care that little?

The front page of gair rhydd read “Cardiff Will March” on October 28th after a referendum on whether or not the Students’ Union should facilitate for those who were wanting to attend the 2012 NUS Demo. I didn’t understand the need for a referendum on the issue at first. As far as I’m concerned, providing for students who wish to be active in campaigning for the security of their education should be at the forefront of the Students’ Union’s priorities. For me, it has far more importance and relevance than trying to decide which new Monday Union club night will be next to fail. It seemed to me that the Union was trying to get out of attending.

However, the incredibly low turn out for both the referendum and the demo made the decision far more understandable. It highlighted the ever-present political apathy among students and, more generally, young people. With that in mind, the referendum was probably the right decision, to see whether or not facilitating for an event like this is really in the interest of students.

Despite only 86 students, out of all the university, voting in favour of supporting the demo, it was enough to ensure that Cardiff Students’ Union would be present at the NUS Demo, and so they were. They were there in very small numbers, much in line with the demo as a whole.

Excluding the sabbatical officers, just 21 students from Cardiff took place in the demonstration in London on Wednesday, November 21st. From a University that has around 30,000 students in all, that number is unbelievably low.

It is surprising that this is the case at such an important time. I wrote a piece during the summer titled “With rising tuition fees and very few jobs, it’s not a great time to be young”, which looked at just that point. These policies are having a profound effect on young people, so why is it that nobody seems to care?

Well, it probably isn’t. While it does seem to be the case that there’s substantial disillusionment with mainstream politics from students, I’m not sure that it translates to people not caring.

The NUS Demo in 2010 was one of largest student protests in recent history. An estimated 50,000 students took to the streets of London two years ago to try and make sure that the government knew exactly how strongly people opposed the cuts to higher education. These protests may have drawn criticism in relation to the isolated acts of violence incurred by a small number of protesters, but nevertheless the voice of students was broadcast on a national scale as a result.

Despite this, student fees rose to in excess of £9,000 and the slashing of Education Maintenance Allowance remained in place. So what was the point?

3rd-year Mechanical Engineering student Matt Daniel said, “I went to the protests two years ago, but nothing happened. I don’t see the point any more”. The Chairman of the University of Greenwich Conservative Society also tweeted, “Those of you who are going to the NUS National Demo march tomorrow you are wasting your time!! You will NOT change the Governments policies!”

Now, this might come across as quite arrogant from someone in the Conservative Party, almost a suggestion of “we’re in power and we’ll do whatever we want”, but it’s difficult to disagree with the general sentiment. Protests of this kind, no matter how large, are unlikely to cause any change to policy, as it would risk the government appearing weak.

But while this is the case, it is also true that it doesn’t give the impression that the government really cares about the voices of real people. It’s no wonder that young people feel disenfranchised with politics.

Further to this, many people who do show an interest chose not to attend this event on the basis that it was extremely poorly organised and lacked focus. Many of the national stories on this demo focused on the chanting that criticised NUS President Liam Burns and the fact he was pelted with eggs (and a satsuma). This lack of focus was summed up by the fact that protesters attended the event to support Gaza and end class warfare. There was no consistent agenda for people to get behind.

With the recent US Presidential Election fresh in everyone’s memory, it’s hard to imagine so many people showing as much interest in our own politics. It asks the question, what do we really want from our politicians?

Obama’s charisma and general likeability is probably the reason for such interest in the UK, from people who wouldn’t necessarily show an interest in politics ordinarily. I mean, can you imagine any current politicians fist-bumping the Downing Street cleaners in the same way Obama did to one of the White House cleaners? Can you imagine left-wingers in America getting behind Ed Miliband at the next general election? I can’t. Instead, our senior politicians greet police officers with snobbish insults such as ‘pleb’.

I’m not one to promote personality over policy, but if it provides a platform for policy to be discussed, then it can’t be a bad thing. Something has got to change so that people feel they have a way to channel their concerns and frustrations.

I’m also not one to say anything good about Boris Johnson; however, it’s undeniable that he attracts people to politics, even if it often is to discuss his latest publicity stunt rather than his policies. An increase in politicians who people can identify with as different to the stereotype could improve things, provided that they don’t hide their policies behind their popularity.


Twitter: @liammcneilly

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