Next year will be ten years since I first became involved with the Australian Labor Party. My introduction was through the Sydney University Labor Club and my involvement with student politics on campus.
Being a former member of National Labor Students (and its predecessor the National Organisation of Labor Students) at the University of Sydney, I have kept an interest in what has been happening there over the past year. I won’t comment on what I think but it, along with the National Union of Students Conference on this week, has made me reflect on my own involvement and what it was like. You can only make a proper assessment with a bit of space and the benefit of hindsight.
Student politics is often absolutely turgid but the insights and experience shape your political awareness and understanding. Why does this matter? Well, the current generation of MPs has been the first to be the product of student politics and much of the next generation will be too. How they react to political challenges will be shaped by their experiences in student politics.
The problem with student politics
To put it simply, the main problem with student politics is that it is hyperpolitical. You are in a political space that is contested on a regular basis. It can be like a siege. Conferences such as the National Union of Students are the most extreme example (just follow #nusnatcon to get a sense of it) as it encourages factional balkanisation and goes on for days. The more frequent contests are the weekly collective meetings or the monthly SRC meetings. The advent of social media and widespread adoption of smart phones happened after my involvement but I understand this has only added to the situation as innuendo and rumours can rapidly spread.
Individuals with strong personalities and strong views are often drawn to student politics. Add to that giving many young people, who often do not have a wide range of experience or resilience to draw upon, real responsibility for the first time. Mix that with a hyperpolitical situation and little incidents that build up over time, feeding antagonistic behaviour, and it often leads to situations that are not conducive to compromise or co-operation.
The inexperience is not helped by single year terms for many student organisations. It leads to situations where officebearers often only really get a real handle on their role towards the end of their term. It creates a tendency to fall into a year-to-year repetitive cycle of O-Week, protest, mid-year Conferences, protest, student elections, end of year Conference rather than shaping a longer-term strategy that is necessary for real change.
There is also a disconnect from many “ordinary” students created by a number of factors. In this age where many students work to support themselves, unless you’re a paid officebearer or have some other form of flexible employment, involvement tends to fall away and there is a high rate of attrition amongst those involved. The problem is that once you become a paid officebearer and/or become involved heavily in student activism, your social circle often reduces to those who are involved. It also doesn’t help when many people involved tend to all move in together to create “hackhouses”. It encourages group-think and means many aren’t really grounded in the everyday concerns of those they are meant to represent.
Student politics is also very cyclical. The high turnover and short span for student politics (usually three to four years maximum) means that the same mistakes are repeated, lessons are forgotten, the same debates are had. The cycle of collectives deciding on consensus decision making, only to shift to voting and then back again is an example. Factional groups are also not immune to making the same mistakes again and again. For example, the Labor Left seems to split every three or four years (this recount of the NOLS split of 2000 more than covers the madness of it all).
A silver lining?
Student politics isn’t all bad. It is an important training ground for progressives and is where many campaigners and organisers have gotten their start. It’s no surprise that unions and other social movements are full of people who were student politics. It’s also no surprise that conservatives hate student organisations because of this. Student activism gives many people a chance to be politically involved who hadn’t been before. I know before being involved, I had never spoken to someone to try to convince them to vote for a candidate, organised a rally, been involved in political campaigns or spoken in front of a crowd.
You also learn a lot from your failures which shape how you act in the future. One lesson I learnt was the importance of succession planning. It’s something I am always conscious of now when I am active participant in any group.
You also make some great friends. I recall (I think it was) Verity Firth saying at an O-Week event that the friends you make through student politics are your friends for life. Those bonds are strengthened by a sense of solidarity and shared experience that comes from shared struggles. By the same token, mutual dislikes can continue on into the future because of those regular clashes both internally and externally.
I’ll finish off by saying that most important thing learnt from student politics are practical skills, experiences and political insights, not political ideology. Involvement shapes how you act politically, how you deal with people and how you read situations. You draw on those lessons far into the future. I can only imagine what lessons our current and future crop of MPs will be drawing on when they make their political decisions.