In this new weekly series, Cambridge students offer their perspective on the problems afflicting the university’s student politics. The series will cover a number of topics and attempt to identify the main causes of underwhelming and ineffective discourse within political institutions, apolitical groups, and the wider university. The authors will also attempt to propose some solutions in order to move the debate in a more productive direction. In the second instalment, the author examines the problems with the college JCR, and what effect they have on student political discourse throughout the university more widely.
The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge dominate higher education in the United Kingdom. Whether they are still academically the clear frontrunners or not, and I would argue they are, they tower over any other educational institution in this country in terms of reputation, attention, and the notability of their students. I assume most of those that have had little recent contact with Cambridge would suspect that the political debate amongst students on topics of the day would also be a cut above any other university, an intellectual level up, as it has been for at least the last few centuries. Most of us that study here know that it is not.
At the end of Michaelmas Term last year, I stood for the position of vice-chair on my college JCR. The vice-chair, less important than it sounds, is chiefly concerned with chairing the open meetings thrice a term, where anyone from the undergraduate body can submit motions, debate them, and question JCR officers. I learnt quickly that the open meetings were not democracy manifest, or an exposition of Cambridge’s great minds operating in the sphere of student politics. They were at best boring and at times shambolic. I was astounded to see so much apparent agreement on contentious topics, from people that I knew did not agree at all; in the overwhelming majority of cases, the call “All those in favour?” was met with a solid wall of raised hands. I was even more astonished to see students admonishing those in drinking societies for the gross crime of attending and voting at one meeting. I was disgusted when one student, interrupted because she had spoken out of turn, muttered something about it being because she was a brown woman, despite the fact that she had been interrupted by another person of colour.
The fundamental reason for disengagement from student politics emerges from the existence of an apathetic centre. Most students at this university are clever enough to understand that politics matters, and perhaps most even think student politics could be useful. But as long as we continue down the current path, the student political landscape will never regain vitality as a mass of students remain uninterested; our political debate will become increasingly more extreme as we shed the centre ground, and, most fundamentally, we will lose the input and views of a great many people that have something to add. But who should we blame? Of course, the uninterested majority are to blame for not having enough conviction and energy to join in and turn the discourse around, but that is simply restating the problem. We must look elsewhere for the causes of this malaise.
The most irritating feature of my stint chairing the open-meetings was the stubborn and resolute attitude of those who had entrenched themselves on one side of the debate. A sense of surety, fostered in part by the monopoly that is presented to an individual when they are one of the very few people that actually decide to speak out on a topic at a JCR open meeting, and in part by the firm and unwavering belief that one holds the moral high ground, results in a complete unwillingness to even consider that the opposition arguments may have some merit. So called ‘debates’ descend into shouting matches where each side restates their point continually in slightly different ways until one or the other becomes fatigued. We ought to do better. It is up to us whether the aim of our debates and discussions is to seek the truth, or to impress our own opinions upon everybody else, no matter how wrong we may be. It seems to me that many of the vocal minority would rather not be challenged, which is precisely counter to the spirit that should underpin our student politics. Even when the debate is straightforward and calm, this problem continues to plague the JCRs. The quiet centre will never voice its opinions if it can see in the corner of its eye the torrent of noise that will inevitably come gushing out from both sides of the chamber, ready to drown out anything that dares breathe.
The arrogance and self-importance of those involved in student politics, which partly is a consequence of the previously discussed deafness, is another source of annoyance. Especially in activist circles, there seems to be an urge to demonstrate, visibly and repeatedly, just how correct one is, and just how much one is doing to make the world a better place. This sense of moral superiority can have negative consequences as opposed to simply being annoying. In one JCR open meeting I heard a point made which shocked me into silence in a way I have never been before or since. In a debate on a motion which proposed measures including paying the college staff real wages, an objection was raised on grounds of practicality. A speaker supporting the motion responded to this by stating (and I quote): “Why are we putting facts on a pedestal above emotional arguments anyway?”. This attitude is far more problematic than the unempathetic or apathetic politics that students such as these accuse the other side of. The willingness to sacrifice the truth to increase support for your own arguments represents a rotten attitude towards resolving the key problems in society today. This is a significant reason why so many sensible, moderate students refuse to have any involvement in student politics. How could they even associate with a politics that employs, as its active proponents, people that say such monumentally conceited and stupid things? It is not easy to argue with people that believe they are above the truth.
This attitude of superiority contrasts perfectly, in a comical sense, with the complete ineffectiveness of student politics. From one-sidedness, and the arrogance inspired by it, arises almost complete uselessness. The college JCR, or my one at least, is capable of making only the most trivial politically motivated changes in college. Apart from providing the budget for student societies and giving a space for a few committed individuals to waste their time trying to be important, JCRs contribute very little. It is standard procedure that the JCR proposes motions, far reaching and impractical (whilst completely ignoring the MCR and any other interested parties, of course), only for college to shoot down any of these that they were not already going to implement, unless they cost nothing, in which case, they are probably completely trivial. JCRs fail to create change not only because they come up with such terrible, and usually completely impractical ideas (although, as a wise woman once said, facts and practicality should not matter if the emotional arguments are strong enough), but also because they are also conceived within an echo chamber, inspired by a single type of politics with no input from the majority of students in the college. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if sensible students do not involve themselves then no sensible policy will result, and therefore sensible students will continue to not involve themselves.
The ‘College JCR’ therefore embodies three vices of student politics that have created an apathetic centre ground: deafness, arrogance, and irrelevance. Not only is JCR politics ignored, or even actively disliked, because of these, but they are also ills that have bled out into student political discourse more widely. I can see a simple solution: abolish the JCR. As an umbrella for organising student societies it is needed and effective, but as a political arena it is worse than useless. It provides a space for this sort of exclusive and toxic politics to flourish and negatively affect the silent majority that do not wish to engage. We can appoint welfare representatives and international student representatives to an independent college panel and organise access schemes or other such events through a collaboration between student volunteers and college. If we retire the political aspects of college JCRs, we stand to lose only a dangerous political culture, but we may in return gain the respect and involvement of those moderate, sensible students in the centre that have plenty to say but nowhere to stand.