Politics watch – 2: Comrade Boris and the state of student political activity

Rory Weal 6 February 2014

Last week The Cambridge Student exposed the chronic student apathy towards college JCRs, sparking serious questions about student engagement with politics. Is activism dead? Is political apathy the order of the day? Should we just give up on this whole democracy thing altogether?

So, with student activism supposedly on its knees, it fell upon one unlikely comrade to breathe life into political campaigning in Cambridge.

Spotted having brunch at Churchill College, he was asked specifically about the Living Wage campaign by the student press, and remarked: “there are many companies that can afford it, many organisations that can afford it,
so why not?”

The unlikely comrade? Boris Johnson. The Mayor of London may be an unlikely source of inspiration for student activists, but his intervention serves to demonstrate two things. First, how ludicrous it is for colleges to dismiss students campaigning for the Living Wage as naïve commies. Second, how un-radical ‘student radicalism’ really is.

This is not to belittle the importance of the Living Wage campaign, but to expose how uncontentious the issue should be. I can see no justification for an institution as wealthy as Cambridge  failing to pay vital staff enough to live on. Even Boris, a man who spent his student days dressing up in morning suits and smashing up expensive restaurants on daddy’s credit card, recognises this.

But while student activism may no longer be sticking two fingers up to the system, it is far from dead.  The problem remains that prevailing institutions aren’t doing enough to prove their relevance to student life.

The same goes for the Westminster political parties, who through a process of complacency and self-delusion are failing to recognise the disenchantment many young people feel with the current political system. All these representative organisations need to stop moaning about apathy and make a positive case for why anyone should care about them. The alternative is a spiral of disengagement that will continue indefinitely.

See the last Politics Watch column here.