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Laveen Ladharam: Conservatives must change their student unions for the better

Screen shot 2011-08-15 at 07.24.36 Laveen Ladharam was Publicity Officer of the University of Warwick Conservative Association in 2010-11 and is about to start a GDL at the College of Law in September.

“Laveen, remember, student unions are left-wing madrassas”, were the consoling words of my good friend and Conservative Home contributor, Hasan Afzal when he learned that I’d lost my campaign to be Warwick Students Union President. To an extent, he was right. Yet, this should not be allowed to stand. I have recently graduated in History from the University of Warwick – "Red Warwick" as the left like to call it. After initial resentment of the students union for being “too left wing”, I got involved, and was able to make a difference with the help of other Conservatives and like-minded people at Warwick.

We need to get involved within our student unions on a fundamental basis. When I say we, I mean people of a conservative mindset. I have spoken to people in many universities  Manchester, the LSE, UCL and people at Warwick - and the one claim that is made time after time is that their Students Unions are “out of control.” Indeed, Manchester Students Union have passed a boycott of Israel and UCL Union infamously banned the Armed Forces in their buildings. I ask why these conservative leaning students don’t act upon their concerns. The response is the same - they believe that they are all “communists”. These students have disenfranchised themselves because they fear their concerns will fall upon the deaf ears of socialist fanatics.

We need to seize the initiative within our student unions to push through policies that we want. It won’t be easy, but once we get in, we can make student unions moderate. The best way to do this is to get more conservative-minded people to stand for election. Ideally they should be members but they don’t have to be, provided that they have similar perspectives to us. Ronald Reagan once said: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit." He was right. Provided we get people with similar views to ourselves - be they Tories, Orange Book Liberals, libertarians or even Blairites - we can get results that reflect our ideals.

As a party we should aim to get as many of our members as possible elected - but once we’re in, we need to make allies across these bodies. This means that provided there are like-minded people in our universities, we can generate change. In the first term in many universities, there are elections to students union councils. At Warwick, there was relatively little interest in these elections, and I was elected with around 30 votes. In the second term, most universities have sabbatical and part-time officer elections. Many part-time positions at Warwick this year were unopposed or unfilled. We can also ensure that our Unions have a more representative voice by attending AGMs and campaigning on referendums. There are opportunities a-plenty for us to get involved to change the politics within our students unions. We should take advantage of them.

And before you ask: Yes! They work. That is what we’ve done at Warwick. Last year, I was among seven Conservative councillors (roughly 10 per cent of council) who managed to obtain fantastic results. In this past year we have: overturned the Union’s sponsorship ban on McDonalds; successfully campaigned on the overturning of all sponsorship bans; prevented the "Yes to AV" campaign getting access to SU money (by a whopping 30 votes to 4) and prevented the creation of an ‘Anti-Cuts Campaigns Officer’ in Warwick SU.

His is a stark contrast from a Gaza sit-in, an attempt to ban the Armed Forces on campus and an attempt to twin our SU with the Islamic University of Gaza in my first two years. This shows that even 10pc of a council can influence decisions if they get involved and work with others. This conservative activism is not only limited to Warwick. UCL was able to overturn its military ban. Of course we have to be realistic - we were unable to condemn the disgusting barbarism against the Millbank Tower because of a previous motion that mandated ‘direct action’ - but this is still a great start.

Any reform of our Student Bodies and any reform of the NUS, like the much-needed call to make it democratically accountable, can only happen from the bottom up. Margaret Thatcher once said that her greatest achievement was New Labour. Surely it would be one of our greatest achievements if we were to moderate our student unions?  As for me, student politics is behind me and I’m off to bigger and better things. But next month, many of you will return to university. You’ll want to change things for the better. From my own experience, that’s the way to do it.


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