Some might call Eleanor Wright’s position as head of the Labour Society of St Andrews unenviable – after all, 2015 cannot be called a good year for the party by any stretch. Devastated by their election defeat three months ago, which saw the party suffer their worst result since 1983 and lose all but one of their 40 Scottish seats, Labour has since seen its polls plunge even further, as it went through a bitterly divisive leadership contest which left a man many see as totally unelectable, and who many senior figures in the party have refused to serve under, at the helm. Even without these problems, the Labour Party has never been strong in St Andrews. They came fourth in the North East Fife constituency in this year’s election, losing more than half of its votes to the SNP.
This, however, does not seem to have fazed Ms Wright in the slightest.
A committed Labour activist since the age of fourteen, she believes that now is the perfect time to revitalise St Andrews Labour. Certainly, results earlier on in the semester seem to support this belief. The group set up a stall at Freshers’ Fayre in the hope of recruiting 20 to 30 new members at best. In the end they managed more than double that, attracting students both undergraduate and postgraduate from across all years. This, combined with an entirely new committee and weekly socials aimed specifically at recruitment and engagement, has given the society a new lease of life. Ms Wright puts part of this success down to rise to power of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who she calls “a completely fresh start, something we haven’t seen before: a politician for the people.” Indeed many would argue that his left-leaning politics and straightforward style make him almost uniquely able to appeal to young people. However, Ms Wright sees the new leadership of Jeremy Corbyn as only a part of the equation. She points to an upsurge in idealist, left-wing politics which has propelled politicians as diverse as Bernie Sanders and the Greek SYRZIA party to power. In Ms Wright’s view, Labour’s path to recovery and the best chance for success for her society in one of the most multi-national universities in the UK, lies in it being able to tap into this new populist wellspring and take advantage of the opportunities it creates.
However, Ms Wright is aware that this is perhaps easier said than done.
As yet, far from being the beneficiaries of the leftward swing in politics, Labour has suffered as a result of it, losing votes to more anti-establishment parties such as the Greens and SNP. Again, Ms Wright sees this problem as surmountable – a symptom of Labour “losing touch with it’s core vote” during it’s time in power, which created a vacuum which is now being exploited by the insurgent parties. However, the rise to power of a new leadership which is not associated with the previous Labour government has given the party, according to Ms Wright, “an almost unique opportunity” to create a “new kind of politics” of which they will be the main beneficiaries.
This, however, is only the beginning of Ms Wright’s new project of rebuilding the Labour Party in St Andrews. Seeing a rise in enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s new breed of politics is one thing, harnessing that enthusiasm in order to turn it into an effective campaigning force is quite another.
Ms Wright is aware of the scale of the challenge facing her. Despite the recent rise in “Corbynmania,” she believes that St Andrews remains “quite politically apathetic as a University.”
During the last academic year, the St Andrews Labour Society (consisting of around ten members and a half-staffed committee) remained fairly inactive and very low profile: “We didn’t do very much and no-one knew what we were doing,” Ms Wright acknowledged.
This has already changed. The society has been holding weekly socials which are “just a place for people to have a drink and a chat about politics,” in Ms Wright’s words, with the aim of both “raising awareness of the society’s activities and also fostering political interest at the University.”
This second objective seems to be of particular importance to Ms Wright: “I was very political growing up, my whole family was, but the area I lived in wasn’t at all. It was very frustrating.” Seeing Nick Griffin, leader of the far right British National Party become the Member of the European Parliament for her area brought home to her the dangers of such political disengagement. (Nick Griffin won his European Parliament seat in North West England in the European Elections in May 2009 on a turnout of around 30 per cent. He lost his seat to the UK Independence Party in the elections of last year.)
Certainly, the Labour Society’s socials seem to have gone some of the way towards achieving their aims, attracting students from a wide variety of party affiliations as well as those with none at all.
“They don’t have to agree with us, we just want to raise some interest,” noted Ms Wright.
On this front, Ms Wright is fairly optimistic. Though, as mentioned, she sees St Andrews as a university that “doesn’t really do politics”, she thinks that young people in Scotland have been politicised to a degree never seen before by the closely fought independence referendum last year, so closely followed by the general election; which turned out to be one of the most unpredictable in recent memory. This trend looks set to continue into the future, with elections to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood coming up next year; to say nothing of the upcoming council and mayoral elections south of the border or the fast approaching referendum on EU membership.
But where will this lead to? In terms of electoral campaigning, the first big project for St Andrews Labour will be the 2016 Scottish Parliament Elections. While Ms Wright hopes that this will continue to fan the flames of political engagement in St Andrews, the role that St Andrews Labour will be playing in these elections has not yet been decided. It seems unlikely that there will be much canvassing in the St Andrews area, which has traditionally voted Conservative and Liberal Democrat, but there are plenty of other options. Areas such as Kirkcaldy and Dunfermeline, which were traditionally Labour strongholds but voted SNP in the General Election three months ago, will be key battlegrounds in 2016. There is also the possibility that the society will try and support Labour MEP and St Andrews University Rector Catherine Stihler in any campaigning she plans to do. “Nothing’s been finalised yet, it’s all a long way in the future,” said Ms Wright.
Campaigning for Labour during elections is, however, only one of a number of aims for the society. In fact, it may not even be the most important one. The relatively high number of students at St Andrews who are non-UK nationals means that to many studying here, Labour Party politics are not hugely important – possibly one of the reasons why the society has historically struggled to gain support.
Therefore, instead of focusing solely on the electoral efforts of the Labour Party – or even on party politics as a whole – the society has taken a more inclusive approach to campaigning, abandoning what Ms Wright calls “high level, long-word rubbish” in favour of addressing issues that are of relevance to all students. One of the most important of these is their living rent campaign. While this clearly chimes very well with Labour policy, the shortage of affordable accommodation in St Andrews in an issue that unites students of all nationalities, backgrounds and political stripes; and one which even the harshest of Labour’s critics would struggle to criticise. Ms Wright is also keen to focus on outreach programs, pushing the University to accept more people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
So, one year to rebuild a society many would have written off this time last year, and then use it to tackle some of the biggest problems plaguing St Andrews. A tall order? Perhaps, but Ms Wright does not seemed bothered by the scale of the challenge facing her. In the end, everything comes back to the philosophy of life which she says got her interested in politics in the first place.
“There’s no point in complaining about how you think that society is going to the dogs if you aren’t doing anything about it, if you aren’t getting politically engaged. At the end of the day, if you want something changed, you’ve got to do it yourself.”