let’s be positive: campaigning works

It’s #oct20 and this is a blog about why protest, campaigning and being loud pay off.

Last Thursday, Sheffield Students’ Union voted in a policy to end all dealings with arms companies, and to lobby the University to do the same. ‘Fund Education, Not War’ passed with a majority of over 1,000 votes – the total number of students who voted was less than 5,000. Thus, Sheffield SU now not only has an anti-arms policy, it has an anti-arms policy with an incredible strong mandate for action. Whilst the build-up to the referendum was intense, stressful and at time discouraging, the success of the end result proves that when you stand up for something that matters, eventually people are going to listen.

Protest, and student protest in particular, is extremely important. In talking about protest, I mean the word in a broad sense: one thing that I am learning again and again as my involvement in campaigning continues is that there is a place for everyone in a campaign. There is a place for people with a talent for public speaking; there is a place for those who would rather Tweet than talk. There is a place for people who have the dedication to go door-knocking and stand in the cold leafleting day after day. There is a place for the people who come up with ideas and the people who put them into practise. There is a place for the organised and a place for the disorganised. And all of the above can unify in order to get out onto the streets, march and show solidarity.

Students are uniquely positioned to cause change that matters. The majority of students are not raising a family, holding down a full-time job, or snowed under by concerns about mortgages and car tax. The University environment brings together people from such a mixture of backgrounds and opinions that new ideas and plans are buzzing around everywhere, and from my experience, you do not have to look very hard to find something that you feel passionate about, from the environment to social justice to a good old rant about Nick Clegg. At a university of 25,000 students, it is inevitable that somebody else will be concerned about the same issues that you are – and once you find that one other person, everything can kick off from there.

Take the example of the University of Sheffield Stop the Traffik society, a society that campaigns to raise awareness about, and educate people about the problem of human trafficking (there are more slaves in the world now than there have ever been). At the beginning of last year, Stop the Traffik had collapsed as the previously-active members graduated and left the University. Now, it is one of the most active campaigning societies around, running three or four campaigns simultaneously, reaching out to both the student population and the wider city community, and being a visible and vocal presence representing those who cannot be visible or vocal themselves. The combination of talents randomly thrown together in those who attend the planning meetings has allowed this to happen. From design work to PR to keeping a constant watch of international news, the members of Stop the Traffik work together to keep the campaigns energised and effective.

Another example is the Students’ Union current priority campaign, ‘Reclaim Your Education’. As a campaign run by the Union rather than a particular society, Reclaim Your Education is a melting-pot of representatives from other political campaigning societies, along with students who are not involved in anything else. The sheer number of ideas that arise when fifty students share a concern for something, means that Sheffield’s contribution to the NUS national demo on 21st November, and the continued pressure on the government for everything from postgraduate funding to holding politicians to account, is going to be enormous.

From a wider perspective, issues in need of bottom-up campaigning action abound nationally and internationally. Tax-dodging, austerity, poverty, food security, climate change… the list goes on. It can be easy to look at all the things that are wrong with our world and feel powerless. But small victories, like the success of the Fund Education, Not War policy, and the implications of that for arms company funding, and thus arms production, is huge. For confidence, one only has to look at the history of student-led campaigning, and the changes seen even over just the last sixty years, to prove that student action can be incredibly effective. From student opposition to the Vietnam war to the recent success of student opposition to tuition fees in Quebec (resulting in the fees proposal being overturned and the government leader’s resignation), there is ample evidence from across the world and throughout modern history that student protest and student campaigns can work.

Students are powerful because they are passionate. Students are powerful because they have the energy and time to network, research, stand up and speak out. And students are powerful because they refuse to shut up.

Let’s keep it that way.

Published by

Miriam Dobson

PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Soil, urban food, allotments, ecosystem services.

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