Harry Wise, BA Politics
It’s a Friday night at SOAS and there’s a party going on at SOAS. There’s pizza, coke and Cadbury Roses on offer and music blaring from the speakers. More than 30 SOAS students are packed into a room to celebrate and discuss politics. The mood is one of joviality. Everybody is having a good time, some have just finished writing essays. Some have got essays to write, but despite this, there is a happy atmosphere. This is the SOAS Labour Party and everybody who has joined the SOAS Labour Society is optimistic about the future.
It has certainly come a long way from last year where they only had four active members. In fact, when the Labour group tried to put up a poster during the General Election campaign, it was daubed in graffiti, and so no more were put up. That would be very unlikely to happen today. Labour are not seen as a ‘Tory-lite’ party. SOAS Labour were involved in the National Demo for Free Education on November 4th earlier this year, as well as the Voter Registration Drive and are behind the campaign to welcome refugees to Britain.
Over the last couple of months, it’s almost become cool to be a student and a member of the Labour Party. No doubt, the major reason for this is Jeremy Corbyn.
Huda Elmi, a History and International Relations student certainly thinks this. She joined the Labour Party, because of Corbyn; “I think he speaks for students more than anybody. There was a point where I thought Nick Clegg spoke for students, but I was wrong. Jeremy Corbyn looks and sounds like he cares. I feel he’s the least contrived politician out there…I think JC has a reputation behind him, what with all the other students getting behind him. He has a reputation to back up what he actually says. He says he’ll abolish tuition fees. More than any other politician, you know he’s not just saying it to curry votes. You know he means it.”
For many, it is a shock that a major political party has seen a urge in party membership in so short a space of time. The number of people joining political parties, was until recently, on a historical decline. In the mid-1950s membership of the Conservative Party stood at around 3 million while the Labour Party had around 1 million members. By the time of the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party had a membership of around 150,000 while Labour Party membership stood at about 270,000.
And while the two major UK parties have seen a major diminution in membership, smaller parties such as UKIP, the Greens, and Scottish National Party have seen upsurges in their membership numbers. Yet, the trend in political party membership has been downward. Rather like Robert Puttnam’s assertion in his book ‘Bowling Alone’ that Americans were disengaged from political involvement, British people’s involvement in politics has gradually eroded over the decades. Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader though has bucked Puttnam’s trend.
Will Sheret, the SOAS Labour Society Chairman, has been acutely aware of “Corbymania.” He actually worked on the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign. Like Huda, he believes Corbyn’s election has “reinvigorated” the Labour Party. I asked him if he was surprised about the level of new membership at SOAS; “If you asked me before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, I would have said yes. But now that Jeremy is leader, I think it shows that the Labour Party has been re-invigorated. Because he actually stands for something and people can get behind that. There is a clear narrative of what he wants to do.” He has even noticed how Corbynmania has hit the New Forest, a traditionally Conservative territory; “A lot of my friends who were not that politically engaged have been talking about Jeremy,” he says. “It’s not just his policy on tuition fees…But it’s the clear anti-austerity narrative which they’re attracted to, particularly with regards to tax credits for low earners and grants for students…he’s trying to create a more inclusive society.”
SOAS Labour is a major force once again. The increase in membership is part of a wider trend throughout the country. No other party has seen such an increase in support over the last few months than the Labour party. Dare I say this, but being a young Labour Party student is quite chic. And it’s all down to one man, Jeremy Bernard Corbyn.