Students have, and always will be, the lifeblood of Liberal Democrats and liberalism generally. Here at the University of East Anglia (UEA) Liberal Democrats in Norwich, we are no strangers to our history. It is a history running through north Norfolk parliamentarians in the English Revolution, radical student societies across the continent in 1848, and ultra-liberals in the 1970s making their first mark on the new post-modern campus landscape.
A former manifestation of the UEA Lib Dems met their end, however, as an indirect result of coalition and compromise, in May 2013. The then preeminent Conservative society on campus predicted the fall of the faithful departed student society, as well as local Tory former PPC Anthony Little. How could a disaster on this scale occur more than half way through the coalition’s term in office? How, just two years prior to general election, could Norwich South lose their active student arm? A certain spice was lacking in our liberal broth – that of legacy.
So when the current president Yan Malinowski and I arrived on UEA campus to find no Liberal Democrat society in September 2013, we knew action was needed. Not knowing of each other’s existence however, the parts that would be needed to re-build our society engine were out of place and dislocated. After a pint or two with local party officials and extensive communication with a man called Adam Robertson, who became Provisional President, we were set. Slow beginnings, turned to a steady running-pace and after just six months the UEA Lib Dems are part of the national sprint for youth engagement in the 2015 general election.
The campaign to re-elect Simon Wright MP has been somewhat declared a given, a sure-thing of a sort for pollsters, bookies and political bloggers: the seat has been described as the most likely loss for the Lib Dems in 2015. But no overarching shadow of gloom and doom rests upon our shoulders in Norwich. Those who work in Simon’s office seem positive, even those pessimistic by nature characters. What impression do this team give? Snappy quips, banter and intelligent electioneering dominate conversation. Each character in this play has a role suited to them and they all play it sublimely. That is not to say conflict never occurs. Such a fantasy is unknown of in contentious fields such as political competition and perhaps peace abides more in front of students than in our absence. I cannot, however, think of a web of volunteers and party workers better suited to ‘win the unwinnable’ in 2015.
In the spirit of success, as well as a founding member of the rebooted student society, I am standing as a candidate to Norwich City Council in Bowthorpe Ward in May. Behind me I have those few good men from the office, one or two friends and a delightful elderly lady from my local area. People always jest about how few of us there are, UEA Labour Students often remarking Yan as ‘the UEA Lib Dems’ all on his lonesome. It couldn’t be further from true. In less than six months we have amassed a small army. From sealing envelopes and printing literature, to opening doors and having as many shut back in your face.
When out canvassing for myself, I believe I am truly making a difference to shape this nation. Perhaps, just perhaps, knocking on doors in the rain and trying to leaflet without hailstones punching holes in the paper, is going to change the future of the country. I want to make a difference. It is a romanticised idea and you might be thinking – “what does all this abstract liberal rubbish have to do with my vote?” What do people really want? Safe roads, safe neighbourhoods and safe schools. I may be wrong, but as a guess I’d say most people don’t care for Lords’ reform or about international trade agreements or about technical workings of the bureaucracy. They care about their families’ wellbeing, their community, and those in it.
When campaigning to get Simon Wright re-elected as MP and running ourselves, we know very few people will read our manifesto cover-to-cover, so some level of precision is required in campaigning. Students don’t care much for local issues in Norwich, unless it relates to busses, but what they do care for are human rights in other nations, equality for women and members of the LGBT community. They care about where Bacardi puts its money and who the US government wire-taps. The imperative is, then, to know what people want and communicate your solution or at least how your personal character could lead to forming one.
The issue of legacy stirs the mind once more. Whether or not I am elected a councillor for Bowthorpe, whether or not the Lib Dem’s hold Norwich South against the amassing red army of Labour, whether or not UKIP and the Greens gain a foothold similar to that the Liberals have held for the past five years, life will go on. Here at UEA we want the UEA Lib Dems to go on too. By 2020 the tuition fee rise will be 10 years gone and young people now and then will reap the benefits of what’s been done in government and in Norwich City Council.
Legacy is stabilizing interest. It is ensuring that no matter what occurs in Iraq or Syria, in Westminster or Hollyrood, in Norwich and Norfolk, the UEA Lib Dems and wider Liberal Youth will survive. It has taken five years, but regeneration has come nation-wide. I would even say the next generation of Liberals are here. When we make sure the UEA Lib Dems survive, we are making sure the Liberal Democrats survive, making sure we will always have MPs, we will always wield some power to affect policy decisions for a stronger economy and fairer society. Liberal Democrats know big decisions and widespread change both begin from the ground-up. We have sown the seeds of our future, in Norwich 2015.
Thomas Johnston is secretary of the UEA Lib Dems.
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