Why Divestment is Key to Cleaning up Our Planet

Students must use their collective might to get institutions to divest from fossil fuels, writes Lizzy Diggins, former OULC Co-Chair. 

Michael Gove has received an unusual level of praise recently as Environment Secretary for his self-declared war on single use plastic. While he has also attracted some derision for his new, multi-coloured Keep Cup accessory, the policy has undoubtedly had some impact, with high street chains like Pret announcing that customers using reusable cups will incur a discount on their coffee. While the government is yet to announce support for schemes like this, Gove’s war on single use plastics has become popular and fashionable. Similarly, the recent NUS ‘last straw’ campaign has worked to put an end to plastic straws, replacing them instead with apparently more recyclable paper ones. This has garnered huge press uptake and dominated the national (Twitter) conversation.

However, both of these strategies have had responses disproportionate to their actual success. While it is undeniably a good thing to shift away from using single use plastics, the minute focus of these campaigns mean they are largely irrelevant in the wider battle to save our planet. In fact, the appearance of environmentalism that these campaigns assume is dangerous. It can foster complacency: the ‘do-goodness’ of remembering to take your plastic coffee cup allows you to forget about the wider troubles of climate change as you have done your bit for the day. The fact that Gove has as yet refused to go as far as the plastic straw campaign by outright banning disposable cups is worse still. The ‘latte levy’ puts the onus on the individual consumer to remember their reusable coffee cup. Indeed, for many, the 50p punishment is worth not having to carry around a mouldering coffee cup for much of the day. The fact that you then lose 50p feels like punishment enough in itself; you forget the wider punishment that the environment suffers, as a result of both the production and disposal of the object. Indeed, the emphasis on things like recycling campaigns is similar – the impetus remains on the individual to change their own habits, and even when they do, the impact is largely negligible.

If such individual-focused efforts do more damage than good, then what is the appropriate solution? Instead of punishing the consumer, we need to focus on efforts that dis-incentivise producers from using processes and materials that contribute to climate change. Taking away the onus on consumer choice means that the future of the planet is reliant not on the whims of many individuals, but actually built into how the economy functions. Yet it seems hard to imagine that the current government will introduce anything like the wide-ranging reform and legislation needed to transform how we produce and consume ecologically sound goods and switch away from fossil fuels.

So how can we combine individual activist energies and a government unwilling to even ban plastic coffee cups in order to work towards a more environmentally friendly economy? The answer is a simple one: divestment. We as individual students can work together as a collective to lobby our institutions to divest from fossil fuels. This essentially means convincing our universities and other investors to stop investing in the target industry. As more institutions and the wider market begin to divest, it becomes less financially prudent for other institutions and the market to continue their investment. It also works to force the hand of fossil fuel companies and pressure the government to stop collecting fossil fuels. Indeed, through such activism, grassroots campaigners can pool their energy to ensure that government legislation and activity is radically transformed. The success of such schemes has already been demonstrated in South Africa in the fight against apartheid. An October 2013 Oxford study (‘Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets?’) has also outlined the possibility of success when applying such tactics and methods to fossil fuels.

So what can Oxford students do? You can participate in OULC’s ongoing lobby of the university to divest; you can push for change in your college through JCR motions; and you can also join the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, which has already achieved considerable success in getting some colleges to divest.

So what can you do?

  1. Join in with OULC! Divestment is one of our crucial focuses this term, and we will be looking at how to campaign and lobby together as a club.
  2. Lobby your own college – through motions to your JCR, or if you are on your JCR committee talking to your college directly.
  3. Join in with the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign – which has already achieved considerable success getting some colleges to divest!

Boy Jobs and Girl Jobs?

Theresa May was right; there are boy jobs and girl jobs. And that’s a problem, writes Rosie Sourbut, Co-Women*s Officer for TT18. 

It was a weird moment from the 2017 General Election campaign. Theresa May, having declined to partake in a policy debate, sat on the One Show sofa with her husband. As he described his freedom to choose when to take out the bins, she interjected, nodding enthusiastically as she stated: “There are boy jobs and girl jobs, you see.”

We would be naive to see this as a spontaneous revelation of May’s own archaic views on the correct gendered division of domestic duties, or the outrage and accusations of sexism that followed as accidental and unforeseen by her and her advisers. Instead, the Prime Minister was keen to reassure voters that, despite the country having a female leader, the structures of gender are still very much in place. This line must have been calculated to be a vote winner, letting viewers and those who saw the media reports know that May is on the side of the status quo and signifying that she sees no need to tackle the social factors that push women and men towards different career and life choices and that specifically point women towards roles with less economic or social power.

If we look outside of the home at the workplace, it is true that there are “boy jobs and girl jobs” across the UK, with four out of five people working in an environment dominated by their own sex. The most female-dominated industries include nursing; primary school teaching; and social work. These are all jobs which are perceived to have a strong nurturing element, and all of them are relatively low-paid compared to the qualifications required. This seems bizarre when one considers the crucial nature of these jobs to society. The people who teach children during their earliest years, for example, have a massive impact on the next generation of citizens, and yet for some mysterious reason these jobs command less respect, financial reward and prestige than those in finance and technology.

This reason becomes less mysterious when we look at studies that investigate the ways in which wages change as an industry changes its gender composition. In the 1940s and 50s, software programming was a job performed predominantly by women. It was considered a role requiring a typically ‘feminine’ skill set, with one computer programmer, Grace Hopper, stating that “women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming” and describing it as “just like planning a dinner”. While the skills required and the job done has remained largely the same over the decades, today the industry is vastly male-dominated, and a ‘rational’ mindset and lack of social skills are associated with and rewarded within it. The perception of the job’s duties, and its pay rates, have adjusted to match its largely male practitioners, and this has created a self-perpetuating cycle where males with these ‘masculine’ characteristics are drawn to and sought out for roles.

Meanwhile, as teaching has shifted from being male-dominated to female-dominated, the understanding of the role of a teacher has changed from being principally one of imparting knowledge to being one of nurturing. The masculine is rewarded and the feminine is disregarded, and the gender wage gap within society is created in part by this process. Jobs done by a large number of men are viewed as requiring ‘masculine’ characteristics and skills and are therefore, viewed as difficult and important, necessitating high pay as compensation. Meanwhile, jobs done by a large number of women are viewed as requiring ‘feminine’ characteristics and skills; these jobs, as a consequence, are often unpaid and undervalued. Children, encouraged to develop ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics and skills in accordance with their genders, are pushed respectively towards male-dominated and female-dominated jobs, and gender segregation within industries continues.

As long as gendered segregation of work, “boy jobs and girl jobs”, continues, jobs done by men will continue to be falsely profiled as masculine and jobs done by women as feminine. This hurts everyone: both the industries which are recruiting according to skills associated with stereotypes and not the particular attributes required for their employees’ roles, and the individuals who develop a set of gendered characteristics rather than their own particular strengths. And it hurts women especially, because for as long as so-called ‘feminine’ work is undervalued, women, along with men in female-dominated industries, will suffer from wages that do not reflect the true value of their work.

Analysing the Oxford City Council Election Results

OULC member, Eric Sheng, provides a detailed summary of the local election results across the city and suggests what Labour can learn from them. 

A. Summary of results*

Party Seats 2018 (change from 2014) 2016 votes (share) 2018 votes (share) Swing
Labour 18 (+1) 17,965 (47.00%) 18,277 (47.75%) +0.75%
Liberal Democrats 5 (+1) 6,932 (18.14%) 8,892 (23.30%) +5.16%
Green 1 (–2) 6,477 (16.95%) 5,535 (14.50%) –2.45%
Conservative 0 (0) 4,834 (12.65%) 4,938 (12.94%) +0.29%
Other** 0 (0) 2,012 (5.26%) 577 (1.51%) –3.75%
Turnout: 39% 38%

*The Council does not publish total votes by party, share or swing. I have calculated these figures using data for individual wards, available from https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20046/elections_and_voting/179/election_results.

**‘Other’ includes only independents in 2018. ‘Other’ includes independents, UKIP, TUSC and the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in 2016, but a large majority of 2016 Other votes were for independents.

B. Let’s try to see what each of the above swings really means by looking more closely at individual wards. (The nature of the swing to Labour will be discussed in considering the others.)

  1. Conservatives. Their vote-share and the distribution of their vote across the city have not undergone notable change.
  2. Other. The reduction in the Other vote is principally because there were no independent candidates, as there were in 2016, in Blackbird Leys and, especially, Marston. (There were also no TUSC or UKIP candidates.) The resulting vote transfer predominantly favoured Labour and the Conservatives.
  3. Greens. The Green vote has declined significantly in most wards where the Greens gained more than 150 votes in 2016. In Carfax and Wolvercote, it has more than halved. So where has the Green vote moved? Labour has benefited somewhat from former Green voters, but the overall figures suggest that the Lib Dems have been the main repository for disaffected Green voters. The Green to Lib Dem transfer is the most substantial vote transfer of this election, suggesting that the Lib Dems have re-established themselves as the main protest vote. In every ward where the Green vote declined significantly, there was an increase in the Lib Dem vote. A particularly clear example is North Ward, where no Green candidate ran this year. In this absence, the Lib Dems increased their vote by about 75 percent whereas Labour increased its vote by only about 7.5 percent. Similarly, in Carfax, the Lib Dems increased their vote by 46 percent, compared with just eight percent for Labour.
  4. Lib Dems. The Lib Dems are the greatest beneficiaries, at least in terms of votes, of this election. They have gained not just from the Greens, however, but also from Labour. In Holywell Ward, for example, in the context of a decline in turnout, the Lib Dems alone increased the absolute size of their vote, an increase that exceeded the entire decline in Green vote; Labour retained the ward by only seven votes, making it the most marginal in the city, and Labour’s vote share declined from 40 to 38 percent. The only ward the Lib Dems gained in this election was Quarry and Risinghurst, which they won from Labour. Here, the Green and Conservative votes remained largely unchanged, while Labour lost and the Lib Dems gained about 120 votes each.

C. The town-gown divides. Thus far I have concentrated on the more dramatic changes of this election. Dramatic changes did not happen everywhere. The degree to which vote transfers have occurred, and the nature of these transfers, mark out roughly three zones in Oxford, which correspond to the broad social divisions of the city, discernible in detail in the profiles of all wards available from https://www.oxford.gov.uk/downloads/download/327/ward_profiles:

  1. The University core zone covers the three wards in which most Oxford colleges fall: Holywell, Carfax and North. This is where the dramatic changes that I’ve mostly been discussing took place – where the Green vote has declined most precipitously, from a respectable position, and where there has been a significant transfer from the Greens to the Lib Dems, and smaller transfers from the Greens to Labour and from Labour to the Lib Dems.
  2. The non-University zone covers areas in the east of Oxford that are less well-off and that contain fewer students and academic or professional employees of the University of Oxford. Here, the Greens have never had significant support and little changed in the electoral balance this year: the Lib Dems made a little improvement and Labour made moderate gains, largely, it would seem, by improving turnout. The core wards of this zone are Northfield Brook, Blackbird Leys, and Barton and Sandhills.
  3. The University fringe zone covers localities in north Oxford, around the Cowley and Iffley areas, and around Oxford Brookes University. This zone contains Brookes students, some Oxford students, though not as densely as in the central region, and the greatest numbers of academic or professional employees of the two universities. It is here that the Lib Dems have been strongest. In this year’s election, two characteristics stand out. The first is that the Lib Dems have increased their vote share in all the wards that they hold, and improved their performance elsewhere too. Most notably, in St Margaret’s, the Lib Dems led Labour, the Tories, and the Greens 592-396-338-240 respectively in 2016, but 979-291-267-81 this year. The second is that, in much of this zone, the Green vote was relatively resilient. It remained steady in Iffley Fields and even slightly increased in Rose Hill and Iffley, where the vote transfer took place instead from Labour, who lost about 200 votes, to the Lib Dems, who gained about 150. (The Green vote also increased slightly in Jericho and Osney, though here the absence of a Lib Dem candidate complicates matters.) Residents in the University fringe zone, it seems, have not become as disillusioned with the Greens as students in the city centre have.

D. The above discussion suggests that it is important for Labour to find out what is motivating, in particular, students and others associated with the two universities to turn to the Lib Dems, because their resurgence is not merely due to the decline of the Green vote. Brexit, I suspect, might have much to do with the Lib Dem resurgence in Oxford; so might the homelessness situation, which the Lib Dems have exploited extensively in their electioneering. Moreover, the Green to Lib Dem transfer may well have been indirect: in last year’s general election, the Green vote collapsed in Labour’s favour, so it might well be that there were a Green to Labour transfer and a Labour to Lib Dem transfer involving different voters. In that case, even the part of the Lib Dem increase corresponding in quantity to the Green decline would in fact be Labour losses, and it would be even more important to understand and find ways of resisting the Lib Dem temptation.

Labour’s Troubles: A Story of Race and Class

The Labour Party must adopt an intersectional approach and focus on improving voters’ material conditions in order to heal the growing divide between the BAME population and the white working-class, writes Sulamaan Rahim, OULC BAME Officer.

The white working-class and BAME voters represent a large proportion of the traditional Labour vote. However, there is a large division emerging between these two groups that is being exacerbated by the narratives surrounding immigration and class. The presentation of these two groups as diametrically opposed and separate entities represents a huge problem for Labour – one which it must address if it wants to continue being the voice for the most marginalised in society. The need for a coherent narrative regarding race and class has never been of greater importance. More fundamentally, though, understanding the intersection of race and class and their treatment in the media is necessary to improve the material conditions of those affected by the structural classism and racism rampant in British society.

The term ‘white working-class’ has recently been used as a political tool to separate the working classes and pander to ideas of white exceptionalism. It seems the term is supposed to reify the belief that it is, in fact, white people in this country who are subject to the most discrimination. They are the ones for whom life is now tough with people of colour benefiting from positive discrimination and quotas. While it is necessary that we address the huge class divide in Britain, such a racialisation of the working classes reinforces race divides.

Moreover, it serves to separate BAME people from the working classes by treating them as two distinct groups. In fact, BAME people are disproportionately represented in the working class; immigrants from former colonies were forced into low income jobs when cheap labour was needed to rebuild Britain. This analysis regarding the overrepresentation of BAME individuals in the working classes is often overlooked due to the unwillingness of governments to discuss anything remotely related to the ills of the Empire.

Now, this is not to say that the white working class are at no disadvantage in this country. This narrative, however, serves only to reinforce the racial divide. The othering of people of colour strengthens far-right narratives of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ with ‘them’ to blame for all the problems currently facing Britain. This fosters a culture of fear towards people of colour. Moreover, the strength of this framing makes it seem as though giving in to this type of narrative is the only way to win the white working-class vote.

This divide was recently clearly demonstrated by the EU referendum and the arguments put forward by much of the Leave campaign. This is not to criticise the notion of leaving the EU ideologically but instead to show how the conversation around Brexit highlighted how the white working class are increasingly pitted against Britain’s BAME population.

It’s abundantly clear that the most prevalent talking point during the Brexit referendum was immigration. This is not to say that other topics were ignored, but it was the issue that received the most airtime. As with many conversations regarding immigration, it had a deeply racial undertone. There was a distinct focus on where migrants come from (see the Turkey leaflet). Migrants were painted as taking jobs they had no right to from the hands of ‘good, hard-working British people’. More importantly, though, the racialised nature of the migration debate had direct consequences for people of colour. Police figures show a 23 percent increase in racial/religious hate crimes – from 40 741 to 49 921 – in the 11 months following the referendum, compared to the same period in the previous year. This demonisation and characterisation of the good of the country as being jeopardised by BAME individuals was shown to have clear, violent outcomes.  

None of this is to say that class structures cannot negatively impact on the lives of the white working-class. It is merely to say that we need to be careful about how we talk about class. This attempt to ignore the intersection of race and class is incredibly dangerous. It is a divide and conquer strategy which allows the Right to stay in power by creating rifts between marginalised groups, thereby hindering them from mobilising and pushing for change.

Perhaps more insidiously, this type of narrative feeds into the pernicious power of ‘whiteness’ within our society by shifting the debate. While there are legitimate concerns over lack of investment in northern towns and cities and high rates of unemployment, the debate ends up turning to immigration. This rhetorical sleight of hand attempts to create solidarity between the oppressed working classes and the oppressive government by appealing to a common whiteness. Instead of being angry at the government for lack of investment and general apathy towards working-class issues, the anger is shifted towards immigrants and people of colour. This is extremely harmful as it serves only to inflame racial tensions, while allowing the real material problems to go unsolved.

The points above pose two main problems for Labour: (1) we ought to support the free movement of people and everyone’s right to work simply on principle; (2) more cynically, Labour also needs the BAME vote and cannot do so if it allows the perpetuation of such narratives.

So what can Labour do? There are two simple things to begin with. First, Labour needs to challenge the way race and class are separated, and seek to understand the intersection of the two. We must not succumb to the temptation to win votes by pandering to base fears, and instead, have faith that policies which improve material conditions are the way to win elections. Secondly, it must continue to strongly and publicly support immigrants’ rights to work in the UK, while constantly refuting the notion that any British jobs are being ‘stolen’.

All of this, however, is simply a start. Structural racism and classism are deeply entrenched in Britain and, while Labour has a long and proud history of opposing both, it needs to be even more vocal. It must show that it understands the nuances and intersections of the two, otherwise it risks losing the white working-class vote; the BAME working-class vote; and the overall BAME vote.  


My Time at OULC in the 1980s

Former OULC Co-Chair, Stephen Twigg MP, remembers his formative political years as a member of the club.

I attended Southgate Comprehensive School in Enfield, North London. My parents were members of the Communist Party, so left-wing politics formed a big part of my childhood. I joined the Labour Party when I was 15. My aspiration was to study Law and I had not really considered applying to Oxbridge. It was my A level Economics teacher who suggested that I apply to study PPE at Oxford, which I did from 1985-88 .

Internationalism is a core value for anyone on the left or centre-left of politics. During the 1980s, the biggest solidarity campaign was the Anti-Apartheid Movement. At the time, there was a boycott of Barclays Bank. I remember a particularly heated debate in Balliol JCR about whether students should be allowed to cash Barclays cheques at the JCR bar! I imagine that the idea of “cashing cheques” sounds pretty archaic but it was a lively issue. I sided with the majority view, which meant that such cheques could not be cashed. On another occasion, OULC members were at the forefront of a ‘sit-in’ in the entrance to the Randolph Hotel in protest at a Barclays ‘milk round’ event.

In 1987, we were determined to win Oxford East for Labour. Andrew Smith’s victory, unseating a Tory, was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise grim night nationally. Andrew, of course, went on to serve with distinction for thirty years.

I threw myself into OUSU activity from my first term. I became Chair of the OUSU Lesbian and Gay Committee and OUSU Rep on the Balliol JCR Committee. I was elected onto the OUSU Executive on the Labour Club slate in 1986. A year later, I stood for OUSU President. It was my first taste of electoral defeat: I lost to an Independent candidate who stood on a platform of ‘OUSU Reform’! Defeat did not put me off student politics and I went on to spend four years on the NUS National Executive, including two as National President.

I never joined the Oxford Union Society. When I arrived in 1985 the Labour Club had a policy to boycott the Union. Labour students were discouraged from joining and the club campaigned actively to persuade national Labour politicians to refuse invitations to speak there. In my second year, some OULC members who had joined the Union proposed a motion to overturn the boycott. I supported them because I felt that the policy was counter-productive. Despite the boycott, many students had still joined, yet our policy meant that the Labour voice was not always heard. When the boycott was dropped, I did not join but I did speak there in a debate on LGBT rights. In 1997, I came back to speak in the freshers’ debate against the motion that ‘This House has no confidence in the Government’. We won!

I did not come out at school other than to one close friend. At university, it was incredibly liberating to be ‘out’ from day one. I was already involved in the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights (now called LGBT Labour). The week before my arrival at Oxford I had been in Bournemouth at the 1985 Annual Labour Party Conference where we had secured the first ever policy debate on lesbian and gay rights. This debate is referred to at the end of the superb film Pride, which tells the story of Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners.

In my third year, we saw the passage of the now-infamous Section 28. I helped set up the Oxford campaign and many OULC members went on the massive demonstrations that were held in London and Manchester. The passage of Section 28 in 1988 proved to be a turning point. Although we failed to stop this nasty piece of legislation being passed, the campaign gave renewed energy to the cause of equality with the formation of the Stonewall Group. I was very proud when the last Labour government repealed section 28. Of course, we still have a long way to go to defeat homophobia and transphobia both here and internationally. The student movement had a very important role as a champion of equality during the 1980s; for me personally it was incredibly positive to have the support and solidarity of friends in OULC during that time.

Education is my number one cause. Last month, I was with 150 students and parents from Liverpool schools who are part of my Liverpool to Oxbridge Collaborative, which I set up three years ago to support students at eight local secondary schools to consider applying to Oxford or Cambridge, many of them working class families where neither parent went to university. Earlier in the same month, I visited a Child Friendly Space in the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. My late mother left school when she was fifteen. She was always determined that me and my sister should get the best out of education.  In my experience, that sense of hope and aspiration is universal – whether it is my Mum, parents in my Liverpool constituency or Rohingya refugees who have been through Hell but still want a good education for their children.

My time in OULC taught me a lot. I have many fond memories of my student days in Oxford. I certainly spent a bit too much time in the King’s Arms and Balliol bar and not enough in the Bodleian! Without doubt my experience of campaigning whilst at Oxford was a positive one.  I hope that the current generation of OULC activists find the club’s activities both positive and enjoyable. In the 1980s we had many great causes and the rallying chant of “Maggie Maggie Maggie! Out out out!”

I left Oxford thirty years ago. Nine years later, I was proud to be part of Labour’s 1997 landslide. I am optimistic that your generation will not have to wait so long for a Labour Government. I know that OULC members will be working hard for that Labour victory.