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.

 

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Mental Health Services are in Crisis

Labour candidate for Holywell, Nadine Bely-Summers, laments the Tory government’s neglect of mental health services and its impact on Oxford residents.

Eight years of relentlessly pursuing austerity has pushed mental health services to the point of crisis. This Tory government has presided over £150 million of cuts to mental health budgets in the last four years alone. Parity of esteem between mental health and physical health has become a buzzword but no action has followed yet.

The Prime Minister herself has been forced to apologise to the nation for the mounting crisis in the NHS.

Although vital services are under threat, it seems that no attention or compassion is being extended to the most vulnerable in our society who have seen their safety net taken from underneath their feet at their time of utmost need.

A recent article in the Oxford Mail highlights that a catalogue of serious failings in mental health care were identified in the health ombudsman report. A mental health patient with a complex history of mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, was discharged from a community treatment team having missed an appointment. They died shortly afterwards from a drug overdose. Another case is that of a woman who was left in seclusion after suffering an acute mental health crisis with no access to sanitary products. The woman had no option but to collect her menstrual blood in a plastic cup.

The report identifies that lack of staff compromises patient care and safety. This comes as no surprise to patients, carers, and mental health professionals like myself.

Oxford faces very specific issues in relation to recruitment and retention of health care staff. The cost of housing is very high. A 2017 study listed Oxford as the least affordable city in the UK, the average house price being 10.7 times that of average earnings. Another issue is the impact Brexit might have on the workforce. There is a high proportion of NHS workers from EU countries working in Oxfordshire. According to the House of Commons library, the number has risen to 11% in the past four years compared to a national average of 4.6%.

The Oxfordshire Unison health branch has confirmed that mental health trusts have less money to spend on patient care than they did five years ago. This contradicts the government’s claim that mental health funding is at record levels. Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group’s (OCCG) funding of secondary mental health services is amongst the lowest in the country.

Funding for mental health has decreased at a time when demand for the services has increased massively. People, particularly the young, are beset by mental health problems on an unprecedented scale. The number of students in top universities, such as Oxford, who disclosed a mental health problem in their first year have risen sharply. There is now more pressure from students and their families who wants to see drop-in centres in all universities where students can get access to help from trained mental health professionals.

In Oxford, psychiatric beds are now often at 100 percent occupancy, meaning patients might end up being treated hundreds of miles from home. Some patients are discharged too quickly from community teams. There is a long waiting list for specialised services. Psychology and psychotherapy services have momentarily closed in order to address their huge waiting list.

Funding is now diverted to Improving Access to Psychological Therapists (IAPT) services who see people with common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and where large numbers of people can be seen, treated and discharged quickly.

In my IAPT service, therapists are pushed into seeing patients for less than the number of sessions required by the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapists, largely in order to meet unrealistic service targets. There are now high levels of burnout across NHS mental health services as the norm is now to hit performance targets rather than provide care.

If elected as Labour candidate for Holywell, I will continue to campaign to protect mental health services. I will continue to oppose austerity and budget cuts. A Labour government will properly fund the NHS and make it fit for purposes once again.

 

Why Labour’s New Bus Pass Policy is Crucial

I wouldn’t be at Oxford University if my parents couldn’t afford my bus pass, writes OULC Secretary for TT18, Owen Winter. 

At the end of year 11, I got a proper say in my education for the first time. For me, the choice was pretty simple: my local sixth form, which offered a small range of A-Levels; or the big Further Education (FE) College, 40 minutes down the road. The local sixth form didn’t offer the course I wanted so it seemed obvious where I would go. 

Luckily for me, my parents could fork out the £515 for an annual bus pass – I didn’t have to think about it. For many of my peers, it wasn’t so simple.

That’s because when the government raised the participation age to 18, requiring young people to stay in education or training, they didn’t raise the age of statutory transport subsidies. Essentially, if you couldn’t afford travel post-16, you were left in the hands of squeezed local councils that had no legal obligation to help. For thousands of young people in places like Cornwall, where I grew up, this is a huge problem.

So, what if you’re sick of school and want to get into the world of work? Chances are you’ll take an apprenticeship. But on £3.70-an-hour-exploitation-wages, you can’t expect to be rolling in cash. With no support at all from the Council, bus fares can make a big dent. A standard annual pass from First Kernow costs £950, and that’s just if you’re lucky enough to live on a bus route.

If apprenticeships don’t appeal to you, but you also don’t want to do A-levels, a vocational course is your next port of call. In Cornwall, that means one of the big FE Colleges. But again, how are you supposed to get there? The vast majority of college students take the bus, with travel times regularly up to two hours. Faced with unreliable services, long journey times and a £400-£500 bus pass, the nearest FE College can feel a million miles away. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a bus stop in your village.

Whatever you decide to do post-16, transport costs are increasingly a consideration. Sixth forms in Cornwall are closing, meaning more students travelling further from home. In this context, we can’t rely on councils to provide transport for students. Cornwall Council recently announced that it’s looking to increase the cost of travel passes from £398 to as high as £600. As you’d expect, this was met by resistance from students and parents. The Council was quick to point out that their counterparts in Devon were already far less generous, with a travel pass costing around £530. This year, Devon scrapped its travel pass scheme entirely, with parents and young people expected to make their own arrangements.

This is a massive hole in education policy. Once you reach 16, you are pushed over a cliff, forced to stay in education but with no support to get there. Some bursaries exist and some schools offer extra support but this safety net is patchy. The government shifts the responsibility on to councils and in turn, councils leave it to schools. With no funding made available and no statutory requirements, transport subsidies for 16-18 year olds are top of the list of council cuts. Young people from poorer backgrounds, from the most isolated communities and studying vocational courses – already the groups most likely to struggle in education – are made to take the strain.

North Cornwall has the second highest average travel distance for 16-18 year olds in the country at around 23 miles, but the problem is by no means unique. Research carried out by the Association of Colleges found that over half of FE students cannot always afford their travel costs. 

As for me, I loved my time at college. I studied subjects that weren’t available at sixth form and went on to study them at university. As much as I complained about the bus journey every day, I was blessed to have a bus stop near home and parents who could afford the bus pass. If it weren’t for that, I can say for certain I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Labour’s plan to give under-25s free bus travel would be life-changing. At 16, our choice of education shouldn’t be dictated by transport costs. Free bus travel would tackle educational inequality and transform rural communities. Free travel would mean more young people using buses, leading to better services and coverage, connecting the most isolated rural communities. It would take cars off the road, helping to tackle climate change, and create a generation of public transport users.

In a Britain of spiralling living costs, insecure employment and massive inequalities, free bus travel is the sort of radical policy that will redress the balance.

Austerity’s Impact on Oxford

Government cuts are hitting Oxford’s poorest and most vulnerable the hardest, writes Shaista Aziz, Labour candidate for Rose Hill and Iffley.

The last eight years of disastrous Conservative government and the implementation of its cruel, counter-productive, and sweeping austerity measures has had a profound and devastating impact on this country. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, in the next five years 5.2 million children in the UK are projected to be living a life of poverty.

A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. On the basis of this statistic, plus the unfolding crisis in social care and support services for the elderly, and the record numbers of rough sleepers on our streets, this is a government not fit for purpose.

Up and down the country, austerity has ripped the heart out of communities and destroyed the services so many depend on.

Over the past year our newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media have been discussing issues of rising poverty in our country. Terms such as “period poverty”, “holiday hunger”, and “JAM”, short for “Just About Managing”, have become part of everyday discourse. 

Last week, head teachers from various parts of England and Wales told the BBC that malnourished pupils with grey skin were “filling their pockets” with food from school canteens due to the lack of food at home. These are scenes straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, being played out in 2018 in Tory Britain, a land where austerity is dehumanising the most vulnerable in our society.

I’m standing as a Labour candidate in the Oxford City Council elections in Rose Hill and Iffley ward, less than four miles from the city centre and the picture postcard ‘city of dreaming spires’, in order to combat this ongoing austerity.

At the start of 2018, figures released by The End Child Poverty coalition found that 7351 children are estimated to be living in poverty in Oxford, equivalent to 26.4 per cent of the child population. Some city wards, including Rose Hill and Iffley, have poverty rates of up to a third.

If you talk to people in Rose Hill and Iffley, as I do regularly whilst out canvassing, you will hear the stories and concerns of decent, hard working people describing how they are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. These are people working long hours. Often, women are working in more than one job. These are the people known as the “working poor”, again terminology straight out of a Dickens novel.

One man I spoke to a few weeks ago described the challenges he faces: “Look at my hallway. It’s full of damp and I have these little children here. Three of them have breathing problems because of this damp. I work hard. I am at work pretty much all the time, but everything is so expensive and it’s not easy.”

Many of the people I’ve spoken to in Oxford over the past six months are earning the minimum wage and work very long hours in low paid, often unstable work. It is these conditions that are also creating uncertainty for children forced into further poverty with their families.

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, almost 70% of children in poverty live in a working household, as opposed to an unemployed one, and as demonstrated, the situation in Oxford is no different. This statistic reflects the stark way poverty has changed over the past twenty years. Work no longer pays, with poverty increasing as real wages have fallen and salaries have stagnated. Austerity has exacerbated this crisis of poverty by hitting the most vulnerable in our society the hardest. Many people are trapped on a hamster wheel; they are working harder than ever to keep the wheel turning, exhausting themselves into the ground, only to find themselves overstretched by the end of the month.

Yet the Conservative government in Westminster continues to press on with its damaging agenda. In March, it announced changes to benefits, which could cause as many as one million children to lose their free school meals. Under the new legislation, families in England on universal credit will have their income threshold for free school meals slashed to £7 400 a year. 

Sam Royston of the Children’s Society, writing in The Guardian, concluded that the total number of children impacted by the changes to the benefit system could be as high as one million, the majority from working class families.

According to Labour, the government’s net expenditure on services for children and young people has seen a real terms cut of £960m. At the same time, the Local Government Association (LGA) reports that local authorities are finding it increasingly challenging to provide support for vulnerable children and families, with stark funding gaps hanging over the head of many local authorities like the one in Oxfordshire. 

In October 2017, a survey conducted by the National Children’s Bureau showed that two-thirds of local councillors responsible for children’s services said their local authority didn’t have the means to provide universal services such as children’s centres and youth clubs. At the same time, more than four in ten reported not having enough funds to meet one or more of their statutory duties to children.

Benefit cuts, the result of an ideology that is hell-bent on attacking the most vulnerable, has massively increased demand for children’s services. The National Children’s Bureau describes it as an “unprecedented surge.”

2018 is set to become even harder for the poorest and most vulnerable children in our country and city to secure three meals a day and to have a warm, secure, and safe place to call home. This is one of the most disgraceful in an every growing list of shameful legacies this government will be judged and remembered for.

Shaista Aziz is a journalist, writer, and equalities campaigner. You can follow her campaign here: https://www.facebook.com/ShaistaLabour/

You can also find Shaista on Twitter: @Shaista Aziz

Running for City Council

Former Treasurer of OULC, Adam Ellison, explains what inspired him to become Labour candidate for Wolvercote in this May’s local elections. 

In 2017, students helped to transform politics. Labour’s ability to defy expectations in the General Election was down to a new brand of political leadership; a popular and exceptional manifesto; and, in no small part, the contribution of younger generations. Decades of political self-exile were ended as students and other young Brits hit both the streets and the ballot boxes in unforeseen numbers. Parliament was transformed and the British political landscape shifted significantly leftwards.

Earlier last year, Labour did not see the same success in local elections, with 7 councils and almost 400 councillors lost to the Tories. Labour’s position in local politics hasn’t been this weak in years. A new injection of youthful campaigners and voters, however, could reverse this ill fortune.

Local politics has never been a young person’s game. Dominated by retirees and middle-aged professionals, the contributions of young people are often eclipsed by those of older generations. In Oxford Labour, we’ve bucked the trend a few times: Councillor Dan Iley-Williamson is a DPhil student, whilst two members of OULC, Lucas Bertholdi-Saad and Louis McEvoy, ran for County Council in 2017. Despite this, the average councillor and local campaigner is still retired. It’s hard for democracy to be representative when those taking part are overwhelmingly from certain generations and certain backgrounds. Broadly, young people are left to languish in regards to local issues. Why? Because we aren’t voting and we aren’t running for election.

This year I’m bucking that trend by running for City Council in the currently Lib-Dem held ward of Wolvercote. The standard reaction I get on the doorstep is one of surprise, mild amusement or even anger that a student would dare run for the council. It’s either arrogance or a joke; I must be either trying to prove something or doing it for a lark. The reality, however, is that I’m running because we dearly need more youthful representatives in the local area. Oxford has a large population of young Brits, both students and young professionals. For the most part, they are utterly disconnected from local politics. They do not see it as something worth engaging in and, as a consequence, the council does not listen to their voices. This results in a vicious cycle of youth disengagement, something our generation can break. 

The benefits of such a break would be overwhelming both for Labour as a party and Britain as a whole. In party political terms, the wealth of untapped voters is colossal. In the general election, 68.7% of possible voters turned out, in contrast to the local elections five weeks prior where less than half that number did. If all 12 million people who voted Labour in the General Election voted in the locals, our vote share would increase six-fold. There are 5.6 million people in this country between the ages of 18 and 24, and statistically, around 3.5 million of those would vote Labour. If even half of those 3.5 million young Labour voters came to the polls in 2017, we could have overtaken the Tories. We have the capacity to absolutely dominate local politics if we try. The Labour coalition that spans communities, classes and generations can be recreated to achieve a newfound strength. Tory-dominated councils such as Oxfordshire cannot be defeated overnight, but by mobilising an untapped electoral resource we can start to chip away at their hegemony.

Secondly, engaging in local politics will benefit the country, and people of our generation. The more students and young professionals that vote, the more councils across the country listen to our voices. The more of us who run, the greater chance we have of achieving generational representation and fighting staggering housing prices and stagnant wages.

Councils are not as exciting as Westminster, that’s plain to see. There’s no sweeping foreign policy to shape, no Brexit to achieve or avoid (depending on your preference), no great industries to nationalise. What councils do, however, often has a far greater effect on our daily lives. Councils are responsible for supporting small businesses and providing job opportunities in the local area, for managing transport links and education, and deciding how and where housing is built. For decades, councils have prioritised older residents when making decisions on these issues, largely because the elderly are more likely to vote. We can put a stop to that by simply turning out. Hopefully, too, by becoming a part of local debates and winning places on local councils, we can bridge the growing gap between young and old in Britain.

A Labour PM in Number 10 is the most significant thing we can achieve, but that’s a war that might not be fought until 2019 or even 2022. This year and every year thereafter, the diligent, quiet, background men and women who shape our country will be selected. So don’t be idle when the dull elections roll around; when wheelie bins and roadworks fill more headlines than Russia or the NHS. Campaign in order to push the Tories out of their newfound dominance of English councils. Vote so we can have our collective voices truly heard by our representatives. And run so you can be part of a new generation of local politics that finally achieves a fairer, more equal society for Britain.