New Labour is Naff Labour say the students in suits

Campuses/ politics palls
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE afternoon last week, in Reading University Students' Union, young men formed a slouching queue for haircuts. A barber, Mario Genna, had set up stall in a wide landing - he had a bit of mirror, a wooden chair and a large plastic sheet covered in cut hair. These makeshift circumstances had something Third World, or US military about them. Everyone looked the same.

There was a time when a student's haircut would have broadcast crude coded information about political orientation. Now the code is more complicated, a matter of subtle distinctions between short and very short, flattened and not flattened. It's not easy to decipher between a Portillo Tory-crop, a squatter-crop and a nerd-crop.

So, on Reading's redbrick campus last week, it was hard to know which, if any, of these young men would want to help with a question about Tony Blair. Which would be best qualified to speak of Mr Blair's appeal am- ong students, and to reveal - at a time when New Labour is schmoozing, with great dazzle, in every middle-English living-room - whether there are enough middle-English sons and daughters to put energy and emotion into New Labour, the kind of student energy that is alleged to have won Harold Wilson the 1964 General Election.

Going down the queue, Robert Fawell, studying Physical Geography, said he thought Mr Blair is "probably a better chap than John Major"; Fawell was looking for "a bit of a trim all over". David Winston, a lab technician, "quite liked Neil Kinnock" and was to have his hair "all shaved off"; Alex Keith, reading American Studies, and going for "short", said Mr Blair was "weak, wishy-washy"; Brian Pearson, studing Agricultual Economics, was going for "an inch off all round", and was "not too interested in politics".

A young woman student was drinking beer downstairs in the Students' Union bar. She said Mr Blair was "an arrogant git" and Mr Major "a wet pillock". She is studying politics, but said she wasn't much taken by politics.

This is the temperature of ordinary student political debate, and it always has been. There was never a period when articulate, engaged, students were not maddened by the hopeless lack of committment of their colleagues. Besides, Reading University is famously unexcited by politics. But it is interesting to see how little of the much-vaunted Blair factor seems to have penetrated ordinary student life.

Nationally, Labour students claim they have experienced a surge of interest since Mr Blair became leader. Rebecca Gray, National Secretary of Labour Students, says that membership of university Labour Clubs has increased by 15-20 per cent since last summer, and now stands at around 6,000. And Gray, although now a graduate, has the kind of student passion for which the leadership must be grateful and which was lacking in the queue for a haircut. (She was the first to speak after Mr Blair at the Clause IV special conference two weeks ago, taking up his "radicalism" and claiming: "I know what I want and I want it now," to sniggers.)

Gray says that Mr Blair is talking to "young people" not by taking "young issues" on to his agenda, but by talking about the big themes of employment, regeneration and community and - above all - by raising the freakish, thrilling prospect of government. "When I hear him speak, I do generally feel he touches something. It's not just empy rhetoric," she says.

In Reading, those big themes seem not to have made their presence felt. Students feel let down on more immediate issues such as grants and the Criminal Justice Act.

In the offices of Reading's handsome student newspaper, Spark, a third- year student, David Kelly, talks of his recent political disappointment: he has lived most of his life under a government he distrusted, but always made the assumption that it was this Conservative government that was the problem, rather than government itself.

"We were always in the position of trying to divide 15 years of government from 15 years of Tory government, and trying to work out which was the bad bit. And then, with the Criminal Justice Act, the Labour Party didn't stand up for us, when we thought they would, and I thought oh, perhaps it's goverment we have a problem with. This was an important moment for me personally and a lot of people I know. I woke up. I will still vote Labour because it is the only choice, but I have no faith."

However, one student at Reading does have faith, and his name is Keith Chipping. There is no Labour Club at the university, but Chipping is trying to set one up. In order to meet Student Union requirements, he needs 30 names and subscriptions, and he has 22, a third of whom, he thinks, are New Labour converts - "including myself". Chipping only joined the party last autumn, and speaks of it with intelligence, but he is fired more by constitutional reform - and by the prospect of pluralistic politics - than anything more personal.

If this is Labour's campus revival, it is less than evangelical. "I'm not into the Blairite cult," says Chipping, though he recognises that there are those who "like a strong leader who stands up and fights, and one who isn't... Welsh". In his bag, Chipping has sheets of Blair stickers, supplied by Labour HQ. He's yet to use one, more out of embarrassment than anything else.

And this is part of the problem. The sheer success of Mr Blair seems to work against him in his dealings with students, who would like to think themselves immune to smart marketing. Blair tends to be regarded as naff - even Rebecca Gray recognises the problem - and it is the naffness of commercial success.

At the University of Sussex, always more radical than Reading, students have an ideological problem with Blair, but fashion plays its part.

Joe Blair, reading contemporary history, is in the 100-strong Labour Club, and supports his namesake. In the face of charges of naffness: "There is that kind of attitude, if you come out in favour of Blair. But if you're a Labour student you're used to that from the more left-wing organisations, anyway, like the Socialist Workers Party. It's just a matter of degree."

Joe Blair is a Tony Blair supporter - "It's a mixture of pragmatism and identity with some of the things he says," - but many of his colleagues in the Labour Club at Sussex are less convinced. They are to the left of Blair, they supported retaining the old Clause IV, and they suspect that Blair will not galvanise the young without radical policies like a £4 minimum wage and a committment to scrapping NHS Trusts.

There is some grudging respect for Mr Blair's big ideas of community, rights and duties, but there is much talk of an eventual, and welcome, split into two parties if a Labour government is not up to scratch.

Sitting in weak sun on Sussex's Sixties campus, Lewis Richards, co- chair of the Labour Club, opens a letter from Noam Chomsky, who regrets he will not be able to talk to the group, and signs off - "I hope you manage to get somewhere. It's desperately needed."

In the East Slope Bar, three first-year women students sit in the window and complain about the "safety" in national politics, but are not sure what kind of policy excitement they want. They would vote Labour, but say that "politics is not cool at the minute on campus, and that includes Tony Blair and the Labour Club". Around them, there are posters for different kinds of clubs - "Love Shack" at Paradox, and Lowride ("Kicking Two Floors of Jazz, Funk, Hip-hop and Beats").Chairs are arranged for the evening's satellite football.