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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2007, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
Testing the student political mood
By Lucy Wilkins
Political reporter, BBC News

Is the London School of Economics still the hotbed of student politics it was in past decades?

LSE (Photo: Nigel Stead/LSE)
About 20% of LSE's 9,000 students vote in union elections

It has not grabbed headlines for riots or sit-ins recently but the Student Union's weekly meeting certainly begins in raucous manner, the agenda covers everything from bookshelves to climate change to US government policy.

Paper missiles rain down from the theatre balcony as students aim for their union's chairman and whoever else is trying to make themselves heard on stage.

The union is unique in the UK in holding a general meeting weekly, rather than annually. On big political issues the theatre can be packed, say those who are regular attendees, known as "hacks" for their fierce interest in politics.

With the left-wingers sitting on the left, the right on the right (obviously), a swathe of empty seats dividing them and members of the athletics union upstairs with their paper arsenal, there were about 120 students ready for what one described as the highlight of his week.

Guantanamo protest

Ranged along the back wall are 13 people clad in orange jumpsuits a la Guantanamo Bay, with one camouflage-wearing "guard" ordering them to stay still - part of a wider Amnesty International campaign.

When a man in a top hat, black coat and white trousers bounds onto the stage ringing a bell to signal the start of proceedings, the "inmates" walk silently across the stage in protest at US policy.

Protesters against Guantanamo Bay
The LSE protest against Guantanamo Bay is part of a wider Amnesty campaign
So far, so theatrical.

But there are serious issues to discuss - not least the issue of the paper-throwing. It's a long-running bone of contention between those who love to throw and those who don't like being hit. Apparently damage has been caused, complaints have been made, the school is not happy.

The chairman warns those sitting above him that any person who chucks one today will be ejected, and if 10 missiles are thrown, well, that's it, the meeting is all over.

One is thrown. And a second. The culprit eventually departs from the lecture hall, and the meeting proper gets under way.

Veils and cross

Motions to pass include a call for more bookshelves in residences, keeping Wednesday afternoons free for sporting activities, and scowling at "lazy library louts" who use the single working lift to travel only one floor when "climbing stairs is good for one's arse".

Members also swiftly pass a more topical motion asking "to protect the freedom of expression for all wishing to display religious symbols." This follows remarks from Blackburn MP Jack Straw last year about the Muslim veil and a row at British Airways about a staff member wearing a cross.

In practical terms it's a bit of a farce, but in principle it is a form of direct democracy
James Caspell
LSE student

Even more topically, one student gives an impassioned argument for supporting the "contraction and convergence" model of carbon emission trading.

The first mention of party politics comes when he says UKIP and New Labour are the only two UK parties not to support such a scheme.

So long is his speech, including a couple of questions about the cost of his orange jumpsuit and whether it is carbon neutral, that the audience starts shouting out "time, time" to get him to stop.

His motion is passed by a two-thirds majority.

Motion 5 of the day takes the most time of the meeting, with four speakers stepping up to the microphone.

Peter Sutherland
Some students said Peter Sutherland's appointment was not 'for the betterment of society'

It calls for the union to oppose the appointment of BP chairman Peter Sutherland as chairman of the LSE council on the grounds that "BP's actions under Peter Sutherland's leadership are not in accordance with the LSE's founding principles; the betterment of society [and] that it is a disgrace that the LSE did not see it to give its students a say in who should lead it."

The motion - at this January Student Union meeting which predated BP chief executive Lord Brown's resignation - highlights the Prudhoe Bay oil spill and the Texas Refinery explosion and calls for a referendum to be held among students, staff and academics on his appointment. Mr Sutherland is due to take up his chairmanship on 1 January, 2008.

A supporter of the motion says: "Right now we're not being listened to. This is about democracy, it's not about Sutherland."

He becomes even angrier when a student suggests a referendum should not be held because students just don't care.

1960s riots

The vote is close but fails, much to the vocal frustration of one of its supporters.

One can't imagine that Cabinet decisions involve as much noise, mockery and passion - or paper missiles.

First-year student Elle Dodd, a 19-year-old economics and government student, said she knew some people found the whole union meeting experience "daunting", but generally those who were involved were "passionate about issues".

LSE students protesting in 1969
Student protests were common during the 1960s

The student union has a tumultuous history, dating back to the 1960s. Demonstrations, sit-ins and hunger strikes were held in 1967 in protest at the appointment of Walter Adams as LSE director. When security gates were installed in 1969 inside the school, the students went on the rampage, pulling them down.

Passions still run high, but on a much diminished level. A previous meeting involving a motion to twin the union with a Palestinian university drew a crowded house and caused a verbal fracas outside the meeting.

Yet despite that passion, active union members are a minority among the LSE's 9,000 students, with 20% turnout when it comes to union elections.

With half the student population being international students, perhaps many are simply not interested in school politics or have simply chosen not to vote.

Green strength

Among the political parties on campus, the Greens are the most popular with 230 members. This is followed by the Conservatives with 200, Labour with just over 100 and less for the Liberal Democrats.

Green member James Caspell says the union general meeting may seem "in practical terms a bit of a farce, but in principle it is a form of direct democracy."

"It's important in this day and age that when we are paying for education, we have some say in the way the school is run."

The Green Party formed a society three years ago on campus and it's main attraction for James is its opposition to tuition fees.

And the paper-throwing student who was ejected at the start of the meeting need not have bothered. At the end of the meeting on the stage is a sizeable pile of paper missiles, being tidily collected by members of the Green Party for recycling.


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