Luke Alsford: I would like to ask about the state of university politics more broadly. The last Durham SU elections in February had a 6.9%, which is a lot lower even than last year. Why are Durham students so unengaged in such a crucial part of student politics?
Catherine Howells: I think last year was a special case of its own; I think engagement may have been up that year for probably quite obvious reasons! I think there is an issue with SU engagement, which is that most people just don’t really know what they do. That is an issue for the SU to solve and they clearly have not gone out enough and actually let people know what it is that they’re doing. They do a lot that we do not know about and I only know these things because I am so involved in the SU! Most people in Durham feel that it does no matter who is in charge of the SU, it would not make any difference to them. I do get that. Especially because we do have JCRs, a lot of people feel that the SU is not important.
LA: As you are Durham Labour, I wanted to ask about your political “opponents”, so to speak. Durham Conservatives, they were banned but they have now been reinstated. Sophie Corcoran, who is right-wing TV news commentator, was studying at Durham and she was treated with quite a bit of hostility, it is fair to say. Do you think that there is a free and open space for right-wing views to be aired at university?
CH: Sophie Corcoran did experience a lot of hostility, but she didn’t really face any concrete consequences. The reasons the Conservative Society was banned was due to issues with Nazism. They have been allowed back and they can do their thing, which as long as it is not Nazism or hate speech, then then I guess go ahead. We personally will not have any involvement with that society because of that history there and I think it’s better to be safe than sorry in that situation. There is an argument that, “Within universities right-wing voices like Sophie Corcoran would be shut down because of “woke left” students.” But there are plenty of people in seminars that I have had, that say a lot of right-wing stuff and so I do not think there is not a major issue there. Sophie Corcoran left Durham off her own accord. I do not think it was because of any lack of free speech at Durham. I do think she was treated quite badly by the Tory Society here, but that is probably it.
LA: On free speech, there was a big controversy this academic year around Durham Union inviting back Rod Liddle Well, to which the Durham SU ran their own free speech event in response. Do you believe that free speech is a problem at Durham? And if not, why not?
CH: Not really. During Union inviting Rod Liddle along, there were some people who were wanting to protest that which I thought was a somewhat futile idea. When there were the student protests during the Rod Liddle controversy, the argument was that his speech was not the right time and place and if it was at the Durham Union, then it would be a different story. This time it was at the Durham Union. It is a tricky one, because people say that the Durham Union should be allowed to invite whoever they want, but I think if someone is coming and saying harmful things then I think that does need to be looked at. I am personally not of the view that they should be able to just invite whoever they would like to come and speak. At the end of the day we have to think about the harm that is causing to the students here. If someone like Rod Liddle is coming then some students are not going to feel safe in the city they are living in. I would not say that Durham has a problem with shutting down free speech. After all that has happened I think Durham is scared of being seen that way.
LA: There is a fair amount of optimism in Labour right now; you are ahead in the opinion polls and a real chance, it seems, of being elected. How optimistic is Durham Labour Club about politics and the future?
CH: Whilst it is a good thing that the next government will most likely be a Labour one, in as much as it will no longer be this Conservative government anymore, in DULC that is probably as optimistic as people get about it at the moment. Even some of our more right-wing members I think have felt somewhat let down by this Party. There is an argument there that this potentially future Labour government is just another Tory government but with different people. I do believe that is partially true. I am not optimistic because so many policies have been dropped. In particular with selection contests happening at the moment, if you are a union backed candidate then good luck! The NEC are wanting to impose candidates, even though not too long ago Starmer said was something that should not happen. There is not a whole lot of optimism, but I hope that changes.
Featured image: Durham University Labour Club