Catherine Howells talks to Luke Alsford about the importance of having Labour activism in Durham and discusses why students are getting rid of their Labour memberships.
Luke Alsford: Why do you think it’s important that Durham University and other universities have a Labour voice?
Catherine Howells: I think it’s very important that universities have a left-wing space within universities. There are other opportunities, such as Marxist society, but that can feel quite intense for a lot of people. I think Labour clubs and societies are a safer space and an easier way to ease yourself into that. It is a very good starting point for getting politically involved. Before I joined, I’d not really done that much in terms of actual political involvement; I just knew about my political stance. I knew I wanted to join the Labour Party, so I joined Labour Club and through that I’ve become involved in so much more, such as the housing campaign in Durham. It is a very good place in universities for left-wing students to be able to meet each other and then a lot of organizing can then come from that as well.
LA: There must be so many people who join, who are already very active in politics. How did you end up becoming chair? What causes mattered to you in becoming Chair?
CH: Last year I was Women’s Officer. Something that mattered a lot to me was that there was a divide in the gender balance in DULC [Durham University Labour Club]. It was important for me to show potential female members that there were women at the top of the club. Our secretary as well, is a woman, where as last year we were the only two women on the exec. We have had a reputation for being a bit of a blokey club – getting pints at the pub and all that – while I am a lover of that, I think some women have been a bit intimidated by us and have been reluctant to come along to things because of this expectation. I’d like to think we are trying to change that.
LA: In relation to Durham University issues, you have been really involved in the ‘cut the rent’ strikes. I have asked a lot of different people about this, and they often all have the same sort of reasons as to why they are involved. I am curious what new perspective do you think that DULC brings to the rent strikes and the issue with accommodation costs?
CH: Well, because of our broader involvement in the left-wing side of politics, it does bring an understanding that it is a deeper, more systemic issue. An issue that can’t really just be solved by saying, “Let’s just bring down some of the prices,” which obviously is something that I am trying to help bring about, but at the same time that’s not really going to solve what is at the heart of the issue. Within Labour, we are very much arguing that these problems are due to the marketisation of higher education. This is all linked to the UCU strikes, which is a shared struggle.
LA: If it is a more systemic issue, how much is Durham University itself at fault or how much are other factors at play?
CH: Probably it is a combination. I would not want to give Durham a cop-out at all! In relation to, for example, not giving high enough maintenance loans, that is a government problem. At the same time, Durham is in a position to help and is not doing all that it can and instead is largely making things worse.
LA: You have been strongly supporting the staff strikes. Why has that been so important for you? And again, are you targeting the government or Durham University more?
CH: We are mostly targeting the University, because the fight over pay is mainly Durham-specific. The slogan that “teaching conditions are learning conditions” is true. I do think that any student involvement can help to accelerate the UCU’s cause, any sort of animosity is only going to make it last longer. Lecturers are not being treated well and are having to work so many hours for so little pay. I think having a bit of empathy does make you just want to be involved and I think having a visible student presence does help.
LA: Many students are very unhappy that we are paying so much in intuition fees and then we lose out on teaching time. What would you say to that criticism?
CH: I am fairly sure that the UCU does support students asking for money back. I think that is something that we can encourage students to do as well. That does not only help out those students who feel like they’ve been missing out, but also does also help out those University staff who are striking, because that is putting some pressure on the University where it hurts them, which is their money.
LA: Does DULC or the various Labour clubs across the country have an opinion on the abolition of tuition fees, given that you are representing students?
CH: We published an open letter not too long ago about the abolition of tuition fees, calling on the Labour Party to support the abolition of tuition fees, like Keir Starmer once said that he would in his leadership pledges. After that letter there was a fair bit of debate, and there was a meeting of the Labour clubs in the country and I would say strongly that the position was in support of abolishing tuition fees. There were a few that maybe weren’t so strong on the idea, but I’d say the majority did support it and it is now the National Labour Students’s policy that that they do support the abolition of tuition fees.
LA: I would like to talk about broader political issues. Abolishing tuition fees was a very popular policy with Corbyn and he was notably very popular with students. Why do you think that Keir Starmer is not taking this approach with tuition fees? Is it part of a a wider problem Labour now has in connecting with students?
CH: I can’t say that Starmer has made any effort really whatsoever to connect with students. He said he had a commitment to ending tuition fees in his leadership campaign, and then he just went back on that. Of course, then any student would look at him after that with a sense of distrust. I cannot say that I have ever felt that he’s really made any effort whatsoever to get the support of students. A lot of the time students are not really seen as a necessary demographic to attract and especially with left-wing party, I think most of the time they can feel fairly secure in the fact that they are going to get that vote no matter what. This is not complacency that I support but I can see what they’re trying to do. I definitely think that there should be more of an effort made to try and connect to students.
LA: Do you think Starmer ditched this leadership pledge on tuition fees because in general the Labour membership, and in particular student members of Labour, are closer to Corbyn’s ideology than Starmer’s more centrist ideology. Why do you think he did mislead or change his mind?
CH: It is probably part of a wider pattern that he has gone back on a lot of those pledges now. He did what he felt he needed to do at the time to get elected and then has gone back on most of it. Starmer claims it is because things are so different now post-Covid, but I think tuition fees were bad before COVID and they’re still pretty bad afterwards! am sure students on the left are more aligned with Corbyn’s idea of politics than Starmer’s. Although in student Labour politics there is definitely a contingent of more central-leaning people.
LA: Has Keir Starmer alienated Labour supporting students in Durham? Across the country, as well, do you get a sense that left-wing university students are alienated now compared to when Corbyn was leader?
CH: I would definitely say so. A lot of our members were very involved in the general election campaign in 2019. I know a lot of people felt quite crushed by that result and in quite a deep way. A lot of people did receive a lot of abuse while canvassing. At that time, we were around 17 to 19 years old and after that loss, a lot of people became quite demoralized by it all. I know a lot of people across the country are starting to get rid of their Labour memberships. One of the biggest things, especially within DULC that is creating a lot of alienation is the treatment of trans people within the party. I know that’s making a lot of people question their place in the party. I feel complicit in supporting a Party that is not being supporting of trans people, and this is tricky one to wrestle with.
LA: I did read recently that Keir Starmer has been advised to drop his support for self-ID for trans people and in a speech recently he rode back on some of his previous commitments on trans rights. What do you think is happening with policies on trans rights in the Labour Party? Is that a defining issue for a lot of Labour members?
CH: Yes, so in that speech he said that self-ID wasn’t a popular policy and he has to look to what people want. A lot of people have then been drawing comparisons to policies towards gay people in the 1980s and how that was very unpopular, so does that mean that he wouldn’t have wanted to act then? There has been a lot with Rosie Duffield MP, who liked a tweet that claimed that trans people weren’t targeted in the Holocaust. Keir Starmer also gave that Mumsnet interview where he said that, “Oh, kids don’t know themselves. They can’t change their genders.” I think now the line there has become pretty clear, especially to a lot of trans people, that Labour is not a party that is going to help them. I’m sure it is somewhat true that Starmer is more supportive than Conservatives. He also supported the blocking of the Scottish Gender Reform Act. After that it was somewhat clear that he is not someone that’s going to exactly be a champion of trans right in government.
Featured image: Durham University Labour Club