Thousands of students have flocked to Respect meetings in recent weeks. These represent the largest campus meetings hosted by a political party for decades — and are a sure sign of the growing radicalism among students.
An incredible 600 people came to hear Respect MP George Galloway speak at Leeds University on Monday of last week. Earlier the same day 400 people came to a Respect meeting at Sheffield University.
Appearing alongside Galloway has been Claudia Lo Presti, an Italian student from Rome, giving a first hand account of the demonstrations and occupations sweeping Italy’s universities.
Last week I went to Rome to reciprocate Claudia’s visit and speak to Italian students.
Young people across England and Wales are crying out for serious political representation — and Respect is the organisation they’re turning to.
Many of those coming to these meetings have been involved in the anti-war movement. But until now, they haven’t had anywhere to come together to build a new kind of democracy and politics. Respect is now changing the atmosphere on campus.
The Leeds University meeting was chaired by Hind Hassan, communications officer for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
“It was fantastic to see queues of people going into the meeting,” she said. “People had been coming up to me for days beforehand to talk about the meeting.
“A few people, mainly Zionists, turned up to heckle George Galloway. They realise that we are a threat to them and that we’re getting somewhere. They are very worried.
“The war against Iraq is still an important issue on campus, no matter how much the government tries to distract us from it. Students feel they were ridiculed by the government and they are now voting with their feet.”
The Leeds meeting attracted so many people that 80 had to be turned away at the door, says Hanif Leylabi, Respect events officer at Leeds University.
“This success comes after months of Respect activity at Leeds,” he adds. “At the freshers’ fair we signed up over 100 people to Respect. We’ve been out flyering for up to six hours a day.
“There’s been a radical atmosphere on campus for the last few days after the huge Unite Against Fascism mobilisation against the BNP on 2 November, which Respect was involved in.
“People really like the idea that there’s an organisation that is standing up for students, pensioners and workers.
“We are now sending delegates to this weekend’s Respect conference and hopefully to the International Peace Conference on 10 December.”
George Buckfield is a Respect member at Sheffield University who helped organise a 400-strong Respect meeting there. “George Galloway was an hour late because he got caught in traffic, but nobody left,” he said.
“Every time he spoke he got significant applause. One woman spoke from the floor about how New Labour has betrayed her and her working class family.
“We have been publicising the meeting since the freshers’ fair. But it really took off when we got people who’d signed up to Respect involved in leafleting and making announcements about the meeting in their lectures.
“Respect has been campaigning hard on campus. We took a lot of people over to Leeds for the Unite Against Fascism protest.
“We’re starting up a campaign over climate change for the 3 December demonstration. And we also want to have a general meeting of the university about the International Peace Conference.”
Students aren’t just turning out in large numbers for the meetings with big name speakers such as George Galloway.
Around 70 students came to a meeting on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X at the London College of Communications on Thursday of last week.
And at Exeter University, following a 450-strong Galloway meeting, Respect attracted over 50 students to a meeting on tackling climate change.
Respect student groups have also been mobilising for the National Union of Students day of action over climate change which was scheduled for Thursday of this week.
Student groups have to make sure there is a Respect presence on every campus by holding weekly meetings and activities. We’re in an ideal position to win over thousands of young people who want to challenge this warmongering right wing government.
Suzie Wylie is a member of the National Union of Students’ national executive. She writes here in a personal capacity. For more on Respect’s student work go to www.respectcoalition.org