Students plan summer of defiance in push for ‘people’s vote’ on Brexit

A nationwide campaign for a vote on the final deal is being organised on campuses

It is exam season at the University of Kent and students are longing for the academic year to be over. Many are flitting between revision and the exam halls on their 1960s campus. Others are sprawled on the lawns, poring over laptops and books, with Canterbury cathedral visible in the distance.

These are anxious times for this generation of students. Many fear that, however well they may do academically, life after university will be much more difficult for them than it was for their parents. They worry about the burden of debt after graduation, house prices that seem impossibly high and beyond their reach, and fierce competition for decent jobs.

On this campus, though, there is one over-arching concern about their futures that sharpens the sense of generational unfairness: Brexit.

The University of Kent calls itself “the UK’s European university”. It has huge numbers of European students and lecturers and boasts its own outposts or “study centres” in Athens, Brussels, Rome and Paris. It is fiercely proud of its European links. The 28 flags of the EU nations fly above its buildings.

The president of the Kent students’ union, Ruth Wilkinson, describes a mood of increasing defiance over the Brexit issue. The student body here has a reputation for packing a big political punch, and she knows its power: at last June’s general election a large student vote for Jeremy Corbyn delivered the first ever Labour MP in previously staunchly Tory Canterbury. It was one of the political sensations of a tumultuous election night. Now she wants to have an even bigger impact – by helping to stop Brexit.

“The thing is that young people voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and it is our future,” says Wilkinson. “We are the people who are going to live with the consequences of this for the rest of our lives – and our children – and this is why we’re so passionate about it. This is going to massively damage our futures.”

Once exams are over, politicians from all parties will begin to feel the full force of young people’s Brexit anger, she says. The protests will be far bigger and better organised than the outcry over student fees after the Tory-Lib Dem coalition came to power in 2010. “This is a case of ‘we’re not taking this’. We’re not just going to be standing shouting in the streets, we’re going to be influencing in every possible way we can.

“Students stereotypically protest – and we’re going to do that. On top of that we’re going to lobby our MPs to influence them. We’re going to be influencing through these open letters, we’re going to be networking with every possible person we can, to make sure we get a people’s vote on the Brexit deal. This is the biggest issue affecting my generation, for generations.”

Sam Mortimer is a first-year physics student at Kent who is also critical of both the Tory government’s handling of Brexit and the Labour opposition’s failure to articulate a clearer line against it. “I voted Remain for a lot of reasons,” he says. “We’re economically and diplomatically stronger in Europe, and we’ve left the EU for exactly the wrong reasons. It’s been very anti-immigrant and xenophobic. I don’t trust the current government to deliver what they said.

“To have an opinion of Labour’s Brexit policy, you’ve got to know what it is – which nobody really does. Corbyn needs to make up his mind on what Labour stands for. He’s been allowed to get away with being vague. I’d be a lot happier if Labour opposed Brexit.”

Kent University’s student union is one of 60 across the UK – representing 980,000 young people in colleges and universities – who by Saturday night had signed a letter to be sent to their local MPs calling for a “people’s vote” (a second referendum) on the eventual Brexit deal that Theresa May brings back from Brussels. The organisers say some student unions were reluctant to sign, out of respect for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – who opposes another referendum – but most did so enthusiastically.

The letter and signatories have been coordinated by the campaign group For our Future’s Sake (irreverently known as FFS for short). It was only launched a few weeks ago but is already making waves in universities and colleges, providing a vehicle through which students and student groups can articulate and coordinate their anti-Brexit protests.

Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson, the group’s co-director, said it was there for young people “who have passed the point of frustration with the government’s complete lack of progress or success with the Brexit negotiations, and the Labour party’s inability to oppose them. Brexit is the biggest threat facing future generations, and we believe that a people’s vote on the terms of the deal will show that this is not the future that young people want. The youth are revolting.”

Amatey Doku, a vice-president of the National Union of Students, said 120 elected officers of student unions across the country had signed up. “When so many elected officers, representing nearly a million young people, call for something with one clear voice they need to be listened to. Students and young people overwhelmingly voted Remain and cannot see how the government can deliver a Brexit deal that works for them. As an elected representative of 600 student unions, the NUS is calling for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal.”

Among the bigger universities whose unions have signed the letter to parliamentarians are Birmingham, Durham, Cambridge, Swansea, Leeds Beckett, Lancaster, St Andrew’s, Liverpool John Moores and Westminster.

The letter says that there are now a massive number of young people (estimated to total 1.4 million) who were too young to vote in the referendum, but who have since become eligible to do so, and that they deserve a say. So, too, do the millions who feel they were misled during the campaign.

“When the European Union referendum happened, and a slim majority of the voting public voted to leave, we accepted this,” the letter says. “We believe there were legitimate grievances that led to a Leave vote, both economic and social. However, the world is now a different place, both economically and socially. Promises made during the campaign have not been kept.” It adds: “Because of all of this we call on our elected leaders to deliver on a people’s vote on the Brexit deal so that young people can once and for all have a say on their futures.”

The political impact of a well-organised revolt by young people on Brexit could be pivotal over the coming months. If MPs in marginal seats with large or significant numbers of students hear growing calls for a people’s vote, they will ignore them at their peril.

Young people have already shown they are politically more engaged on the subject of the UK’s future relations with the EU than they have been with normal domestic politics. At the 2016 EU referendum, those aged 18-24 voted in far greater numbers than in previous general elections. The LSE put the turnout in this group at 64%, close to double the normal level of participation. Some 71% of 18 to 24-year-olds and 62% of 25 to 39-year-olds voted for the UK to remain in the EU.

Melantha Chittenden, national chair of the Labour students group in the Labour party, said pressure was growing on the party leadership to be more robust in fighting Tory plans for a hard Brexit. She suggested Corbyn should back a people’s vote on the final deal. “Students want the Labour party’s policy to reflect their views and that means having a proper debate and vote on Brexit at the Labour party conference this year.

“It’s wrong to think students only care about student-specific issues like Erasmus [the exchange programme]. They care passionately about staying in the customs union and retaining freedom of movement, they understand the rights and protections that the EU affords us all and will do anything to defend that. That’s why young people voted to remain and it’s why we should get a say on the terms of the final deal.”

Back on the campus at Kent, union president Wilkinson sounded a word of warning to the Labour leader, suggesting that his Euroscepticism might lose him support among the same student voters that backed him so decisively a year ago, unless he listens to their views.

“Young people are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, so my word of warning to the Labour party would be to not take that opinion lightly and make sure students’ views are heard. Young people are a massive part of the electorate and they’re the future voters as well, so the party absolutely needs to take that into consideration when they make their choices.”


Toby Helm and Mason Boycott-Owen

The GuardianTramp

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