May 03, 2007

NUS: Students have a right and responsibility to vote

In the run-up to the elections held across the UK tomorrow, I have been campaigning on the street and on the doorstep to ensure that the votes of students are heard at the polls, says Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students.

Young people and students have a major part to play in these local elections, in spite of those who would curtail their democratic rights.

We heard comments this week from a Liverpool councillor who suggested that students, because they only spend "a bit of time" in Liverpool, should not be allowed a vote in the local elections.

Students walk along the same streets, use the same public transport, and suffer the same exposure to crime as other local people. Many students live and work in the vicinity of their university, and are involved in their local communities through voluntary work and activism. Surely they, just as much as any other resident, are entitled to a say in their local area?

At a time when we should be engaging students in the political process rather than seeking to exclude them, these comments set an awful example. Local politicians' time would surely be better spent urging students to oppose the British National Party's electoral campaign in Liverpool.

The BNP are fielding 750 candidates across the Scottish parliamentary elections, Welsh assembly, English and Scottish local elections. The BNP already hold 49 local council seats in England, and its share of the vote has increased more than 75-fold in the last six years.

This party's past successes have depended on voter apathy, perceived failures in improving local services, poverty, social housing and unemployment. Yet history shows how dangerous it is to underestimate the ability of far-right candidates to prey upon these fears and to blame genuine concerns on immigration and race.

Last week, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Holocaust Education Trust. Just 60 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camps, we risk forgetting the lessons learnt so painfully by so many.

Compared with the scale of that horror it is important to keep a sense of perspective about our local elections, and yet fascism in the 1930s began with small steps.

This week, students along with many other people in the UK will have the chance to make a difference in the local elections and to oppose the extreme right. We can, and we must, use our democratic voice to stop the BNP from poisoning our society.


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