In the Spring of 2015, I was galvanised, along with so many other young Americans, by the straight-talking, left-wing politics of Bernie Sanders. I started searching to see if there were other activists in my conservative hometown. Within hours, I had been warmly welcomed into a group of like-minded activists who were already planning the grassroots campaign to get Bernie Sanders elected in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was nervous, while I’d worked on two Democratic campaigns before, never had I been involved in a grassroots campaign and never had I been involved in one that openly called itself socialist. But my anxiety was assuaged by the warm, friendly welcome I received, and people I’d never met in my life quickly became close comrades and mentors.
The warm welcome did more than just make me feel at home, it empowered me in ways I hadn’t realised before. My comrades in the grassroots Bernie campaign encouraged me to take up activism outside of purely electoral politics. I started doing work in education activism, and with plenty of encouragement and support I started the #SaveFCPS campaign, which pushed back against the School Board and Board of Supervisors on the cuts they were making to employee salaries in Fairfax County Public Schools. In many ways, the confidence I had to do those things wouldn’t have existed had it not been for the accessibility and friendliness of the folks organising Bernie’s grassroots campaign.
I remember the exact moment when the breaking news notification flashed across my screen, “Jeremy Corbyn Elected Leader of the Labour Party.” I knew little about British politics then, but a wave of excitement rolled over me because I knew what this meant. The Left had won something. “Is Jeremy Corbyn any good? Why do you care?” my mom asked me, clearly confused by my elation. “If Corbyn can win this, Bernie can win the primary,” I said, with all the naive joy of someone who had yet to go against the liberal establishment.
Bernie did not win the primary, despite our best efforts, and Jeremy Corbyn has yet to become Prime Minister, but the impacts of their candidacies rippled through more than just my political life. I chose to apply to university only in the United Kingdom. I’d lived in London seven years prior, and the UK had always felt more like home to me than the US ever had. But beyond wanting to chase nostalgia, I knew I wanted to organise in a place where the left could win. Jeremy Corbyn was talking the kind of politics I desperately wanted to pursue. Though I’d joined the Democratic Socialists of America, there was something fascinating to me about the Labour Party and the way the British political system worked. I wanted to come to the UK and join the Labour Party because I knew it meant I could make material changes to people’s lives, to directly help them in ways I had no dream of doing in the States.
In August of 2016, I rocked up to London, acceptance letter to the University of Edinburgh in hand, with a million and one plans for my political life in the UK. A friend from Twitter hooked me up with someone in the Labour Party who sealed the deal for me on getting involved. We chatted excitedly about all that the left could do, all that the Labour Party could be, and I felt a ten ton weight lift off my shoulders, I could finally be useful here. I could finally change people’s lives. I could make the world a better place here. But when I told my friend what university I was going to, the happy tone of the conversation shattered. “Be careful up there, they hate the left and will be quick to backstab you,” he told me. I shook it off, I’d come of age politically in a small conservative town where I’d been ostracized for having political positions to the left of wanting to drone strike the Chicago teachers’ strike, so nothing scared me anymore. I thought I was tough enough to handle whatever was coming my way.
The very first society I joined at Edinburgh University was Edinburgh Labour Students. I didn’t have to think twice about throwing money at them, I wanted to get involved, I wanted to do the right thing. Once again through Twitter (a website that has changed my life in enough ways to be embarrassing), I was connected to some lefties in Scotland. Like my comrades in the Bernie movement a year previously, they welcomed me with open arms, explaining the intricacies of UK politics to me without being patronising. They invited me out for drinks, and gave me solidarity, something I needed desperately after moving 4,000 miles away from home and with my dad deployed to Iraq.
I went to my first ELS event, Women in Red, feeling excited. It was a discussion with an MSP, Monica Lennon, and the leader of the 50/50 campaign, and it seemed like the perfect moment to start introducing myself to the women of ELS. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I walked into the room and felt immediately as though I had walked into the home team’s locker room while wearing the away team’s jersey. No one made an effort to welcome me, no one made an effort to find out who I was. Instead, the discussion became a diatribe against “brocialism” and in favour of supporting Tory women. When I asked why it was that a Labour Students group should concern itself with making sure Tory women got elected, I was treated as though I were a bad feminist.
It only got worse from there. One of the first meetings I went to was a speed debating session which, despite the wholly depoliticised debate topics, ended with me having to argue that defending Augusto Pinochet was not actually a sensible position for the Labour Party to take and that the Iraq War was actually a really bad thing. Later, I heard a member of the committee whispering about me, and all I could think of was how very far from home I was.
When it came time to elect a first year representative for the committee, a left wing non-binary person was elected. I breathed a sigh of relief, maybe there was space for me in ELS.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first year representative was kicked off the committee after a dramatic backroom committee meeting that in many ways seemed more like targeted bullying that disciplinary proceedings. She was kicked off the committee for having flyered for an event by the Socialist Students Society (which later turned out to be a front for a minor Trotskyist Party – but who knew?) The ELS committee eschewed its own constitution in its mad dash to expel her, and after Labour Students ignored it, they drafted in the Scottish General Secretary to cover their tracks. As I watched them tear down a woman on the left and then undemocratically (and unconstitutionally) appoint someone favourable to their clique, one thing was eminently clear to me: left wing women are not welcome at Edinburgh Labour Students.
When I made jokes with friends on social media about the stereotypical way in which the right wing of the Labour Party behaved, a member of the ELS committee sprung forth from the peanut gallery, demanding I take responsibility for the actions of a man. I can’t imagine the furor and outrage I would have faced had I done the same thing to a woman within the ELS clique.
I stopped attending ELS meetings. I stopped seeing a point in them. The ELS committee seemed as wholly committed to not doing any political activism as they were to making sure no one outside their clique was welcome in the society. I’ve been told numbers are dwindling at meetings, and that only members of the clique show up anymore. I can’t confirm this, because I’ve often found myself too scared and too anxious to show up to meetings. I’ve stopped finding it fun to walk into an openly hostile environment for one to three hours every Thursday.
I’ll admit that I didn’t want to run for the ELS committee. I’m throwing myself back into a hostile situation, and I know it means that the night before the AGM I will be wracked with anxiety and the night of the AGM, regardless of the outcome, I will be wracked by tears. I’ve been told that members of the ELS committee intend to ask pointed questions about my social media presence, and to question my politics using thinly veiled references to my boyfriend, a member of the SNP. I know that they will be unkind in the room, and that the safe space protections that exist to protect those not in power will be weaponised to protect those in power.
I didn’t want to run for ELS committee, but I’m doing it. I don’t want another round of first years (or second years, or third years…) to face the hostility I did. I want the do-gooders, the world-changers, the dreamers, the fighters, and the doers to find their place in ELS. I want ELS to be a hub of education and activism, I want it to be a place where new activists find their voice and returning ones find their niche. I’m running for chair of ELS because I’m sick of depoliticised political groups, I’m sick of shady backroom deals, and I’m sick of cliques. I’m running for chair of ELS because when the next young girl comes along to Edinburgh University believing she can change the world, I want her to find a home in Edinburgh Labour Students.