A final interview with President Laura Clayson

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It has fast become an annual tradition for SCAN to interview the outgoing LUSU President for the last issue of term, as a means of providing an account from the President’s perspective on the past year. The imperative to interview President Laura Clayson, however, came less from any stilted view of tradition and more from a compulsion to understand her point of view. Clayson, only the sixth ever woman to hold the position of President, is very different to many previous Presidents, particularly in terms of political background and prior experience in LUSU. She is also one of the most open and honest – at both the end of Michaelmas Term and in the last issue of SCAN, Clayson offered a brutally candid reflection of her time in office, eschewing any self-promotion in favour of a critical evaluation of her work.

This willingness to speak openly and honestly was evident when SCAN caught up with Clayson on a Monday morning in Summer Term. Asked whether the past year had been a good one, Clayson replied: “It’s been a very educational year. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about other people, about how massive bureaucratic institutions work. I’m not going to say it’s been an easy year because that would be a massive lie. It’s been one of the hardest years of my life, but I’ve really, really enjoyed it, predominantly. I’d say I’ve enjoyed it 70% of the time, and there’s been around 30% of the time when I’ve thought ‘why the hell am I doing this?’”

30% of a year seemed to SCAN like a considerable amount of time to be unhappy with your job, but we decided to focus on  the 70% for the time being. Asked what her greatest achievement was this year, Clayson responded: “The occupation that took place at University House was very reflective of the fact that students had been pushed to the point where they were just not going to stand for it anymore, when they actually took direct action. I am proud to have been part of a Full Time Officer team that has supported students taking direct action in a way that hasn’t happened at Lancaster for over a decade. I spoke about this specific example because I am proud that we have achieved what I believe the nature of a Students’ Union should be: political and supporting our students as activists in a diverse range of way.”

Clayson credits the occupation of University House (a result of the rise in tuition fee and rent increases at the end of Michaelmas Term) with two things: reopening dialogue between LUSU and the University on the matter, and showing that students can challenge the decisions taken by University management. “[The occupation] has been really useful because it shows that there is more you can do – once a decision has been made, there’s still the ability to challenge it. I think that a lot of the time, students would like to challenge it but they think ‘oh, but if I do this, it’s not going to make that much of a difference.’ Whereas the occupation did. We’d got to a point in talks where they [the University] just weren’t listening and once that is reached sometimes more radical action is necessary.”

SCAN met Clayson in her office, which is upstairs in the LUSU building in Bowland College. The small room is cluttered, but in a welcoming and homely way: posters line the walls, and books and paper can be found on all of the various tables and desks. A small shrine to tidiness can be found in the form of several large, well-organised folders in one corner of the room. During the interview Clayson drinks a mug of strong black tea and eats her breakfast, which she brings with her to campus every morning. Clayson is a very busy person: when she is not attending University meetings, she is reading or writing agenda papers for future meetings. “There have been days when I’ve been in work, but just not set foot in the Union building because I’ve had other stuff going on,” she told SCAN. “Every day for a Full-Time Officer is different, but the President has the least freedom from their meeting schedule. It is frustrating. But you have to look at it in a different way: there are some universities which don’t even have student representation on  their main bodies, let alone the smaller ones.”

Throughout the interview SCAN got the feeling that, at times, Clayson has felt constrained by the demands of being President. An unashamedly radical thinker with a background in activism, Clayson’s temperament is perhaps not one which is easily compatible with the role of Union President, particularly from the University’s perspective. “I started out being a bit unsure about how best to place myself because I was really aware that I was no longer just a student activist,” Clayson said. “I had to take on that kind of responsibility of making the right decisions, not just for my politics or directly about the people who elected me to represent them; it’s about thinking of the Union as a whole.

“It has been hard, and not all of the people who have had their penny’s worth have agreed with the way we’ve done things this year, but I think as a students’ union we’re there to represent our student members and do that in a way that gets results. I think this year has been a year of good results.”

Clayson also suggested that being a student activist and being LUSU President are not necessarily mutually exclusive. “They are very much part of the same thing,” she said. “You just have to use a diversity of tactics in this position; it’s not all about protesting and occupying.”

SCAN was keen to learn more about Clayson’s background in student activism. Given recent news stories, it could be presumed that Clayson is a long-time veteran in the area. However, perhaps appropriately or ironically, it was in fact her time at Lancaster University which led her to the activist community. “When I came to university, I didn’t really think I would stay.  I had two years out and then they were upping the fees so I thought I should really go now or I’m never going to go,” Clayson said. “I got a place here, and I thought well I’ll just go for a bit, I probably won’t like it. I got here and all of first year it was a bit like that: I would write essays and think, this might be my last essay so it doesn’t really matter how it goes.

“But I ended up sticking around and when I got to second year, that’s when I found my group of friends who helped shape me into who I am now. I met them through the Anti-Capitalists Society (LUAC),” Clayson told SCAN. “Then once that happened, everything seemed to click into place and I felt like I was where I was supposed to be. That was really, really, really good because otherwise I think I would have had to leave. Before [joining LUAC] I just felt like I was on my own – I didn’t really feel like there was anyone here who thought the same things as me.”

Once Clayson had joined LUAC, it was only a matter of time before she became involved in their campaigns and protests. The first campaign she was involved in was attempting to prevent the government from using the Lake District as a repository for nuclear waste. “We got a train along to Windermere and joined the community there, where we protested and then brought the campaign back to campus and collected signatures for a petition,” Clayson said. “We were out in the snow all week.” Following that campaign, the local council decided against storing nuclear waste in the Lake District.

“Organising in a community and coming together in a collective way – it’s that that makes me enjoy activism so much, because I’m very much a people person and it just makes me feel really alive and empowered,” Clayson said, before adding, “that sounds really cheesy, but I don’t care. Activism is definitely part of who I am. Without it, I wouldn’t have stayed at university.”

Clayson’s activism was also indirectly responsible for her decision to run for LUSU President in the first place. Her decision to run “came out of a LUAC meeting. We were sat there talking about rents on campus, and we were so sure that [then-LUSU President] Joel Pullan committed to do stuff about rent in his hustings speech. Adam [Henshall, a Presidential candidate who had run against Pullan the previous year and a good friend and political soulmate of Clayson’s] sent me the hustings video from when him and Joel were running, and I remember sitting there on a really hungover day with a group of my friends finding that he [Pullan] did commit to combating rents (when I met Joel I did find out that he was in discussions with the University about this, it just hadn’t been something we were aware of as it was happening very much at the top level). Then I ended up watching Henshall’s hust, and because of this something happened in my head. I thought, ‘maybe I should run for President. Maybe we could actually change things on a larger scale than what we’re doing at the moment.’

“There were loads of people who were supportive and lovely about my decision to run, but if I hadn’t watched his [Henshall’s] hust I wouldn’t have ended up doing it. Obviously, once I thought about it, I wanted to run because I did give a shit about student politics and I did want to make some change. But in the first instance that was why [I wanted to run] – because of Henshall!”

Being President was quite different to what Clayson had expected, however, if she even had enough knowledge when she ran for the position to create an informed expectation. “I didn’t know that I’d chair the trustee board. I didn’t know I’d be a trustee. I didn’t know that Lancaster University was a charity. I didn’t know that the Union was a charity. I knew nothing about the structures. I really did come from outside of LUSU. In that sense, I didn’t realise there’d be so much pressure from all the different groups that you have pressure from as a Full-Time Officer.

“And you get a lot of knockbacks, not just from the University but students as well, who say we need to work closer with the University. We have a critical but functioning relationship with the University. I actually have quite a good relationship with a lot of University management, and that’s necessary because we live in a really small, close-knit community in Lancaster.”

SCAN thought it was time to confront that 30% of the year when Clayson has not enjoyed being President. She attributes it to two things. First, the demands and monotony of the job – the meetings; the expectations of University management that she behave in a certain way; the frustrations of not being able to execute her more radical policies. The rest she puts down to that difficult time at the end of Michaelmas Term. Clayson, still learning how to do her new job, was almost immediately confronted by the possibility of the University increasing on-campus rent and tuition fees for international and postgraduate students. When she found out about the increases, she kept the information to herself. “I knew that with an issue like this, to go public immediately would have removed the opportunity for dialogue with the University and that would have been a disservice to the students I represent,” she told SCAN. “Plus you have to build legitimacy – as an activist you have to try all formal channels, and then there is legitimacy for direct action to take place if it is necessary. Clearly it worked in this case, as we saw with the occupation!” However, the resultant backlash against this decision, combined with all of the other pressures of the job, caused her mental health to suffer. “My mental health suffered a lot in first term, which I’m quite happy to share,” Clayson said. “It was the pressure of learning how to do a new job, added to everything that was going on at that time with the fees and rent. There were a vocal minority who said ‘you should have said something sooner.’”

Some of those criticisms of her decision came from within the Full-Time Officer (FTO) team itself. SCAN asked how Clayson has found working with the other FTOs.  “It’s been a very good lesson in people politics,” Clayson said. “I wouldn’t say anything bad about my team members because that’s not who I am. I’d say we’ve had our problems, but that’s always going to happen. We’re six individual people who are really political, which I think is where there’s a difference from previous years, because we’re all very committed to our politics. We’re all very outspoken.

“A lot of the time, I would say we do  agree on things,  we just don’t necessarily agree on the right way to respond to them. But I think that’s good because, for example, take me and Ronnie [Rowlands, VP (Campaigns and Communications)]. I believe in dialogue; I think it’s important that you do form relationships so you can effect change, because in this kind of setting that’s the only way you can do it. But then it’s about the diversity of tactics, because Ronnie [Rowlands] wants to very much criticise and do one of his wonderful anti-University rants, which is also important.  I think together this works – you need  to have the critical voices, but also the people who are proactive and diplomatic.”

However, on the whole Clayson has very little if anything bad to say about her fellow officers. She said that VP (Welfare and Community) Mia Scott has been her “rock” this year – “she is one of the most wonderful of officers; I am so, so honoured that I got to work with her. She consistently inspires me” – while VP (Union Development) Damon Fairley is her “ever-reliable and lovely Full-Time Officer: I can just go to him and say ‘this needs doing and I have no time’ and he will always help out.”

Meanwhile, Clayson said that Joe O’Neill, VP (Education) is “just really, really wise – he knows loads of stuff, especially about how the University works. He always comes through for you when you most need him.” However, his apparent pessimism over the University’s acceptance of ethical investment – one of Clayson’s flagship policies this year – in retrospect appears wide off the mark. “At the beginning of the year whenMia and I said we wanted to have ethical investments as a partnership project with the University, Joe said that that was never going to happen, that the University was never going to take on ethical investments,” Clayson said. “So me and Mia said: now we’ve been told we can’t do it we’re definitely going to have to do it! So I would thank Joe for his pessimism on that, because maybe we wouldn’t have gone at it so hard had he not been so pessimistic.”

VP (Activities) Salman Rukhsar is “a sweetheart – our  politics are very similar.” On Rowlands, Clayson said: “I love him; he drives me up the wall, but I think that’s reciprocal. He’s a really good person at heart, and I see that in him. He has been a very interesting person to work alongside.”

Looking forwards, the future looks pretty tough for LUSU. The financial situation of the Union could be better, and there could also be further changes to national higher education over the next five years. Given all of these challenges, Clayson said the next Full-Time Officer team should focus on three key areas: cost of living, ethical investment and mental health.

“It’s important they continue to pioneer the cost of living campaign as it affects a large proportion of our students,” Clayson said. “There’s a survey going out about ethical investments, trying to ‘ascertain what the institution as a whole deems ethical.’ That [the ethical investments survey] will be very important as I’m unsure whether divestment from fossil fuels and arms will be part of that. I really hope people will take the time to fill that survey out.

“I just hope that environmental sustainability stays on the agenda. I’m a bit of a hippie, so it’s something I am personally very passionate about, but it intersects with every other aspect of oppression that takes place, and too often the environment is subordinated to other issues. But if you’re not going to address climate change, we’re not going to be around to even address all of these other issues. Poverty, for example, is massively impacted by climate change and the environment.”

On mental health, Clayson again heralds the work of current VP (Welfare and Community) Mia Scott, particularly in pushing the University to sign the Time to Change pledge. “I hope mental health remains on the agenda, particularly after the University signed the Time to Change pledge, which gives LUSU the platform to start challenging stigma,” Clayson said.

What about Clayson’s future plans? “There are a variety of things in the pipeline. None of them are definite,” she told SCAN. “I was going to get a crappy job and save up because my partner and I want to go travelling (and I want to write a book, which would be amazing). But I decided I didn’t want to get a crappy job – I wanted to carry on working on campaigns. So I’ve got lots of stuff in the pipeline, mainly in environmental campaigning and arms trade stuff, so you might not have heard the last of me!”

In the precious time when she is not being LUSU President, Clayson can be found doing more of her activism, hanging out with friends, going to gigs and hula-hooping. She has also taken a liking to shark documentaries. “You should really watch them,” she suggests to SCAN. “There are three episodes. I really love underwater things. I’m really, really weird. I’ve become obsessed with dinosaurs and sharks. Over the past few months that’s what I’ve been doing – watching Walking with Dinosaurs and all of the Jurassic Park films in preparation for number four coming out.

“I’m just a bit kooky I think. I get really obsessed with random things.”

As Clayson got to the end of her cereal and the time on SCAN’s dictaphone reached the hour mark, SCAN asked her if there is anything else she would like to say before we draw the interview to a close. Clayson began by once again praising everyone who has helped her this year, from her fellow FTOs to her friends in LUAC, before pondering her own journey. “I’ve gone from standing with a megaphone outside University House to actually sitting in the meetings and saying the things I would have been saying through the megaphone,” Clayson said. “Though maybe in a more diplomatic way! I’m just amazed I’ve managed to keep it together, really. I look back on the stuff we have achieved, and I think: that’s pretty bangin’.”

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