Universiteit Leiden

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‘Students have been treated like temporary residents for four centuries already’

The new Students for Leiden party pulled off a stunning victory in the municipal elections. From nowhere, the party won two seats on Leiden Municipal Council. How are brand-new student councillors Mitchell Wiegand Bruss and Elianne Wijnands doing? ‘We’ve already asked questions about the quality of life in the city.’

‘In politics, there’s too much talking about rather than with young people.’

It’s been a real rollercoaster ride for the two young councillors since the elections in March, they say in a lounge corner in Level, the temporary town hall behind the train station. Never before has a student party managed to get on to Leiden Municipal Council, but with 3,100 votes Students for Leiden won two seats. Mitchell: ‘It’s exciting and really busy but all the positive reactions are giving us loads of energy to make a real difference for Leiden.’ During the election debates, some people in the city didn’t take them entirely seriously. Elianne: ‘They’d ask if we’d brought beer along with us or whether we knew where Cronesteyn park is.’ But since their election victory that has changed. 

Mitchell Wiegand Bruss cheers at winning two seats.

Against a strict housing policy

The idea for a new student party arose in the summer of 2020. History student Mitchell didn’t agree with the local ‘multiple occupation policy’. Concerned about nuisance, the Leiden Municipal Executive has tightened up its policy against the unchecked division of houses so they can be rented to multiple tenants. Mitchell: ‘It’s difficult enough for young people to find accommodation and stricter policy only makes it harder.’ 

Elianne Wijnands: ‘Strange that the oldest student city didn’t have a student party.’ Photo: Hans van Egmond

He soon found allies such as Elianne, a Political Science student, who wanted more representation for young people. Elianne: ‘It was strange that the oldest student city in the Netherlands didn’t have a student party on the council. They talk about students more than with them.’ Mitchell: ‘We’re often not asked what we think. Students have been treated like temporary residents for four centuries already. That has to change.’

Winter coat indoors

With a group of like-minded people, they sat around the kitchen table and came up with a new party and what it would stand for. Sustainability and a quick response to the climate crisis are on the top of their agenda. How do they differ from other green parties? Elianne: ‘We want a quick response to the climate crisis and look specifically at what young people need. Student houses also need to be made sustainable and insulated as quickly as possible. But this often doesn’t happen because young people live in a listed building, for example, or because the landlord doesn’t want to do this. On cold days friends of mine wear their winter coat indoors because they can’t pay the heating bills. The building regulations should be more flexible so that old buildings can also be properly insulated.’ 

With the three duo councillors.

Students for Leiden also calls for a restricted-traffic city centre and more room for bicycle traffic. Mitchell: ‘We’d like to make canals like Rapenburg and Oude Vest restricted-traffic and in the long term car-free. To begin with parking spaces could be freed up for bikes. The thinking is still way too car-centric.’

Crash course in municipal politics

Since their installation the two, like all other new councillors, have had a crash course in municipal politics, such as how to submit a proposal, motion or amendment and when to demand a council investigation. Elianne: ‘We’ve already submitted written questions about the quality of life in the city.’ They are also practising for the upcoming debates in the municipal meetings after the installation of the new municipal elective. 

With all the hustle and bustle of politics, do they still have time to study? Mitchell: ‘I’m writing my bachelor’s thesis. It’s really busy, it’s true, but this has taught me to work much more efficiently.’ Elianne is also studying as normal and trying to finish her master’s. And the two certainly aren’t alone. Three duo councillors – all of them students – sit on council committees on behalf of the party and help prepare the work. Mitchell: ‘We’re still looking for more political talent for the coming years, so contact us if you’re interested. You don’t have to be a student, by the way. We’re a party for all young people.’

Text: Linda van Putten

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