When the Age and 60 Minutes uncovered a long running branch-stacking operation conducted by the Victorian ALP politician Adem Somyurek, I wasn’t surprised to see that they also took down two young men I know well: Jake Cripps and Nathan Croft.

Croft and Cripps are visible standing awkwardly on the edge of one of the key pieces of the footage covertly recorded in Somyurek’s office. Somyurek calls them his “flying squad”. You can barely see the young men’s faces, but you can hear them gloating that they’ve secured jobs in the offices of MPs who will let them conduct their factional operations during work hours. “I spoke to Robin”, Croft is heard telling Somyurek, referring to his boss and former Victorian assistant treasurer Robin Scott. “I gave him the heads-up that I was doing some of this stuff and he’s like, ‘Have fun’.”

Who are these two young men Somyurek used as foot soldiers? They aren’t two random young recruits hired online. They had the skills, the connections, the experience and the desire to carry off this type of operation. For most people, the whole idea of it seems grimy. But Croft and Cripps seem delighted.

I’m not surprised. I know Jake Cripps and Nathan Croft. I worked with them. They were not enthusiastic and naive Somyurekian rank-and-filers; they were leading student Labor “activists”. Jake Cripps was the general secretary of National Union of Students (NUS) the same year I was an LGBTI officer for that union; Nathan Croft held the same position the year before Cripps. NUS general secretary is a position prized by Student Unity, a youth subdivision of Labor’s right wing faction.

For winning elections in student unions and “bringing the numbers” – increasing their faction’s representation in NUS – Croft and Cripps were each rewarded with the position of general secretary. Croft and Cripps both came out of a crew who ran the ALP’s right wing at La Trobe University. Having proven their worth and been recognised with national titles in NUS, they were better placed to enter Somyurek’s machine.

In any given year, the NUS secretary is generally the national leader of Student Unity. Croft and Cripps were high-ranking figures in national student Labor politics. What did they do to get there, and how did those skills translate to Somyurek’s “flying squad”?

Two words describe what the ALP machine politicians learn best in their version of student politics: using people. People like Croft and Cripps learn their trade in student union elections. Student unions, despite having their funding and autonomy reduced over years, are often multi-million dollar institutions, with some real authority as democratically elected student representative bodies. For leftists like me, they’re a forum in which we can organise activist campaigns. For the likes of Croft and Cripps, student unions provide a wage, networks and training for their futures in the ALP.

In this approach to student unionism, you can build a base by doling out favours and promises. The ALP’s off-campus factions and parliamentarians have patronage networks that extend through community groups, mosques and churches through which they can shore up voting blocs come election time. Their student wings mimic this on a campus level, developing relationships with different clubs, societies and ethnic groups, premised on giving out extra funding, connections and positions in student unions. They then wield the networks they have built up to draw out bloc votes – which they often openly call “stacks” – in the elections. These blocs are generally used both to advance the careers of the factional organisers and to serve a pro-management agenda on the campus, so it’s perfect training for Labor's bigger institutions.

They fashion their electoral tickets around meaningless buzzwords and smiling faces, usually devoid of politics: “Go!”, “Together”, “Boost” and the like. By bringing votes and wielding blocs, some lucky bureaucrats from different clubs and societies and ethnic groups can get positions as student union officers, but the ALP activists are usually implanted in the key spots to retain control over the finances and politics of the student union.

The ALP cultivates this practice. Student election campaigns of this type are used both to recruit directly into the party and to train future MPs and staffers. The recruitment happens through building up large social groups full of ambitious and soulless young people through the course of an election cycle, and then convincing many of those involved to join the party. Those who don’t join can be tossed to the side when they’re no longer useful.

The training comes in organising the operation: setting up the ticket; recruiting into it; creating an election platform that’s bland enough not to piss anyone off and to conceal the real politics of the core activists; learning to set up crony networks.

The student faction of the ALP that Croft and Cripps started their short careers in, Unity, was established by ex-MP David Feeney in his student days. When Feeney became an MP, his parliamentary office became a spawning pool from which emerged new leaders of the faction. Like many NUS secretaries, Jake Cripps had worked in Feeney’s office.

It’s not surprising that Somyurek’s flying squad thought Robin Scott would be “pretty chill” with their operation, in the words of Nathan Croft. When Scott was a student, he was disqualified from the 1995 La Trobe student elections under suspicion of ballot rigging, after he couldn’t explain how he showed up with a stack of filled-in ballots in his hands. (His ticket was called “TinTin”.) This is how assistant treasurers learn the art of politics.

The practice can even find funding in the trade unions. Unity is closely tied to the SDA. The SDA directly recruits paid organisers from the faction, and supports its projects. Student Unity members chant the union’s name during conferences. The faction is a perfect recruiting ground for the SDA: that union relies on having organisers who are capable of ruthlessly grinding workers’ conditions and rights into the ground without batting an eyelid and negotiating deals with bosses.

When people trained in this bureaucratic approach gain control over student unions, they also get to learn another crucial skill for working in the ALP or in a trade union: how to sell out your working class constituents and union members. At the campus level, they suck up to the university management, often helping to push through attacks or sabotage campaigns. Politically, they support neoliberal user-pays models of education, in keeping with the market-loving politics of the modern ALP.

If university managements want to cut courses, sack staff or attack their working rights, they know they can rely on such student union officials to provide political cover and help get the attacks through. At Monash University in 2018, for example, I was one of many students who organised a campaign against cuts to the arts faculty. While we frantically organised mass meetings, protests and information forums, the Labor right-aligned student politicos who ran the union refused to participate. Instead they met with university management and warned their various “blocs” to stay out of the campaign.

It’s not just Labor, and it’s not just their right wing. At the level of student politics, this approach – gain power, network, suck up to management and “bring the numbers” – can be practised equally by Liberal students, Greens and the Labor left, although the Labor right are the most efficient at machine politics and, unsurprisingly, fit right into Somyurek’s “flying squad”.

For Labor Party members, student politics is a great place to learn how to sell out your constituents and suck up to management while cohering a bloc of voters behind you. It’s perfect training for a future career in Labor parliamentary politics and the Labor-aligned union bureaucracy. For those of us who care about the lives and struggles of workers, students and the poor, challenging these politics is just as important.