The re-Labourisation of the NUS

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Red Pepper is a magazine I read a lot, although don’t always buy; it usually contains thought-provoking political discussion which is radical without being crazy. In the current issue, there is an article (not online) from Hind Hassan, a member of Student Respect (I’m not sure if that’s the Galloway or SWP faction; her website links to what appears to be the Galloway faction’s website) but writing personally, about the recolonisation of the National Union of Students by New Labour. This is something I have personally witnessed in the 1990s, as I was involved in student politics then as well.

I was a delegate to the 1996 conference, which is best known as the conference at which the NUS abandoned its commitment to restoring pre-Thatcher maintainance grant levels. (A maintainance grant is an amount of money a student receives from the state for rent and keep; the amount had been frozen during the 1980s, such that by the time I got to university, those who got it at all, which many did not, found that it did not even cover their rent.) As I recall, the NUS passed a motion abandoning this commitment, with the Labour student group insisting that the NUS could not be in the debate on education funding unless they presented “reasonable” ideas, and that many of those who demanded a return to the 1970s did not want to be in the debate; they were just putting forward “transitional demands” to make the NUS into a vehicle for a Marxist revolution. The proposals which were actually passed were somewhat vague, and shortly after the conference wound up, Labour announced that they would introduce tuition fees for the first time.

Many unions at the time were dominated by the Labour student group, and three successive presidents went on to become Labour MPs; the president at the time was Jim Murphy, who was elected to a Scottish constituency in 1997 and has just become the new Scottish Secretary (i.e. the cabinet member with responsibility for Scotland, a position less powerful than it once was because of the devolved Scottish government, but a cabinet member all the same). His two predecessors, Lorna Fitzsimmons and Stephen Twigg, also became Labour MPs. It was widely suspected at our union, where Plaid Cymru was the biggest single faction, that the NUS and many of its local bodies and affiliated student unions were functioning as Labour politicians’ training grounds. We actually disaffiliated from the local NUS area, called Deheubarth after an ancient Welsh kingdom, on the grounds of its ineffectiveness and because the convenor was deemed to be a “waste of space” who held the students in “total contempt”; the Welsh Labour hacks were known as “no-necks” in reference to the physical appearance of one of their executive.

Our magazine in Abersywyth, the Courier, printed a substantial article in February 1997 which stated that they had received hand-written notes by Mat Davies, then NUS Wales’s President, which stated: “our main objective will be to assist the Labour party [to] win the [1997] General Election … not only [does this] go without saying, but it is largely why our key activists have sought election or re-election to positions of influence”, namely paid or “sabbatical” student officers, so-called because they take a year or two out of their studies, at local student unions. As for Labour party controlling the NUS, he wrote that “controlling the political agenda of a major union of two and half million members which isn’t a threat to an incoming government - or the government itself - cannot be a bad thing”. An example of local corruption from Liverpool was offered, in which representatives were chosen for the union without consultation or election, a large picture of Tony Blair appeared in the union handbook and a Labour slogan - “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” - appeared on the union’s rape alarms.

The particular circumstances which kept Labour mostly out of power in Aber presented their own problems, as I’ve outlined in the past, but I still think our situation preferable to having a union which mostly serves wannabe politicians. The first time I went into conference, I noticed one of the executive stand up - Helen Garrod, if my memory serves me correctly - and a couple of seconds later, the audience started cheering and applauding, precisely as if they had been directed to do so, which is exactly what I later discovered had been going on: someone was sitting in the balcony above and giving directions to the Labour students as to how to vote. (When a delegate from a dissenting union tried to get the visitors removed for this reason, Jim Murphy opposed him, saying that there were dignitaries among the visitors; the motion was, of course, defeated.) The problem was that the only opposition in the NUS was dominated by hard-left groups like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Socialist Worker, which made it easy for the Labour organisation to rubbish them. After I signed up for the Campaign for Free Education after conference, I got junk mail from the AWL through my door.

So, the political compromising of the NUS is not new - indeed, it died down for a while, after Labour found it had no use for the NUS after they won the 1997 election - and neither are the circumstances which allowed it: the fact that ordinary students do not care much who runs their union. This allows activists and politicians a free run, with sometimes unpleasant consequences - such as the time our union was mandated by a General Meeting (whose quorum was 70, which meant a policy motion could be passed by just 36 people, out of a student population of 6,000) to hold a rent strike, which was not honoured by most of the students. It is what leads to student meetings being used to settle personal scores, to people being hauled in front of disciplinary committees for saying things deemed to be racist or sexist while offensive statements from “oppressed” people are tolerated (and the union Rag group still prints jokes in their annual magazine about paedophiles and, ahem, what lesbians and feminists alike need), and to policies being passed which reflect the views of an activist minority but not the general population, such as the one our union had, specifying a union policy of demanding free abortion on demand, and mandating all elected officers not to deviate from it.

Hind Hassan contends that the NUS is being driven towards becoming a consortium of student unions, rather than a representative body for students, and that even locally, commercial interests are being put before a union’s campaigning role; reforms are being attempted based on proposals from non-student consultants. This is also something I encountered at Aberystwyth; the proposal we received from such a consultancy, formed of former union staffers, included reducing the number of sabbatical officers from eight to five, as “the law of diminishing returns applies” above that number. The proposals included “the transfer of ultimate power and veto within [the NUS] to a ‘trustee board’ made up of ‘external’ individuals such as lawyers and accountants”. This had already happened at her local union, at which she was the sabbatical equality and diversity officer; since this made her a trustee, she was expected to sign an agreement not to make any decisions “to the union’s financial detriment”, preventing her from campaigning against the NUS’s “multi-million pound contracts with unethical manufacturers”; the trustees could also overturn any decision made “by students” (the union is governed by a representative council, with annual general meetings) if they stood to “jeopardise the union’s reputation”, which she interprets as meaning “having a non-mainstream political opinion”; despite being an officer for equality and diversity, she was required to put aside any commitment to minority students while acting as a trustee (although the Leeds University Union by-laws - see page 32 - do not actually mention minorities, rather they mention equal opportunities and diversity; it also does not say that the officer must be part of any minority). The proposal for the NUS, she alleges, contains no representation on the trustee board for minority students at all.

The problem that unions, both national and local, face is that they have their fingers in two separate pies - student campaigning and representation, and being commercial enterprises, running union shops, bars and entertainment, and they often conflict, with some students coming into the union to drink or to see a band, and never turning up for a General Meeting, while some might give up much of their free time for a non-sabbatical union role while almost never eating or drinking at the union’s bars. Perhaps student unions in England and Wales should be split along the same lines as occurs in Scottish universities, in which the “Unions” which run bars are completely separate from student representation and welfare, which are funded by grants from the university. That way, nobody will need to worry about any negative effect their campaigning might have on the companies with offices downstairs or sales of drinks at the bar. After this, the NUS itself should go through a similar demerger, so that the representative wing will have no excuse for turning itself into a mere commercial endeavour. That will not solve the problem of party manipulation, however; that will only happen when students at certain universities wise up to the fact that the Labour student organisation does not represent students, but only their “activists” and their personal ambitions.

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