There is a major conflict in student unionism at the moment, between those who believe unions should be a simple barometer of their memberships’ mood, pale reflections to ‘represent’ some silent majority, and those who will their unions to fight for education, jobs, housing and to defend students.
The problem with the former of these is that it is an impossible project to represent the views of all seven million students in the UK. How could any single organisation, union or not, even attempt to undertake such a monumental task? And even if they tried, wouldn’t you just be left with a set of warring factions unable to agree on any policy?
The critics of the NUS focus on why their union doesn’t represent them individually, rather than reasoning that the NUS must take a position on issues, and that stance will inevitably exclude people. The NUS doesn’t often represent the views of students in UKIP, or even the Coalition parties, and I don’t think it should either.
To take the other, more politically focused view of representation, the NUS is defending students’ interests with its Liar Liar campaign to vote out those MPs who broke the pledge on tuition fees, almost all of whom are Lib Dems. What is the point in running a pledge campaign in 2010 to secure Lib Dem opposition to tuition fee rises if we don’t follow through? You can’t have a political system based on betraying hopes of free education and not expect to pay the consequences.
If we can’t fight the broken pledges of the Lib Dems, what should the NUS do? When Disabled Students Allowance was cut, the NUS fought and won. When our student loans were being sold off, the NUS fought and won. The problem with much of the NUS’s campaigning is that it doesn’t go hard enough on enough occasions. But some of its critics would like the NUS to shut down and focus on ‘student-only issues’, which apparently doesn’t include education cuts and tuition fees.
Lots of those who stand against the NUS and student unions want to have their cake and eat it. They want an NUS which represents everyone, but does no campaigning. They want an NUS which campaigns for students, but never criticises parties in power.
If your problem is that a political body that claims to represent you is too left-wing for your liking, then first of all, tough, and secondly, why don’t you bother to get involved?
Finally, for those who think the NUS is either a hotbed of dangerous radicals, or a training ground for Labour careerists: winds are changing. The new leadership for 2015/16 is well to the left of the Toni Pearce ilk, and Labour hold none of the leadership positions next year.
Campaigns like Liar Liar aren’t only useful and likely to continue to defend students’ interests, but they also spur a militancy in campaigning that will really shake things up.