When we arrived in Brighton, wearing our green “RON them all” t-shirts, people initially thought we were just like them, but having a little bit of fun by satirising the way in which NUS election campaigns are conducted – through t-shirts and hats, apparently. Many candidates came up to us, and, with a wink and a nudge, asserted that we obviously weren’t going to actually RON them, and that they definitely deserved our first preferences.
Later, a member of the NUS’ National Executive Council, who also is a member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts faction, mocked a speech that I made calling on the NUS to remember that it represents all students, and to act as such. She, speaking for another motion, sarcastically quoted what I had said about being moderate, and finished it off with “only joking”. The same person later tweeted her puzzlement that anyone would applaud the candidate for Block of 15 who had admitted that he was a Conservative and wanted the NUS to represent a range of views.
It is these attitudes – the absolute incomprehension that there exists any student who exists outside of this sphere – or indeed who is apathetic about politics – that pervade the NUS, and mean that these days it is nothing more than an echo chamber for a particular point of view, or a particular set of buzzwords. Indeed, nothing sums up the naivety and political narrowness of the NUS more than when Shelly Asquith, the newly re-elected Vice President for Welfare, alluded to Oh Well Alright Then’s leaking of her bizarre campaign strategy by calling us a group of “Tories”. Three of us are Lib Dems, one of us is Labour.
But it is more than just an attitudinal divide between the NUS and the ordinary student – it is the fact that the organisation is so patently unreformable, and refuses to listen to any criticism of it. This Conference passed motions seeking to put restrictions on Yik Yak and other social media, lobbying to stop GCSE Maths and English from being compulsory, and crucially, overwhelmingly voted against One Member One Vote, a democratic reform which would have given every one of the NUS’ 7 million individual members a vote in electing its national sabbatical officers – by contrast, only 372 voted for Malia Bouattia, less than 0.005% of the student population. Major figures in the last OUSU referendum on the NUS have expressed the same view, including ex-OUSU President Louis Trup.
There has been a great shift in our relationship with the NUS. What was founded over 90 years ago as a way to unite student voices across the country no longer is unifying, but is deeply divisive, and makes students angry, rather than represented, and this is shown most fully by the disgraceful avoidance of a genuine reply or a genuine apology from the new NUS President, Malia Bouattia, for comments which over 50 JSoc President across the country have condemned as anti-Semitic.
This is surely the time to hold a referendum, when discontentment and disillusionment with the NUS has been its highest in a very long time, and we hope as many OUSU reps as possible will back it when it comes to Council on Wednesday. Whatever your view on whether we should stay affiliated or whether we should leave, such a referendum will spark a much-needed discussion on the NUS and student democracy more widely, which we haven’t had in too long, and which is sorely needed.