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Time for the polls: Date set for SU referendum on NUS membership

Oxford Student Union announced this week that it is to hold a referendum on NUS disaffiliation on Monday 27th February. 

Polling will be open at 8 am on Monday 27th February and will close at 6 pm on Wednesday 1st March. According to Oxford SU there will be at least one Open Meeting where both the proposition and opposition campaigns can be heard and questioned. Two Campaign Leaders will be announced on the Oxford SU website once selected. Anas Dayeh is likely to run the YES campaign in support of NUS affiliation, while Ciaron Tobin, proposer of the motion, and Caleb van Ryneveld, NUS delegate elect and former Oxford SU Presidential candidate, will run against each other to determine the leader of the campaign to disaffiliate. The two successful chairs will both be given £50 by the SU to run their respective campaigns. 

The results of the binding referendum will be announced at 7 pm on Wednesday 1st March.

This is the second attempt to call a referendum after the first such motion was withdrawn by the proposer Ciaron Tobin, and the seconder Mundher Ba-Shammakh, both elected NUS delegates from Oxford SU.

The first attempt was dropped in the Hilary Term 2023 Week 1 meeting after members debating the proposal reached a consensus that withdrawing the motion would allow for consultation with students likely to be affected. The 3-hour debate in Week 1 brought to the fore the lack of communication between the proposers and JSoc representatives. 

At the Hilary Term 2023 Week 3 meeting, Ciaron Tobin and Mundher Ba-Shammakh again proposed a motion to hold a referendum and this time it passed, with amendments, 26 votes for, 3 against and 2 abstaining. The motion acknowledged that: “The report of the independent investigation led by Rebecca Tuck KC into allegations of antisemitism in the NUS found that it had failed to sufficiently challenge antisemitism and hostility to Jewish students within its organisation.”

Asked whether he thought the new motion had addressed concerns of a lack of communication with JSoc from the Week 1, the motion’s seconder Munder Ba-Shammakh told CherwellI: “The motion as it stands is outlining a broad range of important concerns and putting forth a motion to disaffiliate. The subsequent campaigning is where I feel the wider consultation must now take place, the work done by Ciaron and I was to bring the disaffiliation motion to Oxford students and we have achieved that goal. It’s now the work of the campaign leaders to ensure a diverse range of opinions and concerns are addressed in the lead up to the vote to ensure all student voices are heard and voters can make more informed decisions.”

Jojo Sugarman, President of the Oxford Jewish Society (JSoc), speaking after the referendum’s announcement, told Cherwell: “Antisemitism within the National Union of Students has been a deep concern to members of Jsoc, with very many feeling unrepresented.”

He said there had been a consultation on the Week 3 motion, which was appreciated. 

Discussion at the meeting focused on presenting the referendum “in a way that allows neutrality” and “reiterates the importance of purely stating facts and leaving the judgement to the votes”. One member expressed concern on antisemitism being used as a driving force for the disaffiliation of the SU to NUS, while another stated that “there are many reasons to leave NUS”. The motion passed in week 3 was rephrased to say “this council believes it is it’s  duty to refer the question of affiliation to the whole membership.”

Anas Dayeh, an Oxford SU NUS delegate, told Cherwell: “The SU should be impartial to each side in order to allow the fair campaigning of both sides.”

However, Dayeh himself is emphatic that the SU should remain affiliated with the NUS. He told Cherwell: “It campaigns for the issues we care about, connects us with other students who share our values, and provides us with resources, training, support, and opportunities. It has achieved some big wins for students in the last two years alone, such as securing more hardship funds, rent relief, grade fairness for A-level and BTEC students, and ending NDAs in sexual misconduct cases in 54 institutions so far!

“The NUS is our union, and we can make it better by staying engaged and involved. If we leave the NUS, we will lose our voice, our power, and our impact. It is the best way to ensure that we have a strong, united, and unstoppable student movement that can make a difference for ourselves and students across the UK.”

The motion passed in Week 3 makes clear that “[SU] Members have the right to be properly informed in any referendum by the campaigns as to the advantages and disadvantages of affiliation, and the consequences of disaffiliation.”

The selected campaign heads will have to identity “alternate arrangements, to the extent they exist, for representation of students at a national level; the extent to which it is politically feasible to address the concerns above both within and without the NUS; how resources could be used within the SU after disaffiliation; and the extent to which historical problems in the report continue”.

Ba-Shammakh told Cherwell  he will not be participating in the campaigning as he is “currently rusticated and working a very demanding full time role”, and feels he could not “give this task the dedication it deserves”.

The motion that passed also noted that “Oxford SU contributes £4,095.60 to NUS Charity and £20,478 to NUS UK in membership fees”. While debating the first motion in Week 1, some members of the council meeting spoke with frustration of limited SU budgets, especially for the Disabilities Campaign and the LGBTQ+ Campaign. However, others expressed concern that disaffiliation would dilute the SU’s influence on student issues that extend beyond Oxford.

Asked what he would suggest as a new way forward for national representation of the SU, Ba-Shammakh told Cherwell: “This is a question that I feel must be asked of all students first and foremost and of the new wonderful team we have just elected to the SU. But on a personal level I feel there needs to be a greater focus paid to issues concerning financing for students, rent reductions on a more organised basis and increasing in lobbying for student support. There’s too much time and effort currently dedicated to national issues concerning social campaigns and general divisive matters, which while important in their own right, they often aren’t directly related to students which is what the SU ought to be concerned about.”

Joe Bell, Oxford SU Returning Officer, commented on the announcement “[i]t is my sincere hope that all debate remains respectful at all times, and I look forward to the passionate, sensitive and reasoned discussions which will doubtlessly play out in the next few weeks”.

He noted that “if the student body vote not to remain affiliated with the NUS, Oxford SU’s membership would likely only cease at the end of this calendar year, for contractural reasons”. 

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