Disaffiliate Now: A Liberalist take on the failure of the NUS – Part 1: Feudal Feuding

By Alison Ordnung

Britain First has a well-earned terrible reputation.

They achieved around 2 million likes and concurrent influence on social media, despite promoting racist, censorious, authoritarian and blanket anti-muslim policies. Before their Facebook page was banned, how did they achieve 2 million shows of support?

One documented tactic was promoting very popular issues under their own name, specifically protesting animal abuse and supporting injured soldiers. It’s likely that many people liked a post to indicate disgust at animal abuse with no knowledge of the group’s wider policies – yet Britain First took this support and deceptively claimed it as support for their greater, less popular purpose.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Students (NUS) has the student discount card.

When students signed up for a jaw-dropping 10% discount at the last 3 HMVs still standing, they apparently agreed en masse to call for a second referendum on Brexit, all 980,000 of them.The famously divisive issue of Brexit impressively has a uniform response from Britain’s nearly 1 million greatly diverse students… according to the 120 elected student officers who actually signed the motion. Did the NUS consult students before speaking for all of them? Did NUS members, in their slightly discounted Topshop outfits,  know that their representatives were calling for the very controversial ‘People’s Vote’ on their behalf?

When they naturally become members of their institution’s union and are inducted into the NUS, do they also approve of abolishing prisons, believe in a great gender spectrum, believe that biological sex doesn’t exist, that British military intervention in Syria was wrong, that “Prisons are sexist and racist” or that clapping should be banned? When Students bought their NUS discount card, did they also buy into criticism of capitalism and the call for full open borders?

NUS students protesting the rise of tuition fees.
Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

This series of articles will lay out a Liberalist perspective on the critical failure of the NUS and the need for disaffiliation until it is fit to represent the UK’s student population again.

A key to understanding the problems of the National Union of Students is to understand how its representatives and leaders are chosen. It derives power and funds from every student who signs up and gets that NUS discount card at their institution’s union. Each institution’s students can vote for paid representatives to run their union, who in turn elect delegates at the NUS conferences.

Additionally, members of certain identity groups can request to be sent as delegates to the 5 ‘Liberation’ campaign conferences, where they can elect officers for that campaign. The heads of these campaigns are paid roles.

This simple enough process is nevertheless the predictable cause of many of the NUS’s problems and it starts with an equally predictable issue: political apathy.

The average voter turnout for Union Rep elections was 13%, and is regularly under 5%, so this is a high turnout in comparison to other posts.With an average of 87% of students not voting, the mandate of union representatives is shaky, though this is not entirely their fault. It can be hard to engage a mass of busy people and convincing sufficient numbers of students to engage with the process that affects their own institution is difficult enough. More politically engaged and impassioned students are more likely to respond and of course, stand. This is a problem seen at the national level – the most impassioned are more likely to vote, tending to extreme politics. At the NUS, this plays out in a more concentrated way.

As I understand it, when students cast their votes for representatives, they have no way of knowing who their representative will in turn support at the NUS conferences, but can only hope their candidate would think like they do. This is already heavily abstracted democracy: you can’t check your representative’s stance on the candidates or policies before the conferences, as those candidates and policies aren’t proposed at the time you vote.

At said conferences, identities and political allegiances are at the forefront to the point where the NUS National Conference can declare on its first motion that the NUS believes ‘The Tories are blatant hypocrites’. While it would be unreasonable to expect political neutrality from a political union, student Conservatives and centrists may already question how much support they have from their representatives.

Tom Harwood at the NUS Conference in March 2018
Credit: tomharwood.uk

In trying to find support among impassioned identity groups, more extreme candidates fare better, whereas appealing to the masses is more successful in general elections. In the self selected world of NUS conferences, moderation is no friend. As such, NUS members found themselves represented by the far left identity politics of Malia Bouattia and Shakira Martin. The third option in the 2017 National Election for president, Tom Harwood, was able to get quite far by openly mocking the “self serving factions”.

Why should students vote for you?
The NUS is in crisis and it’s failing students. I’m standing to re-legitimise a movement that has so alienated the majority of students in this country. We have to become more moderate, inclusive, and credible as a national union. We have to change now otherwise more university SUs will leave and NUS will continue to fail students on the real issues of living costs, anti-Semitism, and housing.

You’ve said the NUS is in “crisis”; what do you think is so broken about student politics?
The NUS has failed in including students in the movement. Nationwide, turnouts in NUS delegate elections are pitifully low, it is common for turnouts to be below 5 per cent. This is not good enough. It seems that every week there’s a new anti-Semitism scandal, and the current leadership of NUS is refusing to change. Intimidation is rife, and the hard factional politics push students away.

By allowing all students to vote for an NUS president we can take it back to reality. We can push power out of the hands of self serving factions and to the students we are supposed to represent.

-Tom Harwood, 2017

In the NUS Liberation campaigns, the extremism and disconnect from regular students is even more apparent – with greatly restricted access to vote and strict self-selection criteria, more extremism is inevitable. The NUS Liberation campaigns are 5 interlinked campaigns with paid officers. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity (“Black Students”), Womens, Disabled Students, LGBT+ and the new Trans campaign. Each has an officer intersecting with the others – e.g. the Black Campaign has a black LGBT representative and the Trans Campaign has a trans black representative (though not, currently, a trans-black representative), etc. Trans students are of course also heavily represented in the LGBT+, and also now have their own campaign and paid full time Trans Officer, on whom much more later. For reference, trans people are approximately 0.3% of the population.

The Liberation Campaigns’ very name presupposes an ideology and you will not find it lacking: These groups need liberation because they are of course, systematically oppressed. This matter of ideology is fact in NUS circles, though perhaps not among actual students, and identity politics are key.

Students’ ability to impact on these campaigns is more limited. If you’re white, you can’t vote on the Black Student’s officer. If you’re male, you can’t vote for the women’s officer. If you are not transgender, you are in the 99.7% of students who can’t vote for a trans officer, but your membership will pay for all 3 and more. It should be noted that just being a woman student won’t likely encourage you to engage with the women’s campaign – they draw from institutions’ Women’s and feminist societies and the campaign runs on explicitly intersectional feminist principles. Consequently, the women’s society includes many who aren’t women by their own identification – they identify as non-binary, genderqueer, or genderfluid, but still have a seat at the table of the Women’s campaign. To say the NUS Women’s campaign represents women is deeply misleading. If you don’t share their identity politics, you will likely have nothing to do with them, beyond funding them.

NUS LGBT officers enjoying arts and crafts as part of the NUS Liberation Residential.
Credit: NUS LGBT+

The Liberation officers are voted in at their own conferences, attendance of which is de facto limited. Consequently, with identity politics in effect voting is also limited within the conferences caucuses – this results in tiny numbers of voters granting grand sounding positions:

  • NUS Trans Officer – (61 votes, ran unopposed)
  • NUS Trans Campaign – Black Students Officer (6 votes, ran unopposed)
  • NUS Women’s Officer – (111 votes, ran unopposed)
  • NUS Women’s Lesbian Officer – (8 Votes, unopposed)
  • NUS LGBT Disabled Students Rep – (14 votes, unopposed)
  • NUS LGBT Open Place – (144 Votes, Contested)
  • NUS LGBT Women’s Place – (56 Votes, Contested)
  • NUS LGBT Black Students – (14 Votes, Uncontested)
  • NUS Trans FE Representative – (2 Votes, Unopposed)

In the 2018/19 Women’s committee only 2 of the 9 positions were contested, the rest being mere formalities. Women make up the majority of students, but 111 votes in an uncontested election selected their representative. Only 9% of British women consider themselves feminist, but the NUS Women’s campaign is exclusively, explicitly for intersectional feminism.

There are understandable reasons why voting and membership can sensibly be restricted, to ensure there is actual understanding of issues and ensuring varied perspectives, but it carries the concurrent problem that these campaigns pass policies that impact institutions. The minority of students are now male, and the NUS Women’s campaign passes policies that affect them. They have no ability to affect this – you would traditionally call this a sexist structural disadvantage.

At the 2016 NUS Women’s campaign, the motion to include, listen to and make welcome religious women students… immediately followed motion 506: Abortions for All. Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, HIndu, Sikh, Buddhist and traditional Christian students will find their views here unwelcome and unrepresented by the NUS. This paper does not call for the NUS to switch to a pro-life view either, which would only change who is alienated: this paper questions why the NUS has an official stance on abortion at all.

The matter of how the NUS responds to scandal is another matter. In short, as an NUS member you have very little say on who represents you, what policies they pass and how they affect you. Unless you share the NUS’s particular politics, your representatives won’t be representative of you.

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