The case of the NUS has proven emotive. Either side has been guilty of demonstrating ‘the righteous mind’. By that, I mean questioning the very moral fiber of their opponents. From the perspective of this Leaver, I see this include Remainers suggesting all who vote to leave are, erm, Tories. Absolutism is not attractive. Both sides are entirely legitimate, and I can be a sincere leftwinger, devoted to liberation (and of it) and social justice, and want to leave the NUS.
Not only is this ‘righteous mind’ not true, but it also damages the debate. More so, it damages the case for Remain. The more I hear implications of my lack of compassion, the more stubborn and determined I grow. I grow determined to prove I can make this case as both a leftwinger fighting for liberation causes and as a member of liberation groups, and sure of the leftist and progressive case for leaving.
What comes after -and referendums on disaffiliation are not forever- is a key point of difference for me and some campaigners on this side. I have no intent of lying about uncertainty. I would like to rejoin, should the NUS present to us a platform that is worth rejoining for. Our disaffiliation would be the beginning of negotiations, as it were for clubs that left Labour Students, only to build a stronger Labour Students (Well, we’ll see!). It puts us in a stronger position to demand a stronger Union, and puts the NUS under more scrutiny than ever -which is perfectly healthy. What differentiates myself from some others on this side is that I want a national union of students. We all have our moral arguments, and this is mine: it is riskier and more uncertain to go down the path we are on. That path being the validation of a moribund and increasingly irrelevant organisation that does not act like a guard between us and Tory ministers. The guard is well and truly dead.
That, of course, is not to say there haven’t been unsavoury characters on this side. There have and there are and there will be. I do not subscribe to the Free Speech Case. I will not stand up for a bigot when I see one any more than Kate Hoey would stand up for Nigel Farage.
I share a campaign with Labourites and Tories and Liberals. There are but two things we share in common: our passion to leave the NUS; and the fact we are all seasoned in the art of activism.
We all interpret what we are ‘active’ against in different ways, but in this game it matters. When I ran for SU President, I, somehow, got Tories on board. I got them on board because I defined the enemy as common against the student body: the university. This in turn would limit my grievances. There were no Israels or ISIS here, no motions on internal Labour politics. For me, student activism has not been about left versus right, even though I have always been on a Left platform; it is about the student body versus the university, or in this case, the government. The government is Tory. That, for me, is bad. Whatever government it is of the day will naturally need to be opposed (and for what it is worth – the more Blairite leadership did not oppose the government enough). Inherently. But you do it as a collective student body for collective student issues we can all rally around. Believe it or not, there are many. Just solely out of self-interest. From grants to fees to deportations. You do it as a student voice. It can be a leftist means. Sometimes just by being a student against grant cuts you adopt a leftist platform. In my view, unionism is inherently leftwing. But it does not have to be partisan or divisive and certainly not geopolitical, and a smart leftwing activism has its priorities in order, too. And priorities are important when you are leftwing – because people will pick apart your weaknesses and expose them in the Telegraph. Recognising that reality is necessary, but I’ll come back to that.
I have also had the argument that, as a leftwing activist, I should by default be pro-a national union of students. Indeed, a year ago, had you told me I’d be rallying against a ‘Union’, I’d have bemoaned future me. But that line is so sweeping and so disingenuous that it’s difficult to choose where to begin.
Firstly, trade unionism does not deliver by being bad or by its members being passive and not demanding more from it. Here I am, demanding more.
Secondly, the NUS isn’t a trade union. The NUS does not have the structures nor the culture of a functioning trade union. On the contrary, it acts as a Parliament, and pretends to be so. This is most evident in its sweeping statements on quite literally everything that happens. It forgets its very capacity, so it is laughed at. It is not a trade union as we know it, and it has not the democratic processes to tell it to act like one. Think for a moment of automatic membership. I do not suggest anything else should be in its place: Thatcher used the ingenious tactic of weakening student unions by forcing through self-enrollment. But the simple fact of the NUS’ membership having chosen not to be a part of it in the first place means that the NUS has not got the same accountability as a true trade union, and is under less pressure to actually deliver for its constituents. OMOV would go some way in aiding this, even if it is a heavy and flawed undertaking (Shelly Asquith makes the legitimate point that this would mean big, Russell Group unis have more sway). Otherwise, the sweeping argument about the NUS being a Union like all others and me abandoning my leftist roots in wanting to leave is obsolete.
More importantly, as a constituent, and one that it claims to speak for -I am not exactly from the home counties- I feel let down by the NUS. I have for years.
But what about the fact of the new leadership replacing the managerial one just passed? I do not feel there is substantive evidence to suggest it will change under the new, leftwing leadership -just because it is leftwing.
Being leftwing does not make you, by automatic right, a good activist or opposition. Having principled positions does not mean they will be fulfilled. You can betray those you champion if you prove to be a bad champion. By pretending you are a champion and real, strong opposition because you have signed up to a declaration of principles equates to only one thing: dogma.
In a lot of ways, I am sure you would have noticed, this mirrors my discontent with Corbyn’s Labour. So often it is said that just by his quality of leftwingedness, his opposition to XYZ, he is by default a good leader and his party a good opposition. Activism and strong opposition, clearly, requires a lot more than that. It requires good media management, it requires the constituents to take you seriously. It requires your opponents to fear you. Corbyn fails on all those fronts, and so does the NUS. Because the NUS is not seen as competent, it goes into negotiations from an inherently weak position, even if it is angry and shouting and waving placards. It’s a bit like PMQs, where Corbyn will talk about academisation and Cameron can literally just make a pun about Hezbollah. Why would the government fear an organisation that others laugh at? Divided or not is barely the point, its very foundation has cracked from years, even decades, of humiliation and public ridicule, justly or otherwise. That doesn’t change with a more leftist leadership. It may even be exacerbated by it. But this is not even about a rotation in leadership. It’s got to the point that without a huge reset, the leadership will barely make a difference to the strength of the NUS.
The NUS can even have noble campaigns, but it barely matters. For instance, the existence of a campaign to prevent grant cuts is just and necessary (alongside all the NUS’ grounded campaigns from Prevent to Bursary or Bust), but its existence is not a guarantee of a good outcome, and not a good enough reason to convince me of that good outcome. Good outcomes have been few and far between. I do not trust the NUS to deliver for those that need this or any campaign. Both because it boasts with self-congratulation of its sparse and often old victories (council tax exemption happened in 1992) in the shadow of huge failures (the maintenance grant cut, as one glaring example, or even self-inflicted ones like that time the NUS sent anti-Lib Dem vans to Lib-Dem marginals only for them to f*cking return Tory MPs) that let down so many vulnerable and poorer students, and it fails because it is mocked. These campaigns are never fulfilled because they are overshadowed by -even if they are rare- the politics that gives rise to motions on ISIS. Even if these are rare and ‘misconstrued by a media narrative’, the fact they happen is a weakness you cannot erase and one that damages the brand forever. In the exact same way as Corbyn fails in bad PR (and the importance of PR cannot be overstated in good activism), so too does the NUS. And it makes its campaigning all the weaker for it.
Yes to activism, yes to understanding the nuances of what makes for strong activism, no to insisting the very existence of activism justifies bad activism. Bad, ineffective activism from an organisation that no-one takes seriously, that lets the government get away with unholy damage, but still yells at it, is a betrayal. Legitimizing how it is, to me, is a betrayal of everyone that I want to blaze a trail for. I exist as an activist to help the vulnerable. I believe the vulnerable are constantly let down by the NUS. I believe they -we- need a national voice, but I don’t think we have one.
So what of the argument, “stay and fight”? That’s noble, sure. I, in many fights, would feel instinctively in favour of it. It is also naive. Any other Union would have a democratic means for me to air my discontent if it were doing a bad job. The election of a new executive and General Secretary, switching to another Union. The NUS offers neither. And, anyway, doing either of those things will still not repair the damage.
What about putting myself up for delegate and then Officer elections? Again, such an argument is merely procedural. Student politics doesn’t work like that. Heck, politics doesn’t work like that. Any who air this argument from the inside know they do so disingenuously. I wouldn’t have a chance. Anyone challenging cliques would not have a chance. We’ve seen this with the rather against-all-odds disaffiliation campaigns versus the machinery of the SUs and NUS.
Cliques and slates prevent rogue crusaders, even organised crusaders. The culture, as well as the structure, prevents real reform. Bloody hell, I would know, I’m on the soft left of the Labour Party!
By sustaining the NUS as it is, and not challenging it or negotiating a future for it from a powerful position, I feel I am letting down all those that deserve and need a strong Union, myself included. There are no other democratic ways, at least not plausibly, to express my discontent, hurt and betrayal and being left at the mercy of forces that will see my successive peers from similar backgrounds so much worse off. The only way I deem viable to the establishment of a better Union is by challenging the mandate of the NUS in the only way I can and the only way that has actually grabbed the attention of Officers: a referendum.
I’ve seen people say “now is not the time when government is destroying HE!”. For me, that’s exactly the time to start questioning whether the NUS -with all my knowledge of all the battles lost- is fit for the fight. Because I know, given the weakness of the NUS and its brand, exactly how that fight will end: with government victory. Now, more than ever, is the time for a reset. Not a reset of leadership but a reset of the institution itself. Question it, challenge it, test it. And if we end up rejoining on new terms and conditions, on a negotiated, renewed, democratic mandate, it resets a brand that, right now, is so broken it prevents the NUS being a functioning national union at all just when it needs to be. Then it can get on with being the champion it purports to be. This time, maybe, not from a starting point of ridicule.
Whichever way this goes, the NUS cannot see this moment as one of vindication. Even if my or other universities do not challenge it by leaving, it ought to start challenging itself and stop self-congratulating. Letting people down, refusing to take on board their criticisms, and patting itself on the back is not what I’d consider to be left wing.