I have friends in the NUS, in Labour Students, in the students’ movement, and further afield. It should not have to be said that when I criticize XYZ, I do not criticise them. On the contrary, there are individuals within bodies I view as defunct that work their asses off for their constituents as best as they see fit.
But I’ve rarely shied from controversy, either. Way back whenever, I stood for President for my own Students’ Union on a ticket, well, berating the union itself, and the managerial culture in which it existed. Not the people, but the culture. A culture that was closed off. As I read Yaks berating even the action of voting, I realised that for 3 years, I was them. That, despite my political nature, I never turned to the Union for a solution. The one time I did, when my grant was delayed and I found myself under considerable financial stress, they told me they couldn’t do anything about it. I instead became a co-chair of a society, and worked for activism outside of the formal framework.
In reality, I’ve never been one for student politics. I’ve always thought the best way to contribute to helping students would be through the Labour party as an ordinary activist. For two years prior to the election, I did just that, hoping to oust a Tory government that had gone out of its way to raise a generation to hate it. That, clearly, did not pan out. From thereon, I grew aware that the only thing standing between students and the government was the unions and The Union – that being the NUS.
So far, so exhausted.
There are three Bad Types of student politics that have came to be the mark of the NUS and its components, all of which grate me considerably.
The first is the Managerial. The type that has defined my own union. No matter how far the University goes, a ‘student consultation’ is the answer. I know a lot of people within the Union itself often find this grating, but no-one seems to look to activism in any form to resolve issues beyond The Consultation. I had a chat with a mate recently on what she’d do: she’d do what other Unions do successfully, which is, for want of a better description, cause havoc. Sit-ins, pranks, artistic protests that grab headlines, and proper relationships with the media, be it the student paper or The Tab. There is little tradition here in Durham for this, though our recent Funeral For Affordable Education, where we designed a coffin and held a service going through town was an example of where we should head. Other than that, there is little light at the end of the tunnel for Universities with managerial Unions.
The second are the Politicos. The main controllers of the NUS for quite a while before Malia. For the life of me, my friends in NOLS know I’m not an asshole (often), and know this is not personal, but it, does, indeed, exist in NOLS. There is nothing innately wrong with this, and its berthed some good ‘uns. A chat with Stephen Twigg is enough to convince you he deserved to be on that stage on that fateful May night in 1997. But there’s no point ignoring that this road to politics is well-tread. Far too well tread. And there is a lot of dislike for it.
The third are the Radicals. The incumbents. People who’d be great at a protest, sure, but who are too partisan, divisive, distracted, to head an organisation representing 7 million students. A passion for global politics is great, but it does little to serve or represent students who just bloody want a maintenance grant. Malia’s passion for BME issues is commendable, and she has undoubtedly done a lot of work for BME students. It is not that activism for which we should, or do, condemn. It is the rhetoric of war and peace, of global conflicts, and of moral relativism, East and West, which simply serves no-one in the NUS. Never mind the controversy surrounding the ISIS motion, why was there an ISIS motion to begin with? Will that stop the march of a death cult in the Middle East? Recognising the limits of an organisation for students, and what motions that could actually benefit campuses within the capacity of the NUS, would be a great start. It might put faith back into the movement. Instead, the Radical subset sees the NUS as a Parliament, rather than the trade union and union movement it should emulate.
None of these types serve to protect students from the ills of this government. From student consultations to motions on ISIS, there is a real reason why Unions and the NUS are facing a massive deficit in participation and enthusiasm.
Which is why, before I graduate, I will be involved in a campaign for my University to disaffiliate from the NUS. I am not a great exiter of Things and Stuff (I am of the ‘let’s reform the EU!’ persuasion, after all). But there is only one way to fight the apathy that fuels an unresponsive student politics: it’s scaring the absolute shit out of the incumbent powers that be. And that means a referendum. As always.
If it leads to the NUS and to the wider student movement pricking its ears at the prospect of a financial crisis, to get it out of its cartel of the Three Bad Types, then that’s bloody good enough for me. I don’t see any other way to get the attention of a cosy student politics that relies on low turnout than trying to enthuse the student body to tick yes or no. It’s the best way, the most exciting way, and the most democratic way, to inject a sense of realisation into a movement that bloody well needs it.
That’s gonna be my last act, then I’m totally getting the shit out of here.