By Sally Murdock
On 17 June, a very small NUS extraordinary conference met in Leeds and endorsed the National Executive Committee's proposals for cuts in the union's democratic structures.
It was announced earlier this year that NUS is facing an annual financial shortfall of £500,000. This has provided an excuse for the right-wing of the union, including the Labour Students/independent Blairite majority on the National Executive Committee, to take up their favourite theme of "democratic reform", ie attacks on NUS's democratic structures.
By the start of June, they had succeeded in getting 25 colleges to call an extraordinary conference to discuss the issue - having failed to raise it seriously at the ordinary NUS National Conference at the start of April, and knowing that by the middle of June the vast majority of students would be excluded from participation by exams or holidays.
At the conference less than 380 delegates voted (a normal NUS conference is about 1,000-strong). The gathering passed all the NEC's proposals. These included:
- Raising the quota for delegates from one per 1,000 members to 1,400, making the conference substantially smaller, and thus more difficult for rank-and-file students/dissident leftists/minorities to attend.
- Capping all delegations at 16, regardless of the union in question's size. (Leeds Uni, for instance, currently gets 24 delegates.)
- Cutting the length of conference from three and a half to under three days, making an already crowded agenda even worse.
- Introducing minimum and maximum affiliation fees for student unions, effectively redistributing money from small, poor, mostly FE unions to big rich HE ones. (When hardly any FE delegates were at the conference!)
All these proposals passed by the required two-third majority, except capping delegations, which received only a simple majority.
A proposal put forward by Campaign for Free Education supporters, including members of the AWL, to cut back on NUS's corporate style senior management and employ three co-ordinators on a (better-off) worker's wage, saving hundreds of thousands, was voted off the agenda without even being discussed. The bloated bureaucracy which supports the right-wing leadership remains untouched.
Only four, left-wing NEC members voted against the cuts; president-elect Kat Fletcher, elected on the CFE/united left ticket, not only supported them but took the key speeches to ensure that the NEC was not defeated. This is a massive betrayal and suggests that Kat's political flirtations with the right are turning into a full-fledged relationship. Whether or not she sticks to this disastrous course will be a real test of her presidency.
Most of these attacks are constitutional changes and will need to be endorsed by another conference (capping, which only passed by a simple majority, will need to be raised again entirely fresh.) So the fight is on - and AWL supporters will be involved in launching a Campaign for Democracy in NUS. For more information, contact NUS NEC member Alan Clarke at email@example.com or ring 07976 000 940 or visit www.free-education.org
Sign this statement!
Campaign for Democracy in NUS
We the undersigned believe that if we are to rebuild NUS as an effective campaigning force, we need more democracy, not less. Money-saving reforms must be governed by certain key ideas:
- No attacks on democracy. We oppose cuts in the size or length of National Conference, and defend the part-time Block of 12 as a guarantee of pluralism and accountability on the NEC. No reform of affiliation fees which redistributes money from small, FE affiliates to big, rich HE ones. Defend the Liberation Campaigns' right to send observers to conference.
- No attacks on the jobs, pay or conditions of NUS's non-managerial staff.
- Open the books. No serious discussion about reform can take place until NUS members and their representatives have full access to NUS's accounts and relevant financial information. We need full disclosure, in particular information about the pay of senior management.
The tiny, unrepresentative Extraordinary Conference held on 17 June to push through the NEC's "reforms" is indicative of how the right wing is seeking to circumvent democratic scrutiny and accountability. All fundamental decisions about reform must be taken by students' representatives at a properly-constituted and convened National Conference.
Instead of cutting democracy, we should be rooting out waste and bureaucracy, including the ridiculous amount spent on NUS's senior management in the Directorate. Beyond that, the finances of NUS will only be made secure by establishing strong, political student unions which fight to win higher block grants, unions oriented to campaigning, not simply service provision.