When the National Union of Students commissioned its “no holds barred” governance review after annual conference 2007, the left was criticized for pre-emptively declaring it an attack on democracy. The findings of the review was discussed at a national committee meeting on 9 October, and guess what? It’s a massive attack on democracy.
The main points are:
• To split the current National Executive into two. The “Board” will deal with “non-political” areas like budgets, overseeing senior staff, remuneration of senior staff and legal policies (no, we don’t understand how that’s non-political either), and will be made up of six full-time NEC members including the President, three to six external trustees and three students appointed by conference. The “Senate” will deal with “political” areas like setting priorities and coordinating work between regions and nations.
This Senate will be radically different from today’s executive committee. For a start, it’ll effectively remove the “Block of 12” part-time officers, a factor in guaranteeing political pluralism. Instead 15 “committee members” will be elected by conference, having no officer status and remuneration for attending meetings only.
The NUS right-wing have already almost neutered the political power of the block of 12, forcing members to take part-time jobs through under-funding – this move will finish the job. In addition, the roles of Treasurer and Secretary are simply being axed, with their workload shifted to the Board – that’s external trustees handling NUS’s finances at the highest level.
• To radically change National Conference, with prior debates at five “zone” conferences early in the calendar year. These conferences will supposedly enable non-contentious policy to be passed, then simply presented to the renamed “Congress” for ratification, leaving time for “contentious” policy to be discussed. The review makes clear that zone conferences should be small, suggesting one union, one vote. This is intended to leave time for Congress to “celebrate” the work of the national union, alongside AGM style reports of finances.
The review also suggests removing the current requirement that conference delegates are elected by cross-campus ballot, suggesting that unions can be “trusted” to pick their own method and ensure “representative” delegations.
In short, NUS’s right-wing leadership is backing proposals to hand large chunks of our work over to a Board almost certain to be dominated by unelected, unaccountable external trustees; to scrap the block of 12; to allow student union officers to hand pick their delegations to conference, and to remove almost all policy debate from National Conference in favour of tiny one union, one vote zone conferences.
These moves dramatically narrow the opportunities for any political activist who doesn’t have a sabbatical union position, or mates on the NEC, to even get to national policy debates, let alone stand for election, hold their representatives to account or, if elected, challenge the guaranteed right-wing dominance on the Board or Senate. It will create massive layers of bureaucracy in terms of submitting policy (it’s hard enough for some unions to get policy to one conference, let alone five separate ones) and passing decisions on ruling committees (the Board has a veto). As a supposed answer to NUS’s genuine lack of involvement and general activist disillusionment, it’s pathetic.
Pretty much all the problems laid out in the paper, about students not taking NUS seriously, a lack of engagement in democratic structures and poor involvement in campaigns, are due to the consistent efforts of the right-wing to depoliticise NUS. For years successive leaderships have refused to lead a fight on anything (witness the ridiculous lack of a demo the year top-up fees came in for a start). Now they harp on about “getting the ear of government” and looking “credible” to policy-makers by ditching militant tactics in favour of cosying up to Brownite politicians. Is it any wonder the average student feels like NUS is little more than a discount card?
Instead of looking to their own actions, the NUS bureaucracy are blaming our democratic structures. And the solution? Ripping pretty much all the democracy out of them.
Yesterday, Wes Streeting, the leading Labour Student and NUS Vice-President Education, had the gall to suggest that factions, long cited as a confusing and alienating aspect of NUS democracy, will behave better under new structures.
It’s true that many factions are shadowy, secretive and conspiratorial at the moment (and Education Not for Sale attempts much better behaviour, for example exposing internal NUS debates, and organizing openly and democratically). But that’s certainly not the fault of the structures – they can’t let themselves off the hook by blaming the way NUS is set up for their own behaviour!
This review will be voted on at next week’s NEC, and it’s clear that the right-wing are geared up to tout it to student officers as the answer to all their problems. It’s not. Dumbing down NUS to meet the current level of political culture isn’t an answer – instead we should be leading a democratic, campaigning NUS that lifts the political culture.
ENS will be discussing how we can defend NUS democracy at our Education for Freedom gathering on October 21, at the University of East London. We urge all student activists and officers who want to preserve NUS democracy, whether or not they support ENS, to come and take part in launching a broad campaign. For more information, or to get involved, email email@example.com or call 07815 490 837.
• ENS: www.free-education.org.uk