I was amused last week to read that NUS’ decision to drop its opposition to tuition fees marked “the final decline in student radicalism” – we went way past that stage over a decade ago!
Back when I was a student I remember the then president of NUS going round the country urging student unions to ditch their policies on restoring student grants with a view to stopping the “Tory” plan to introduce tuition fees. That president was one Jim Murphy. One of his first acts as an MP just a year later was to vote in tuition fees.
That incident taught me several important lessons about trusting Labour politicians further than I could throw them. At the time I liked to think NUS itself was salvageable. Now I’m not so sure.
Because actually the problem in NUS isn’t ultimately Labour, it is the low level of participation. If the level of support the hard left enjoys in NUS was in any way reflective of the student population, we would have significantly more than one hard left MP sitting in the Commons right now. The Lib Dems have always done well with students and always done shockingly bad at converting that level of support into influence in NUS. Why? Because no sane student (i.e. one who is statistically likely to vote Lib Dem) goes anywhere near NUS.
NUS is like a little part of the Labour movement that a few of us non-Labour supporting souls are allowed a insight into during our formative years. All the main features are there: delegations that get casually manipulated by their leaders whenever it suits them; policy making by conference resolution; corporatist identity politics to keep under-represented groups under control. It’s a horrendous vision – a little like Dante’s Divine Comedy (for the record, Murphy is in the Ninth Circle). Remember the character Jonah in the Torchwood episode Adrift who screamed for 20 hours every day? He did this because in the middle of the Dark Star he looked into there was an NUS compositing session going on. I happen to know for a fact that this detail was removed from the final script at the insistence of Jack Straw.
The problem is, however much Labour behave like two-faced bastards in it, you wouldn’t really want the other side to get its own way either. At least Labour have a toehold in reality – the Alliance of Workers Liberty and their cohorts can’t even claim that.
And the biggest joke? After spending years fighting or working with these various factions in NUS, no matter where they came from politically you are likely to find them pounding the streets working to get Labour elected come election time. Despite the fact that everyone seems to place so much stock in being an “independent” in NUS politics, pretty much the only people in it who aren’t card carrying members of the Labour Party are the card carrying Lib Dems and Tories. And even then you can never be sure.
NUS doesn’t represent students. Even as a political activist I spent much of my time at university doing things like amateur dramatics and helping to run the film society. These sort of activities are the lifeblood of student unions, yet the only people NUS is interested in engaging with are political hacks. That essential truth has not changed in 30 years. Until it does, it does not matter how much the bozos du jour try invoking the “spirit of ’68” they will be ignored, and rightly so. They are just like so many King Cnuts. To any students out there my advice is to do what I didn’t: get involved in your local disaffiliation campaign today!
UPDATE: Had a strange critique of this post from someone who appears to some up my criticism (i.e. anti-NOLSie Leninist who happens to be a card carrying Labour Party member):
Here is the view that these reforms are positively awful but we canâ€™t possibly, yâ€™know, re-democratise the NUS because that puts us in league with the AWL oiks – crivens!
For starters, I didn’t get into the proposals to “redemocratise” NUS at all, mainly because I don’t know – or care – what they are. But the question is, how do you define democracy?
It’s a problem we have in the Lib Dems as well. For a lot of people in the left, democracy equals votes, lots of them, on everything. Voice, access and participation is a complete irrelevance. In my day and I suspect this continues, the left in NUS is focussed solely on the politics of turning up and that the more people this alienates who thus don’t bother to take an interest in student politics, the better since it makes things simpler and more manageable.
My criticism was that student politics doesn’t even attempt to engage with the vast majority of students with much wider and more eclectic interests than politics. More decision making by conference resolution won’t change that. Clearly it isn’t even on David Semple’s radar, which pretty much makes my point for me.