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Aftermath of the NUS conference 07

NusQuick, belated, note on the recent NUS conference.

The CF exec decided this year to not get involved in the NUS other than pay for a stall at its conference. There was still a small group of Tories at the conference though, described by one hack as having "morphed into an unrecognisable (except for the accent) clump of anti-faction".

Sam Rozati (well known as a Conservative, but standing independently) was a handful of votes away from being elected the next NUS Treasurer, but he did get onto the block of twelve.

Footage of the conference is online. For a hugely detailed description of it, from a Conservative perspective, read Edward Keene's report (copied below).

Update: The NUS are running a survey on what kind of things they should be campaigning on, it'd be worth having your say!

"NUS Conference this year was held 27th - 29th March at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool (which aren’t actually gardens at all, but rather a series of halls and drinking dens). I approached the conference an unashamed sceptic of the NUS. Earlier in the year, I had made strenuous efforts to make my Union (or ‘Constituent Member’ in NUS-speak) leave the national union (though in the end we decided to stay in). I had a great number of preconceptions about the NUS, some of which were justified by conference, others less so. In the latter category was my greatest pre-existing objection to NUS membership, namely its unreconstructed, unreconstructable nature - the resistance of its structures and institutions to change and reform. With the benefit now of a range of conference experiences, both generic and specific, (but chiefly the decision of conference to overwhelmingly support motion 701 for an unrestricted external governance review) I am ready to accept that the organisation does in fact have the capacity to change itself for the better in substantive ways.

This report will consist of two main sections - first a chronology of the proceedings of conference, together with my own impressions and analysis thereof, followed by some more holistic reflections on the event as a whole.

Conference stated late, but was eventually opened by Gemma Tumelty, the National President, who made what can only be described as a strikingly self-abasing speech. In her own words, “NUS has failed” - an almost unbelievable statement for someone who has been president for the best part of a year already. Yet she hammered home the theme, by listing the ways in which NUS was falling short of the expectations of members and the standards of sister unions in other countries. Inevitably, this flagellation did have a political purpose, namely to justify a mandate for comprehensive changes and to dissuade conference from passing anything too radical. Perhaps partly as a result, the a-radicalism of the conference was such that the lead faction of the ‘radicals’, Student Respect, was in uproar by the end of the week, proclaiming the ‘death’ of the NUS. Fortunately, nothing of the sort has occurred - rather, NUS may well have taken on a new lease of life by shedding the absurdity of yesteryear, and beginning the slow process of remodelling itself as something very different both to the NUS that Respect wants to create and to the conception of NUS which resides in the public consciousness. Tumelty also acknowledged the good work done by student organisations beyond the ken on the NUS and outlined a willingness to work with these groups, thus humbly recognising that the NUS does not and will never have any claim on universalism in the student world, given the diversity therein.

Having mentioned ‘the radicals’, I should elaborate on my analysis of the notorious NUS factions. It is safe to say that by far the most efficiently organised factions were Student Respect and Labour Students, though both groups lost out in various elections to independents and other lesser factional groupings. Conference very quickly seemed to polarise around these two main factions who respectively represented the lead ‘radicals’ and ‘moderates’. Where the former wanted marches, mass action, militancy, solidarity with national unions in Greece and France, revolution, and universal living grants, the latter advocated a vastly more pragmatic program of parliamentary lobbies, financial restructuring, governance review, and a ‘Keep the Cap’ priority campaign. Very loosely, Socialist Students, FOSIS (Federation of Student Islamic Societies) and ENS (Education Not for Sale) grouped with Respect in the ‘radicals’, where UJS (Union of Jewish Students), LDYS (LibDems), CF (Conservatives), and newcomers ’Not for Politics, Just for Students’ (again loosely) grouped with Labour in the ’moderate’ group. The former block drew mainly from Manchester, SOAS, Goldsmiths, UEL, Staffordshire, Bradford ,and UWE - the latter drew from Imperial, Bristol, Sheffield, Nottingham, KCL, Reading, and the NEC. Initially, my own allegiances led me to instinctively label these groupings respectively as ‘Alliances of Madness’ and ’Alliance of Sanity’, though for the purposes of this report, I will aver from such partisanship. In many ways, the radicals were in fact the conservatives of the conference, given the NUS’ undeniably radical heritage. In other ways, the moderates were the conservatives, with an agenda inspired by pragmatism and punctuated by perceptive insightfulness. Suffice to say it pleases this delegate greatly to see such a desperate scramble for the attainment of genuine conservative credentials.

Disappointingly, the host body (Blackpool City) waived their greetings, though we did enjoy the attentions of Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, in the sororial greetings section. Mr Barber, the quiet and hard working Unionist who has been noted recently for forging stronger links with Cameron’s Conservative Party, spoke eloquently about students in work and the mutual benefits of NUS-TUC collaboration in this growing field.

Unfortunately, this delegate missed a chunk of the proceedings on Tuesday afternoon having had his credit card swallowed up by an unfriendly cash machine near Central Pier. I spent a good hour or so trekking round Blackpool speaking to an eclectic mixture of Tourist Information officers and Barclays Bank employees, all of whom were very accommodating individuals sufficiently sympathetic to the plight of a young NUS delegate as to allow reasonably rapid resolution of my distressing and inconvenient dilemma. I should note here that the NUS-provided map of the city was extremely useful for this little expedition, the only shortcoming thereof being that parking symbols were the same as those for public conveniences. Thankfully, no cars were seen driving through the walls of the gents in town, but this may explain the unusual smell emanating from Blackpool Central NPC. I was back on conference floor by 3:30pm in time for the start of the motions. In all, I was on conference floor at all times that conference was open, with the exception of the above stated case, two short trips to the pavilion on the Thursday, and two short visits to the little delegates’ room.

The first set of motions to be discussed in the order paper were the membership and steering motions. These were the most ‘technocratic’ and procedural motions of conference, all being submitted by either Steering or Rules Revision committee, with most presented by two giants of the NUS; Rob Park (sadly not re-elected later in conference) and Keith Underhill (gladly re-elected with a resounding majority from his devoted body of supporters - chants of “Keith - Keith - Keith” filled the hall). Intriguingly, and not a little amusingly, a few of the motions that Steering Committee put up were defeated in a slightly immature manifestation of conference’s capacity for petulance and rebellion.

Next came the finance committee motions. Through the course of these, and the subsequent finance committee report, I came to the inescapable conclusion that finance committee, and the office of the national treasurer, are the two institutions which alone have held the National Union together for much of the last few decades. Their pure statistically-driven sanity and cold, unbending rationalism are just the thing that NUS requires to anchor it firmly in the real world. Their report confirmed my suspicion that, despite the best efforts of the Treasury, the NUS is in a horrific financial situation. The only year in living memory not to be sullied by a deficit running to hundreds of thousands of pounds was the one in which the old head office (the proverbial ‘family silver’) was sold off without a corresponding re-investment in real estate. In the words of the outgoing treasurer, “if trends continue, [NUS] jubilee celebrations will turn into a memorial service”… “NUS has got to get real” … “the current system is flawed.” In theory, the governance review will create long-term solutions to some financial problems.

By this stage, conference was one and a half hours behind schedule - a problem that seems to be symptomatic in the national union. Tumelty had mentioned in her opening address the problem of time-wasting and inefficiency. This warning was vindicated throughout conference, with much of the agenda missed, the last two thirds of it comprehensively rearranged, and barely half of the motions discussed. Many pointed to this not as a factor of time wasting proceduralism, but of the insufficient time allocated for conference. Before 1991, there were two conferences per year, each five days long. We now have one two day conference. It has been suggested that this minimalism is designed to concentrated more power in the hands of Steering Committee, who were blamed (mainly by the radicals) for excessive bureaucratism. The reason is more likely to be finance committee’s determination to restrict unnecessary spending. Surely finance committee’s greatest wish, and one not entirely incommensurate with the objective of NUS reform, would be the wholesale abolition of conference, and its replacement with a more powerful NUS Council. Perhaps because of my self-confessed membership of the ‘political elite’ of NUS, but also out of a concern for the political and institutional character of the Union, I personally would not favour such a move. This is not to say though that conference itself does not need to be democratised. Even simple things like the filming (for YouTube?!) of conference would improve the accessibility of the NUS.

The education policy zone report gave the two education VPs a chance to shine. Ellie Russell, VP FE certainly did so, with a very assured performance which thoroughly deserved the vote of thanks offered her by the VP Education, Wes Streeting. His speech, the first of many to conference over the three days, was also confident, but was clearly just a warm-up, as it lacked the ease and co-ordination of his later deliveries. Content-wise, the two spoke of achievements in lobbying over the past year, with particular attention to the new FE White Paper, the first since the early 1990s, into which much NUS input had been made.

During the break between sessions one and two of conference, I took the opportunity of going to the fringe meeting for the group mentioned earlier, ‘Not for Politics, Just for Students’. This meeting, in the Galleon Bar, was a bit of a shambles, with no organised chair or pre-arranged structure, but it evolved reasonably naturally. Dave White, Sheffield Union President, was introduced and spoke well for five minutes about the aims and objectives of the group. Ben Ullman, Bristol President later gave good answers to questions on the philosophical justification for the new formation. Amusingly enough, the one and only Gemma turned up half way through and did a bit of heckling from the back of the room, before agreeing with Ullman and White that their objectives were the same - a very encouraging sign of commitment to reformism! Hopefully NfP, JfS, which looks rather idealistically toward the abolition of all factions, will not be a flash in the pan affair, given the involvement of a significant number of union presidents-elect - of Imperial, Bristol, Durham, and Sheffield, to name just a few.

A new innovation at conference this year was the so-called ‘access breaks’. These were ostensibly intended for the relief of the distressed and disabled. They were however comprehensively abused by a majority of delegates despite the repeated warnings of Steering Committee. Later in conference, the Disabled Students Officer also got up to complain about the abuse. I learned in the process of his speech a new word - disablism, meaning discrimination on the basis of disability. Yet still, whenever a fifteen minute break of this type was called, it would inevitably take much longer that fifteen minutes to get all those who subsequently left conference floor back on to it - this was another source of delay.

By the end of day one, I was exhausted, but for some reason, I still stayed up until 1am playing Hearts with fellow delegates, eventually getting to bed over 20 hours after getting up the previous morning. The hotel we stayed in was very nice, with en suite rooms, a bar, sea views, satellite TV, and friendly staff. In fact, all the locals of Blackpool that I interacted with were friendly. The hotel gave us hearty breakfasts each morning, which was just the ticket for a hard day’s conference.

Day two saw a return to the education motions, of which conference passed items to make education funding a priority campaign, against means testing and to make applications personalised. There were also a couple of debates about universal living grants - a line pushed by the aforementioned radicals, but rejected by conference on the advice of NEC on the basis that such a campaign was impractical and unrealistic. I entirely agreed. As a matter of interest, of the votes that I can remember which way I went, I voted for 203, 204, 205, 206, 207, 301-4, 401-3, 501, 503, 504, 504a, 506, 510, 510 c-e, 601, 701, 701 a and b, 801, 801c, 802, 803, 804 and 805 a, against 201, 202, 502, 505, 510 a, f and b, 701c-e, 702a, 705c, 801 d and 805 c, and abstained from votes on 801a, e and b, and 805.

The elections began in earnest on the Wednesday, with elections for President, Vice-Presidents, and Committees. Of the three presidential candidates, Gemma Tumelty was the most sane and moderate, with Buckland and Owen splitting the loony left vote between them. Tumelty defined herself as “Not the right wing candidate - the right candidate.” Perhaps however it is time for her to accept that within the context of the NUS, she is most assuredly right wing, along with plenty of others who would in the real world self-define as anything from revolutionary socialist though social democrat and conservative, out to libertarian and beyond. Gemma won by a landslide. For National Secretary, Independent Brown beat Respect Baig 538 to 193. VP Welfare was closer, but only between two Labourites, with Respect’s Clare Solomon a distant fourth. Commiserations should go to Richard Angell who, despite a high-profile campaign, lost to fellow NEC member ‘Ama-zing’ in the race for VP Welfare with 284 votes to 455. Even in the VP FE election, Respect lost to a ‘real world’ candidate, 73 votes to 23. Hopefully the repeated annihilation of the radical block, in both elections and motions, will ultimately drill into them the seeds of understanding which may one day flower into more enlightened worldviews. We can but hope. National Treasurer was a hard one to call, with perhaps the strongest field of candidates of the night. Both Dave Lewis from Reading and Sam Rozati from Essex were outstranding candidates, though in the end the former won by jut five votes - 356 to 351. VP Education felt like a replay of the presidential election, with the sitting incumbent, Wesley Streeting, utterly destroying his absurd opponents, ENS’ Woods and Sussex Union President Dan Glass. Glass made the most bloodthirsty speech f the night, stating that “Our society will not be free until the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat.” Such a charming, well adjusted fellow he was. The predictable result: Streeting, 480, Woods, 97, Glass, 91.

Much as I would like to go through every motion discussed and dissect the whys and wherefores of each, I fear there is neither the strength of will within me, nor the commitment of my readership to merit such a gargantuan exercise. I will simply put it that there were more motions discussed, some good, others bad, which were passed and rejected more or less accordingly.

Conference closed at 2pm on the Thursday with a final address by the dear leader, President 06-08, Gemma Tumelty. Some stayed for fringe meetings and leaving speeches; this delegate got the first train back home to Nottingham, but looks forward to conference ‘08.

Ultimately, the fuel that conference runs on can be summed up in one word: emotion. The most accomplished and proficient speakers know that to win an argument, one merely has to win the feelings of the delegates - logical rationalism has little to do with it. Fortunately, it seems that this fact has now been twigged by both ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the NUS, providing a more level playing field. Indeed, I myself would now feel confident in arguing for almost anything up on that podium, provided sufficient time beforehand to formulate the appropriate duration of empty platitudes, tired clichés, monotonous sound bites, and well-worn set phrases. The reality of this conference-nomenclature is such that an attentive delegate could have great fun simply by paying ‘conference bingo’ - a Mars Bar for every fiftieth time the speaker mentions ‘a campaigning, winning union’ or ‘a fair, free, and funded education’.

I was struck by how efficiently chaired and organised conference was, and how few breaches of the peace there were inside the hall. Particular credit must go to Kat Stark, the NUS Women’s Officer, who chaired for the duration of the Tuesday afternoon session and did so in such a way as to be an exemplar to future chairs of conference. Her time-keeping was especially commendable.

I began this report with a statement about the most significant aspect of conference that had changed my mind about the NUS. I will finish with the converse of this - the most resounding affirmation I received of any preconception. It is said by some that NUS suffers from a surplus of political correctness - an over-obsession with getting words ‘right’. I would not entirely agree - there are many elements of PC-ness that are simply borne out of politeness, generosity, and gentleness - all good virtues in their own right. However, it must be acknowledged that there is another, more sinister side to the PC creed, namely, vindictiveness. It has sadly become a knee-jerk reaction amongst almost all NUS-involved minority groups that whenever someone says something they vaguely disagree with, the motivation for the statement is put down to a ‘phobia’ of their particular group. Wild accusations of racism, homophobia, islamophobia, disablism, xenophobia, and chauvinism were bandied about far too recklessly by delegates. Moreover, such is the conflation, amongst some, of personhood with ideology/religion/sexualit

y that almost any criticism of such abstracts is automatically interpreted as some sort of frontal assault on the humanity of those who hold to such identities. This creates a very negative climate of fear in which abstracts cannot be discussed for fear of interlocutors being labelled as ‘x-phobic’ and associated stigmatisation by a self-righteous radical. NUS suffers from an imbalance between awareness of rights and responsibilities. Sectional rights, whilst important, become a burden on the harmony of the wider community if iterated with repeated and aggressive emphasis. Surely an objective of a Union encompassing such a diverse range of backgrounds and lifestyles should be to help build a stronger holistic community - to strengthen the bonds between all people and seek shalom (lit. the peace of the city). As it is, NUS insists on the preservation of ‘safe space’ at conference in which, theoretically, all groups can peacefully co-exist. Unfortunately, it is clear that this is a hollow, false, and artificial peace, with different factions huddling together and hordes of factionally-aligned protesters and flag-wavers immediately outside the ‘safe-space’ ever ready to start chanting threatening mantras, thrust their partisan literature into one’s hand, and foster a climate of, if not fear, then anxiety. It is commendable that NUS makes efforts to deal with what is a difficult situation by putting all delegates into regional blocks, thus splitting up factions, and attempting to foster a united sense of identity behind geographical rootedness. However, this needs to be taken further I believe - and if it is, could prove a beacon to the rest of society. It was the failing of the twentieth century that we lost so much of the tradition in our institutions - and thus respect for them. I long to see the twenty-first become that in which we rebuild the platoons, little and big, of that society, such that we may be a nation of people living lives together, rather than in sectionalised ghettoes. Humanity cannot live solely under the artificial peace of a democratic state-system, for it is in their nature to seek community as well as democracy. NUS has the chance to start building that national community again and therein to foster real respect, and real peace, and real solidarity, not just amongst students, but amongst all the peoples those students interact with, and will age to one day become.

NUS, for all its faults, is a true British Institution - it is a vital landmark of our national political life. It adds colour and vibrancy to the student world. Its leaders have committed themselves to seek change and reform - the evolution needed to sustain our national union. NUS has potential to do a lot of good, so long as good people stay engaged with it and involved in it. This is not to say it is right for everyone - many unions justifiably remain beyond the realms of affiliation. From what I have seen though, NUS is here to stay, for some if not all of us at least. We will watch with interest where the new strain of moderation will take it is years to come.

Praise must go to Ian Wiggins, Nottingham's Delegation Leader for a very proficient approach, congratulations to Be Pringle, our new local NEC member, and of course thanks to all of those who elected me in the first place to represent my peers at Nottingham."


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