April 2011 will be a critical time for the student movement following on from the devastating increase to tuition fees by the Tory-led government and the question of the NUS’ leadership will be at the forefront of the debate in Newcastle Gateshead at the Sage where the delegates from universities and colleges from around the country will descend to debate policy, elect officers to the national executive committee and set the vision for the future.
The past 12 months have been what many delegates last year feared would happen, and if only the Liberal Democrats hadn’t lied to students, but many realists had to understand the likelihood of what was to happen. This is why NUS was set with the task of organising one national demonstration, by the organisation’s supreme governing body. Each subsequent action was the purview of the NEC, which each delegate elected after careful consideration of their manifesto and witnessing the character of the person they voted for. The moderate students, of which I count myself, have been pleased with the direction that the NUS and its NEC have taken during this tumultuous period in British politics.
In the past 3 months I have read more calls for resignation and assumptions that NUS will elect a fighting candidate from the left than I care to remember. The reality is, as most former delegates and student officers will know, that the student movement en masse considers conference delegates to be the least appealing position in student elections and the one that is most misunderstood, perhaps next to a student representative on the institution’s Board of Governors, as candidates will promise to deliver a different way of doing things. The reality is that each delegate will do it differently, unless their Union whips their votes in any way, but for the most part (from my experience) delegates are elected and have no accountability brought on them by their respective student bodies.
As the election season hots up within the student movement the rabble rousers of the left may have been prepared enough to ensure that their delegation is represented in superior numbers by the left but it is down to each institution to dictate their own politics, and sometimes making an SU election campaign too political is a sure-fire way of losing. This presents us with the assumption that maybe the left will be prepared in numbers to back their emerging candidate, Mark Bergfeld NUS NEC, for President. It is an assumption though, and perhaps one could be too close to call as the emotion surrounding the student movement in the wake of the Tuition Fees vote, and it is likely that leading NUS figures Liam Burns, NUS Scotland President, and Shane Chowen, current VP FE, will dispute the final round of voting.
These candidates seem credible, confident and competent whenever I’ve had the opportunity to speak to them or see them in action. However after witnessing Bergfeld’s failed attempt to the VP HE job after Aaron Porter last year I don’t feel in good confidence that he will take the moderate approach that many Union’s will call for and will need in the months to come.
The problem with the left as they presented themselves last year was that their antics of protests, occupations, direct action and the like would have kicked NUS out of the debate. I’ll be the first one to argue where NUS conference should focus its energy but Conference 2010 made the right choice for a moderate Union with a prepared and reliable candidate for President. The left will argue that NUS should have lead on protests, after the action Conference called for, but I think it was right with what it did do. It supported actions and focused on the lobby of parliament ensuring that MPs were targeted and an attempt was made to make a final plea before the vote. Am I so confident that this direction would have been taken without the decisions made by conference to elect a team lead by Aaron Porter? Honestly, no.
Protest is not the be all and end all of political action but having listened to some students on the left they will attempt to convince you that it can bring down governments. The problem is that 2010 saw the first mass demonstration of students since the 1960s and I’m sure there were a few cobwebs both in the leadership and the movement.
Criticism has come attacking why NUS has not spoken out against specific tactics employed by the police. My question is, would the police have used those tactics in subsequent protests if the left, and other militants, hadn’t caused the damage and chaos at Millbank. Some of the left will argue that NUS should have condemned or spoken out against the punishment of Edward Woolard, the student sentenced to a prison term for throwing a fire extinguisher from the top of the building. They were right not to. It was important they left the authorities to do their job. After all it was their protest they organised and trouble occurred.
See the difference in tactics employed on the day of the vote when a small number of left Unions and campaign groups organised a subsequent protest. The media coverage presents the protest as being badly organised, with protesters allowed (both by organisers and police) to mask their faces, and ended up with a militant group attempting to rush on parliament rather than keep on a planned course. Did the left organisers apologise? Not publicly that I saw. They did condemn the tactics used by the police.
This is the kind of action and leadership the NUS can expect with the left running the show and this is why its important to elect moderate leaders who can represent both sides of the political divide in equal measure. Students want to be kept around the table and in the debate, regardless of their position, and shouting and screaming spitting the dummy is not going to aid the NUS sit round a table with grown ups who are employed to run the country.
My final point to all three sides: if NUS’ direction is that important to you personally and you feel like you are entitled to vilify Aaron or any of the other NUS Full-Time officers please stand in the elections this year. I am tired of hearing from students who have only just jumped on the bandwagon have a go at policy they weren’t interested in deciding, electing an officer they disagree with or a student movement they didn’t care about.