Make no mistake: elections are in vogue. From Ecuador to Armenia, Barbados to Djibouti, this month sees eleven countries go to the polls in votes of varying reliability. Currently bidding for his fourth spell as Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi can’t get enough of them (I’m still talking about elections); so desperate is the Vatican to get in on the act that the Pope broke with 600 years of tradition to resign in office, triggering an historic papal conclave.
Not to be outdone, the National Union of Students will converge on Sheffield in April to elect six budding politicos to full-time executive positions. The three-day national conference presents members with an opportunity to debate the future of further and higher education in this country, deliberations which will inform the organisation’s policy for the year ahead. In the words of James McAsh, a candidate for Vice President (Union Development), this is an annual treat for NUS members who, we are told, “bloody love democracy.”
Last week’s student media conference provided an early insight into the themes that are likely to dominate the forthcoming elections. Spanning more than four hours in less-than-glamorous surroundings (NUS HQ occupies the fourth floor of a nondescript central London office block), and featuring fifteen candidates, these hustings were not for the faint-hearted or the caffeine-deprived.
Intriguingly, however, the afternoon fired the starting gun on the race to succeed Liam Burns – student politics’ answer to Joseph Ratzinger – in the coveted role of national president. Though it is somewhat inevitable that the top job should be afforded the greatest scrutiny, this election has been enlivened by an entirely atypical quartet of candidates featuring two women, an inanimate carbon rod and (shock horror!) a Tory.
Peter Smallwood, the card-carrying Conservative in question, is determined that party political allegiance should play no role in the election. A sabbatical officer at Brunel University, Smallwood’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign emphasises the sheer lack of engagement that “students on the ground” feel with what he sees as a distant, aloof NUS. “It’s not always talking about politics,” he explains. “I did not win by hoisting the blue flag up the flagpole.”
He is quite right. When it comes to student politics, it has never paid to be anything other than left of centre, a fact that is reflected in the litany of Labour Party apparatchiks who have historically occupied the position of NUS president. Sam Gaus, ‘nominated bearer’ of the Inanimate Carbon Rod – more of which later – claimed that, “a lot of people see the NUS as a stepping stone into a career in the Labour Party, or for the purposes of furthering their own career rather than furthering the student movement.”
A paid-up party member himself, Liam Burns admitted to The Mancunion in October that “there is no smoke without fire” when it comes to Labour’s long-standing link with NUS. He could barely argue otherwise. Burns’ predecessor was a Labour Party member; his predecessor is now a Labour councillor; her predecessor was an integral part of Labour Students; his predecessor is a one-time Trotskyist; her predecessor was a Labour Student. Given that previous NUS presidents have included Stephen Twigg, Jim Murphy, Charles Clarke, Phil Woolas and Jack Straw – all eventual Labour MPs – there is an argument to be had that the NUS is merely a Labour Party finishing school.
As such, little time is wasted before the party political question rears its head. It has been widely reported that Vicki Baars, avowedly a candidate of the left, sent out a string of emails ahead of Demo 2012 encouraging protestors to call for Tories and Lib Dems to be put “on the bonfire.”
Apologetic, Baars insists that the email “was meant with really good intention,” before offering a veiled criticism of Burns’ leadership. “We pass a lot of policy at our national conference which doesn’t actually get implemented because the person leading the organisation doesn’t necessarily agree with it,” she suggests. “I’d implement policy whether or not I agree with it.”
Nonetheless, the partisan nature of the incident could be construed as problematic. Though NUS undoubtedly needs a president who is willing to stand firm in the face of swingeing cuts to education, such tribalism caricatures students as protest-hungry and fiercely anti-establishment; doing little to win over the general public when it comes to making the argument for a greater commitment to higher education.
Indeed, there is some ammunition here for those who dismiss NUS as a parody of itself. Whether its “cascading” or “communicating wins,” we are bombarded with more management speak than you could shake a stick at. At one point I am sorely tempted to run downstairs to the office of Guinness World Records and call for an adjudicator to begin counting the innumerable acronyms (NUS, VP, FE, HE, EMA, HEFCE…) we are presented with. That’s not to mention the fact that I have been handed a document which expressly forbids my asking of “frivolous questions,” or the wonderfully clichéd ‘I still hate Thatcher’ mug in the hand of a staff member.
Enter the Inanimate Carbon Rod. Dismissed by some as a ‘joke candidate,’ the students running its campaign are genuinely angry at what they see as a benign, outmoded NUS. The Rod – borrowed from a 1994 episode of ‘The Simpsons’ – is, apparently, a metaphor for the betrayal of NUS to students.
Sam Gaus, fluorescent rod in hand, explained his position. “In 2010, then-president Aaron Porter totally condemned students protesting. He publicly withdrew support for the national student occupations; NUS would not offer legal support to students on its own marches.”
“Since then, Liam Burns has failed to fight back against the Brown Review. He has suggested that bursaries are reduced to counter-balance lowering fees; he tried to stop there being a demo at all last year, having spoken out against it at conference.”
“A national collective action could be a very effective thing to enrich the lives of students and staff in educational institutions,” Gaus continued, “and the fact that NUS isn’t being used properly is a betrayal of the students. By virtue of being inanimate – by virtue of being explicitly inactive – the Rod cannot betray students as presidents have done in the past.”
There remains a slight possibility that the carbon rod will not make it to conference in Sheffield – NUS members may object to the eligibility of any candidate until 1 March – but its presence here, far from making a mockery of the process, has actually made for an altogether more comprehensive debate about the nature of NUS’ contribution to student life.
“For too many people, NUS is just a card,” argues Peter Smallwood, to some extent echoing the Rod’s position. “It’s just a card that you get and you pop into Topman, and you get 20% off, and you pop into McDonald’s and you get a burger on behalf of Liam Burns – and that’s what’s wrong with our movement. We’re not representative in the way that we like to claim we’re representative.”
If NUS isn’t properly representing students, what does it represent in its current form? The common denominator amongst all of the candidates is a steadfast opposition to funding cuts perpetrated by the coalition government; all three candidates for Vice President (Further Education) unanimously condemn the government’s decision to scrap EMA, for example, with Matt Stanley branding their plans for education “the greatest assault on students and ordinary people in living memory.”
It does not surprise me that virtually every candidate believes in free higher education for all, but I question whether this is a realistic goal for NUS to pursue. It might be a noble aim, but there is more chance of Emeli Sandé fading into obscurity than there is of tuition fees being scrapped.
Surely, the movement would be better off admitting defeat and focusing its considerable might on fighting more winnable battles? My suggestion that the government has already proved that it is impervious to public discontent when it comes to cuts, and therefore is unlikely to pay much attention to NUS, is largely met with disapproval. “I wouldn’t stand to be a Vice President of the NUS if I didn’t think that the government was listening to us,” countered VP candidate Joe Vinson.
Despite the overwhelming consensus on fees and cuts, discord looms large. Some candidates are still arguing over the 2010 demonstration which saw violence erupt at Millbank which, it is argued, “smashed the consensus that cuts were necessary.” Naomi Beecroft, a candidate for Vice President (Higher Education), calls Aaron Porter’s response to the action “disgusting”; the incumbent, Rachel Wenstone, stresses the need for “action that matches our objectives at the time. Manchester is a great example – how are the occupations of lecture theatres in Manchester helping the kids in Moss Side who can’t access education?”
With the general election just two years away higher education is barely registering on the political Richter scale, and NUS has a fight on its hands to force the issue onto an already crowded 2015 agenda – a fact which Toni Pearce is acutely aware of. “At the moment, education is not a priority for the general public,” she admits, “which means that we have to spend the next two years campaigning and showing them what the public value of education is.”
It would be easy to characterise the afternoon’s conversation as navel-gazing, but the discussion over what NUS is for and, just as importantly, what it is against is one that desperately needs to be had. NUS remains a divided movement; divided over its core purpose, over campaign tactics and over its ability to mobilise a seven million strong membership.
The great challenge for the next president will be to reinvigorate and unite the movement. The wild ululation which will greet the winner will be for nothing if he or she fails to engage with what students want from their NUS; take charge on funding and housing, but leave ‘Say No to Genocide’ campaigns to the ministry of the bleeding obvious. When I part with £12 in return for my NUS Extra card, I want to believe that I am buying into more than a discount card.
For the full list of candidates, their manifestos and the positions they are standing for, visit http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/conference/elections/