Wednesday, 13 April 2011

NUS distress

Before I start today’s ‘beginner’, ‘ignorant’, ‘right-wing’ etc piece, I would like to make a couple of observations about the way my last article was received. On one side, those who identify as ‘hard left’ said it was right-wing. But my argument, that people rather than political ideas are attacked, shone through. So many of the aggressive and unpleasant comments attacked me personally. Charlie only cares about his own class, middle class bastard, he just asks his parents for money, so on, so forth, so tired. ‘I always assumed he was a Tory’ rather summed it up – because there are two lessons here. Firstly, don’t make unsubstantiated allegations about someone’s person or personal circumstances, because it leads to the charge of ignorance, or worse, arrogance. To those who attacked me personally – get to know my person first. And secondly, if you disagree with someone, at least work out why you do, and have a coherent argument against what they are saying, rather than just spurting a tired ideology. A political argument is interesting and helps shape ideas; a political diatribe, viciously attacking the other side but not understanding or engaging, gains nothing, and is frankly a bit too establishment for young people to be getting involved in. And please, try to be consistent. ‘Doctors are working class’ says one, as they sell their labour; and yet I’m told I am putting my own class priorities first, as a bad thing. I got rather confused – but also rather depressed by the fact that these who attacked me identify as ‘left wing’ and should naturally feel more affinity to people sharing a somewhat common goal than those more to the right. But no, apparently not; and what a shame that truly is. Maybe being sure of yourself gets you far in politics, but if you don’t listen, you might as well give up. Perhaps not listening is part of the ‘hard left’s’ psyche, but it won’t win people over. Still, they probably don’t care.

But anyway. Today sees the start of one of the most derided but potentially most dangerous conferences in the union calendar: the National Union of Students. Aaron Porter, a moderate and deeply committed President, has been somewhat forced out, and there is a real choice for next year’s leader. Slightly right, slightly left, and ‘hard left’.  And the extremists might just win – which would be a disaster for the NUS, and which will lead to distrust from those making and enforcing the law, the public and the majority of ordinary hardworking students. Delegates need to remember that they are representative (note to extremists – representative is when you’re elected for something – like I was – thus I can call myself ‘representative’) of their parishes, and should be voting as such.

The NUS has long been seen as a spring board to power for those centre-lefties who want to make it to the Shadow Cabinet by the time they’re thirty (what an awful thought – how about getting a life and having a life?). And this, together with various pressure groups, has led to a lot of non-student motions being debated. Let’s take one, for example. Israel Palestine, a situation that is as difficult as it is appalling, and one which I wouldn’t believe myself able to comment on, having only a basic grasp of the history and politics of the area. However, there are very strong views on both sides, and it’s something that should be debated in a number of forums. I’m all for debate. But debate and discussion is a very different thing to passing motions and ‘speaking for the student movement’. So a motion condemning Israeli ‘apartheid’ in Palestine, or Palestinian ‘terrorism’ in Israel, goes one step too far. Because it deigns to speak on behalf of ‘students’, not just a couple of politically active and ideologically driven wannabe politicians or activists of the future. It’s not that what is said is necessarily wrong – it’s the forum which shouldn’t be used.

A students’ union must be for students’ issues. The standard argument is that ‘what affects the public as a whole affects students as well’, and this is true – but that doesn’t mean that it is relevant or appropriate for the NUS (or our own beloved CUSU) to pass motions on it. It is perfectly appropriate for a students’ union – a lobby group, if you will – to oppose increases to tuition fees, if that is representing its members. It is also appropriate for the same union to be campaigning to save maintenance bursaries, etc. Because, as a union representing its members in their capacity as STUDENTS, with very specific things that we, as a body, take into consideration uniquely, it should be an effective lobbying force (whether it is or not is debatable – and perhaps it isn’t so effective because of all the peripheral non-student-specific issues that are motioned).

For those of us (and there are a lot, although most get so bored and fed up with political posturing at NUS/CUSU that they don’t get involved) that disagree with non-student-specific things being motioned at student unions, what are we supposed to do? The procedural idea of ‘this shouldn’t be debated, move on’ is a good one, but often it doesn’t work.  Instead, we end up having to speak against things that we personally agree with, but which are simply not the domain of the students’ union. I have personally been labelled a fascist this year for moving things to a vote, or voting against things, which are traditional ‘left-wing home-territory’. But if people actually listened to the reasons we have, when we oppose motioning for non-student-specific issues, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so vilified.

I’m all for political discussion, and I’m all for students getting involved and engaged with difficult issues worldwide and in this country (although I think it’s important to remember that students are generally inexperienced and don’t pay income tax), but do NOT use our student-specific lobbying body to launch a general non-student-specific political campaign. Some of the stuff up for debate in the next couple of days will truly affect the student experience. Some of it will be ineffective. And some of it will have nothing, at all, to do with student-specific business, and it should NOT be debated. And if it is, then I will have to vote against, because sometimes accepting your own potential ignorance, and remembering what you are doing – that is, representing a body which has mandated you to do so – is more important than your own political convictions. I am not there as Charlie Bell, member of Labour. I am there as Charlie Bell, delegate of CUSU to the NUS.

I trust and hope that we gain an effective leader, who will hold together the disparate strands of the student body who belong to the NUS. If we don’t, those who elect an extremist will plunge their colleagues – those who elected them to vote on student-specific issues, and get a better deal for future students – into a mire of destruction – and into an NUS that many will no longer feel is their union, and which will not be the representative body it must seek to be.

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