Thursday, 13 November 2008

A Necessary Hell? NUS Extraordinary Conference

A short interlude from reports back from Socialism 2008 - yes, I was unfortunate enough to get elected to NUS Extraordinary Conference yesterday.
Just for people's information we don't actually have cross campus ballot elections for NUS Conference anyway - we have elections at our Student Union general meetings. For this conference however, we elected delegates at our student senate (last year we didn't have any elections - they just delegated the same people as for National Conference). I managed to get 7 first preference votes, which isn't bad when you consider that other people who were elected got none (they beat RON on second preference). We really should have got someone else to stand but pretty much everyone was off home during reading week.
So I got the 7 o'clock train from Bangor with the rest of the Bangor delegation (all pro-governance review) and got to Wolverhampton and eventually found the conference. Socialist Students nationally didn't have a huge delegation, which was hampered somewhat by our members from Northumbria not being able to come to the conference because their student union couldn't afford it.
Anyway - I eventually got seated and we heard NUS President (and apparently not Labour Students chair), Wes Streeting speak (for the first of many times) saying that the NUS leadership had compromised with this new version of the constitution (yes, on secondary issues though!) and that people needed to vote for the governance review because NUS needs change (yes, NUS needs change, but not the kind of change that Wes is proposing).
And then we got to what was perhaps the most surreal bit - we had NUS Australia President Angus MacFarlane speaking - he didn't seem particularly left wing but what he described had happened in Australia seemed like a vision for NUS UK's future. He described how tuition fees had been brought in 20 or so years ago by the then Labor government in Australia and how the Howard government had increased fees by 25%, and had brought in variable fees for different courses as well as slashing government grants. In 2000 they brought in legislation that allowed universities to charge whatever they liked if they waived entry tests.
The Howard governments also introduced voluntary student unionism in 2005. This made union membership opt-in, banned collections of fees and banned contributions from Universities such as block grants. You'd be suprised to hear that 1/3 of all SU's in Australia collapsed as a result of this. The only bright thing he pointed out was that Labor had abolished some full fee places since it had got back in and that we should all vote against neo-liberalism.
Anyway - after that was lunch and a chance to catch up with some comrades from elsewhere in the country before back into the furnace. What I thought were some good motions from Sussex in particular got voted down and basically their premises trampled on by conference - the motions from Sussex advocated:
1) That the more representative annual conference (with at least 500-650 more delegates present) should have the deciding say on the constitution - basically stopping them calling more extraordinary conferences
2) That we should bring back a properly organised winter conference instead of continually not getting enough stuff passed through annual conference and instead of the ever continuing extraordinary conferences
3) That there should not be external trustees on the board of NUS as they are unnecessary

There were some truly weird moments - like the conference documents containing the word 'udders' instead of 'used' (I reckon whoever typed the document up was having a laugh) or the person from Warwick SU who in the debate on cross-campus votes for NUS delegates argued against it likening this to voting for the Home Secretary or other government figures (well some of them are elected MP's but it's not really such a bad thing going the whole hog either).

There were some good speeches from the no campaign - Lee Vernon's (Sussex SU Finance Officer and Socialist Students) speech (his second) on the Winter Conference motion was really good and I thought Daniel Randall's closing speech against the new constitution was very good too. I thought Rob Owen varied a hell of a lot and most of his weren't so good (there was a really good one at one point though) - but I wasn't impressed with the amount of times people waved his speech to him - if it would have been possible for this conference to have a close vote then this wouldn't be such a good tactic when the NUS leadership is trying to portray the new constitution as being of the students rather than their little baby. Indeed rather than saying we only need a 1/3 surely it would have been better to talk more like Lee Vernon and Daniel Randall did about the need for a campaigning strategy. Of course - it was never going to be close and that was the whole point of rushing the thing through an extraordinary conference at very short notice - to completely shut out as best as possible real ordinary students in favour of what NUS refer to as ordinary students (namely SU sabbatical officers, trustees or people who have been one or the other).
For those who don't already know the NUS leaderhsip got a big majority 614 YES, 142 No and 8 abstentions - hardly suprising. Despite Wes Streeting trying to distance himself from calling another extraordinary conference - I think he wants this as he doesn't want to chance the far more representative annual conference - but its so undemocratic that he doesn't want to associate itself with himself so he can say that 'ordinary students' called for it.

PS. - On the way back I heard some news to do with the SU at Glyndwr Uni in Wrexham is not getting some or all of it's block grant because Glyndwr Uni had lots of money invested in Icelandic banks - not sure how accurate that is, it needs checking, but Universities will feel able to do this with impunity becuase of the toothlessness of many Student Unions.


Vicky said...

Sounds like hell! I've had the misfortune to go to NUS national conference before and NUS LGBT- both were bureaucratic nightmares. Extraordinary conference sounds even worse. I imagine waiving speaches to Rob Owen is not a good tactic- it makes us seem like we have very little support (which to be fair was probably the case, due to the very nature of the conference itself and the number of delegates who were unelected) and he's not a brilliant speaker anyway. Sussex motions were right- there's no way this should ever have been permitted at an extraordinary conference, but hey, it's not exactly like NUS has a lot of democracy to be saved, or that it ever does anything for most students anyway.

Did it only appear that Northumbria union couldn't afford it when they realised Socialist Students were to be delegated? If so, do I smell a right-wing conspiracy?

Good report, comrade.

Dave said...

There probably is a chance we can defeat it if it proceeds straight to annual conference, there will be some in the NUS leadership who might want to do that. Certainly we can put Streeting under pressure not to call another. If it does proceed to annual conference straight away it will be tough to win, as a lot of the unions have completely fucked the elections up as a result of being made to do them so early. For example in my college, only 5 out of 12 places were filled, so there will have to be a by election, where the left could capitalise.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

On waiving speeches to Rob Owen (Hind Hassan SWSS's other NEC member spoke a few times too) I remember being more impressed than when I'd been to NUS conference a few years back and they kept waiving them to Suzie Wylie who kept making the same speech about the iraq war. The Sabbs from my SU thought he spoke well but didn't agree with him (???)

"but hey, it's not exactly like NUS has a lot of democracy to be saved" - I agree completely - unfortunately the same can be said for too many individual student unions too

on how much support we had - i reckon that pretty much all the votes against were SWSS (they claimed 100 delegates - it think they had a bit less than that though), ENS (about 30 delegates their report says) and Socialist Students (about 10 delegates)- dunno if any other left student groups were present - I think the Black Students campaign may have voted against too.

on Northumbria - not sure - they sent 4 delegates out of a possible 15 - given we've not issued a fiery denunciation I would imagine that it's not a right-wing fix up.

As for Annual Conference - i agree its more favourable - but we only just stopped it getting through last year - in reality it was a mess up by the NUS leadership.

On elections to conference - my union is having fresh elections to NUS conference - some may use already elected delegates and some like yours may just do by-elections.