Five members of Sheffield University student union’s delegation to the 2008 National Union of Student’s conference (including myself) face disciplinary action following their refusal to vote in line with a “mandate” imposed on them by their union’s Council in favour of the NUS Governance Review.
They face permanent exclusion from all future union elections. At least two of the five are potential candidates in next year’s sabbatical elections.
This disciplinary action should be seen as a politically motivated attempt to exclude socialist and other radical elements, that is, people who want to fight the attempt by NUS leadership to introduce a constitution which would carve out all but a small layer of full-time students’ union officers from the decision making process.
In the last ten years the focus of student activism has shifted away from the “official structures” of campus unions and NUS nationally. Union structures — presided over either by apolitical elements or by various shades of Blairite, or worse — have atrophied, effectively disenfranchising the vast majority of rank-and-file members of most students’ unions and excluding them from setting their political and campaigning direction. Policy is increasingly decided either by Executive Committees or unrepresentative Union Councils.
At Sheffield there are members of Union Council (supposedly our union’s sovereign body) who were elected with less than five votes.
That is why several candidates in the NUS delegate elections stood on an explicit platform of opposition to NUS’s proposed new constitution and committed to vote against it. The new constitution was rejected by NUS conference. That is why Sheffield’s sabbatical officers (all but one of whom were prominent advocates of the new constitution) want to console themselves by silencing their political opponents.
Who are the real democrats in this situation? The right-wing sabbaticals who pushed policy through an unrepresentative Union Council, who conduct their proceedings behind closed doors, and who have presided over union elections in which less than 10% of union members voted? or the conference delegates who upheld their democratic commitment to the hundreds of students who voted for them not to vote for the new constitution?
This is an attack with potentially national dimensions. In other students’ unions supporters of the defeated constitution have taken, or propose to take, similar measures against delegates who broke “mandates.” These unions include Edinburgh and Hull.
This case highlights the abject lack of democratic culture in our union. All socialists, radicals and democrats in the student and trade union movement to support the Sheffield Five by:
• Adding your name to a protest letter (based on the text above) by emailing
• Sending a message of protest to Sheffield SU president Mark Willoughby at firstname.lastname@example.org and copy to email@example.com
• Joining the Facebook group: “Their democracy or ours: The case for real democracy”
• Getting in touch to discuss further campaigning.
• More: www.free-education.org.uk