Defend democracy in the student movement

Submitted by AWL on 9 November, 2004 - 10:41

The National Union of Students “extraordinary conference” called for Monday 8 November to push through attacks on NUS structures looks set to be even more farcically undemocratic than the gathering which originated these attacks in June.

By Alan Clarke, NUS National Executive (personal capacity) and Education Not For Sale Network

Back in June, right in the middle of the exam period, less than 350 delegates (compared to 1,000 at a ordinary National Conference) agreed “reforms” including cuts to the size and length of National Conferences, limitation of the right of Liberation Campaigns to send observers, and changes to the affiliation fee system which will redistribute from poor to rich student unions.

These changes were justified by reference to NUS’s poor financial situation — but Vice-President Welfare Verity Coyle gave the real game away when she began her closing speech with these honeyed words: “I’ve been waiting for this moment for years. Conference, this is just the start.”

Since constitutional changes require ratification by a second conference, the NUS leadership has called (or more exactly got its friends in 25 student unions to call) the follow up “extraordinary conference” this term. On the Friday before the original Monday 1 November registration deadline, however, only 28 delegates — not delegations, but individual delegates — had registered, forcing the National Secretary to put the deadline back to 4 November. By the end of the 2nd total registration had risen to only 99.

The NUS leadership knows that it will be difficult for many unions (particularly in the Further Education sector) to organise any kind of delegation, let alone a really democratic cross-campus ballot — but they are ploughing on with the conference regardless. Meanwhile, some unions, for instance Oxford with its twenty-plus delegates, have not even received notification of the event!

Why can’t such important decisions be discussed by a properly representative National Conference? Why can’t the “reforms” in question wait until next term? The simple answer is that the NUS leadership do not want their plans discussed at a truly democratic gathering, where they would have no guarantee of being passed. They want to present their attacks on democracy to the next National Conference as a fait accompli, a done deal which it will of course be very difficult to reverse.

The contempt for democracy being displayed by the NUS leadership, and above all National President Kat Fletcher (who was elected on a left-wing platform including the defence of democracy) is, even in the swamp of NUS, almost unbelievable.

There are signs that even some of those who called for this conference are getting second thoughts; Leeds University Student Union, for instance, has voted unanimously to withdraw its support. However, we cannot rely on the conference being cancelled.

That’s why Education Not for Sale has called a demonstration at the conference, to give student union officers and student activists an opportunity to show their opposition to the leadership’s attacks on our democratic rights.

Kat Fletcher and her cronies have created a bizarre world in which words no longer have a clear meaning — in which a hand-picked gathering is an “extraordinary conference”, “democracy” means the will of the leadership and “reform” means “destruction”. Changes which reduce the potential for students at the grassroots to have a say in the running of their national union will only weaken membership involvement and thus worsen NUS’s financial situation in the long term. That’s why it’s vital we do everything we can to prevent this special conference completing its “business”.

• Come and join the protest which Education not for Sale is calling outside the conference to oppose this attack on our national union’s democracy. Please bring student union banners and as many people as possible.
(Details of the conference can be found at http://resource.nusonline.co.uk/media/resource/Join_Doc.doc)

• Protest to NUS President Kat Fletcher by emailing kat.fletcher@nus.org.uk and NUS National Secretary James Lloyd at lloyd@nus.org.uk (copying to us at info@free-education.org), demanding that important decisions on NUS reform are made by next term’s National Conference.

• Get involved in the campaign to defend NUS democracy: for more information, contact Education Not for Sale by
emailing alan.clarke@nus.org.uk;
ringing 07976 000 940;
writing to ENS, c/o Coral Harding, UELSU, 4-6 University Way, E16 2RD; or
visiting www.free-education.org

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