The NUS ‘governance review’ was presented to us as some great piece of social democratic reform by the union’s Labour-affiliated leadership, but in reality they seek to sideline the union’s elected officers and demolish the last remnants of political pluralism within the NUS. The rhetoric says that the union will somehow still be ‘led by students’, but this is patronising at best. The basis and vision for the review was provided not by students, but by non-student union managers. And the main proposal involves the transfer of ultimate power and veto within the union to a ‘trustee board’ made up of ‘external’ individuals such as lawyers and accountants.
What does that mean in practice? When I was elected equality and diversity officer at Leeds University student union, I became a trustee on a new board. I was asked to sign a contract stating that, as a trustee, I would not make any decisions to the union’s financial detriment. In one swift stroke, my right to campaign for the removal of the NUS’s multi-million pound contracts with unethical manufacturers was ripped from my grasp.
The trustees also had the power to overrule any decisions made by students if they were deemed to ‘jeopardise the union’s reputation’ – a phrase interchangeable with ‘having a non-mainstream political opinion’. I was informed that sitting on such a board would require me to take off my ‘student officer hat’ – I would not now be looking after the interests of the ‘minority’ students that you would expect an equality officer to represent, but those of the student body as a whole. Any suggestions that such a structure was a root cause of discrimination were dismissed as the ramblings of a renegade.
One year later, an almost identical review, conceived by a steering group that includes the brains behind the Leeds proposal, has been rolled out for the national union. This time it is suggested that the board will have no officers to represent minorities at all, hat or no hat.
The proposal effectively erodes the already limited democratic structures remaining between ‘ordinary’ students and those at the top. It works to centralise power, reaffirming the view that the union is nothing more than a playground for bureaucrats en-route to a career in Westminster. It is a plan to destroy a mass-membership organisation and create in its place an elitist, monolithic lobbying tool – a kind of student think-tank.
The union’s leaders seem to think that the huge losses students have suffered – the right to free education and the giant leaps made in its marketisation – would not have transpired had we adopted this way of working earlier. That is nonsensical: the reason students lost their right to free education was because the union was begging for scraps inside the minister’s office rather than throwing its energy and resources into mobilising students across the country.
Blaming the shaky governance structures is an easy way out of NUS’s failure to secure the interests of its core members. The union will continue to fail so long as it keeps moving towards becoming nothing more than a consortium of student unions, headed by union managers, that puts profit before students. The union certainly needs to change – but the current proposals have taken a dangerous wrong turn. n
Hind Hassan is one of 12 part-time officers on the National Union of Students executive. She is a member of Student Respect, but writes here in a personal capacity
The battle for the union: a timeline
April 2007 A motion is passed at the NUS annual conference in Blackpool, calling for reform of the union’s governance structures
Summer 2007 The NUS pays a management consultant £100,000 to write a ‘white paper’; a ‘consultation’ then opens. The union is criticised for holding the consultation over the summer, when most students will not be at their universities and so cannot be involved. Left groups realise that the reforms will remove their positions within the union, and set up a campaign against them
December 2007 An ‘extraordinary’ (emergency) conference to pass the reforms is called by the national leadership – at such short notice that delegates from most universities are simply appointed by their unions, not elected by students. Controversially, the chair refuses to count the vote, declaring that it is obviously more than the required two-thirds majority
April 2008 The reforms passed in November go to a ratification vote at the union’s annual conference, but the left mobilises in the form of the Save NUS Democracy campaign and narrowly wins the third of delegates’ votes needed to block the new constitution. NUS president Gemma Tumelty breaks down in tears as the result is announced
Summer 2008 The ‘consultation’ is restarted. New NUS president Wes Streeting says that despite the ‘setbacks’ there will be ‘no turning back’ on reform
November 2008 There are plans for another emergency conference to try to pass the reforms again
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant