Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead