The Unhearing Ventriloquism of the NUS

24/07/2015 11:57 BST | Updated 23/07/2016 10:59 BST

I am indebted to Anastasia Tropsha for providing the central conceit of this article

Every time we think that the NUS cannot set itself further from the interests of ordinary students, we are proven wrong. Rarely, however, has this been as blatant as the passing of a motion mandating that the Purchasing Consortium of the NUS - which is used by many SUs to allow their shops and bars to offer competitive prices - to cease supply of all Coca-Cola products. Such a move is perhaps the clearest evidence yet that the NUS leadership is not concerned with its self-awarded role of representing "the definitive national voice of students". Rather than cast themselves as the ventriloquist's dummy to speak what is input by regular students, they instead wish to be the ventriloquist, and substitute the voices of ordinary students for their own.

The adopting of controversial political stances - exemplified by the Coke motion - is, however, nothing new from the NUS. In the last year alone, for instance, we have seen the organisation openly campaign politically against the Liberal Democrats purely for their u-turn on tuition fees, to the tune of an eye-watering £40,000. We have also seen the NUS pass a motion stating that it is officially opposed to UKIP, despite the fact that there are inevitably UKIP supporters and Party members among its ranks. Perhaps worst of all, however, we saw the NUS LGBT Committee propose a motion (which was passed) attacking white gay men for allegedly appropriating black women. Problems of the racism and stereotype inherent in the concept of doing so aside, what is more reprehensible still is the fact that the motion was proposed by the NUS's LGBT Committee, the latter thereby attacking part of the very group it claims to represent and speak for.

However, we have reached the point where such an escalation to actively working against students' interests in the name of the NUS's politics is unsurprising, especially when we consider its previous stances on Israel/Palestine and indeed radicalisation as a whole. Most notoriously, the NUS voted not to condemn ISIS, with opponents of the motion (proposed by a Kurdish member of the NEC) which also expressed solidarity with the Kurds fighting against ISIS arguing - absurdly - that to do so was Islamophobic and racist. Moreover, it is notable that the only group which the NUS's anti-PREVENT motion - passed last Conference - specifically resolved to work with is CAGE, a group whose leaders have refused to condemn FGM or stoning for adultery, and whose director referred to Jihadi John as a "beautiful young man". Nor is it a defence, as the NUS has contended after a rebuke from David Cameron, for the NUS leaders to state that they do not in fact work with CAGE; given that the NUS's new President has been censured for not following NUS policy, surely refusal to work with the group which the motion calls on the NUS to work with deserves similar censure.

It should not need further elaboration as to how none of the above can reasonably be said to represent the views of the vast majority of students, which beggars the question of whether the NUS really has any moral legitimacy when it declares that it is the "definitive national voice of students", a right not even claimed by national governments, which instead refer to the national interest or appeal to the doctrine of mandate when justifying policy stances. Moreover, the NUS's predilection for passing grandiose foreign policy motions, such as the BDS motion, only further shows that they have no moral right to do so; when the NUS creates an environment where Israeli and pro-Israel students actively feel unwelcome, how can it then claim to represent their 'definitive national voice' as students? Furthermore, when the NUS blatantly proposes motions such as supporting a marking boycott by lecturers, or the Coke motion, it becomes even clearer that the NUS does not in fact do what it has awarded itself the right to do, even on issues directly affecting students, instead seeing the effects of its motions on students as secondary to the advancement of its own partisan agenda.

It is also not enough to claim the problem of the NUS indifferently appropriating all student voices for what is ultimately a fringe agenda will go away simply if more people engage with the NUS. Rebuttal of this proposition goes further than the self-perpetuating far-leftism of the NUS - borne out by motions such as those discussed above, which only further alienate students of other political persuasions - and right to the heart of the NUS, namely that it awards itself the right to speak in our names - to own the thoughts in our brains, the air in our lungs and the tongues in our mouths - in the first instance.

The illegitimacy of this self-awarded right is clearly shown by the fact that the NUS sees fit to adopt party-political stances at all; there is absolutely nothing to suggest that being a student entails support for BDS or opposition to mainstream political parties like UKIP for instance, a point reinforced by the fact that the students as a demographic are incredibly diverse, with students coming from all countries, backgrounds and political affiliations. Therefore, to argue that "as students" we should all support the same policies (such as requiring ordinary taxpayers to subsidise our degrees, otherwise known as "free education"), and then to purport to speak for all students on the national stage on party-political matters, is normatively unjustifiable. For the NUS to have any legitimacy for its claim to speak for students and in their names, it must focus exclusively on issues that actually affect students day-to-day, such as academic feedback, contact hours and welfare support; for the NUS's current insistence on grandiose posturing on party-political issues to be justifiable, it must rescind its self-awarded right to speak for students nationally. It cannot do both.

It also cannot be forgotten that, even when it is alerted to the fact that its stances are unrepresentative, the NUS's response seems to be to ignore criticism. This was evidenced clearly by its reaction to criticism of the 'Liar Liar' campaign; when faced with trenchantcriticism by students, its response was to ignore this criticism and even announce more billboards to intensify the campaign. Now this ignorance has been repeated after the passing of the Coke motion in the face of a letter signed by more than 150 officers in the Student Unions throughout the country that will actually be affected by the motion, unlike the NUS sabs themselves.

In light of the above, the idea that the NUS actually represents "the definitive national voice of students" seems questionable at best and an outright falsehood at worst. To return to the opening conceit, for it to actually do so, it would need to cast itself as the ventriloquist's dummy, voiced by the opinions of ordinary students on matters which affect their student experience. Instead, it casts itself as the ventriloquist and ordinary students as nought but a dummy to be voiced with their own opinions. Except this dummy is not silent, and increasingly speaks with its own voice against the NUS leadership (as evidenced by reactions to the Coke motion). Nor, unfortunately, is the ventriloquist deaf; it is perfectly capable of hearing the dummy talk back if only it would care to listen. Perhaps, then, the best thing for the dummy to do is to detach itself from the ventriloquist and go its own way.