The Ugly Self-Actualisation of the NUS

22/04/2016 12:23 | Updated 22 April 2016

The 20th of April 2016 deserves to be remembered (at least to the extent that any day in student politics is remembered) as the day when the NUS finally self-actualised as an organisation. When the mask that the NUS was indeed "the definitive national voice of students" as it declares itself - or even an organisation working in the interests of students - finally fell to the ground and shattered.

The most obvious example of this from conference is the election of the new President-Elect for the NUS: namely, Malia Bouattia. This is the same NUS Officer who led the opposition in October 2014 to a motion condemning ISIS, saying it would be "racist" and "Islamophobic" to do so, when the text of the motion was unimpeachable. That the NUS later passed a motion, after public outcry, is of little consequence, especially when we consider that the new motion only condemned the actions of ISIS, as if somehow the terror group should be considered distinct from them. This is all the more ironic when we consider that the NUS has condemned UKIP as an organisation, but won't issue such a blanket condemnation of ISIS; surely, if ISIS doesn't deserve condemnation, surely no other organisation in the world does, let alone a mainstream political party.

However, this apparent concern for Islamophobia such that even an organisation involved in the mass murder of Muslims and enslavement of minorities cannot be condemned lest the far-right fail to distinguish ISIS and their victims evidently does not extend to Jews. After all, describing Birmingham University as a "Zionist outpost" and stating that its large Jewish Society is a problem, or describing Prevent recently as the result of Zionist lobbying - drawing on the most recognisable anti-Semitic trope of all, namely Jews as onmipotent and malevolent - would surely do more to engender feelings of anti-Semitism than condemning ISIS would for Islamophobia. As would the endorsement of "violent struggle" against Israel; indeed, the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes following Operation Protective Edge is surely proof enough of this.

Yet Bouattia has done all of these things, and her rhetoric, which is at best dangerously close to anti-Semitic and at worst quite blatantly so, was seized upon by the Presidents of 48 Jewish Societies in the country in an open letter, expressing perfectly legitimate concerns about such rhetoric and alleged associations with the anti-Semitic, no-platformed MPACUK. While Bouattia's own response did disavow any idea that she would work with MPACUK, her response to the other concerns must surely strike us as inadequate - not least because, despite her faith not being referenced once, she nonetheless effectively argued that it was somehow relevant to the concerns being expressed.

Indeed, some of her supporters have argued that opposition to Bouattia's election is driven by Islamophobia, as if the same comments from a member of the far right in the same position would not generate exactly the same condemnation (though fortunately someone on the far-right is unlikely to get to such a position since the far-right today are rightly shunned; the same can evidently not be said for the worst excesses of the far-left, whose own stances on omnipotent and malevolent Zionism would not look out of place on the far right). Another popular theory appears to be that she is being targeted for being "pro-Palestine"; the idea that someone can support the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination while not applauding "violent struggle", and even in Bouattia's case arguing that it is "problematic" to condemn violence and support BDS (a movement that many, including myself, see as too extreme rather than too moderate), is evidently lost on them.

Yet, while the election of someone like Bouattia to the position of NUS President, in spite of expressed concerns by every Jewish Society in the country, is surely the most flagrant example of the peculiar blind spot on the NUS's agenda to anti-Semitism, it is by no means unique. Indeed, earlier in the Conference we were treated to the absurd spectacle of a speaker arguing against commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day because other genocides aren't similarly commemorated by the same motion (surely the solution to this would be to bring more motions, not try to sabotage remembering the largest genocide in history, on Hitler's birthday no less) to applause. And while I would hope that these remarks could be, in the instant case, put down to ignorance (as NUS President Megan Dunn pointed out, HMD does actually recognise other genocides), it is worrying in itself that this is not without precedent: exactly the same vacuous arguments - among other vile assertions that it contradicted the Union's policy of being anti-Zionist - were deployed by Goldsmiths SU to actually vote down commemorating HMD (at least in the NUS's case, the motion condemning anti-Semitism of which the commemoration was part actually passed).

As well as showing more blatantly than ever the NUS's blind spot towards anti-Semitism, so long as it can masquerade as anti-Zionism, Bouattia's election also seems to represent yet another large step on the road to the NUS becoming divorced from regular students completely, and degenerating into a catch-all, far-left protest group - with ordinary students mattering only insofar as they provide the number of people for which NUS leaders can pretend their fringe policies speak. In her hustings speech (sadly not yet available online), Bouattia absurdly claimed that NUS Conference was not about the NUS; instead, it appeared to be about almost every other group in society (Tories excepted of course), and essentially that the NUS's job was to be an all-encompassing, marching protest movement. With respect, I would submit that there are many far-left protest movements she could lead if she so wishes; a body that is supposed to represent "the definitive national voice of students" and campaign for their interests should not be one of them.

Nor, again, is this anything unusual. It is almost routine now for a motion to be proposed calling for a "National Demonstration" for its own sake, or - in the case of last year - handing NUS money (otherwise known as SU affiliation fees) to unaffiliated groups like NCAFC to organise "free education" protests to which an estimated 1,000 people turned up (because evidently free education is less important when you have to go out in the rain), despite the fact that any policy to that effect adopted by the government would almost certainly not retroactively cancel current students' loans, making it arguably nothing to do with representing current students. Moreover, this Conference's passed motion calling on the NUS to work with Trade Unions for radical actions such as yet more protests will only make this problem worse; not only will more NUS money be spent on unrepresentative showboating rather than on services to help students (an idea that was mocked by one speaker in yesterday's livestream) but the NUS will continue to lose what little credibility it has left as an institution concerned with actually representing students rather than being a general-interest protest group.

However, it's surely not even arguable that the NUS's obsession with foreign policy represents students in the first instance, still less the stances it chooses to take; how for instance, can the NUS claim any legitimacy for a snap vote condemning the bombing of ISIS in Syria without consulting a single student? By contrast in Exeter, an Idea to similarly condemn the bombing was so unpopular that it failed without a Council vote, and I suspect that that's probably more representative of wider opinion than unanimous condemnation of said bombing - condemnation unfortunately repeated at this year's conference.

Perhaps most tellingly about the attitude of the NUS towards its members is that a motion to bring One Member One Vote failed as this piece was being written. When NUS Conference sees fit to elect a President with 0.005% of the country's student population voting in favour (out of a paltry electorate of 0.01% thereof), despite every Jewish Society in the country expressing some concern with the rhetoric of said candidate, this should come as no surprise; such a candidate would be extremely unlikely to win an election based on universal franchise, and evidently nothing should be allowed to get in the way of the Byzantine anointing of the next far-left "student leader" claiming to speak on behalf of seven million people. Is it any wonder why NUS delegate election turnouts are so low, and interest in the NUS almost nil outside of its periodic embarrassment of the students it claims to speak for, when ordinary students have no say in electing the person who will claim to speak for them next year, and have to live with the election of divisive far-left figures who, for instance, spend SU money on negative campaigning before a General Election, year after year?

It should now be clearer than ever that the NUS has very little intention of taking the responsibilities that would come with being "the definitive national voice in students" - whether through the candidates it elects to speak on behalf of all students; the franchise it uses to so do; or the motions it passes. Indeed, it is difficult to disagree with Labour Humanists when they questioned whether the NUS can legitimately claim to speak for almost any students at all. In such circumstances, the prospect of mass disaffiliation - making clear that such an organisation does not speak for ordinary students and universities - should surely look more attractive than ever.