Thirteen packed hours of the NUS Conference’s second day preceded us meeting with the organisation’s freshly re-elected National President, as she stood outside of her hotel chatting – cigarette in hand – to a few delegates.
Of the many motions debated during the first and second days, one had clearly struck a chord with Toni Pearce. We found her emphatically discussing Conference’s decision to enact gender balancing, a move that means all future delegations to the NUS must ensure that 50 per cent of their members are self-defining women. Before my phone could even start recording, she launched into a colourful description of how satisfied she was with Motion 702 passing just mere hours earlier, declaring: “I was even happier than I was with my own election last year.”
When asked whether this change, asides from it being viewed as a step forwards for women’s liberation, would change the character of the NUS, Pearce firmly agreed, stating that the move “will allow for different voices to come in because a lot of the issues with power and leadership and the way that power and leadership normally look is that it’s kind of macho, aggressive, and confrontational… Hopefully we can say to people ‘actually, there’s a space for you here’ and there’s a home for you in the student movement”.
But on the issue of political infighting itself, Pearce was quick to defend her organisation: “I think we should be proud that we have pluralistic debate, that people get up and make different arguments against these things, that we don’t just sit down and agree with everything that everybody says because that’s not what life is like.”
Furthermore, she quickly made clear that she sees her own place as important in guarding against factionalism: “I didn’t get involved in the NUS through a faction… I got involved because I was inspired by the student movement and I wanted to change stuff on my campus, and like here I am, and actually sometimes we kind of see it as political warfare and it’s about winning and losing, victory and defeat. And it’s not like there’re things I’ve spoken on at national conference where the vote didn’t go the same way as me, but like this is my national conference and I’m the national president and what people vote for is what I’ll deliver.”
Yet in our earlier interview with Aaron Kiely – the NUS Black Students’ Officer and main rival to Pearce in the presidential election – he spoke with scepticism about the way the NUS’ current leadership, from officers like Pearce down to the wider National Executive Committee, operates. “Actually I think the NEC should be a bit more reflective, I think it shows it’s a bit out of touch when a small, small minority on the NEC – myself and a couple other people, liberation officers – vote for free education, and yet the majority of the NEC, president, vice presidents, vote against it, voting with a minority of conference on that.” Here Kiely refers to Amendment 215c, an amendment that now commits the NUS to supporting free education. In a solid victory for the left, it passed with 280 votes to 231, even though high-profile leadership figures like Pearce took to the podium to condemn it.
Kiely also expressed scepticism at the way the leadership handled Amendment 101a, which called for the NUS to oppose the Coalition’s austerity programme in all areas. The way the amendment was put was allegedly altered by leadership without the support of those who wrote it – specifically, a ‘delete all’ clause, not supported by its authors, was attached. A move Kiely saw as motivated by a will to sabotage the amendment: “I think the NUS should oppose every single cut, and I don’t think there’s a justification to saying that we shouldn’t – I think it’s selling out on students to be honest, to vote it down, I just think it’s silly. And the way it was posed was obviously problematic; we don’t want to delete text on another thing that’s very important. We should fundamentally be against cuts which are destroying people’s lives.”
Kiely himself, a member of the Student Broad Left, lost the election to Pearce, a Labour Party member, who won 59% to Kiely’s 19%, with 11% going to Daniel Cooper of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, and just 2% to Jack Duffin who chairs Young Independents, UKIP’s youth wing.
Another point of contention between Pearce and Kiely was Amendment 101f, the proposal to make the NUS hold a national demonstration in support of all policies decided at the Conference. Pearce was opposed: “I think the right thing to do is have a joint demonstration with the TUC, I think leading up to the general election you should be on the streets showing people our resistance to this government, and we should be showing people that we aren’t happy about the direction of travel, but I don’t think that doing that on our own is the right way to do it. We’ve come really far this year in terms of trade union solidarity, people get up on platforms and talk about it all the time. But I think we should be doing it together mainly because if we do it together our voice is louder. So I guess it’s about whether you split off into your kind of student faction and have a student demo or whether you have a joint student and workers’ demo and I think that’s the right decision, and that’s the decision Conference made.”
Kiely and others’ disagree, arguing that the NUS needs a demo of its own to prioritise students’ issues and avoid becoming subordinate to organisations like the TUC, which they feel are too often dominated by the Labour Party leadership. When presented with this line of thinking, Pearce responded: “I suppose the thing is that a national demonstration would cost us about £80k, and do you want to be investing money in a joint demonstration and investing money in a national demonstration of our own as well, or investing locally on campuses? I think the best way to do both with the finite amount of money we’ve got is to have a joint demonstration with the TUC and to spend the other money on campaigning and supporting students’ unions to do things locally, like it isn’t just the government in Westminster that’s a problem for students, it’s local issues and we should be tackling local issues with local MPs and local councillors because a lot of the time it’s decisions that are made by them that impact on students. So it’s not all about having penetration in London and sometimes we fixate on London being a place where you change stuff and I don’t think it is…”
Ending the interview with Pearce, I asked for her take on an event last year that became the focus of a scandal following allegations that the leadership were using NUS money to put on self-gratifying events: “We reward our volunteers because they give up their time for us, people on the NEC, people on the Trustee Board, and we take them out for dinner and last year we got tickets to take them out on a boat trip down the Thames because it was like £10 a head. And a couple of people were like “Oh you’re going on a fancy boat trip, you’re gonna have lobster!” and actually it was like conference food basically, like dry chicken and seasickness. We should reward our volunteers, they give up their time to help us run a movement, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with investing in our volunteers.”