Rule breaches in NUS Referendum spark controversy

NUS accused of unauthorised 3rd party campaigning

Image: Dan Powell

Image: Dan Powell

The National Union of Students has been accused of unauthorised third party campaigning in the NUS Referendum at York following an email that was sent out to NUS Extra customers last week, urging them to vote Remain.

The email, which was sent on Wednesday, listed eight reasons why customers should vote to remain in the NUS, in addition to the benefits assumed from owning an NUS Extra card. It read: “NUS is more than just a discount card, it is an organisation dedicated to making a better life for all students […] Make sure you vote YES to NUS here.”

Official campaign rules state that: “Third party campaigning is not allowed under the terms of YUSU’s By-Laws and these Referendum Rules, and every effort will be made to ensure Referendum campaigning and debate is led by student members.”

Campaigners on both sides have taken starkly opposing views on the matter, with ambiguity about whether the email counted as ‘third party campaigning’ proving a contentious issue. Such ambiguity has left questions open as to how clearly rules have been established between stakeholders in the campaign.

Lucas North, on behalf of ‘York Says Yes to NUS’, told Nouse: “‘Yes to NUS’ do  not consider the email sent to students a breach of the campaign rules, this is because they are an external party who are not bound by the rules, and students who received it opted in to receiving communication from NUS Extra.

“To my understanding, personally, both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns were made aware of the campaign rules. Both Chris Wall and myself told the NUS that external campaigners were not allowed on campus, and they have not attended at our request. We checked with the YUSU Returning Officer, and we would have been able to use an NUS officer as the delegated speaker – the ‘No’ campaign were against this (see my post on their page for more) and so we did not invite any of the several NUS officers who were willing to attend.

“To my personal understanding, NUS were aware that external campaigners are not allowed on campus, and they have not attended.”

In stark contrast to this, Robin Brabham, leader of the ‘No2NUS’ campaign, stated:
“This was absolutely a breach of campaign rules by NUS. Third-party campaigning is explicitly forbidden and NUS clearly violated this, once again demonstrating NUS’ systematic disregard for a fair and open democratic process.

“As coordinators, Chris and I bear some responsibility for ensuring our sides are informed about election rules. I briefed the ‘No’ side a week before voting opened and have been keen to keep our side on the right side of the rules. I cannot speak for Chris, but I hope that he has taken similar proactive measures.

An NUS spokesperson stated: “NUS has not been informed of any rules about campaigning and no complaints have been received by NUS about rule breaking or NUS Extra card emails.”

“This was discussed at length with the Returning Officer prior to the Referendum, and we had been informed that numerous phone conversations had taken place with the NUS senior management team and that they had been made fully aware. Everyone in this campaign – ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and Returning Officer – has wanted all parties to be well informed to prevent rule breaches. Shamefully, NUS has clearly shown no intention of wanting to obey YUSU election rules.”

However serious doubt has been cast over communications between YUSU and the NUS; despite YUSU assuring campaigners that the NUS had been informed of the rules both before and after the email, when approached by Nouse on two occasions, an NUS spokesperson stated: “NUS has not been informed of any rules about campaigning and no complaints have been received by NUS about rule breaking or NUS Extra card emails.”

In addition, YUSU has this week received “a number of complaints” of breaches of the official NUS Referendum rules by both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns, including several instances of vandalism. Allegations first surfaced when it emerged on Wednesday that a ‘No2NUS’ sign had been defaced to read ‘YES TO NUS’, and a number of others were torn down. The ‘Yes’ campaign also later reported damage to signage.

The campaign rules state that: “Campaign supporters must not obscure, tamper with or remove the publicity of any other campaign.”

The ‘Yes’ campaign stated: “‘Yes’ signs have been ripped down relative to ‘No’ signs; on Tuesday evening, almost half of our signs were destroyed, on Wednesday afternoon, two ‘Yes’ signs were defaced in a tit-for-tat response. Since then, we are aware of more ‘Yes’ signs being torn down but not of any further abuse of ‘No’ signs. We believe supporters of the ‘No’ campaign are behind most acts of vandalism, but we condemn the vandalism regardless of who does it.”

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The ‘No’ campaign in turn told Nouse: “We can say categorically that the ‘No’ campaign has been uninvolved in attacking any signs. We are disappointed that some signs have been removed and do not in any way condone this. We were very disappointed to see that our signs were spray painted over to read ‘YES 2 NUS’, and then systematically ripped down across campus. This is particularly worrying given that this was premeditated and would have required significant planning and expenditure. We understand that the leaders of the ‘Yes’ campaign were uninvolved with any malpractice and trust that they have conducted themselves in a manner conducive to a constructive debate.”

When asked for comment, Ben Leatham, YUSU President, stated: “A number of complaints regarding the Referendum have been received and these are all being investigated. Where appropriate and there is a breach of election rules by relevant parties, action will be taken. The rules set out clear procedures to ensure a fair election and both internal and external returning officers are in place to provide a check and balance, investigate concerns and handle any formal complaints. I am confident that the Referendum is being conducted fairly, in line with the rules.”

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