The NUS, prisons and jumping the shark

The latest NUS motion suggesting the abolition of prisons is one more in a line of fatuous interjections that do the NUS little credit

Image: Luis Argerich

Prisons are obsolete! Abolish them now! That’s the recently passed Motion 304 from the NUS Black Students’ Campaign, which calls for “the abolition of the prison-industrial complex”. The motion claims that prisons are “sexist” in their treatment of women and “racist” by targeting minorities: it therefore declares that the NUS should campaign for “prison abolition” through means up to and including “direct action”.

Notably, it doesn’t say what prisons are actually going to be replaced with. For all we know, the UK’s 85,000 prisoners are just going to get dumped outside to roam free, like a community outreach programme mixed with Arkham City. Maybe we’ll just invent the world’s biggest naughty step.

Of course, we’d have to put some walls around it, eventually, to stop offenders leaving too early. Maybe some staff just to make sure. We could even get some of the staff to try and rehabilitate the offenders, just to make sure they didn’t end up on the step again.

But at least we won’t have any more prisons.

The thing is, there’s a grain of truth in the NUS’ arguments. It’s true that minorities are overrepresented in prison – black Britons make up 10 per cent of all prisoners but 2.8 per cent of the population. It’s also true that as a way to stop recidivism, they could be improved, since 58 per cent of those imprisoned for fewer than 12 months re-offend. But whatever your opinion, the fact that the NUS is riding out to tackle it reveals a few unflattering truths about the organisation.

For one, “the NUS votes to take down the prison-industrial complex” is a political statement on par with “One Direction moves to cancel farm subsidies” or “the Botswana Meat Industry Union votes to leave the EU” – you can certainly do it, but you won’t exactly be a bastion of expertise, and it’s not the sort of thing laid out in your mandate.

“Reach for the Stars” is a political manifesto usually restricted to the S-Club Party, but the NUS seems to have taken it to heart, passing motions demanding “the building of millions of council houses” and “taxes on second homes” in 2015, while pushing for macroeconomic social change through “heavy taxation of the rich and democratic, public ownership and control of the banks”. These are noble goals, but not the highest priorities for the UK’s student population, who the NUS allegedly represent.

Others have questioned whether or not the NUS even has a mandate to argue on behalf of all students any more. Malia Bouattia only got voted in by 372 students, 0.005 per cent of the UK’s student population. Furthermore, students aren’t the most conscientious when voting for the union reps that represent us at NUS conferences.

Only 18 per cent of students voted in the average SU election across the country, according to a 2015 poll. The result is that a handful of radical students (radical as in politically, as opposed to any ability to pull off a sick-nasty kick-flip) can make the difference between candidates winning and losing.

Over time, the absence of any external engagement becomes almost necessary for the system to work, as inward-facing, hard-leaning policies become the norm and the whole thing becomes utterly detached from student life. And so, to the wider world, the NUS are no longer a powerful, focused organisation realising students’ concerns, but those obsessive navel-gazers who banned clapping.

Now the whole thing seems to have reached its inevitable conclusion. One after the other, universities have been voting to disaffiliate and get their cheaper hamburgers and Alton Towers tickets from elsewhere – meanwhile, Bouattia stares out at the rising waves as the violinists finish up “Nearer My God To Thee”. Hopefully, that’ll be the trigger for some much needed reforms, especially One Member One Vote – if not, maybe a better alternative can rise from the ashes.

And also, no, we probably shouldn’t ban prisons.

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