Why the NUS is in desperate need of democratic reform

, NUS delegate and YUSU Activities Officer, makes the case for a middle ground on direct democracy

Image: National Union of Students

In recent years, complaints about NUS democracy have become somewhat routine. Birds have wings, trees have leaves, and student politics is inaccessible and cliquey. As an elected student representative, the drip-drip-drip of leaking apathy seeping from the same old complaints has almost become white noise – and this is coming from someone who works at a student union which consistently ranks in the top 10 for electoral turnout.

During the fervour of the mass disaffiliation campaigns after last year’s NUS conference, the idea that the system as it stands was failing to represent students wasn’t even a particularly contested point. Even pro-NUS campaigns were shrugging their shoulders and replying “but it’s always been that way”. That much certainly is true; while campaigning for York to disaffiliate myself, a friend excitedly told me that his Dad had given him plenty of advice, as back in his student days he’d been the one attempting to reform NUS democracy. Evidently, the pace of NUS democratic reform can be compared disfavourably to tectonic movements.

To be fair to the NUS, there has been some recognition that democratic reform is needed. This has led to the much-vaunted “democracy review”. And there is plenty to vaunt in there. Richard Brooks, a current NUS officer has claimed that at its heart, the review’s conclusions will “make our democracy more accessible for students”. They should lead to removing jargon from the democratic process, adding processes to hold officers accountable, and lots of other good things.

But all of this fails to address the key issue at the heart of NUS democracy – students feel disenfranchised. It’s the equivalent of rushing over to someone choking on their dinner, and rather performing the Heimlich manoeuver instead telling them that they need to lay off the cigarettes. It’s good advice, but maybe wait until the patient’s out of hospital.

The reluctance to address these more immediate concerns comes down to the fact that, at present, the NUS has an uneasy relationship with honesty. Just look at its name; the National Union of Students isn’t national (like so many organisations, it’s painfully London-centric), isn’t a union (it’s a congress of students unions rather than a union unto itself) and vitally, it isn’t run by students (it isn’t uncommon to find student politicians in the job four years after their graduation). All three of these are factors which contribute to the current feeling of malaise that hangs over the organization.

These disconnections plague the NUS. Listening to the rhetoric from elected officers, one would have assumed that students are its constituent members. The hard, unpalatable truth though is that student unions, rather than students, are considered members of the NUS. This is why its democracy is run through a delegate system. A union is given a number of delegate slots based on its size, which are then filled by elections at each SU. These delegates are then sent to conference to vote on a range of issues, including officer elections.

Given that NUS officials claim to represent four and a half million students, and not around four per union, this system is deeply flawed. Delegate elections are ridiculed for their dire turnout, the delegates themselves aren’t bound to their pledges, and there’s absolutely no accountability if they do stray from their mandate. To claim that under the current electoral system the NUS represents any students, let alone seven million, is dubious at best. This has led to a situation where the current clique is so embedded in power that many unions see disaffiliation as easier than reform.

The NUS now faces a stark choice. To stem the flow of disaffiliating unions, the organisation needs to win back credibility; it needs to be able to say that it is enfranchising students – that it is making an effort to bring them into the fold. Fortunately, such an effort is in the works. For conference hawks such as myself, it will be well worth watching the progress of Motion 608. What it aims to do is to introduce a hybrid system of electoral college and direct democracy. This would offer unions the ability to hold votes on officer positions, and then divide the delegate votes proportionally before conference. This is the mildest of steps, but a step in the right direction as it would allow students to hold their union accountable for how it interacts with the NUS. To vote down this motion wouldn’t only be to launch an attack on direct democracy, but would be to undermine the autonomy of individual unions. Passing this on the other hand will be an endorsement of bottom up, grass root student power.

We can then work on kicking the smoking habit.

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