Megan Dunn, former NUS President - also part of the problem?National Union of Students UK/YouTube

I like party conferences. I’ve been to a few in my time – I was even at the conference where Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Needless to say, then, that I have nothing really against party conferences whether on the right or the left: they are motivational, bring activists together and present brief glimpses of policies and personality to an otherwise unengaged public. However, there are times when I feel party conferences are not appropriate – namely, when the conference in question is about students, and not political affiliation.

That’s why, sitting in the front row at the NUS Conference this last month, I was so infuriated at the seemingly incoherent drivel being spewed from the mouths of the ostensive ‘leaders’ of the student movement. Former President Megan Dunn accusing the Tories of harming students is one thing, and a fair point at that. Claims of Theresa May being a racist, David Cameron waging class war, and the Conservatives attempting to create a secret police and eliminate free speech are most certainly not fair.

Yet, as an NUS delegate, whose ideas are supposedly valued, I – we – were subjected to listening to this ideological mishmash of identity politics and adolescent rebellion which appeared at times utterly devoid of meaningful discussion. A previous writer said that accusing the NUS of being a left-wing echo chamber is unfounded. I believe she is categorically wrong. When the President of CUSU can go to a National Union of Students conference and be smeared as ‘right wing’ for being part of the National Organization of Labour Students, it’s clear there are Trotskyites about. Incidentally, the NUS also voted to ignore national borders, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Having said this, I completely agree with the argument of many that the NUS is more than just a conference – that is very true. The NUS does contribute a great deal to student life: their work on Prevent is invaluable, as is their work on behalf of marginalised students, a point Lola Olufemi clearly explained. But I remain totally unconvinced that the NUS remains a viable vehicle through which to lobby student concerns. Speaking personally, if I were against Prevent, the one thing I would not do is go on national television and call the Home Secretary a racist, as the Vice President for Welfare did. Nor would I accuse the government of wanting to “shoot us in the streets” as the outgoing Society and Citizenship Vice President did. If we assume that these are the kind of people who can adequately represent us to the government, we are living in a world of fantasy.

In short, the NUS is no longer a vehicle that can effectively represent the concerns of students. Malia Bouattia is just the tip of the iceberg. She carries with her a retinue of other hard left-wing identity politics students, intent far more on infantile ‘direct action’ expressive politics than the long hard slog which is required to enact real change. Furthermore, whether or not one believes that her comments were anti-Semitic (personally, I believe they were), I do not believe she can claim to be a credible spokesperson for the needs of thousands of Jewish students up and down the country, and in so doing she cannot be a credible spokesperson for the student body at large.

It is also worth asking whether we really want to be represented by a student union bereft of any real initiative to work with the current government. The NUS has endorsed boycotting the National Student Survey, claiming to “refuse the ‘play into’ the government’s marketising reforms”, an action which is surely both futile and infantile.  I for one refuse to be represented by students who are so ideologically trapped that they see the NUS Conference where they should be representing all students as an opportunity to engage in what appears to be merely ideological self-righteousness. I believe the students of Cambridge deserve better. 

However, the anti-NUS campaign deserves more than a little condemnation for its failure to engage until now. No, Malia Bouattia does not demonstrate a “fundamental change in the direction in the NUS”. The NUS has been heading towards the cliff of irrelevance for years; she is simply the straw that has broken the camel’s back. We should have demonstrated real engagement before now, which is a reason why I wanted to be a Cambridge NUS delegate to actually represent students.

Having attended the NUS conference, I believe that any attempts to change the NUS from the inside are futile now. The organisation is riven with factional warfare behind the scenes (the far-left vs. Blairites), and factions rule elections. If we wanted to actually make a difference, we would have to become our own faction: any attempt to reform the organisation as it stands would only lead to more division and likely engender a backlash from the ideological zealots now running the organisation. I feel it is too late to do anything to save the NUS – but it is not too late to register our protest, and to send a message loud and clear. We may not know what level of representation we are entitled to as students, but we know we are entitled to a higher standard than this.

Take the Varsity survey on NUS disaffiliation here:

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