Louis Ashworth

With less than one week to go before CUSU’s referendum on NUS disaffiliation, Varsity can exclusively reveal the tightly contested leanings of the student body.

In a poll conducted from the 8th to the 17th May, 803 members of the University of Cambridge recorded predicted votes in next week’s CUSU referendum, and public opinion of the allegations of anti-Semitism that have been put to the NUS.

The results show remarkable disparities between different college and genders on NUS membership, and a widespread division on attitudes toward disaffiliation, suggesting the outcome of CUSU’s referendum may be incredibly close.

The Results: Cambridge split down the middle

Varsity’s results show Cambridge is divided closely between the two sides.

Overall, the vote to leave the NUS (reflecting the ‘Yes’ campaign) received 45.8 per cent of the vote, while the vote to remain (the ‘No’ campaign) stands at 41 per cent. The survey results show that over 13 per cent of respondents marked their answers to the question ‘Should CUSU disaffiliate from NUS?’ as ‘Don’t Know/Undecided’ or left the answer blank.

The results suggest that a significant number of students have yet to make their mind up. With the Yes and No votes so close together, swing votes will prove vital.

One of the toughest battles the Yes vote will face will be for quoracy. CUSU referenda guidelines stipulate a vote will pass “provided that the number voting in favour of the motion is not less than one tenth of the number students making up the Ordinary Membership”, and that it has a majority. On currently projected numbers, this means the Yes campaign will need 2,148 votes to pass.

The referendum to create a Disabled Students’ Officer earlier this year saw 4,679 votes cast overall, on what was a far less divisive issue. Based on Varsity’s polling, if the same number of students as the DSO referendum were to vote next week, the Yes result would receive 2,143 votes – five short of the number needed to pass. Given the likely difficulty of getting students to vote during exam term, this could be the biggest challenge facing the Yes campaign.

Reacting to the results, CUSU President Priscilla Mensah said “This close call indicates just how much more both camps will need to do to fully engage all Cambridge students with this incredibly important debate. As a member of the No Campaign, I will be doing my utmost to communicate to students both the practical and political reasons for CUSU's continued engagement with NUS.”

“Following on from the passionate arguments from the affiliation debate on the 17th,” she said, “it is no surprise that opinion is divided”.

Gender disparities: Is disaffiliation a “man crusade”?

At the launch of the campaign for a referendum, Cambridge Universities’ Labour Club (CULC) Chair Elinor Clapson faced abuse on Twitter after labelling it an “outraged middle class white man crusade”. With survey results in, was she right in predicting a gender disparity?

The gender makeup of the pro-disaffiliation Yes campaign was briefly discussed at the debate on Tuesday. Adam Crafton, co-founder of the ‘Let Cambridge Decide’ campaign, claimed that members of the Yes campaign are “not solely white, middle-class, Conservative men”. He stated that many of his fellow activists are, in fact, from CULC.

Though there is sizable support for both sides within the two largest respondent gender groups (male and female), Varsity’s polling shows a striking division between how men and women plan to vote. Just 25.8 per cent of women who responded support a Yes vote, compared to 55.7 per cent of men.

With the number of self-identifying males responding to the poll almost twice the number of female respondents, this gender disparity in voting is likely to have influenced the overall result. Gender is looking set to be a key deciding factor in the CUSU referendum. 

Angus Satow, on behalf of the Vote No campaign, stated to Varsity: "While we cannot make generalisations on the back of this poll, we would like to stress the importance of the NUS in supporting under-represented and minority students. Not only has the NUS been a part of key campaigns against the tampon tax and the oft-maligned Prevent strategy, but it provides a vital space for collaboration and education. Leaving will damage the liberation campaigns."

One of the many other gender discrepancies thrown up by the poll was that male respondents were 10.5 per cent more likely to think that the allegations of anti-Semitism against Bouattia were valid. In contrast, female respondents were 9.2 per cent more likely to answer that they “do not believe Malia Bouattia is necessarily anti-Semitic, but she has made use of anti-Semitic rhetoric”.

To give context to these disparities, roughly equal proportions of male and female respondents either dismissed the allegations or were ‘Undecided’ as to their stance. The implication is that a number of male students have a stronger opinion on the use of anti-semitistic language by the NUS President Elect than the average female respondent.

Another gender-based trend was the higher number of female respondents who said that they felt they personally benefitted from CUSU’s affiliation to NUS – with 43.5 per cent selecting this option, compared to 26.1 per cent of male respondents.

Anti-Semitism: A question of rhetoric?

The result of Varsity’s poll suggests that the recent election of Malia Bouattia as NUS President and the allegations of anti-Semitism against her may not be the sole, or biggest driver of support for disaffiliation from NUS.

Though 88.6 per cent of the respondents in favour of disaffiliation either thought the allegations were valid or thought she had made use of anti-Semitic rhetoric, just 28.5 per cent believed that Bouattia’s election marked a fundamental change in direction for NUS. Furthermore, 43.2 per cent of those supporting disaffiliation did so even though they do not think her election represents a change of course.

This could point to a large number of students whose support for CUSU disaffiliation from NUS is borne not out of the recent media-storm surrounding the national union’s President Elect, but instead out of other – perhaps more long-standing – frustrations.

Connor Macdonald, a Cambridge delegate at this year’s NUS annual conference where Bouattia was elected, said of the Varsity poll results: “I think the NUS survey demonstrates that dissatisfaction with the NUS is not a new phenomenon, nor that it has been provoked simply by the election of the new president. As an NUS Delegate and having seen the dysfunction and irrelevance of much of what is discussed at NUS conference, I don't blame them.”

Adam Crafton responded to the results: “The fact that 70 per cent of respondents agreed that Malia has used anti-Semitic rhetoric is a sure sign that Cambridge students realise how serious this issue is. It is my firm belief, and the belief of many Jewish students, that Cambridge cannot remain part of an organisation led by someone we agree has used anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

Most worryingly for NUS’s public perception, 46.7 per cent of the 567 respondents who either deemed the allegations valid or agreed she had made use of anti-Semitic rhetoric did not see her election in April as a change of direction.

These results could be read in multiple ways. One conclusion may be that 265 respondents, which translates to just under a third of respondents to Varsity’s poll do not consider anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic rhetoric to be out of keeping with what they expect from NUS. On the other hand, the results of the poll could also signify a belief that Bouattia is unlikely to change NUS’s course regardless of her beliefs, or whether the allegations against her are unfounded.

It is, however, worth noting that of the 216 respondents most likely to consider the allegations against Bouattia as valid, 78.7 per cent are in favour of disaffiliation.

The Vote No campaign has responded to the allegations of anti-semitism directed at the NUS by clarifying that the organisation "has launched an inquiry into institutionalised racism within the Union, with specific regard to anti-Semitism, and will present democratising reforms at the next conference" and claim that "This is surely proof that engagement from within works better than walking away."

College breakdown: Hotbeds of dissent?

Varsity’s results show a marked division in support between colleges.

Gonville and Caius College and Homerton College, home to the ‘Let Cambridge Decide’ founders Jack May and Adam Crafton respectively, show among the highest levels of support for disaffiliation.

The most anti-NUS college, however, is Peterhouse – with a gigantic 77 per cent of respondents saying they believe CUSU should leave the NUS.

At the opposite end of the scale, the colleges which show the least support notably include the mature/postgraduate colleges and women’s colleges.

The most prominently pro-NUS college is Sidney Sussex, from which 73 per cent of voters said they would be voting to remain.

It is notable that Sidney Sussex JCR President and NUS delegate, Olly Hudson, initially opposed disaffiliation at a Union debate, before changing his mind and advocating a Yes vote. His change of heart appears to have had little effect at his college.

Queens’ was the most conflicted college, with Yes and No each receiving 44 per cent of the vote.

Conclusion: Everything to fight for

Yesterday evening, a heated debate on the referendum took place, in which speakers from each campaign were invited to outline their arguments. Richard Brooks, NUS Vice President for Union Development, and acting President, argued for CUSU to remain affiliated. In a speech that distanced Brooks from Malia Bouattia’s “wrong” comments and acknowledged the “very serious problem” of anti-Semitism, the NUS VP called for engagement from students. He posed the question: “In a year where the NUS is changing things [...] why wouldn’t you want to be in the room, shaping that?”

CUSU President, Priscilla Mensah, echoed the call for change through engagement, and emphasised the financial and training support that NUS offer to disadvantaged and minority groups and to liberation campaigns.

However, in an emotion-fuelled speech for disaffiliation, Gabriel Gendler questioned the whereabouts of allies to Jewish students across the country. As a minority group with significant numbers at less than 10 universities nationwide, Gendler asked “where were our allies?” when Bouattia was elected at NUS annual conference despite 57 Jewish society presidents writing an open letter questioning her actions.

Ultimately, voting patterns in this debate hinge on perception of the issues at hand: as Varsity’s survey has revealed, there is a strong correlation between those who believe Bouattia is anti-Semitic, or has used anti-Semitic rhetoric, and those who believe Cambridge should disaffiliate.

The Vote No campaign, speaking exclusively to Varsity, emphasised that "These results show that there is all to play for in the week ahead" and went on, "We are confident that as students discover more about what the NUS does, from securing railcards and an exemption from students for council tax, to successful lobbies for postgraduate loans and a national inquiry into sexual harassment on campus, they will vote to remain. [...] Leaving will gain us nothing while depriving sabbatical officers and liberation campaigns of vital resources and training." 

Statistics concerning a gender divide are remarkable, and given the support for a leave vote among men, it isn’t unreasonable to conclude that, if the referendum passes, it will be off the back of a predominantly male vote.

Voting will open on the 24th May, and run until 16:00 on the 27th, at which point provisional results will be released.

Note on methodology

Varsity’s NUS referendum survey was accessible through the Cambridge-specific ‘Raven’ portal, meaning it was only open to those affiliated with the university.
Because each response was associated with a unique code anonymously linked to each Raven log-in, any duplicate responses were filtered out in the final calculations.

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