This is by Michael Chessum, NCAFC NC and NUS NEC. It doesn’t constitute an organisational response.
At NUS conference in 2013, delegates will be debating changes to the way that NUS is run. These are on nothing like the scale of the Governance Review, which over the period of 2007-9 was voted down by a leftwing opposition at Annual Conference, only to be rammed through anyway. It created a supreme Board of Trustees, with unelected non-students sitting on it; scrapped funding for the Block of 15 (then 12); and dramatically cut down on NUS democracy, especially the length and size of conference. Much of this was driven by a will of the factions who then controlled the leadership (i.e. Labour Students) to fortify their dominance on conference floor.
The new proposals can be found by clicking here, and they make for interesting reading. It has to be said that not all of what is proposed is bad: a lot of it, especially the gender quotas for women in delegations and on NEC, is something that would find a lot of support among NCAFC activists. However, some of it is very dangerous indeed, and we will fight hard to block attacks on democracy at conference.
The proposals are split into a number of different sections.
1. Zones and Zone Conferences
Zone Conferences (one each for Higher Education, Further Education, Society and Citizenship, Union Development and Welfare) take place every autumn, and they are a product of the 2008-9 Governance Review. They each elect a Zone Committee and one NEC member, who work with Zone’s VP. Although it may be useful to allow networking early in the year, these conferences are completely stitched up by whoever is organising them: they are one-union-one-vote, with no real debates, and the only people who come are sabbatical officers.
These changes propose the following:
A. The expansion of the Zone Committee to 8. There is nothing in principle wrong with this – in general bigger committees are better for democracy.
B. The gender balancing of the Zone Committees. This is a positively good thing.
C. A change in name from “Society and Citizenship” to simply “Citizenship”. While this isn’t terrible, it is a bit weird: ‘citizenship’ is the least accessible and strange part of that title – it has the ring of something coming out of Blair’s education policies or the French Third Republic. In any case, what is “citizenship”? What ideological assumptions are we being asked to agree?
The proposal also contains a number of other points, none of which will have a direct effect.
The criticism here is not necessarily about that the proposals are bad, though one of them is strange: it’s that they aren’t fundamental enough. Zone Conferences need to work out what they’re for: if they are a piss-up and networking opportunity for Sabbs with little or no debate or decision-making, then fine, but why should members subsidise this, and why should the Zones get an NEC member? And if they are a democratic event, then great – but give a delegate entitlement and a proper democratic process, and call it a Winter Conference.
The classic argument in support of Zone Conferences is that they provide a space “for informal consultation and decision making” which “isn’t so rigid”. Again, fine: but the underlying motive for this is that the leadership don’t like being told what to do in a formal way by the members, especially when the members order them to believe in free education and to organise waves of direct action (they ignore this anyway most of the time). The reality of Zone Conferences is that they serve as a means of sucking away sovereignty from National Conference in April, and allowing Officers to “prioritise” (read: ignore) democratic mandates – all from a nice hotel with free food and no actual students in it.
2. The size and structure of NEC and the Trustee Board
Among other technocratic things, this proposes:
A. A generalised review of the Block of 15, with no immediate changes. The proposals try to give Block some more policy responsibility, which is good but not far enough, and hint at maybe reintroducing financial independence, which is great but not fast enough.
B. The gender balancing of VPs and the Zone NEC member. This is good in itself, but I think we should be arguing against the existence of Zone NEC members given how undemocratic Zone Conferences are.
C. The gender balancing of Nation and Liberation Campaign NEC members. This is difficult to argue with.
D. The gender balancing of the Block of 15. This is good, but it will be interesting to see how the count is done now that there are multiple quotas.
E. A formalisation of the sub-committees of the NEC.
Again, many of the changes proposed here are positive: but why not go further? Instead of balancing Zone NEC seats, scrap them and elect a Block of 20 with 10 guaranteed placed for women. Instead of “improving” the “quality of candidates” for Trustee Board, why not remove voting powers from unelected non-students and give Liberation Campaigns automatic representation on the Board? Or, even further, why not scrap the Board entirely?
3. Changes to how National Conference is run.
This is by far the worst section of the proposals. It proposes:
A. To put statements from delegates to the bottom of the agenda under ‘Any other Business’. This will seriously inhibit the ability of delegates to say things about access, about candidate withdrawals, etc.
B. To make it impossible to raise a procedural motion without the support of a third of the room (you currently need 100 delegates). This is an absolutely terrible idea, and we should oppose it tooth and nail: it will make it almost impossible to challenge the chair or the way that debates are being run. And who appoints the chair? Oh yes, the President.
C. To make it almost impossible to challenge the guillotine. This is being done by the same mechanism of needing a third of the room to even have a debate, but also by requiring a two thirds majority to get it agreed. The fact is that some zones are more controversial than others some years, and when so much of the agenda is being taken up with fluffy consensual proposals, delegates should have the ability to decide what they want to discuss.
D. Gender balancing of delegations. This is a good thing. The only slight complication that may be that, unlike other gender balancings, this is something that is required of member unions, rather than being an internal change.
E. To reduce the total text that member unions can submit, and the number of headings that it can go under. Firstly, the maximum number is 3: this is stupid, and it means that it will be impossible for unions to have text in every zone (which zone is it that their members don’t exist in?!). Secondly, this is backwards thinking: the problem isn’t that members have too many ideas and opinions, it is that conference isn’t long enough.
Despite being largely unaccountable to its membership and not having control over what Officers actually do, NUS conference, in comparison to many trade union conferences, still permits a breadth of opinion and gives delegates power over the order of debate. These proposals threaten that, and they lack imagination. We need a longer conference, not less ideas; we need to stop Zone Committees from filling the agenda with consensual fluff, not to tell member unions to stop submitting motions; we need for delegates to have sovereignty over the debate, not the chair and the President.
4. Student Sections
A. To split the governance of Sections into 2 conferences per year. This seems odd at first sight, and will surely lead to smaller and less democratic conference at both ends.
B. To strip votes away from any attendee who isn’t in the Section’s membership: at present, anyone can attend as a delegate and vote, regardless of whether or not they actually are for instance, a Postgraduate. This measure seems sensible, but how it is implemented will be interesting.
C. To put student union staff onto the committees. As long as these staff are there to serve the committee and not to order it around, then fine – but why not use NUS staff?
These proposals are very sparse and don’t do a great deal. We’ll publish something by more involved NCAFC activists soon.
5. London Governance
A. Consultation towards London-wide representation.
Yep, that’s basically it. For the third year in a row.
6. NUS Services
A lot of this isn’t about democracy per se, and we’ll take some more time to digest it.
7. Legal risk
This is basically technocratic and is about motions not being illegal. It’s a problem if this is abused by the Democratic Procedures Committee in order rule out good motions, but this seems unlikely at this stage.