I don’t want a free Maccies burger, I want a fighting, political NUS: A response to our Vice President

This piece is by Hannah McCarthy, Campaigns Officer at Manchester Student Union, Free Education MCR activist and NCAFC member in response to NUS Vice President Union Development Richard Brooks’s article in the Telegraph.

In what reads as a politically atrocious article from our NUS Vice President of Union Development, let’s first prove his analysis as clumsy at best, and historically inaccurate and disingenuous at worst.

On the very day that the government launches its’ largest attack yet on Higher Education, coming thick and fast in the form of the White Paper, here we have a national Vice President who is apparently more concerned with internalising, adding to and capitalising on, incredibly right-wing critiques of NUS as a political body, as opposed to rejecting them.

Here, Richard misuses his platform and takes the opportunity to discredit his fellow officers, essentially placing onus upon their ‘factionalism’ for the recent calls to disaffiliate. The irony.

The idea that it’s the NUS’ lack of political unity which renders it inaffective is incredibly politically poor, but unfortunately this is a critique which rings and permeates on a daily basis.

This ‘unity’ is often appealed for by those who flout democracy, who seek only to advance their position with the right-wing press, business and the government, and by those who routinely use this mechanism of ‘unity’ to avoid criticism for their awful politics and decisions as elected representatives.

The calls for unity completely delegitimise the justifiable expression of anger by a disempowered, too often sold-out grass-roots, and by officers who are routinely thrown under the bus in the revolving door of careerism that is the NUS.

And yet people have the audacity to claim it is the left which are ‘factional’.

Time and time again we’ve seen this depoliticised call for unity levied at outraged defences of left-wing full-time officers, as they conveniently aren’t invited to lobby Parliament against the cuts to Maintenance Grants. This works to silence the concerns and anger of liberation officers and activists at the entirely factional politics of the right, and yet it’s the status quo and appeals to the need for a ‘credible’ image around NUS officers and activists that comes to defence of the right’s objectionable political decisions.

Making yesterday’s article even more infuriating is the pandering to the right-wing beliefs of conservative students who do not believe nor desire for the validity of collective agitation in a union, instead of politically challenging this narrative and attempting to advocate for something better.

It is the National Conference that leant left in voting to campaign for Living Grants, to boycott the NSS, for a full-time Trans Officer and much more that gives Brooks his democratic mandate, not the Tory press.

Brooks himself isn’t the problem – he’s unfortunately simply symptomatic of a much wider trend.

The reason moderate national officers refused to defend the students who tore up Millbank, or those who routinely take direct action to save staffs’ jobs is because they see militants and politicised activists as an inconvenience – a constant thorn in the side of a political persuasion that longs for an NUS that’s acceptable, moderate and palatable to the powers that be.

This isn’t just a case of Brooks playing up to the establishment in invoking their critique of the left as unrepresentative, dissenting, trouble makers – it’s that his politics display he actually believes their critique to be true.

The mobilising left represent not only a threat to their seamless career progression, but a continual pressure and reminder that their lukewarm, unremarkable term in office just hasn’t been good enough.

I’m absolutely incensed by the complete lack of political analysis in terms of what’s actually at play here. Instead of realising and rejecting the right-wing opportunism which calls for unions to disaffiliate from NUS, our VP has the audacity to allow the right’s mobilisation to throw the toys out of the pram to go unchallenged.

Again, on the day in which the Tories present their biggest attack on HE in decades, increasing the erosion of workers’ pay, conditions and exploiting students through an increase in fees coupled with the closure of courses, vital services and much more – our VP chooses to mount a political defence of the powers of collectively organising in our national union by firstly discussing the ‘important’ benefits of NUS membership that allows SUs to buy alcohol cheaply and the free Maccies burger that students can enjoy with the NUS discount card.

Our rights to a free double cheeseburger and the occasional large chips are obviously especially relevant as our bursaries and grants sail off into the sunset without an adequate defence or challenge from our national union, with their response to the government’s heinous actions tepid at best.

Our union is weakened by the fact that SUs at large are literally lining up to disaffiliate from it – thus reducing its collective bargaining power as the body which claims to represent all students when the NUS mounts serious opposition to government policy.

It’s this that the power of our union is weakened by, not political discussion – and yet our VPUD evades garnering a principled, properly political defence of the relevance, urgency and necessity of our union as the government wages war on education.

To imply that students for decades have only actively campaigned on course closures, fees and reductions in their material interests is completely, factually wrong.

Worse, Brooks deploys the recent media attention given to students’ discussions and mobilisations against sexual, racial and gendered oppression in order to align with the worldview that the ‘average student’ cannot simply see the world, or indeed care about it, beyond their immediate self-interest.

Once again, history proves this superficial analysis redundant as the countless examples of student struggle (both within, and outside of NUS) on international solidarity, whether that be Apartheid, Anti-war, or working with community organisations to mobilse against fascists on the streets – student activists have and student activists will organise and fight.

The ignorance of history only serves the apparent political move to discredit the left as isolated, and to peddle a narrative that is lapped up so enthusiastically by those dominant, and by those who want neo-liberalism, privatisation and the fundamental social relations of the society that we live in to go unchallenged and evade critique.

This only works to further the false illusion that an ‘average’ student exists, completely passive to political structures and only interested in shots on a night out alongside the annual Varsity.

Students everywhere are experiencing a life-time shackled with debt, cuts to counselling services and cuts to their grants. The marketization of education isn’t some abstract socialist concept.

It’s the very process of the transferring of market values to education and our  universities being ran as businesses which see our students systematically treated as consumers, increasingly having to take on part-time work and subject to ever more rigid exploitation – alongside our staff’s lives ruined as they face redundancy, pay cuts, extra workloads and attacks on their rights to organise in the workplace.

It’s fictitious to claim that it’s an unrepresentative minority who only care and are affected by government attacks.

It’s also ludicrous to propagate the idea that a political, democratic body founded to collectively organise in the interests of members should simply forget its’ history or purpose and submit to becoming a vehicle to merely enable the selling of more pizzas in the SU Bar.

The NUS shouldn’t apologise for being outside of the ‘national mainstream’, (or underestimate politics outside of the student movement), it should be fighting to change it – rather than constantly explaining the rationale behind that ideology, we must oppose and change it.

Let’s stand for the interests of our membership, who plainly wish to see an NUS which organises, stands up and fights, as opposed to one which merely notes opposition to government policy.

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