NUS LGBT+ 2017: When virtue signalling trumps fighting for liberation

NCAFC activist and UCL student Ben Towse writes about last month’s NUS LGBT+ Conference. This is an opinion piece – what do you think? If you want to write a response or another article on this or another topic, get in touch via [email protected].

NUS-LGBT-logoNUS LGBT+ conference this year was a surreal experience, and one that left me and others with severe concerns about the ability or willingness of activists in our union to fight for liberation. What I saw was a tendency of student unionists more concerned with signalling their virtuous principles than putting them into action, who confuse representing people and their needs with actually fighting for their material fulfilment, and who in general are fostering a deeply inward-looking inclination in the campaign at the expense of taking action to defend and extend the rights, needs and material interests of LGBT+ students.

Perhaps the most illustrative and absurd episode of the two days was the conference’s rejection of a proposal to campaign for accessible and ultimately free childcare, and the arguments used to call for this.

Rejecting the childcare campaign policy

Motion 404, from activists at Durham Uni, called for representation of student carers – rightly highlighting that this includes both those caring for children and adult dependents – and for research and campaign activity to tackle problems facing them. NCAFC activists sent in what we considered a friendly amendment, removing nothing from the original motion, only adding on top a specific commitment to campaign for colleges and universities to cover their students’ childcare needs, and ultimately for free universal childcare to be provided as a public service (as proposed by the Labour leadership), funded by progressively taxing the rich and business.

We were relatively confident of passing the motion, and expected that if opposition arose it would come from a minority right-wing perspective (“You can’t just point at things and tax them!”, “This is a lefty pipe-dream, be realistic!”, “If people can’t afford childcare they shouldn’t have children!” etc etc). The proposing speech was handed to NCAFCer Mark Crawford, who is doing solid work around the issue on our campus as UCL Union’s Postgrad Officer.

What followed floored even the most jaded cynics within the huddle of NCAFC activists present. Delegates took to the stage to harshly denounce our proposal – not, they said, because they disagreed with it, but because adding to a motion about all carers with an issue specific only to some carers, would “dilute” the main motion and detract from the representation of carers of adults. We were accused of “conflating” parents with all carers, and told that it was offensive for us to have submitted this as an amendment, rather than a separate motion [1]. The amendment was rejected by a landslide vote, despite not one speaker raising objections to its actual content.

This betrays a couple of deep political problems:

  • First, a desperately limited, inward-looking understanding of what our union can do for its members. To some of these people, the “big win” for student carers would be attaining official recognition and representation by the national organisation, and the fact that this recognition equally noted carers of children and of adults. To defend the needs of carers of adults was not, at least in this debate, about campaigning in the outside world to secure their real material needs (for instance, financial and other support, or combatting the chronic underfunding of adult social care), but about ensuring a nice, right-on document could be posted in the conference minutes on NUS Connect.The substitution of improving representation for improving material reality is a persistent problem in student politics and much of the left. There is a stark juxtaposition in this political culture, between the harsh (often – let’s face it – performatively vitriolic) denunciations of liberalism’s tokenistic responses to oppression and disadvantage, and frequency with which this tokenism is reproduced, albeit with a superficially radical veneer. Other examples in recent NUS LGBT+ conferences include the prevalence of election speeches that prioritise listing aspects of the candidate’s identity over concrete policy, strategy and tactics; or the disproportionate amount of time spent discussing the acronym under which we organise. This is not to ignore the value of representation in democratic organisations, but to emphasise that it is valuable only insofar as it results in the represented groups’ needs and interests not just being performatively noted, but effectively tackled.
  • Second, a hackish obsession with some very particular abstract standards around motions (I say this as something of a union procedural nerd myself) and a failure to understand that the purpose of a democratic union conference needs to be not producing a policy document, but collectively discussing and deciding what we as a union should do to change the world beyond the walls of the Sheffield Holiday Inn conference centre. It is absurd to imagine that anyone struggling to care for their dependents in the outside world, gives a flying fuck what part of a motion document contains their union’s commitment to fight for them and with them.We saw this tendency crop up at other points in the conference. For instance, it was apparent when delegates voted to remove a reference to the fact that LGBT+ people are more likely to be atheists than non-LGBT+ people, because the document did not include a citation, even though they did not dispute the fact and specific research was cited in proposers’ speeches and can be found easily via Google: e.g. here, here, here (although, given this was followed by a – thankfully unsuccessful – attempt to cut recognition that leaving a religion and religious community can be difficult and distressing, it probably also had something to do with certain student lefties’ reluctance to acknowledge any negatives whatsoever about religion). And it was apparent when some delegates got up to give lecturing speeches about how others’ motions hadn’t been drafted precisely in the format they’d have liked.

    This attitude is obviously completely unconstructive, both because it tends against focussing on effective action to make concrete change in the real world, and because it is exclusionary and alienating to anyone who wants to bring a meaningful proposal for action to their union, but isn’t experienced in writing motions (or, indeed, isn’t familiar with the precise preferences and obsessions of some particular hacks at one conference).

You need a movement to make policies a reality

This was the third (and last) annual conference of the campaign I’ve attended, and in all that time, even when good policy has been passed, serious discussion about what kind of movement we’d need to win radical change, and how to build it, has been largely absent. For instance, a student union movement capable of fighting for LGBT+ liberation would need large, vibrant, militant LGBT+ groups on every campus, vigorously debating the issues facing us in order to develop – and then act on – plans for political advocacy, protest, direct action and so on. Clearly, we’re lightyears away from this on most campuses. But you wouldn’t know it from conference discussions – talk of the actual power of our movement to extract concessions and force change, and how to build that power, is basically not on the radar.

Of course, another big problem is the widespread hostility to the idea that any of us should ever engage in discussion with people who hold bigoted or reactionary views, limiting the campaign’s ability to win hearts and minds as well. This conference again aggressively rejected our motion critical of the way no-platform tactics have been used. I won’t go into detail but check out this article for an explanation of NCAFC’s take on the issue.

What is to be done?

US Catholic school students protest church homophobia & the sacking of their gay teacher

US Catholic school students protest against church homophobia & the sacking of their gay teacher

A union that passes policies for righteous causes but devotes little attention to how we can either convince others of those causes, or build the forces needed to win them, is a union that’s going nowhere. And a union that refuses to even pass good policies because of obsessions around virtue signalling through the particular arrangement of motion documents, is one that’s going backwards. So what can we do?

First, keep arguing within NUS LGBT+ for a materialist perspective – one focussed on the world outside the conference room walls, and on serious, rational consideration of what will and won’t change it. NUS LGBT+ Conference is treated as the centrepiece of the organisation, when it should be merely the beginning – where we decide the activity that we will actually go out and do, together, in the real world.

Second, lead by example. NCAFC LGBT+ caucus has discussed how we can transform campus LGBT+ groups into activist organisations that turn outwards and fight to force change and change hearts and minds. Other organisations and networks are also doing great work in LGBT+ activism – from migrant solidarity to fighting for trans healthcare – but, barring some honourable exceptions, campus LGBT+ groups are not substantially involved, let alone leading. We need to get these groups organising local protests over the NHS, occupying local government offices against cuts to community sexual and mental health services, building tenants’ rights and social housing activism, and fighting to stop the detentions and deportations of LGBT+ and other asylum seekers and migrants (for instance, taking inspiration from the Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants activists who grounded a deportation flight recently).

Realistically, we won’t change NUS LGBT+ from above, but from below. We will transform campus groups into grassroots campaigns, conducting meaningful fights that defend and extend our material interests and needs – creating the concrete examples that illustrate our arguments to change the politics of the national union.


[1] Ironically, we had also been speaking with an NCAFC activist who cares for an adult about putting together a second amendment about material assistance for students caring for adults, but this effort missed the submission deadline – due, of course, to that activist’s time commitments. [go back and continue article]