Student Unions overwhelmingly voted in favour for the new National Union of Student’s (NUS) constitutional changes at an Extraordinary Conference held last week in Wolverhampton, sparking off the disaffiliation debate at AGM. With over 800 delegates representing Student Unions from all over the country, 85% voted to approve the constitution put forward by the NUS leadership. This marks another step forward in reforming the NUS, now only needing to be ratified at either Annual Conference, or another Extraordinary.
The Sussex delegation walked away feeling cheated, and that the whole process to date had been little more than a farce. The conference itself was clearly divided into two groups, one side supporting the new proposals against those who did not, which often dragged the debate into an ideological standoff, with critics of the proposals being branded as “anti-reform” and “living in the past”.
Amendments proposed by USSU to increase democracy – such as having a Winter Conference and saying “no” to external trustees – were voted down by most delegates; not on the basis of the arguments, but because the NUS leadership disapproved.
When one delegate was asked why he voted against a Winter Conference, he looked confused, then shrugged and couldn’t respond. One amendment calling for the constitution to be ratified by Annual conference, rather than another Extraordinary conference, was added by the Steering Committee without any prior warning or consultation. This turned the amendment into a “wrecking” motion, which if approved would have ended the conference immediately, despite this clearly not being the aim.
Although most student unions have been lining up to support the reforms, strong resistance still remains against what is potentially an attack on democracy within the NUS. The introduction of an all-powerful board containing voting non-students that have the power to veto any decision on “financial or legal grounds”, and the introduction of unelected, voluntary-zone conferences with the ability to set agenda are two examples of the reform’s attacks on democracy. The proposed constitution, if passed, is likely to give concentrate power within the NUS leadership, away from ordinary student unions. USSU has remained strongly critical of not only the reforms, but of the whole process to date, criticising the lack of response to their submission, the transparency of the consultation process and the two week time frame to Extraordinary Conference which left little to no time to elect delegates and submit amendments.
Though turnout was high, it was clear that FEs were under represented and many Unions could not send their full delegation due to financial issues. Most small Unions have little to no budget and do not budget for these emergency conferences. One such case is Northumbria Students’ Union, whom though are entitled to 15 delegates, could only afford to send four. Even though it is clear that another Extraordinary Conference will disenfranchise even more small Unions from coming, many are pushing ahead to get it ratified before the Annual conference. This can be put down to fears that it may get rejected again as it did before at Annual 2008, as many more unaligned Unions attend and represent the swing vote. If the new constitution is to get voted down, it will prove a serious blow to the leadership and represent a massive vote of no confidence. Although the NUS leadership has played down claims that they are pushing for another Extraordinary Conference, it is clear that pro-NUS Student Unions are already in the process of submitting the needed motions, with the backing and consent of NUS.
It is likely that the reforms will be ratified by the needed two-thirds majority at the next conference, which will have far reaching consequences not only for the left wing in the NUS, who make up the majority of the opposition to the proposals, but also for Sussex as the referendum is to be opened on whether USSU should remain affiliated or not. This ongoing issue, alongside discussions over NUS’s higher education funding policy, will have a significant effect on Sussex’s future within our National Union.