For those attending the highly entertaining and always worthwhile Annual General Meeting of the Students Union last week, or for those who attended the Sussex Not for Sale meeting on the Credit Crunch a few weeks ago, several of the uglier traits of our otherwise nobly engaged student body displayed themselves.
If you don’t know, the USSU AGM is one of, if not the, largest AGM in the country. Speaking to sabbatical officers of other unions with a far larger student populations, it is clear that most other AGMs hover around the 20 – 70 mark; such a huge turnout from us puts most of them to shame, as well as providing an enormous mandate for our elected sabbatical officers (turnout in sabb elections is also much higher here than elsewhere).
This is all well and good. However, certain predictable debates take place; for the second time that I have been to the AGM a rowdy debate about whether or not to disaffiliate from the National Union of Students took place; the only difference this time was that this debate was sharpened by the recent furore over the new Constitution that has been proposed by the NUS leadership. In the end, it was decided to have a cross-campus ballot on the issue following the final decision on that new constitution. If, as is expected, that constitution is approved at annual conference, expect a referendum and accompanying campaigns sometime in the summer term.
The history of the relationship between Sussex and the NUS is a poor one. For years all this union did was turn up once a year to annual conference, behave badly, ignore all the other smaller regional meetings, and then leave wandering why everyone disliked Sussex so much, although this has changed in recent years.
If we are in a minority on many issues it is not because we are different or somehow special, but because we only engage in issues that we deem to care about. When I attended a regional meeting, I was struck not by the difference of ourselves to other Unions, but the enormous similarities in what we do, and how we do them; we might disagree with the majority of Unions on the Governance Review, but dwelling on this is to ignore the far larger (and actually far more important) other issues we do agree on; Keeping the Cap, No Platform, the Liberation Campaigns, etc. To extend that further, the enormous number of activities (that’s sports and societies) that students here do, which are replicated across the country. Opportunities exist to extend and enhance these through the NUS – unfortunately we are afflicted by a kind of tunnel vision that boils every debate down to a small number of issues that place an enormous intellectual chasm between us and the rest of the National Union, with us as an aloof, arrogant and elitist outsider that refuses to engage the NUS in a constructive manner.
What struck me about the NUS debate at the AGM this time around was not so much the content of the debate, but the sheer arrogance of it. It was suggested, repeatedly, that the NUS had never carried out any of our ‘demands’ – as if, after years of engaging in polemical rants about Blairite wannabes and neoliberalism once a year, anyone in the NUS was likely to care about the ‘demands’ of one Student Union (a small one at that) among thousands of others. It was also suggested that the only way to make the NUS leadership take us seriously was to leave our National Union. I doubt very much whether they would give two hoots about our leaving; certainly they expected as much last year. Aside from the £35,000 we give them, we have contributed little of real value in much of the last few years. As a result, aside from the benefits of being such a large purchasing consortium, we have gotten little out of it.
To continue the analogy, those of you who attended the Sussex Not for Sale meeting about the Credit Crunch would have witnessed a similar attitude; not one of a constructive engagement about issues directly relevant to students at Sussex (such as staff pensions, which were mentioned perhaps twice in 2 hours), but repeated, disconnected ramblings from the perspective of a world view that died sometime around when Stalin first started sending his citizens to the gulags. This is not to discredit the carefully considered and well thought through comments of Professor Van der Pijl; but rather to note how SNS runs a serious risk of being hijacked by that same attitude; that highly exclusive arrogance, an intellectual superiority that demands no dissent; that fails to understand the right of others to disagree; that sees violent protests against the Royal Navy and EDO as legitimate, whilst at the same time seeking to ban them from campus for supporting violence. There are very serious, pressing issues which the student body and SNS needs to engage with; staff pensions are one, but this will not happen with a persistent failure to listen to, rather than to lecture, the student body at large, and especially those who take the time to turn up to vitally important events as SNS or the AGM.
It was worthwhile noting that the debate about the NUS took place in the presence of the NUS general secretary.
When asked about what the NUS spends its money on, or what campaigns it runs, or why it doesn’t support free education, Richard Budden answered directly and honestly.
When questioned about a particularly ugly incident of racism at an NUS meeting, he answered, again, honestly, with all the relevant information and with no small amount of humility about the NUS’s failings. It would help Sussex a great deal if we could do the same when it came to ours.