Political Promise

We Need to Modernise the NUS

In Jonny Roberts on March 2, 2011 at 9:20 am

In light of the recent resignation of Aaron Porter, the NUS chief, Jonny Roberts argues now is the time for voting reform in the NUS.

Reading Aaron Porter’s parting interview with the Evening Standard I was struck by three things:

1.      That he hasn’t resigned already – no politician should have to put up with the kind of vicious verbal assault (‘Tory Jew’ – he is neither, as if that is the point) nor fear for their physical wellbeing in the way he has suffered, especially not a student politician earning just £22,000.

2.       The surprise which has greeted his announcement of NOT running for a second term – it is unbelievable that he is only the second President not to serve a second term since 1969!

3.       The NUS desperately needs voting reform – the President is still elected by other student reps and Officers at the annual conference.

The NUS and Mr Porter have had a tough year. The organisation is treated with considerable respect by Government even if, of course, it’s not always listened to, Porter could never have sacrificed that respect by defending violence and riots. Porter did however make mistakes – he should have condemned police violence towards students sooner and certainly should not have apologised to UCL students for not backing their direct action if, as transpired, he was not prepared (or able) to back up his words with actions – no legal support was forthcoming. Nevertheless I return to my first point, no one should have suffered like Porter has. Yet to his great credit he has seeing out his term and gave a rousing performance at the Higher Education seminar my company organised earlier this month. He will make a great politician one day and will have learned a lot from this hellish year, I wish him all the best.

The points I really wish to discuss are the latter two and they are interrelated. I was stunned to hear Porter is only the second NUS President not to serve (not just seek, but be elected and serve) a second term in office since 1969. This is the biggest indictment of NUS’ broken model of selecting a President; the NUS desperately needs voting reform.

Disillusionment with the NUS is running high, sure from those who wanted a more aggressive approach to the tuition fee argument (some will never forgive the NUS for abandoning a mantra of ‘free education for all’ and even I was embarrassed by the measly candlelight vigil on the night of the fees vote) but much more so from ordinary students for whom the NUS represents merely cheap beer for their local SU bar and 10% discount via the NUS Extra card. If NUS is to genuinely engage the masses in its campaigns and aims then it needs to stop its facelessness in the eyes of the average Joe student. The NUS must move towards an annual election day for its President.

At the moment NUS elections are a sure thing, hence every President getting two goes in a row. Labour Students nominate or back (in the case of Porter) a candidate and they win. They win on the votes of those 500 or so who turn up at the annual conference. This is a recipe for disengagement, naming the NUS President is an impossible task for far too many, indeed many have no idea it even has a President.  An annual election in every affiliated Students’ Union across the country, with candidates able to canvass on campuses across the country has to be the answer.

There are stumbling blocks to such a radical reform but all can be overcome. Firstly cost of campaigning, there could be a limit, as there is in all SU elections up and down the country to barring the rich stealing the election. Frankly this would force candidates to woo the electorate by ingenuity, building up mailing lists, blogging, getting press exposure (national – no doubt the Guardian would get excited by a national student election; and student press) etc. Secondly the current system exists, in theory, to give fairly equal say to each union. The big unions get 9 places at conference whilst the smaller ones get 3 for example. Yet a system similar to AV+ could solve the problem. Each Union’s result would constitute a ‘seat’, thus giving equal weight to all UK universities irrespective of size, this would also avoid London centric candidates running away with it every time. In addition each individual student’s vote would also go towards a proportional vote. The seats could be converted into a percentage which would be added to the proportional percentage, then the total would be halved to give a final result that mixes both the popular vote with the ‘seats’ element – an overall winner.

NUS may have only just changed its constitution in 2009 but this is the prime time for NUS to usher in such a change. Without such a reform the NUS will never engage its masses. 

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