For those who voted to stay in the NUS in various referenda across the country last term, the opening season of Malia Bouattia’s Presidency is unlikely to have inspired much confidence. Bouattia herself, after all, cast the deciding vote which passed an amendment to the restoring of Jewish representation on the anti-racism and anti-fascism board which left the identity of the representative not to Jewish students but to the NEC, denying Jewish students their ability to represent themselves.
This is all the more curious in an organisation which repeatedly asserts the importance of groups being able to do so – even to the point of advocating restricted franchise – but evidently this doesn’t apply to Jews.
When one of the main arguments in favour of staying in the NUS in Exeter was that we could reform it from the inside (as if the abject failure of Oxford-based Oh Well, Alright Then’s best efforts this Conference wasn’t compelling evidence to the contrary), and a major concern of many who campaigned for a Leave vote was the NUS’s blind eye on anti-Semitism, this certainly suggests an institution indifferent to legitimate concerns.
However, this attitude is far from confined to the institution’s attitude to anti-Semitism if a recent interview from NUS VP (and staunch Bouattia ally) Shelly Asquith is anything to go by. In fact, it would hardly be a stretch to say that the interview shows us the core of the problem with the NUS: its doctrine of No Reasonable Disagreement; the exceptionalism which comes with it; and its disinterest in ordinary students.
It’s notable that the growing disaffiliation movement in universities is simply dismissed by Asquith as “hard right”, when nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being a fringe group of racists, disaffiliation campaigners span the entire political spectrum – which is something the NUS cannot say about its own leadership. In a radio debate during the Exeter campaign, my partner on the Leave side was a Green voter, whereas in York representatives from all five major political societies supported disaffiliation.
Then again, it’s easier to dismiss opponents as a bunch of uneducated bigots than to accept that they may have legitimate concerns (as some pro-Remain commentators have demonstrated since the Brexit referendum), or even points of view that deserve to be taken seriously by an organisation which allegedly speaks with their voices. Therein lies the core of the NUS’s doctrine of No Reasonable Disagreement: everyone on the other side of an argument is somehow “racist”, “far right”, or (in the case of Spiked at LGBT Conference) simply “vile” – and no further analysis is required.
The other side of the No Reasonable Disagreement coin is, of course, the unshakable belief that the NUS is right; why else, after all, would the appropriate response to the disaffiliation campaigns, according to Asquith’s interview, be to “educate” the opponents of the NUS on its supposed relevance rather than listen to their concerns? How else also would an appropriate response to criticism of the organisation’s attitude to Jews (whether in electing Bouattia at all – something which would likely never have happened had the remarks concerned any other minority group – or in the ARAF motion) simply be to assert that the NUS is “anti-racist”?
The implication is clear: because the NUS is “right”, it cannot be racist, not even if it elects someone who openly supports violence against Israel, and believes detractions are part of a conspiracy by “Zionist” media, as its President. To top off the organisation’s commitment to not reform, the NEC – rather than vote to reform based on ordinary students’ concerns – instead voted itself a budget to fight “Yes to NUS” campaigns. Last term, this involved the flagrant breaching of explicit campaigning rules in Hull and Oxford, but when the NUS is so unambiguously right, why should rules designed to ensure a fair vote get in the way of its desired result?
And finally, Asquith asserts that it’s the “duty” of the NUS to “have a political standpoint”. Quite why this is the case, when it allegedly represents the voice of nearly every student in the UK, has never been explained, and is likely to admit no explanation – but that has never seemed to matter to NUS leaders when they pass fringe policies such as calling for the abolition of prisons or condemning gay men for “appropriating black women”, so why should that change now?
The sensible answer to this question, however, would surely be to give ordinary students a credible national voice on issues that actually affect their student experience; after all, it’s supposed to be the “National Union of Students”, not the “National Union of Corbynites”.
Then again, what would we know; we’re just “hard right” students who need to be “educated”, right?