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“Falling off the world’s axis”: York’s NUS referendum, 2014

Image credit: The Backbencher

“The campaign has barely begun and already the social media shells are beginning to drop around me. The big dogs of the University of York’s Students’ Union (YUSU) has fully mobilised its army of campus politicos and assorted hangers-on. The Yes campaign’s Facebook events page outnumber us three to one on invites and I’m starting to question whether it was really such a good idea assisting on the “No to the NUS referendum” campaign at this University.”

So began a post for The Backbencher by Tom Davies, ex-York Vision columnist, at the end of May 2014. York is no stranger to referenda on membership of the National Union of Students (NUS). In June 2014, the University community faced its triennial plebiscite on whether York’s Union should collaborate with the NUS. A debate on affiliation was held straight after YUSU’s Annual General Meeting, with the incumbent President Kallum Taylor speaking in favour of affiliation versus Tom Morgan, speaking against.

The predicted result of the election was uncertain. “All in all, the core message from Yes is that leaving the NUS would cause the world to fall off its axis,” wrote Davies. At one point, York would not renew its commitment to the NUS. York Vision reported that, prior to the referendum, almost half of students would leave. In the end, the apocalypse was averted: 813 students trumped the 413 ‘NUSceptics’, confirming YUSU’s involvement with the NUS.

Now, York finds itself embroiled in another vigorous fight over the Students’ Union’s membership of the NUS. The fight was triggered after controversy at the 2016 conference in Brighton and an open letter, signed by students of all political allegiances, calling the NUS undemocratic and unwilling to reform, demanding an earlier plebiscite.

Many of the themes of the 2016 referendum echo its 2014 ancestor. Liberation, for example: “Disaffiliation is inhibiting liberation,” Dom Smithies, forthcoming Community and Wellbeing Officer, concluded back then. Next came democracy, with the ‘NUSceptics’ ridiculing “the most undemocratic union in existence” and its reluctance to publish minutes. Financial backing is a third, with Kallum Taylor and the 2016 pro-NUS team deploying financial calculations to make the case for affiliation. One theme notably missing from today’s campaigning, however, is cheeseburgers. Apparently, NUS affiliation meant free cheeseburgers.

One of the greatest causes of discontent was the NUS’s alleged party political convictions. Its sceptics described them as “an organisation crippled by factions and party politics which you have no control over, doesn’t listen to you and often works against your interest.” They pointed out that numerous NUS bigwigs who went into parliamentary careers all held allegiances to the Labour Party. The NUS was composed of delegates elected by a tiny percentage of the millions of students in Great Britain, attending conferences to “vote on our behalf on national issues such as military action in foreign countries and the legalisation of drugs.” Following an NUS branch’s recent commitment to abolishing prisons, maybe some things haven’t changed.

The official campaign for disaffiliation in 2016 is markedly less arrogant than its 2014 predecessor. “Hear out our arguments and cut through the YUSU noise with raucous applause,” ‘Vote NO to the NUS’ commanded its supporters attending the referendum debate. The NUS was to them a useless organisation: “…lets be honest.. what issues do we actually need to take to 10 Downing Street? Surely our problems lie here in York and our team of SABBS etc. in YUSU can deal with it all.” Arguably to their advantage, today’s ‘York says: No2NUS’ doesn’t take such a tone.

2014’s disaffiliation cohort complained that they were outnumbered and outgunned. A handful of overexcited and invested Second Year politicos in the middle of their examinations, uninformed and unable to access enough information, stood against the entire YUSU Sabbatical Officer team, supported by the endorsement of the “National Union of Arseing About Pretending To Be Important.”

However, the gusto for abandoning the national body is as resonant as ever.

It seems as though referenda on membership cannot happen without comparisons to Monty Python, extra fruitful this year with that other referendum we are having. Monty Python came up in the 2014 referendum debate, mentioned by George Hughes on Facebook; Dom Smithies wrote a comment piece for York Vision in favour of the NUS, nodding to the same scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Kallum Taylor gladly accepted the 2014 result but promised Nouse that his successor Sam Maguire would fight for ‘One Member, One Vote’. After two more conferences, the NUS is yet to accept this policy. Will this lack of direct democracy motivate York’s students to break their university’s ties with the NUS this year?