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Review of the 2016 YUSU NUS referendum debate

(L-R) Chris Wall and Dom Smithies of the 'Remain' side; James Humpish, the YUSU Policy Coordinator and chairman of the event; and Catherine Yarrow and Robin Brabham, of the 'Leave' side. Photo credit: Richard Crawshaw

The future of the National Union of Students (NUS) looks bleak. Cambridge, Warwick, Surrey and Exeter are staying, but Newcastle, Lincoln and Hull are jumping ship. Though, so far, the democratic decision of most universities considering to stay has been fortunate for the NUS, the criticisms have not vanished. Around the country, many students feel that the NUS is out of touch with its community. York’s decision will indicate whether the NUS can survive these teething problems or whether it needs major internal reform.

In York, at a well-attended debate this week, two sides fought over the future of the University of York’s Students’ Union’s affiliation with the the NUS. Chris Wall, the outgoing Activities Officer, and Dom Smithies, the forthcoming Community and Wellbeing Officer, made the case for YUSU to remain part of the national body; Robin Brabham, the University’s Green Party chairman, and Catherine Yarrow argued for disaffiliation.

The ‘Remain’ side began the discussion with democracy: Chris Wall challenged the ‘Leave’ campaign’s argument that the NUS is an undemocratic organisation, letting a few hundred delegates decide policies that affect millions of students. ‘One Member, One Vote’ (OMOV), something proposed by YUSU, had been dismissed for practical reasons, he said, with 2/3 of students’ unions nationwide incapable of accessing students’ details in order to make direct democracy realistic. Delegates are elected by students and work with students’ best interests at heart when they attend conferences, and it is in the best interests of York’s students for YUSU to remain.

Chris Wall was “defeatist,” said Robin Brabham, passionate and out to attack from the get go. The NUS had often looked at acquiring the missing details to enable OMOV, but had committed its least favourite policies to endless bureaucracy to kill them off. Brabham turned our attention to the large salary of the CEO, standing at £100,000. “Vote ‘No’ to this utter undemocratic pathetic mess,” he urged us.

After the opening speeches, it seemed as though the referendum had already occurred, with York abandoning the NUS and Wall and Smithies expressing their disappointment and regret. Catherine Yarman struck hammer blows, listing the number of times that the NUS had “failed students” and began arguing that the NUS has in fact been out “to harm, not help” students. Wall and Smithies, rather than firing shots back, admitted their awareness of the organisation’s shortcomings. In fact, in both the opening and closing remarks, neither ‘Remain’ speaker reached their meatiest arguments before running out of time – in fact, they gave more time to making concessions and admitting to their “NUScepticism” than fighting for York to stay. The ‘Leave’ side meanwhile, had informed answers for every question put to them, referring to previous NUS motions, statistics and more.

Admittedly, some of the ‘Leave’ speakers’ broadsides against the NUS were pessimistic. Despite Brabham’s insistence that it was “realism,” not pessimism, one got the feeling that the NUS could do nothing right. Several NUS campaigns, they argued, were originally started by individual students. The NUS hadn’t taken part in projects until the very end, sweeping in to claim responsibility and bask in fame. Time and time again, it seemed the NUS’s failures were solely down to the fault of the NUS, but its successes were down to individuals. By that logic, could the NUS ever achieve anything good?  (Individuals create and governments take, as the old libertarian argument might go…)

Nonetheless, so many of the ‘Leave’ side’s accusations were unanswered. The NUS is led by a small clique of political animals; the NUS is out of touch with student life and once asked the government to cut maintenance grants; the NUS has a history of bullying and abusing its own members at its own conferences … rather than deny the charges, the ‘Remain’ camp continued to shrug and admit that there are problems with the NUS, instantly undermining its plea for York to stay in order to start reform. If the ‘Leave’ camp is correct, and the secretive clique exists, then the chances of reform seem slim to none.

By halfway, the debate became a stalemate between apologists and heretics. Though Catherine Yarrow mentioned it numerous times, no one wished to seriously address the elephant in the room: the allegations of anti-Semitism against the incoming NUS President, Malia Bouattia. Without the intervention of Alex Lusty, who read a statement from the University’s Jewish Society, we would have heard very little about the concerns of Jewish students regarding the NUS. Regrettably, this will do little to answer these concerns.

Clearly, the ‘Leave’ side were the winners of the evening’s debate. The ‘Remain’ camp could not break out of its defeatist demeanour, this wasn’t helped by both men’s admission that they were sceptical of the NUS. However, leaving the debate, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the debate had achieved much. Many of the audience members revealed their existing strong convictions for one side or the other: Scott Dawson blasted the panel with a prepared list of facts about the NUS. Plenty of the top political names on campus were present at the debate – Alex Lusty, Felix Forbes, Stephen Harper, Callum Shannon, Josh Salisbury et al – as well as almost every current and incoming member of the Sabbatical team, most of whom seem to have made up their minds on the matter. Other than Stephen Harper, who admitted his hesitance, few people in the audience were looking for information to make their decision. The greatest fear would be for the referendum to fail to reach quorum (5% of the student membership). Both sides must encourage all students to participate in the democratic process for anything to occur.

The referendum on the University of York Student Union (YUSU)’s membership of the NUS is in progress. Online and physical campaigning are now permitted. Voting commenced on 1st June at 10am and ends on 8th June at 5pm. The referendum result will be announced the following day.