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Is Tom Harwood really the saviour of the NUS?

Image: Sky News
Image: Sky News
Image: Sky News

At the upcoming national conference in Brighton, delegates from Warwick Students’ Union will be making the case for the National Union of Students to fight for the abolition of the monarchy, the decommission of the national nuclear deterrent and the condemnation of the Indonesian occupation of West Papua.

All are good ideas in their own right, but are they really something for a union for students to prioritise? Warwick’s delegates seem to think so, but I’m sure most people would disagree. But while Warwick’s SU is now the butt of jokes aplenty, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for NUS conferences. In the past we’ve seen motions for abolishing prisons and proclaiming that certain persons and groups are “vile.” Is it any wonder that several students’ unions almost left the national organisation last year?

Step in Tom Harwood, the Durham student and candidate for the NUS’s presidency, who wishes to sober up the NUS and get it back to doing what it used to do so well. Harwood became a minor celebrity in the world of student politics when he campaigned to become Durham’s delegate to the NUS conference with an absurd video and enthusiastic online canvassing. Popping up in various parts of Durham, Harwood promised to vote against any silly motions put forward for discussion at the 2017 Brighton conference, now only a few weeks away. He even got a few minutes of BBC airtime to put the NUS to shame. Now Harwood has put himself forward in the race to be the next President, joining two other candidates for whom many delegates will be voting with their noses held.

Wherever Harwood goes, he causes a bit of a stir. He will be speaking at York in a talk hosted by the York Union in a few days. Just two minutes after the organisers shared on Facebook a student’s article speaking up for Harwood, Dom Smithies, Community & Wellbeing Officer for YUSU (and one of our own delegates to the Brighton conference), shared a second, critical one.

To an old NUSceptic such as myself, Harwood’s plans to address the NUS’s shortcomings are a breath of fresh air. Last year’s conference and its proceedings rightly inspired disaffiliation campaigns across the country. This year’s conference has toned down the incredulity, but the NUS has not recovered its image. Harwood’s desire for a “credible” NUS is his most attractive idea: he’s after an NUS that focuses on students’ domestic problems, not the Israel-Palestine dispute or humiliating the Liberal Democrats.

Here we are again, you might think: yet another NUSceptic student hack rambling on about why Harwood is the Messiah, coming to save us from the NUS in its darkest hour, written while tending to his personal shrine to the Durham Deity. Hold your horses and read on.

Throughout his campaigning, both to be Durham’s delegate and the next NUS leader, Harwood’s trademark has been satire. He’s rather good at it; I’m surprised by the number of journalists who have mistaken his ridicule for serious politics. (From his website, it’s clear that the even-numbered policies are genuine and odd-numbered policies are intentionally mad, but a number of people haven’t noticed.) It’s done on purpose, to satirise some of the outlandish motions that are genuinely discussed at NUS conferences – and it works. Harwood’s silly policies fit in snugly with the suggestions of Warwick’s delegates and those of delegates past.

If you do a little further digging, you’ll find that insincerity is Harwood’s speciality. If you take a look at his YouTube account, you’ll discover some adorable little videos of a younger Harwood in his A-Level years, offering joke advice to viewers, for example about enduring exams. “You can really unnerve the examiners by going to the toilet as many times as possible… if you get into double figures, the examiners are going to be on edge.” He also recommends deliberately falling off your chair to cause a commotion and it. The video closes with a quote from Gandhi before revealing that everything was all a joke.

And that’s my worry: that everything is all a joke. When you include an endorsement from Harambe in your campaign video, one can’t help but doubt the sincerity of your pledges. Long story short, a gorilla that was shot dead is a figure of much merriment on the web. “Take a shot for Harambe; he took one for you,” reads an advert for Harambe-themed shot glasses. Some thousands of people voted for him in the 2016 US Presidential election. Was his appearance in Harwood’s campaign material an intentional nod to pop culture, or is he, like many web users, just having a somewhat distasteful laugh?

“I’m a very serious candidate,” he has said, “I’m a fun candidate. I think the NUS has lost a lot of fun over recent years.” For Harwood, then, a “serious fun” candidate isn’t an oxymoron. Yes, university life wouldn’t be as meaningful, nor even as educational, if there were no space for fun; but fun can often turn into insincerity. Just as it is a problem that the current NUS bigwigs are so serious that they miss the wood from the trees, I would not want an NUS that overlooked the plight of students and campaigned instead for better pub crawls using banter, memes and GIFs.

The NUS has many faults and it’s good to know that someone running to take over is aware of them. But, underneath the calls for change in a broken system, anti-establishment figures can often hide their own flaws. Harwood is keen to discuss credibility, but students should know whether he is credible himself.