We shouldn’t be surprised that Liam Burns won
The idea that Shane Chowen was the frontrunner for NUS President always seemed dubious. Liam Burns – the eventual winner, had a huge amount on his side. On the first day of conference, it was clear that Liam’s campaign was much better organised – his supporters – including the presidents of many of the bigger Higher Education student unions – ran around the conference centre in their “Burns” T-shirts distributing questions to be put to the candidates, putting up banners (“BURNS – not the status quo”), and persuading wavering voters. The Shane Chowen supporters sat bleary eyed in their bright orange T-shirts and drank coffee. This supremacy should come as no surprise.
When I first met Liam – it must have been 2006 – he had just been elected education officer at Herriot Watt university in Edinburgh. He was clearly very sharp – a check shirted geek who knew his quality assurance processes from his quality enhancement processes, but (and this is rare in student politics) – a geek with social skills. He always seemed to have the rare talent of asking people questions, and then genuinely listening to and trying to understand their answers. A physics student, he listened particularly carefully to the political theories extolled by the various other student politicians around him, always giving the impression of relative open mindedness.
When he was elected Heriot Watt’s president the next year, both of his two most recent predecessors – Steven Findlay and James Alexander (both Labour students) – had gone on to prominence in NUS (National Executive and NUS Scotland president respectively). He had big shoes to fill. But he quickly did. At the end of the year, he stood for NUS Scotland Depute President on a slate with Edinburgh Uni student president, and leading Labour student, Josh MacAlister. Josh – a close ally of Wes Streeting – lost the president job narrowly to Strathclyde president Gurgit Singh. Liam narrowly beat Gurgit’s running mate, Edinburgh College of Art President (and now honorary Bright Greener) Sarah Beattie-Smith.
This was always going to be a tough year, with the two rivals in the top jobs. At the end of the year, Liam took a big gamble. Had he stood for re-election as Depute, he would have been a shoe-in for Scotland President the following year. But instead, he stood against Gurgit. No one had ever beaten an incumbent NUS Scotland President. Come the conference, the vote split exactly 50:50. A coin was tossed. Liam got it.
As NUS Scotland President, Liam soon became very popular. It’s telling that many of the people working hard on his campaign yesterday were the same faces that worked so hard campaigning for Gurgit Singh, and against Liam, only 2 years ago. Once in office, Liam pulled off a massive policy change – persuading NUS Scotland to back a graduate tax, despite the fact that there is currently no student contribution in Scotland. That he managed this whilst maintaining the broad support of Scotland’s student politicians is a remarkable testament to his ability to persuade and to charm.
And then came the big job. I don’t know specifically what happened. But it seems clear to me that many of the centrists in NUS must have seen the risk of Aaron winning a second year – while this year’s conference was largely of sabbatical officers elected long before the November protests, next year’s will be a different matter. Another year of such a controversial president could hand the job to the left. Liam is better at building consensus and a smarter operator. As an incumbent next year, he will be very hard to shift.
And so Aaron seems to have effectively have been forced out. I don’t know if Liam ever had the conversation – the one that goes “stand down, or I’ll beat you”. But I certainly imagine he might have. He then built his team. There is a reason that lots of NUS Presidents are former NUS Scotland presidents. While being an NUS Vice President gives you profile across the country, the Scotland job gives the chance to build an army of activists that will follow you across the border. And Liam’s popularity across the spectrum in Scotland ensured him this support. With outgoing presidents from Aberdeen, Strathclyde, and Edinburgh – none of them Labour Students – all coming out fighting for Liam, and helping to deliver lots more activists, his tartan army was a force to be reckoned with. And then he won the backing of the biggest army at NUS – Labour Students. For an outsider, it was never obvious which of the two centrist candidates they might back – with rumours that Chowen had the fated support of former president Wes Streeting. But it’s interesting to note that both Labour Students national chair – Dean Carlin, and prominent block of 15 member Thomas Graham are former Edinburgh student politicians, who have known Liam for years.
Having secured feet on the ground from the two most organised blocks of support – Labour students, and Scottish students – Liam cleverly built his position as an outsider, but a consensus candidate. He supported leftist motions to hold a national demonstration in the first term of next year, and to support UK Uncut – ensuring if they weren’t already secure (which they mostly were), the transfers from socialist candidate Mark Bergfelt.
And ultimately, he won with more than 60% of the vote in the final round, his opponents either scared off, or out organised by a candidate whose success comes not from the charismatic bombast of Streeting, but from the gentle charm of a Fifer and the organisational skills of someone who has been doing this for a long time. Having been the first person to ever beat an NUS Scotland incumbent, he is now the first person in the modern NUS to effectively unseat a national president, too. How he will fair in the job we are yet to see.
Obviously I am saddened by Liam’s opposition to lecturers strikes and his support for student contributions. But if at least he can use his personal popularity (I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Liam) to unite the student movement against its real enemies, he will have achieved something.