A tail of how the dry business of democratic structures can be used to limit debate, and what this means for the progressive left in the student movement – by Tim Cobbett

When I was involved in the National Union of Students (NUS) as a delegate or executive officer based in Scotland in the period 2005 to 2008, both the NUS in Scotland and Nationally were controlled by a combination of official Labour students and independents who were pretty politically similar to Labour students. In NUS UK, this remains the case to this day, whilst NUS Scotland has moved to the left.

With the two respective conferences now complete for another year, I have been reflecting on why this might be the case. It is about more than the quality of individual candidates this year, as in both cases this year has been a continuation of a steady trend. There are of course some factors that are outside of the student movement but that impact upon it – such as the different political climate and devolution settlement in Scotland. Even taking that into account though, I think much of it has to do with the democratic structures themselves.

Within the last decade, NUS UK has overhauled its structures with quite significant democratic reforms. The first of these – that reduced the length of Conference, abandoned winter Conference and streamlined spending on Liberation Conferences – were arguably needed to give the organisation credibility and preserve a sensible balance on spending between democratically deciding what you are going to do, and actually doing it.

The second set of reforms, debated in draft stage from 2007 and ultimately passed in 2009, were again controversial. Much of the focus at the time was in the change from the old Block of 12 to a Block of 15; there were more places for Further Education students and more places elected directly via policy zone conferences or nations. Some small factions feared they would lose their ability to get someone elected. This obscured a far more significant change – the change to the formula that decides how many delegates each Students Union or Association in the Country gets to send to NUS National Conference.

The new NUS president-elect, Toni Pearce – is NUS conference closed to diverse opinions?

In essence, by increasing the number of full-time equivalent students required per delegate place, the size of Conference was again reduced. It has fallen from being about 1400 before the first set of reforms, to 1000 following those, to more like 700 now. In Scotland, where I chair the democratic procedures committee, we didn’t change the formula when it was changed for UK Conference and more recently we went the other way and made our Conference bigger.

Now in a scientific opinion-poll, size should not matter. If you have a cross section of society being interviewed, then the second 100 people you ask might give you broadly the same range of responses as the first 100. In this case though, smaller delegations mean that a far higher proportion of delegates are incoming or outgoing sabbatical officers, and many members cannot bring any more people beyond that.

Now in any configuration of the Conference, the voices of current officers would obviously be influential. However the lack of other influences creates the conditions for a continuing political status quo. Current officers, often bogged down in the detail of governance and activities of their own organisation at that time, will often have a more bureaucratic focus than an outsider. Incumbents and leadership-backed candidates give the current generation officers what they want, so they vote for them. The continuation of the NUS on a centrist path will encourage the same demographic of person to run for office within their own students union, but no more. It is democracy, but only in a limited version of it.

Now having more people at the Conference would not automatically bring about a political change in any direction, but if there is to be a political change those trying to bring it about need to be able to get a voice in the argument. This is where structure meets politics. If the leadership of NUS UK were reflective of the wider movement then you could say this was a non-issue. It would be hard to argue, however, that 100% of students were Labour party or Labour-friendly centrists – yet all of the people elected to full-time positions elected at National Conference are. It is a union, so is not likely to attract Tories in great numbers, but yet the growth in progressive student activism from a generation of students politicised by the financial crisis, the Coalition Government and their consequences is yet to be reflected in Conference election results that remain broadly unchanged.

There was a sense during Aaron Porter’s year as National President that the mood had changed to the point that the traditional NUS response, centred on professional lobbying, was no-longer enough. This feeling grew and probably did for Porter in the end, but now the dust has settled all that has really changed is that the leadership has learnt to use enough progressive rhetoric to take the centre with them.

Of course there are some other key reasons why the growing activism on campuses in response to Government cuts is yet to translate into a new breed of NUS National Officer. Partly it is people not taking up the delegate places available to them, but this is likely to be linked to a feeling that nothing can be changed by attending. Within NUS Scotland, the proportion of Further Education students at the Conference had been a small minority until the organisation began to seriously prioritise issues relevant to FE students – now they outnumber HE students at the Conference, better representing the proportion of the actual membership they make up.

More broadly though, the continued existence of a number of small but determined hard-left Trotskyist groups undermines the efforts of the new independent left, by hijacking debate to focus on recruitment for their faction, by refusing to articulate their principles in a way that is relevant to what the NUS actually does or could do, and sometimes even by being straightforwardly anti-progressive on issues around gender or sexuality or through bizarre imperialist foreign policy. This has the double-impact of making non aligned delegates who could vote other ways assume that any candidate of the ‘left’ is dangerous and persuades them not to vote for them, and confusing delegates who are clearly left-wing in their own politics into thinking that neither side actually speaks for them.

So whilst your hard-left, your Labour Student or your current sabbatical officer will always have a reason to attend the Conference, and a mutual self-interest in repeating the same argument with each other for their own reasons, your leftist but independent student activist might simply decide their activism is more useful somewhere else, and many do. A change that can be achieved more quickly in your own institution or community is more satisfying that losing a lot of NUS elections after all.

But the structure matters too. What if more of these students, involved in campaigning in some form at their own institutions but who feel for whatever reason that becoming a sabbatical officer there is a relevant step for them, could get a place at Conference? Many probably would, and the dynamic would change. Thus the dry decision to change the formula, largely hidden among the noise and fury of other changes that took place at the same time, was no accident. It is a very deliberate political decision to limit and control involvement – taken by a Democratic Procedures Committee that reflects the politics dominant at the Conference itself. Of course the Conference can vote each year to change this, but why would the majority there now, happy with the status-quo – ever now take that risk?

Like the Blairites in New Labour once they took over the party, the NUS leadership doesn’t just control current policy, they control the structure which determines whether there is a realistic way of anyone else ever changing it. A brave leader, confident in their arguments, should have nothing to fear from a bigger and more uncontrollable gathering. After all, if you’re pursuing the right course, surely you can persuade others in open democratic debate? In practice, either a student or any other version of a career politician would rather just win and move on.

Now it is not as if the people who do run NUS currently don’t do any good at all, either for their current members or in more general societal terms, they deliver what they do effectively but the confines of what are considered possible are narrow.

Likewise a lot of people do a lot of good as campaigners and activists without ever thinking NUS at all. With all that, you might think this doesn’t matter, but I don’t agree. The reputation, excellent staff and resources that NUS have at its disposal make it important. It represents the vast majority of current students – from which our future leaders can and do emerge. So if we want different political leaders in the future, it would need to start there – and it would be crazy for anyone who agrees with that not to engage with it.

The lesson here is partly that the structural small-print of democracy matters and should be carefully watched. What I do not have is a magic-bullet for what the progressive left in the student movement can do from the position it currently has. There is probably no quick route, only the long pain-staking one.

The situation in Scotland provides an opportunity. The presence of a number of the NUS Scotland officers who will provide leadership that moves the political ground but that is also relevant and delivers tangible outcomes can be used beyond Scotland to counter the most effective argument currently used against candidates from the left – that their idealism is somehow a threat to what NUS currently does, rather than something that would provide a boost to it. The fact that it is hard for candidates from the left to be elected means that it has been hard for that to ever gain traction and the importance of now being able to change that cannot be underestimated. In an ideal world though, those involved would have more than the existing 700 delegates to make their argument to.