Help! The (Labour) Students are revolting!


Many Liberal Democrats today are expressing surprise at the anti-Liberal Democrat line being taken by the NUS in today’s demo. Although I was never hugely involved in the political side of running a Student Union, I did have some involvement whilst at university. I have fond memories of counting STV votes, and watching at some stupid hour of the morning – and it must have been pretty late to have seemed stupid as a student – as the returning officer stared at a single scrap of paper and tried to transfer a fraction of a vote half a dozen times to figure out the result of one of the elections. Still, those years were a good example of why FPTP can fail badly, due to the controversy as the Islamic Society wanted to ban itself. They couldn’t overcome constant block voting by extremists trying to take over the society, but were capable of passing an overwhelming motion questioning their own existence as a society.

Enough with the Yes2AV arguments and back to the NUS. I remember the NUS as being a very left-wing organisation, so let’s have a look at past and current presidents of the NUS. There has only been one president in the last 35 years that has not been standing as Labour, a Labour coalition (“Broad Left”) or as an “Independent” who also happens to be a Labour party member. Here’s a list of jobs, taken from Wikipedia, that NUS presidents have gone on to perform: (Information prior to 1984 is more vague)

  • Jack Straw – NUS President 1969-71. Current Shadow Cabinet member, former Labour Foreign and Home Secretary.
  • Charles Clarke – NUS President 1975-77. Former Labour MP and Home Secretary.
  • Phil Woolas – NUS President 1984-86. Ex-Labour MP and former immigration minister, You may have seen him in the news recently…
  • Vicky Philips – NUS President 1986-88. Labour but unusually, no political career. She’s now a lawyer.
  • Maeve Sherlock – NUS President 1988-90, became special advisor to then chancellor Gordon Brown. Now a member of the House of Lords.
  • Stephen Twigg – NUS President 1990-92, Labour MP 1997-05 and Minister of State for Schools 2004-05. Re-elected 2010, Currently Shadow Foreign Office Minister.
  • Lorna Fitzsimons – NUS President 1992-94, Labour MP 1997-05
  • Jim Murphy – NUS President 1994-96, Labour MP since 1997. Minister of State for Europe and later Secretary of State of Scotland under Gordon Brown, currently Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
  • Douglas Trainer – NUS President 1996-98, special adviser for the Labour Scottish Executive 2006-07
  • Andrew Pakes – NUS President 1998-00, former Labour Councillor, special advisor to Labour Deputy Mayor of London, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Milton Keynes North in 2010.
  • Owain James – NUS President 2000-02, the only recent non-Labour holder of the post.
  • Mandy Telford – NUS President 2002-04, became Special Adviser to Tessa Jowell MP
  • Kat Fletcher – NUS President 2004-06. Another person standing as non-Labour, but went on to volunteer for Ed Miliband’s Labour Leadership Campaign
  • Gemma Tumelty – NUS President 2006-08. “Independent”, but still a Labour party member even then.
  • Wes Streeting – NUS President 2008-10. Labour
  • Aaron Porter – Current President. “Independent”, but Labour party member.

So if you’re wondering why the NUS was relatively quiet about Labour introducing fees and commissioning the report that has lead to a proposed increase in fees but are now baying for blood, consider what those within the NUS power structure will be hoping to go on to do with their later lives.

  1. #1 by Krissie on 10 November 2010 - 12:56

    I have to ask…

    Could it not be that students were relatively placated by the (Labour) promise that fees would not rise above £1000 that they were relatively quiet? (though I do remember some fuss!)

    This time around, a great many students helped the Lib Dems achieve their current position on the promise that Clegg would oppose a raise in tuition fees, and would represent a socially liberal manifesto rather than apparently supporting the Tories in their economically liberal agenda.

    It should be remembered that as a very democratic organisation, the NUS is very likely to have voted for the line they take, making individual students responsible rather than any political part affiliation…

    … they are angry though, because they voted the Lib Dems in, and saw this promise broken – they feel betrayed, and that’s the reason they’re beying for blood as much as over the proposed tuition fee hikes themselves… and they don’t see what Tory excesses the LD’s are actually curbing. To be honest, neither do I.

    It’s true that we’re seeing the same od politics from Labourites and Tories… but unfortunately, rather than stand as the third and cleaner option they voted for, people see the Lib Dems as having joined them in the same old politics.

    • #2 by Emma on 10 November 2010 - 15:39

      The NUS is not a “very” democratic organisation. Individual students are not members, individual student unions are. Conference delegates are elected by slate in a lot of unions, and in turn elect NUS officers by slate. The effect of the voice of individual students on NUS policy is negligible both in sentiment and basic statistics.

      • #3 by Krissie on 10 November 2010 - 15:43

        I’m willing to stand corrected on that point.

    • #4 by Cyberspice on 10 November 2010 - 15:40

      Who introduced fees in the first place?

    • #5 by Zoe O'Connell on 10 November 2010 - 23:43

      and they don’t see what Tory excesses the LD’s are actually curbing. To be honest, neither do I.

      Yes, the party very much has a communications problem. I believe we are making a difference, but only because I get to talk to MPs and (very occasionally) rather frustrated ministers. It might have been easier if we’d gone into coalition with a party just going out of power, so there was an obvious contrast but sadly we’re not in that situation.

      We’ll have a new president for 2011, I hope very much we can sort ourselves out.

  2. #6 by Liberal Neil on 10 November 2010 - 12:59

    Spot on about NUS Presidents’ political leanings.

    Some have a bit of integrity – Maeve Sherlock has done some good stuff for regugees, for example – but most are careerists.

    BTW I also have fond memories of student voting. I won my first ever election, to become a member of Leicester Uni’s NUS delegation back in 1988, by 0.08 votes ;-)

  3. #7 by Terence Eden on 10 November 2010 - 17:40

    Funny… I distinctly remember going on an NUS organised anti-Tuition-Fees demo. Would have been 1998 / 1999.

    My memory is of a very vocal NUS – at both a university and national level.

    • #8 by Zoe O'Connell on 10 November 2010 - 23:49

      Yes, I remember those demos – I was a student back then too. The NUS President of the time, Andrew Pakes, very courageously called on the government to, err, conduct an independent review.

  4. #9 by Iain Dale on 10 November 2010 - 17:49

    I shall be mentioning this blogpost on my LBC show tonight.

    • #10 by Steph on 11 November 2010 - 12:16

      Tory uses Lib Dem for his own agenda… just like the coalition government then!

      I must admit this is the first post Zoe where I’ve ever come away thinking you’ve missed the point a little. The party-lines of current or previous NUS student presidents is a diversion to the issue IMO.

      I really don’t care much for Labour and so focusing attention towards them isn’t really much comfort to students or the wider issue of cuts (where the Lib Dems have now simply joined up to the same neo-liberal agenda of the Tory and Labour parties).

      Given that many of this current intake of students have lived mostly under a Labour government, they know all too well how Labour have imposed more and more costs onto them. I’m sure the demo and protest was made up heavily of students who voted the Lib Dems because they trusted them as the alternative over the other two main parties, and frankly they’ve been let down.

      • #11 by Zoe O'Connell on 11 November 2010 - 13:15

        It wasn’t supposed to be a commentary on the fees in general – I’m against the current increase in fees, although I do recognise there are some very positive things that have been announced too.

        I don’t think the protest was to do with LibDem policy or betrayal, other than the fact that the Labour dominated NUS executive would have wanted to tow the Labour party line of targeting the LibDems – Ed Milliband himself has said he wants to make the Liberal Democrats “extinct”. This is just because we’re an easy target, not because we’re doing anything particularly evil.

        One thing we’ve learnt very quickly when canvassing on the doorstep in by-elections is that anyone who accuses us of “betrayal” is inevitably a hard Labour voter and has been for years – in two by-elections, I’ve not met a single Lib Dem voter on the doorstep who has changed their mind due to the coalition. Lib Dem voters by and large – and it’s not universal, I’ll admit – are more focused on democratic reform and being liberal than left/right politics pragmatic and recognise that we’re already doing pretty well given the small fraction of MPs we have.

        The LibDems I know who were on the protest were not there because they felt “betrayed” by the party, but because there is still internal debate within the party about the best way forward and they felt the need to express their opinion. The partisan attacks on the Liberal Democrats we saw are not going to help overturn fees at all, they’ll just alienate those who could have been persuaded to be onside. However, I’m sure those attacks will further the political career of the Labour NUS exec.

        There’s been much talk of LibDems not living up to the promise of “new” non-partisan politics, but it’s pretty hard to have a civilised game of cricket when the other team is still trying to play rugby.

        • #12 by Krissie on 11 November 2010 - 15:42

          No, it was to do with betrayal… as this and other sources attest (not least quotes used on tv media)…

          http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/laurie-penny/2010/11/young-scary-future-riot-crowd

          • #13 by Zoe O'Connell on 11 November 2010 - 15:48

            A left wing journalist quoting students taking part in an occupation at a rally organised by the Labour dominated NUS executive – how many people she spoke to do you think voted Liberal Democrat?

            You can’t be “betrayed” by someone you didn’t vote for, any more than Labour’s ID Cards policy or locking up children is Labour betraying me. I didn’t vote for them, nor would I – simply because liberty is more important to me than arguments about left/right economics or how much to cut.

  5. #14 by Squirrel Nutkin on 10 November 2010 - 18:05

    Fascinating to see that list laid out!

    Have often assured people that there was a well used career track: politick yourself to the top of the heap of NOLS (and its successors), then the relatively easy move to NUS Presidency (thereby almost automatically acquiring a faint aura of “radical firebrand”), before moving on to apparatchikdom in the Labour machine and the ultimate possibility of glory in Westminster itself!

    Of course the resulting roll of honour, Straw, Clarke, Woolas, Twigg, Fitzsimmons, Murphy, proved pretty inglorious for the most part – the “vanguard” they were in was that of the tribally partisan, Mail-pleasing, new right of Labour.

  6. #15 by Jon on 10 November 2010 - 21:04

    I see that Cameron has finally let the cat out the bag about why tuition fees are being raised.

    He stated to an audience of Chinese uni students that Increased fees would give English universities like Oxford, Cambridge, London Imperial, University College London, Manchester, Exeter and Newcastle the resources they needed to maintain standards and compete with institutions in America, India and China.

    He added: “We won’t go on increasing so fast the fees of the overseas students.

    “In the past, we have pushed up the fees on overseas students as a way of keeping them down for domestic students. Yes, foreign students will still pay a significant amount of money, but we should be able to bring that growth under control.”

    So it appears that we have to tighten our belts to make it cheaper for foreign students to study here – I’m sure our poorer domestic students will be glad to hear what their sacrifice is all about.

    • #16 by Zoe O'Connell on 10 November 2010 - 23:38

      Yes, heaven forbid we should do anything to encourage the influx of foreign students. Coming over here, subsidising our education system…

  7. #17 by RichardSM on 15 November 2010 - 11:49

    So, who were the NUS Presidents between 1971 and 1975?

    And between 1977 through to 1984?

    And who actually went to the NUS and signed the pledge in an attempt to win student votes?

    Are you really upset with the NUS?

    Or are you upset the plan has back-fired?

    Inconvenient truths?

    • #18 by Zoe O'Connell on 17 November 2010 - 14:15

      The Guardian credit Jack Straw with “politicizing the NUS” so I’m guessing prior holders of the post before 1969 were entirely or mostly non-political, but I have not performed any research either way on this – it wasn’t an arbitrary start point. In any event, Wikipedia lists no political allegiance.

      1971-73 was Digby Jacks, 1973-75 was John Randall, 1982-84 was Neil Stewart. As I noted, information prior to 1984 is more sketchy on Wikipedia and there is no information on them other than that Jacks was Left Caucus, Randall was Independent and Neil Stewart was Labour.

      1977-82 were all “Broad Left” candidates, a group described on Wikipedia as “a working relationship between the Labour Party, Plaid Cymru, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and other, non-aligned, supporters in order to work as a single voting bloc against the Conservative and some Trotskyist student groups“.

      Sue Slipman (1977-78) and David Aaronovitch (1980-82) were both members of the Communist Party of Great Britain at the time they stood for NUS president. Slipman’s past is a little confusing as she went on to found the SDP thinking Labour was too left wing and she does not appear to have carried on with the Liberal Democrats post-merger. The Guardian described her as having a “chameleon-like past” which might be a little unfair as she’s fairly consistently left of centre.

      Aaronovitch went on to become a journalist.

      Trevor Phillips (1978-80) stood as “Non-aligned” Broad Left but later became a Labour member of the London Assembly. Wikipedia states he was Blair’s preferred Labour candidate for London Mayor in 1999.

      I don’t think there’s anything inconvenient there, I just hadn’t dug that deep because the information is marginally harder to find and independent searching could be accused of research bias, rather than just using a neutral central source. If you’re having to dig back nearly three decades to try to argue a lack of link between the Labour party and the NUS, only to find other left wing and communist party candidates I think you’re getting a little desperate.

  8. #19 by Will on 13 January 2011 - 15:42

    This is one of my main bugbears about the NUS: that they’re really too tied to Labour. My first blog post was about how the NUS and Labour were in lockstep re: tuition fees despite most students being against them.

    It’s also partially why I’m proposing disaffiliation for Leeds: they just don’t represent most Leeds students. Greg Mulholland is still somewhat locally popular. And the NUS spectacularly failed when it came to grassroots protests such as occupations (which I supported as, at the least, the University of Leeds was not affected by it at all, and the people there were friendly and not just Labour hacks).

  9. #20 by chris on 21 February 2011 - 17:05

    this is proves to some extent that the NUS is incapabule of repsenting students while the labour party has huge infulecen over it. i don’t rember any student prostest to that scale of what we just saw during the introduction of the feas that labour did. yes there where a few small protests at campus but nothing on the scale, the NUS seemed very hesident to say anything to bad about them at the time.

    things i would change about it

    1) top postionsion cannot be giving to people who are memebers of any poltical party.

    2) make it a more demcatic election for president

    i imagine that most people on the list of past presidents did at first what to do what was right for students but the promise of promotion, be adviser post or member parliment got to them. one of the earlyer comments says \most are careerists\ it suddenly remind me of the tv show the wire. as i see alot simlarity to the show and how the nus is betraying the students.

    (sorry for spelling mistakes have dyslexia and word spelling check is rubbish)

(will not be published)


%d bloggers like this: