OMOV

Labour Students (LS) are currently engaged in their consultation for a possible transition in the voting system of internal elections – from the current delegate model (as in, members of each club can vote for a delegate, who in turn vote for National Committee at national events) to one member one vote (OMOV, which would allow each member of LS to vote for elections). Both systems involve a trade-off between positives and negatives, but whilst the current system may be justifiable, I do not think the system is justified in the context of our internal democracy. A significant problem of the delegate model is that it entrenches pre-existing networks because delegates (and, indeed, non-delegate members that attend national events) are part of a limited network that is – by its nature – exclusive. The lack of direct involvement by ordinary members up and down the country prevents the direct voices to be reflected at national level. Delegates are not be able to voice the myriad of concerns, issues and priorities of members.

This is ultimately the purpose of OMOV, part of a wider agenda to increase the democracy and representation of Labour Students. OMOV would fundamentally change the nature of elections to National Committee in four key ways:

  1. Inclusivity. Candidates would be forced to reflect the issues and priorities of all members throughout the country, not just the concerns of delegates that attend democratic events. In other words, candidates will have to engage with members directly. Consequently, National Committee would become more sensitive to those concerns. This would ensure that even those that are unable to attend national events (for whatever reason – lack of confidence, affordability, distance, academic pressures, timing) would still have a voice in the organisation. This would do much to tackle one of the biggest problems for Labour Students: the perception of a remote, distant, and ultimately exclusive organisation that is not relevant to the concerns and priorities of the many members it seeks to represent.
  2. Democracy. A perennial problem for the organisation is that elections are often uncontested. Indeed, without alternative choices on the ballot paper, elections have become an undemocratic ritual at Conference. This is often because potential candidates are remote from the wider membership; direct elections would open opportunities for more diverse elections. This would additionally drive up standards because candidates would have to consider more seriously why they want to be on Committee.
  3. Legitimacy. Contested elections would ensure that candidates attempted to actually win over other members. This would increase the democratic legitimacy of her or his position because of the larger pool of voters, all of whom have a right to air their priorities for LS, had a choice in elections.
  4. Visibility. Without direct elections, no members of National Committee have ever had a reason to approach members of Labour Students. This is despite the fact that they have been elected to represent the student members and supporters of the Labour Party. Direct elections will force direct contact.

Three issues immediately arise: the role of clubs, the equalities agenda, and the perceived cost.

The Role of Clubs

A perceived problem is that bigger clubs will have more of an influence with direct elections than indirect elections. In many ways, this is a misperception. Elections will focus on direct and relevant concerns of all members of LS, and not those of bigger clubs. Indeed, indirect elections place significant powers into the hands of clubs – especially bigger ones. [1]

Ultimately, votes for National Committee come from all members – even those from smaller clubs that are unable to send delegates to events. Under OMOV, votes for National Committee will be taken out of the hands of clubs and placed directly into members’.

The Equalities Agenda

A significant concern that I strongly  appreciate is the effect of OMOV on the equalities agenda. Whereas delegation are gender balanced at 50 per cent, the general membership of LS is 70 per cent male. There is therefore a justified concern that direct elections would adversely affect the liberation and equalities agenda. However, I believe that this issue can be overcome.

National Committee is, at the moment, gender balanced. It also has specific representatives from liberation and equalities groups. OMOV would not change this. Therefore, I do not think that the priority that Labour Students places on equality and liberation issues would be limited. Indeed, liberation officers would be in a unique position to enhance their role with OMOV. Direct elections for these positions means that wider concerns of students that identify with one or more liberation group would be raised more openly and democratically. This is especially true of those groups that are particularly under-represented at national events and who, at times, lack the confidence or accessibility to come to national events. Direct elections for liberation officers would therefore be able to increase their representativeness, putting more emphasis on ordinary members.

Cost

A final issue is the cost, which has been articulated in two ways. First, OMOV is perceived to be more expensive. Second, it would make running for election more expensive. Both of these issues are, I believe, misconceptions.

First, OMOV is not more expensive than the delegate system. The LS website has been able to hold a wide-ranging consultation on OMOV, so it can easily also have a simple site that allows people to put ticks next to people that members wish to vote for. Indeed, the LS website has a Members Area, accessed through MembersNet, which means that everything is already a place to allow OMOV to be implemented at little extra cost. However, even if OMOV was more expensive: are we really going to compromise the principle of democracy because of cost?

Second, elections would also not necessarily become more expensive. It is possible to put safeguards in place – most obviously, a financial limit to how much spending is allowed for election campaigns. Moreover, LS could make manifestos available on their website, which would limit expenses and give equal access for all candidates. If anything, it would make candidates spend more effort (not more money) on their proposals for National Committee.

Given our fundamental Labour value of equality for all, the right to vote seems to be a very basic tenement that must be implemented. National Committee would engage with members at a very direct, individual level, which is currently missing. It would heighten the sense of grassroots-level involvement which Labour Students cannot afford to ignore without detrimentally affecting its effectiveness and inclusiveness. If we want the movement to grow, then we need to be as inclusive as possible. OMOV would increase the pressure for candidates to reflect the wider movement through direct contact with members and to become more responsive to the members they seek to represent.

mg

[1] Even though there are delegate restrictions for bigger clubs, they do still have larger delegations than smaller ones. Moreover, there is no restriction on the number of non-delegate attendees at events (and if there is a restriction, this has not been enforced).

Supporting Olivia Blake

At the moment, the Youth Representative for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party is being contested by two individuals, Bex Bailey and Olivia Blake. Both of them are leading great campaigns, and both of them have shown so much passion that I believe that both would make excellent Youth Representatives for the NEC. However, I wish to use this opportunity to write down some thoughts regarding the campaign, and specifically cite why I will be supporting Olivia Blake for NEC Youth Rep.

The National Executive Committee, or NEC, is the governing body of the Labour Party, which oversees the overall direction of the party and the policy-making process. The NEC is made up of a range of opinion formers within the party, which includes affiliate organisations, trade unions, MPs, MEPs, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Party, and so on. Crucially, one position on the Committee is reserved for someone to represent all young members, which is one of the most important ways for younger members to be represented by the Labour Party at the national level. Moreover, the Youth Rep will also sit on the national committee of Young Labour, which is the governing body for the subsidiary of the Labour Party. In many ways, this is an important election, but particularly because 2013-2014 will be crucial in setting the foundations for the general election campaign that Labour faces in 2015.

Unfortunately, Young Labour has become laborious and elitist through a combination of complex governing rules and regulations in addition to limited institutional flexibility. One of the most important and pressing issues is that almost all elections are conducted through delegate systems, which means that only delegates get to vote for certain positions, including the NEC Youth Rep. This is hugely frustrating given that regional representatives are elected directly through one member one vote (OMOV). It kind of suggests that direct elections are not only possible in theory, but feasible in practice. An associated problem for the organisations is that communication in general is kept to the barest minimum – if existent at all. For example, information regarding how to submit motions, the locations of previous conferences, and the information for how to become a delegate was kept unclear, which meant that some Labour Clubs found it difficult to organise meetings in time to form proposals, pass motions and elect delegates.

These issues also faces Labour Students, and so both organisations urgently need to deal with them. Otherwise, they could damage the claim that YL and LS are democratically-run organisations. What we need at this time, especially for Young Labour, is a candidate that will open up the processes of decision-making to all members under 27s, which will ensure that the NEC is properly represented. It means that there should be a renewed emphasis on transparency and democracy. One of the ways to do this is to break the elitism that seems to have grappled Young Labour at the moment. This will ensure not only that the organisation is run more democratically, but also ensure a greater diversity of opinion will be heard, fostering further inclusiveness of Young Labour. This, in turn, will feed back into the NEC.

I believe that Olivia Blake is the strongest candidate for this change to happen. Olivia is unconventional in that she is not based in London and did not study the usual ‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’ at University. Olivia goes to the University of Sheffield and she is studying towards a PhD in Medical Biology. This alone makes her a candidate that will offer a fresh perspective on policy-making, something that has been marginalised to an extent. However, it is not only her background that is impressive, but her entire manifesto. It is detailed beyond reproach, and many of the policies that she cites are ones with which I can identify. These are less about where we stand on the left-right spectrum, which is where we potentially differ. However, we are united in our insurmountable appetite for reform of the structures that govern Young Labour (and, by extension, Labour Students). Some of her excellent policies include:

  • Guaranteed reports to members to ensure that communication and transparency is upheld. This is such a simple, useful policy that I cannot believe it has not been implemented before. I can’t remember when I last heard anything – if ever – from the current national committee, or the NEC Youth Rep for that matter.
  • Feedback sessions in every region of the country to ensure that all young members feel represented. This is another great policy because it will challenge the idea that YL is just based in and around London. It is true that regional Young Labour organisations do exist, but communication between them and the national organisation is not particularly strong or co-ordinated, at least not from where I’m standing.
  • Reform of youth elections to ensure that, in future, all young members get a direct vote in who represents them at the NEC and YL level. This is the bedrock that should sit at the apex of Young Labour. How is it that, in the twenty-first century, we are still electing positions using a nineteenth century system for a political party that is supposedly all about democracy?

These are just three policies that I’ve cited. Her full manifesto is available here. There are so many other things that Olivia wants to achieve that make her a good candidate for reform – including a women’s network, regional liberation groups, more communication online, opening up Young Labour events, and so on and so forth. I’m very proud to be a supporter of Olivia.

Olivia has been a campaigner for Labour for absolute ages, and tirelessly fought the corner for women’s rights, social justice and equality for as long as I can remember. Without doubt, Olivia has been inspirational in many ways. She was the person that gave me the courage to go door-knocking for the first time for the #labourdoorstep and encouraged me, advised me and helped me a great deal since I’ve met her in 2008. Her passion could never be doubted, for Labour in particular, and life in general.

I proudly support Olivia Blake for NEC Youth Rep.

mg

Labour and the EU: From realpolitik to principle?

Since David Cameron called for a referendum on Europe, it would appear that the issue of Europe has subsided somewhat. And yet, there is a distinct danger that the approach taken by the Prime Minister’s opposite number, Ed Miliband, is beginning to create antagonism within Labour. Cameron’s referendum pledge means that the position of the Labour Party towards Europe has been questioned – to such an extent that it is possible that the issue could damage the Party’s electoral chances. This is because Labour’s position is based on realpolitik, not principle. At a time of intense debate about the very nature of the European Union, it is more important than ever that a Labour policy based on principle, as opposed to pragmatism, comes to the fore. First, however, it is worth teasing out why a tension could emerge within the Party.

Let’s rewind time back to the 1960s. The UK was not part of the then European Economic Community, having been snubbed by a veto courtesy of the French. The Labour leadership was not unhappy about this because it saw the EEC as nothing more than a ‘capitalist club’. In 1962, the Leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, exclaimed that a federal Europe would mean: ‘the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!’. [1] For Labour, what was at stake here was more than just national sovereignty. Rather, the Party argued that the EEC would further the interests of capitalists alone. For those reasons two reasons, Labour fought for a ‘no’ vote on Europe in 1976, and opposed Margaret Thatcher’s support for the EU in the early 1980s. However, as the 1980s drew to a close, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party switched position. The European project turned emphasis away from a common market, which would be fully implemented by the early 1990s, and instead emphasised pan-European welfare, including employment rights and a commitment to a better standard of living. The Labour Party looked across the Channel and saw that in mainland Europe broadly left-of-centre policies flourished. At this point, Labour opted to support the EU because it has economic and social benefits for the UK. [2]

Back to 2013, and the orthodox Labour support for Europe has come under significant pressure. The pledge by David Cameron to hold a referendum on the EU has caused an EU-induced schizophrenia: first, Ed Miliband rules out a referendum on Europe; second, Ed Balls makes the opposite claim. This confusion suggests that Labour needs to rebuild its strategy on Europe. Most importantly, and probably uncomfortable for some, Labour must call for a referendum on Europe. Once it has done this, Labour will be able to shape the agenda on the future of Europe by asking two questions:

1. What should Europe stand for? There are three principles:

  • Democracy. European democracy should rest with the European Parliament, on the one hand, and a European President, on the other hand. This would ensure national representation through two input-based mechanisms. The EU must do more than preach democracy, it must begin to practise it too.
  • Economic and Social Prosperity. One of the overriding positive impacts of the EU is that it will help to stimulate national economies. This is the major output-based mechanism that needs attention. The EU must be able to do less on a European-wide level, and support national economies instead. For this reason, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander were right to call for a real-terms cut in the EU budget. The EU should become an association of national economies that supports employment rights and better living standards.
  • Subsidiarity. Power must be devolved to the most local institution possible. This goes to the heart of democratic power and also remains a prerequisite for economic prosperity. This is because it will give European peoples a sense of ownership. All of this means that the EU become multi-level and multi-sectoral – a dynamic system that sees clusters of shared policy-making.

2. How can these principles be implemented? Here are some specific policies:

  • Democratic powers must be based on a directly elected president for the whole of the EU; but the European Parliament should become the sole initiator of European legislation (exceptions would be inter-governmental treaties to be scrutinised by national parliaments).
  • The overall size of the EU needs to be slimmed down through a smaller Commission; the removal of the European Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (CAP and CFP respectively); no more moving back-and-forth from Strasbourg and Brussels; and a salary freeze for MEPs and bureaucrats. This will allow for a real-terms budget cut.
  • Resources should support national economies and protect employment rights – this could include a guarantee of apprenticeships, placement schemes and more. This is hugely important to develop cultural and economic ties throughout Europe.
  • To safeguard subsidiarity, we need a more powerful Conference of European Affairs Committees (COSAC), which would meet more often to hold EU decision-makers to account. The UK Parliament should establish a Parliamentary Committee on Europe that brings together MPs, peers and UK MEPs to debate EU issues of major importance. It would be accountable to the UK Parliament, but also send representation to the EU.

This is what Labour must stand for. It must ensure that the principles given above remain at the heart of the European project in order to pave the way for a new European settlement that calls for a slim, dynamic association of national economies and not for a corpulent, bureaucratic union.

mg

Notes

[1] M. Charlton (1983) The Price of Victory, London: BBC, p.274.

[2] I’ve drawn this analysis from a BBC podcast by Analysis, called ‘Labour, the left and Europe’ (29 October 2012).

Should Labour call a referendum on the EU?

Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Left Foot Forward, which describes itself as a ‘political blog for progressives’. The article was published on 07 January 2013, and is available here.

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of our membership to the European Union. Forty years on, and the UK has come to a crossroads with its relationship towards Europe. As the Conservatives are becoming increasingly outspoken about their distaste with the European project, it is time for Labour to confront the challenge of the EU. But, in addition to driving positive, constructive change at the heart of Europe, Labour must acknowledge that a referendum on the EU has become inevitable – even if this is many years away.

There is, of course, considerable contention of this point, and some argue that a referendum should not be called. The most cited argument is that a referendum could lead to a British exit of the European Union. This is not an argument against a referendum; it is an argument against democratic choice. It is true that referendums, in general, should be called sparingly and cautiously because they are not an effective resource in a diverse representative democracy such as the UK. However, to say that a referendum could lead to a result that you do not like is not valid. It’s called democracy.

So, why is a referendum needed? The most obvious point is that it will give the British public a choice in its support of Europe. The British want a referendum, so it is only fair and democratic to give them one. The European Economic Community (EEC) has been fundamentally transformed since the 1970s. It is now a European Union of 27 countries, with a wide range of institutions and decision-making powers. Moreover, over the coming four to five years, we will begin to see a new European settlement of powers. The unprecedented changes since the 1970s imply that the British public need to be given a choice in a reformed relationship with the European Union. The fundamental point is that a referendum on Europe will allow the British public to have a frank and open discussion about Europe; it will settle our membership for a generation. This point is particularly important because it underpins what politics is all about: debate, contestation, argument and persuasion. Europe remains a hotly contested issue, and it needs to be confronted directly. The spectre of Europe will haunt British politics until a referendum is called. [1]

This raises the issue about timing. There is an argument that, if a newly elected Labour government calls for a referendum, and loses, it would destroy a left-of-centre government, and plunge the entire party into a crisis. The government would probably fall. This argument, raised by David Clark, is indeed very powerful. This is a plausible scenario, but it rests on the assumption that a referendum would occur in 2016, which is not likely. It is many years away because a reform of the European Union will take as many years. We cannot vote on Europe before it has settled itself; it would give us more questions than answers. In order to give the British people a genuine choice in Europe, we must wait (i) until the Eurozone crisis is well and truly over and (ii) until a range of reforms of the EU have been implemented (reforms that would make the EU more democratic, economically rigorous and so on). Once both of these have been consolidated, it will be possible to call for a referendum. The new European settlement will not crystallise until some point in the next parliament, i.e., between 2015 and 2020, and more importantly, it will be more likely to occur in 2018 or later.

In the next five years, the Labour Party must make the case, first, for a reformed European Union, and second, for British membership of that Union. As described previously, Labour should use the growing momentum to call for a Convention on Europe’s Future, in partnership with other European political parties and leaders. A set of pan-European reforms is desirable across the continent. Once these have been agreed, it will be time for an in/out referendum.

A reform agenda for Europe, with a referendum attached at the end, is the strongest case that a pro-European government should make, and one where a ‘yes’ campaign can win. YouGov analysis has shown that, whilst the public currently seem to favour withdrawal, this is not very clear if the EU is reformed. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for Europe. A frank and open discussion will re-focus debate away from the often superficial eurosceptic – or perhaps ‘eurocoward’? – arguments in favour of the more considered pro-European arguments. Pro-EU sentiments will not appear by magic: they must make a case for Europe that has been crowded out by a vehemently Eurosceptic media. Is it possible to make such a case? There is precisely such an opportunity, and pro-Europeans should not be afraid to make it.

Let’s take the case of the eurocowards: They believe that the British cannot cope with political engagement; that we do not have the strength to carry the European ship. They believe that we have nothing to offer to Europe and that we are better off hiding alone. Here is the vision of the eurocowards: an offshore, de-regulated tax haven which would be a pole for free enterprise in a global race. Could anything sound more preposterous? Pro-Europeans must argue that we can (and, more importantly, should) have a constructive relationship with our neighbours, and that we can lead the European project. Pro-Europeans must make the case that Britain has something to offer Europe just as much as Europe has something to offer the UK. Whereas eurocowards want us to play no part in the world, we believe in stepping out into the world and playing a part in it. Of course, there are choices to be made. The British public must learn that it cannot free-ride on the economic benefits of Europe without any commitment to Europe. That is not to say that pooling our resources cannot play to our benefit, as analyses do show.

So, should Labour call for a referendum on the EU? Yes, it should. But this referendum cannot take place immediately. Ed Miliband should take leadership of the debate by accepting a referendum for the end of the next parliament, which will (i) settle the question of a referendum and (ii) allow the EU to be given a chance to reform itself. Until then, the British political elite must play a constructive part in shaping its European future.

mg

Notes

[1] There is, of course, the added tactical reason that is often touted: it will split the Conservative Party and marginalise the influence of UKIP. I’m not sure these tactical reasons are particularly valuable: former UKIP voters are likely to return to the Conservatives; and the Conservative Party could just as much unite as divide over Europe.

The Tragedy of European Union

For someone with a German heritage and who regards himself as a social democrat, it is with a heavy heart that I have become sceptical about the future of the European Union. Europe is a place very close to my heart – the cafe culture, the sense of shared values and epistemic communities, the diverse range of identities, the beer, the excellent little patisseries and bakeries (just food in general really) are truly wonderful European things. In other words, I love Europe. But I believe that the dream of European Union leaves me, more and more, with a sour taste. This is particularly soul destroying given that, around 14 months ago, I was full of enthusiasm about a closure of the EU’s ongoing crises. That enthusiasm has waned, and no one has taken up European leadership like I had hoped.

Right now, there are two colossal problems facing the EU: first, the eurozone crisis, which has spiralled out of any proportion imaginable. Second, any sense of democratic input to decision-making has withered away. In other words, the input legitimacy of European institutions and the output legitimacy of European policy-making have vanished, which have turned the EU into an illegitimate beast. [1] Here’s some more depth:

  • Output Legitimacy. The output policy-making role of the EU has not worked. People are usually relaxed about the authorities so long as they do their job well. The EU, however, has spectacularly failed, which means that the preferences of European populations have not been enacted. Ergo, there is an output-based legitimacy deficit. It is not just that the Euro has been a disaster: the Common Agricultural Policy is uncompetitive, the Common Fisheries Policy has culled fish stocks, and bureaucrats are wasting huge resources by travelling to and fro from Brussels to Strasbourg (for not doing all that much). These are just three examples of many. Policy-making in the EU is simply not working.
  • Input Legitimacy. Mario Monti in Italy and Lucas Papademos in Greece were both installed as heads of government without being elected. These are very stark examples of how the European Union has undermined the principle of democracy. The European Commission (EC) and European Central Bank (ECB) have also imposed austerity measures on other governments, such as Portugal and Spain, without a sense of accountability. Unelected leaders have begun to govern across the continent. So, the contribution of the demos to policy-making (through elections) has been destroyed, which has caused an input-based legitimacy deficit.

Using the idea of legitimacy shows us how deep the problems of the European Union have become, and tells us something troubling about its future too. Current reform proposals do not intend to increase input legitimacy, but rather hand more power to the ECB. Furthermore, the discourse of ‘austerity’ and ‘marketisation’ (that has until now failed to work) is still a course that the EU is pursuing regardless of its consequences. The crisis is going to get worse. The dream of a European union has turned into a tragedy, which leaves us with two options: either the EU must be dismantled, or the entire system must be rebuilt from scratch.

The big question is this: what should Europe be for? The European Union has achieved a great deal, not least safeguarding peace and ensuring economic growth through the single market. It has added to the global power of all member countries through the EU as a trading bloc at the World Trade Organisation, and made an impact on joint foreign policy initiatives. Finally, the EU encourages the spread of democratic values, at least in principle, through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). These values should be maintained, but the priorities must change. First, the EU needs to do more than preach democracy, it needs to practise it. Some examples include a directly elected president, a Commission drawn from the European Parliament, and the EP itself to be given more powers. Second, the EU should be guided by two policy-making principles: economic prosperity and subsidiarity. This means that the single market must be protected and the EU budget must be reformed – far less money must go to the CAP and other protective measures. Instead, the EU should provide investment for national economies and support the spread of knowledge (fostering apprenticeships, training, university funding, and so on). These two areas of reform point to one thing: a looser relationship between its members. We must turn away from ‘union’ towards a ‘partnership’. The EU must be governed democratically, through a consort of a president and strong EP, and its focus must be economic growth and educational investment. If the EU cannot reform itself into a democratic, economic centre, then it is doomed to fail and its members should consider a hasty leave.

At this point it is worth mentioning the British angle. British interests are closely linked to that of the European market: it accounts for 54 percent of British export alone. This means that we have a clear interest in shaping European institutions. Additionally, Britain benefits hugely from the bargaining power of the EU trading bloc at the WTO, and even in other areas of foreign policy. To go it alone would risk marginalising British influence on the world stage – politically and economically. As David Clark summarises very well: “Britain will stand little chance of remaining influential at a global level if it cannot be strong and influential in its own neighbourhood”. [2] Ultimately, there is no halfway house with the EU, although this is always something that Britain has craved. [3] Britain needs to take a decisive step and, whilst I’m probably being naive, I have hope that the United Kingdom can take that decisive step to lead Europe – because sitting in the ‘EU waiting room’ has become untenable, and leaving the European project would be an act of national defeatism.

There are three key things that must happen. First, the European project must be democratised, which means that the EU must ‘slim down’ its priorities and reinvigorate the principle of subsidiarity. Second, policy-making must move away from neo-liberalism towards decentralisation and fostering equal opportunities. Third, and most importantly, EU members must be given a referendum on membership once the new constellation of decision-making has been settled, no sooner or later. The combination of these three things are the last chance that the EU has to become a legitimate focal point for democracy and economic prosperity. If the EU fails on this, then I would prefer for Britain to leave the EU (and, indeed, for the entire project to take the final bow). [4]

mg

Notes

[1] Legitimacy here is based on Fritz Scharpf’s definition of: i) input legitimacy as reflecting the will of the people, derived from their authentic preferences and a sense of proceduralism, and ii) output legitimacy, which means that political choices are legitimate if and because they effectively promote the common welfare of the constituency in question. See F. Scharpf (1999) Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic?, Oxford: OUP, p.6.

[2] D. Clark (2012) ‘Labour’s Next Foreign Policy’, in J. Denham (ed.) The Shape of Things to Come, London: Fabian Society, p.111.

[3] A. Gamble (2012) ‘Better Off Out? Britain and Europe’, Political Quarterly 83:3, pp.468-77. Also, anyone know current policy on the EU? It’s all very confusing with the government: first Cameron vetoes policy proposals to save the EU, then Osborne demands action to save the euro.

[4] These are some hints as to the future direction that the Labour party must take when they are thinking about their stance on Europe. It does not pay to call for EU budget cuts only to humiliate David Cameron – Labour must spell out an alternative, and this little article hopes to show one way towards a social democratic alternative.

The Governance of the NUS: Solutions

Previously, I have blogged about the problems facing the governance structures of the NUS. They represented steep challenges to the democratic credibility of the NUS elite, the accountability processes of NUS meetings, and the economic viability of a monopolistic commercial arm. I want to make it clear that in principle, a strong national movement for the benefit of students must exist. I disagree with Laurie Penny and her claims that we don’t need an NUS to work for us at all, even less leaders and even parliament. Concerted, collective action can work in the context of a vibrant national movement. Penny forgets the fact that her role has become one of leadership. So then, we need a national movement. The NUS, in its current form, cannot even hope to amass a vanguard, let alone enjoy the support of students across the country. Liam Burns, NUS president, ignores this in his appeal for more action against cuts. He needs to sort out the NUS before he can try to sort out the government. If a Union demands £50,000 from Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU) every single year, we deserve to have an organisation committed to helping students. Below, I have outlined five key proposals that the NUS must enact with a great sense of urgency.

Direct Elections. The first change that Burns and the Block of 15 need to instil is a new democratic culture. Our leaders must be elected directly by its membership. Paying NUS members should have a democratic voice. NUS delegates provide a middle man, a nice solution to the NUS problem of democracy. It was useful in an age when we did not have a digital media. But I concede the point to Penny that Twitter and Facebook have given us fantastic opportunities for involvement. The internet is an opportunity for direct policy consultation, leadership and action. Only, the NUS has chosen not to use it. This is the first problem that the NUS needs to confront. Direct elections and a direct voice to students it says it represents.

Student Consultation. This notional right to democracy is not enough. We need a more substantive sense of deliberative decision-making, lacking across many national organisations. But even the current government manages to launch consultation programmes. Think tanks promote commissioned research projects. The National Executive Committee (NEC)? They meet six to seven times a year to discuss policy. NUS Connect has been challenged in my previous article. The NUS fails to promote its message through any concerted action with the people it supposedly represents. This will be an important change. It needs to consult, survey and question the student population. It needs to offer innovative policy proposals subject to scrutiny by students before it is adopted national policy. The internet, again, provides a platform in which this could happen. It could work like Jolitics, or 38 Degrees, or even adopt a more formal approach to research, like the Wilberforce Society. There are even possibilities of working with YouGov to consult student opinion, as YouGov@Cambridge has started to do. This would also ensure that the NUS line is constantly open for debate. The NUS can be an open, transparent organisation whilst maintaining serious support for students.

NUS Liaisons. Every single NUS affiliated body must have an elected NUS Liaison. Major consultation must be handled by this elected individual, who would be the facilitator of debate and ensure that the new qualities of democracy and consultation are further entrenched within each affiliated SU. Liaison officers would work in partnership with the NUS – it would be their role to liaise between the NUS and the individual SU.

Student Issues. The NEC needs to be entirely reformed. Student Select Committees must come into existence in order to promote the following interests: (i) gender and sexuality equality, (ii) mature and postgraduate student options, (iii) ethnic minorities representation, (iv) international student issues, and (v) community relationships. Each would be headed by directly elected Officers, and committees themselves made up of NUS Liaisons and NUS permanent support staff. The NEC would be made up of these Officers, plus a national president and three vice presidents who would further: (i) student finance and fees, (ii) student welfare, and (iii) student educational well-being.

Freedom of Choice. NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) needs to be either overhauled or abolished. It cannot work as a serious organisation to the benefit of the student population. Admittedly, economics is not my strong point, but even I can see that NUSSL is a ridiculous monopolistic enterprise. It could be reformed: adopt flexible policies, ensure local and independent businesses are included, promote competition and freedom of choice.

The internal structure of governance needs reform. This has become clear with the above policies. Only through direct elections, substantive consultation and freedom of choice can the NUS deliver on its promise to be a national voice of the student population. Without a clear plan of reform, Sheffield Students’ Union must disaffiliate. SSU does not benefit from NUSSL, nor from the NUS that is closed and undemocratic. To say that SSU would be part of a national conversation is a total mistake – the NUS closed conversation in 2008.

If the National Union of Students does not reform, it risks a systemic crisis of confidence. Do not let that happen, Liam Burns!

The Governance of the NUS: Problems

At first instance, flagging up shortcomings on the NUS may appear out of date. I’m inclined to disagree. Silently yet efficiently, Sabbatical Officers are taking charge at Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU) and across the country. More pressingly, the term of our new NUS president, Liam Burns has begun. The last time I’ve heard from him was 18 April in a column from the Guardian.  With our new elite we cannot forget why they are there: to represent us. The pressing issue the NUS faces is internal in nature. Despite early promises from Aaron Porter, the NUS still does not represent students, nor does it live up to the ideals with which it judges our government. The NUS does not provide a national, unified voice of the student movement. But it can, and so I would like line out firstly, it’s problems, and secondly, possible solutions.

The NUS has a huge democratic deficit that has engulfed it in critical problems. The Governance Review of 2008 is a case in point. Proposals deemed to make the NUS more ‘credible’ and ‘corporate’ were defeated by a slim majority. However, the then president had already decided to push ahead with the reforms anyway, calling two EGMs that passed and then ratified the proposed changes. Not only does the NUS leadership have no more than an indirect legitimacy, but they have even had the cheek to bypass the delegates! Why is it that in the 21st century we elect our NUS elite indirectly? We elect delegates to elect our president, who then bypasses its slim democratic input anyway. This issue was not a one off: enter Durham Union Society. A non-affiliated society wanted to have a debate on multiculturalism featuring two BNP critics in an affiliated venue. It was cancelled, due to pressure from the NUS and despite uproar from the student population. Durham Students’ Union withdrew their affiliation to the NUS shortly after this event. Two examples of many – the NUS is not democratic.

Nor is it accountable. Look no further than http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/. The website is intended to manage information on the electoral process and publish minutes. Meetings of the National Executive Council (NEC) are supposedly open, yet who actually knows about them? It was only through the pressure from They Work For Students (TWFS) that any kind of information was released. Debate on policy is non-existent for students. Democracy is a foreign word to NUS leaders. Accountability? Pah. The NUS cannot call itself a credible organisation, and shouldn’t have the cheek to announce itself as the voice of students. Their mission statement: “Our mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students’ unions”. It fails on all accounts.

Unfortunately, the democratic deficit is not all that face students the Union supposedly represents. Affiliated student unions, one of which is SSU, are forced to abide by NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) rules in buying and selling. NUSSL, the commercial arm of the NUS, restricts the number of companies SUs may place orders from – from alcohol to bread rolls. If it’s not on the list, no order may be made. It is said to have made £5.3 million worth of benefits for members. Good stuff, but firstly, imagine how much more money SUs could be making without restrictions; secondly, divide that figure for all members; and thirdly, subtract Sheffield’s affiliation fee. These rules are ridiculous, and the profits are hardly worth it. SSU knows how to spend its money, so why place rules on us? NUSSL is nothing short of a monopoly. All sorts of companies want a slice of the lucrative student market – NUSSL as middle man is no good to us.

Finally, let’s not forget that lovely blue NUS Extra Card. It used to be part and parcel of being a student. But now, people have to pay for it. The NUS homepage does not inspire students for a fight against cuts, but entices them to a lovely McDonalds and competitions to win some cash from the discount cards they ought to buy. It may generate money, but it hardly benefits students. And I do wonder, how many students actually carry one of these gems?

The NUS is unrepresentative of students. It does not further the interests of students, nor is it an open, competitive organisation. The NUS needs to change, fast. Political momentum is waning and Liam Burns must embrace a new democratic culture that enjoys the support of the student population in choppy waters for HE. The governance of the NUS is backward, indirect and provokes resentment. I urge it to reform, before more SUs abandon it. Our National Union of Students must become more democratic, accountable and competitive. I hope that our new Sabbatical Officers at SSU take NUS reform seriously.

If the NUS does not reform, Sheffield Students’ Union must disaffiliate. More on possible solutions next time.