The NUS Right To Recall Campaign: Anatomy of a Farce
Student Broad Left have kindly produced a detailed list of each of the myriad failings of Aaron Porter since November. Read together it is damning, in particular the failure to encourage support for demonstrations on the 24th and 30th of November and the 9th of December, but instead running one of the most spectacularly dispiriting wastes of time in the history of protest, the glowstick vigil, preceded by a day of no action, apart from the autonomous action of a few. Read differently, the list reads like a series of successes entirely without him and the backing of the NUS. What were the NUS NEC’s official contributions to the campaign? I will give them their due with regard to lobbying activity directed at MPs in the commons itself on the day of the vote, though it is near impossible to imagine that this had more effect than street protest and that a polite word in the corridor is more effective than angry students shutting down a consituency office or why the NUS is required to wander about chatting to MPs. And yet any good here is tainted by closed door chummy nonsense (revealed by that socialist publication the Daily Telegraph) that intended throwing EMA students to the dogs. Porter may wax that the end of the year saw a “new wave of action” with “spontaneous demonstrations, scores of occupations and hundreds of thousands taking action around the country” but he had no part in any of this. On the contrary, as is now surely clear, he tacitly or actually opposed most of it. For example, offering material and legal support on the 28th of November (apologising for being ‘spineless’ and ‘dithering’ if we recall) for occupations by proving none and leaving occupiers at the mercy of quite serious threats by the authorities. Porter took here a paradoxical and useless position of supporting direct action while not supporting it, confirmed by his fore-linked Guardian piece. This is something that would be entirely baffling for any student leader in the rest of Europe. During their own wave of anti-Bologna process occupations, German students had their NUS-equivalent president sleeping in lecture theatres debating into the night, and appearing on daily television to declaim all cuts and the marketisation of education as such. Porter didn’t spend one night outside his bed, which speaks volumes. Locally, due to the direction given by the national body, occupations were mostly actually opposed by student unions, some calling for them to actually end. So what other contribution was made? You’d be forgiven for forgetting the NUS’ 'right to recall' campaign. It does, however, require some detailed analysis, simply to show how stupid a move it really was and how, as I will explore in the following posts, it is symptomatic of the entire NUS more broadly.
This campaign, to much fanfare, intended to use the Lib Dems promised ability to recall MPs to mobilise students to oust Lib Dems who broke their pre-election pledge to not vote for a rise in tuition fees and seek “a fairer alternative” for higher education. Prima facie, what was the messaging here? Was this a pure publicity stunt as ex-MP Evan Harris claimed (the NUS was surprisingly silent about campaigning against Labour when they introduced fees), or a real attempt to call students to a definitative political action which could be quite powerful (if we ignore everything I am about to say, which could also be called reality)? This alone was entirely confused, but this matters little, because it was also perhaps among the many tactical blunders throughout the winter campaign, the most worthless waste of resources and precious discussion space on news bulletins in a wide field. It doesn’t take much more analysis to realise the stupidity of this plan, the transparent inanity of an idea clearly dreamt up by sabbatical NUS representatives throwing ideas around one afternoon.
For one, as the George Eaton noted, the entire campaign was “founded on a false premise” that recall could be made in cases of broken promises or pledges, like those on tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats, and the other parties when they agreed with them, never intended their proposition to be used in the cases of MPs breaking election promises, but rather in cases where MPs have, according to the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto, ‘broken the rules’, cases of ‘serious wrongdoing’ - illegal behaviour or expense fiddling. The Manchester Mule dug up the relevant briefing from the House of Commons Library (updated on the 20th of January 2011). While noting that all parties broadly endorsed the principle in televised debates during the election, on the 18th of January 2011 Zac Goldsmith was still enquiring into the mechanisms of the intended policy and the level of recall permitted. Goldsmith introduced the only thing on the parliamentary timetable looking vaguely like any right to recall in his Private Members Bill, Recall of Elected Representatives presented for first reading on the 26 July, 2010. In the bill, Goldsmith proposed wide-ranging powers of recall, some of which would likely work for an NUS campaign. What is the reason for this presentation bill, whose second reading is June, and has, like most private members bills, almost zero chance of becoming law or even being debated? It is because the internal discussion of the right to recall only concerned ‘serious wrongdoing’ as decided by a parliamentary board, Goldsmith writes, from the centre, rather than the ability of constituents to dump MPs and force an election simply when they have lost confidence in them. The said parliamentary board would have to be convinced by the NUS of something that isn’t breaking a pledge to even open up a reelection - local campaigning is totally useless since, as Goldsmith points out, the mechanism is entirely centralised. Not to mention that the Cabinet Office Constitution Reform Group only proposes vaguely in their structural reform plan to introduce this quite limited power some time before November 2011 - introduce, not push through. The NUS intended to get people to leverage a non-existent power, to unseat MPs for something that would never unseat them through the proposed power. MPs, of course, want no such thing as the NUS’ imaginary bill, or Goldsmith’s actual bill, since it would probably mean many of them would be swiftly and often unseated as they break promises and are general shits near constantly, as this yellow bellied Labour List article works out. The Right To Recall website now concurs with me that this has a chocolate fireguards chance of becoming law and crumples like wet cardboard into its own uselessness. The Right to Recall itself - the entire basis for the campaign - is now noted as ‘another broken promise by the Liberal Democrats’, but never mind, sign the petition in any case to ‘show the strength of feeling’, ‘sign up to call for them to be recalled – this way, perhaps this broken promise can be put to some use’. Another useless petition! Congratulations!
To make matters almost comical, the NUS had to warn its members through a semi-internal bulletin not to actually present the Right To Recall campaign as a campaign to unseat the Liberal Democrats either by the phantom recall powers or simply by encouraging students to vote against them. This was because, even though the NUS is not formally a charity, some might considered by some to be one, and that it therefore cannot be involved in political campaigning lest this be interpreted as ‘unlawful activity’. Charities cannot be political, they can influence government and others “in support of their charitable purposes” but should avoid being “purely focused on political activity as this could call into question the propriety of their actions”. Indeed at election time, they are told in no uncertain terms) they cannot “support or oppose a political party or candidate” - while candidates or parties might seek to align themselves with charities and their policies, a charity may never reciprocate this alliance. But the NUS is not a charity! None of this legislation applies to it! Yet it might be seen to apply to it, so the inane briefing goes! The position is, of course, ridiculous, and the reasoning entirely baffling, but NUS sagely advises local NUS branches to “Try not to overtly target particular MPs or parties” and that after all, despite its actual name that “Recalling” or unseating MPs is not an objective in and of itself of the campaign”, but “keeping all politicians to the pledges”. Its a “fine line in play” apparently. You need to tip-toe around a campaign not aiming at a particular party even when the campaign is clearly aimed at one party (even now on the website!) and for reasons related to people’s misconceptions of what the SU is! It was then, in effect, a campaign so ill concieved and so practically useless that it is scarcely believable it was even attempted. It wasted space in the national press with a campaign that threatened nothing in real terms and got bogged down in the discussion about the whys and wherefores of electoral reform in the commentary, as well as the avalanche of people, from the New Statesman down, pointing out how it was useless, and wouldn’t work. It left the door open for Nick Clegg to reply to Porter that he was mistaken about the right, thus weakening the credibility of the NUS and lending support to the Coalition’s argument that students had misunderstood the reforms. Why not just say something like ‘markets in education are bad, education as public good’ through a campaign - which might bring some rigour and substance into the debate by introducing the real problem, rarely discussed, into public discourse, drowning out the ‘protests against fee rises’ simplicity of 90% of reports.
Overall, this scenario displays the overall flaws in the axioms of NUS NEC’s official strategy. I suppose, but haven’t checked, that the campaign was approved by the NEC despite the fact any analysis would have revealed it’s flaws. It displays three obvious structural flaws. First, a complete lack of good political analysis and attempt to gauge reaction. Second, a trust in the traditional levers of lobbying power, unmoored from political power, to influence government decisions, despite quite recent NUS history showing the exact contrary. When the NUS is dominated by Labour Students of a Blairite bent, and Labour is in power, and still the NUS strategy does not work, surely this should be ringing quite loud alarm bells. Finally, the near sublimely farcical note undercutting the entire campaign shows the NUS in full timidity as a political body, afraid of confronting power. This aspect is the most pressing, and requires analysis of the internal structures of the NUS and it’s relationship to power, in particular capital power, that I will examine in future posts - something that I hope will be useful to those attempting to reform the NUS over the next few months.