Oh look, it’s another National Union of Students general election campaign. As someone who was involved in, then worked in student politics and student unions for most of the 90s, it’s somewhat of a surprise that NUS are carrying on with this, given the lack of success they had in the past. Of course, most of them wouldn’t have been born when NUS tried the ‘Target 70′ campaign in the 1992 election, highlighting the constituencies where the student vote could swing the result. It was a great campaign, if you forget the fact that election occurred when students were on vacation, and the backlash from the re-elected Tory government almost destroyed student unions as a whole. There have been others since, but its worth pointing out that spending a lot of time getting politicians to make pledges and not much on making sure students actually voted in 2010 helped create the situation we had today.
My favourite memory of the odd way in which NUS campaigns comes from 1999. The first Scottish Parliament elections had just occurred, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in coalition talks to form an administration. The Lib Dems had gone into that election promising to get rid of tuition fees in Scotland, while Labour were perfectly happened to keep them, because their government had just introduced them across the UK. NUS naturally sprang into action and asked student unions across the country to write, fax or email Jim Wallace (then leader of the Scottish Lib Dems) to tell him to ‘hold firm’. The whole campaign made almost no mention of the party he was negotiating with, and definitely didn’t ask anyone to contact them and ask them to give way. That would have involved NUS telling people the Labour Party might be in the wrong on something, and that would be unthinkable.
However, it is important to point out here NUS isn’t a union the way most people (including some in the media who should know better) understand it. Individual students aren’t members of NUS – instead, its membership is the various student unions at FE and HE institutions across the country. The individual unions (and guilds and associations and committees and JCRs and whatever else) all exist independently of NUS and aren’t local branches of it. NUS is basically a membership organisation allowing its individual members to benefit from the economies of scale can bring. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but it used to be that you could only be part of NUS Services Ltd (NUSSL) – the body that negotiated cheap beer deals for student bars, amongst other things – if you were a member of NUS. The same goes for welfare, legal, training, research etc services provided by NUS – by pooling together to provide specialist areas of support, NUS means individual unions can do a much better job at representing and helping their members (who are individual students).
However, access to all of that also involves being part of the political and campaigning part of NUS (and to be fair, there are several areas where NUS single issue campaigning and lobbying has worked) which is one of the oddest political arenas I’ve ever encountered. I know there have been some changes to the way NUS works, but the principal decision-making body is still NUS Conference, at which each individual union is elected by a number of delegates chosen at election by its members. The one thing Labour Students has always been good at as an organisation is getting its members elected as NUS conference delegates (even if in many cases people don’t realise they’re voting for a Labour Students candidate). When Conference comes around, Labour Students usually have a big enough bloc of delegates to pretty much ensure that whoever they want gets elected to the various important positions (though they normally let a couple of ‘independents’ get elected to some of the posts, just to make it look balanced) which means that NUS campaigns do their very best to not make Labour look bad, in return for which the senior members of Labour Students often get nice political careers afterwards.
That’s why the NUS leadership spent most of the 90s trying to push the organisation’s policy away from supporting free education, why Labour are never criticised for introducing and raising fees and why we were all being exhorted to contact Jim Wallace rather than Donald Dewar in 1999. But what it also means is that you shouldn’t tar all student organisations with the same brush. The NUS might be happy to do Labour’s dirty work for it, but that doesn’t apply to individual unions at institutions. They’re normally just doing the best they can for their members and are part of NUS because the benefits outweigh the costs, not because they’re trying to get themselves parachuted into a safe seat in a few years time.