Friday, 14 November 2008

Stitched Up in Wolverhampton

Being awakened by a quietly fuming Trotskyite nearly kicking in your door should be the nadir of any day. Unfortunately when you're part of an effort to save the National Union of Students things can only ever get worse. Shortly afterwards (enough time for trousers and a walk to a minivan) we were on the way to Wolverhampton.

Some context:

Last year the Blairite executive of the National Union of Students (NUS) attempted to introduce a new constitution which would empower them, bureaucratise the entire institution and alienate everyone who isn't fluent in the New Labour twin tongues of Platitude and Jargon or prefer a Union that gets up to anything much. It was widely agreed that the NUS needed to change its ways but plenty of people could tell that the new constitution would only make it worse. In what is widely considered to be a sprawling disaster of an Annual Conference the proposal was soundly rejected, although only after one horrific howl of a row. The Blairites crawled behind their desks then licked their wounds, made some minor alterations and plotted.

I didn't attend that conference as I wasn't a university student. I wasn't expecting to come across Blairite Charter 2.0 quite so soon.

An Extraordinary Conference had been called by 25 student unions urged by National Executive Committee (NEC) of the National Union of Students as part of a fairly blatant rush-through attempt of the new constitution. Consequentially those of us that weren't in the know had had three weeks to organise resistance. For freshers such as myself this process entailed an unwelcome crash course in national student politics to give us some clue as to what the fuck was going on and why it mattered. Personally the conclusion I reached was that as we are rapidly approaching the attempted removal of the cap on tuition fees the NUS has never been more important since those wretched things were introduced in the first place. The forces of marketisation are damn near insurmountable and without a fierce fighting force they'll win. Again. Last time around a pack of New Labour careerists helped wreck efforts against fees and this constitution empowers them further. The outcome of that should fairly obvious.

Still with me? Good.

This piece of grubby intrigue had been mitigated in Cambridge by the existence of Education Not For Sale, an Alliance for Worker's Liberty front-group that was rendered especially diverse by overlap with non-sectarian local leftist institution, the Left Tea Party. ENS had arranged a meeting directly afterwards and co-ordinated cramming as many members that could and would spare a day into the Cambridge Union of Student Unions (CUSU) hustings. There were fifteen places and eighteen standing, the best they could do was pick the least eloquent critics (hence my being elected as delegate). The aforementioned Trot was ENS' leader, Ed Maltby. With me in the minivan besides him were two Blairites, two Tories, an Irish SDLP member, a leftish liberal Muslim who was softly pro-Constitution and an ENS member. Owing to a house burning down there was no second mini-van, so three socialists and one I can't recall the political identity of and another Blairite were travelling via train. In short, seven ENS affiliates or associates from the fifteen dispatched. Considering that we only needed one third plus one to stop the constitution from coming into force this boded fairly well.

Say what you will of ENS, in Cambridge they got the job done.

During the journey we talked Unionism's identity as Ulster Nationalism which sneered upon anything save itself (actual UK unionism included), the identity of Islamic states as not Islamic (forcing people into submission to God doesn't work out, apparently) and, above all, we slept. Why do I mention the voyage? Because its worth pointing out that this was the first part of the stitch-up: since the conference was called at such short notice there was no way that numerous affiliated institutions could get a full contingent to the conference. Various small FEs and the like could only afford to send a small fraction of their mandated delegates simply on the grounds of cost of travel. In addition to this there were all the individuals who couldn't spare a mid-term Wednesday.

Whether that would have swung it in any direction I can't be certain, but the mood inside the conference was certainly peculiar. One way of reading the positive reception the Constitution seemed to receive was that this was some glow of will for “Change” that had wafted across the Atlantic along with the Gulf Stream. Another is that the room was packed full of Sabbaticals only there because obliged and attending after having been wined and dined by Wes Streeting.

This, my deep red comrades, is Wes Streeting. New Labour doyenne, ambitious non-upstart that can single handedly make any earnest leftist forsake the New New Labour generation in under a minute and as slippery as the slicker half of cabinet. I saw Blairism in action first hand for the first time on the 12th and this was the man in charge.

As NUS president its seemingly been his sole job to push this constitution and push it hard. He admitted to as much shortly after taking stage to launch affairs, referencing giving a talk in favour of the Constitution thousands of time in a low-demand tour all around the country. Nice work if you can get it. Which is, if not the second part of the stitch-up, then at least a large advantage held by the Constitutionalists over the rest of us: Wes' full time job has been ramming this thing. That's all he's been up to lately. He's had a hefty budget to put together graphics, assemble propaganda and attend/host meals and he hasn't worked alone. Almost the NEC's entirety backed the Constitution (all save three) and have access to all the phone numbers and other infrastructure someone wanting to get this thing through could desire. The most blatant example of this in practice was when all delegates to the Conference received an email from the National Chancellor instructing them in no uncertain terms to vote for the constitution. This was followed a few days later by another message apologising and claiming that it was an accident. A highly elaborate, immensely convenient accident.

Wes' speech began with him saying that he wasn't going to propagandise in favour of the constitution and was followed by him propagandising in favour of the constitution. I listened and wondered which year it was that “Blairite Lies” ceased being a newsworthy headline. The summary of the constitution was occasionally inadvertently hilarious: with flawless New Labour logic Wes explained that the idea of having a “Senate” had caused some consternation last time around, so they'd changed the name. A new name, no problem. Seamless. He concluded a rather nauseating speech by saying that since they'd compromised by making minor alterations the opponents of the former constitution should compromise by agreeing that the Blairites were entirely correct.

The only interesting part of the speech was his railing against the cap being lifted. This could cause quite some difficulties for a careerist, seeing as it would mean opposing publicly a policy of the party which he wants to give him a job. Presumably the arrangement is that he gives them a re-structure that voids true resistance and in exchange they overlook his (ineffective) opposition and give him a cushy job anyway.

After this it was the turn of the Australian equivalent to Wes to speak. This began in a rather startling fashion, with him denouncing marketisation and neo-liberalism, which he told us had afflicted Australia under Michael Howard, with Australian Universities allowed to charge whatever they want just so long as they waived the entry demands. The consequence, obviously, was a bunch of thick rich kids flooding the top institutions. In response, we were told, the Union had campaigned hard for Labor and now that they were in power the technocrats would sort stuff out. All the same, the man could string a speech together without making you want to strangle yourself, so he was streets ahead of dear Wes.

After this it was time for Wes again, now advocating the motion in the time which he was meant to. He gave a content devoid warble and then fielded questions, which ranged from tepid to “Some people don't seem to understand this part of the Constitution, Wes, could you explain it to them?” Needless to say, he didn't struggle.

Lunch came before the amendments, and in this time slot was where I had expected all of the propagandising and arguing would happen. Instead the lefties met up with each other, a circle formed and that weird hand-waving thing was practiced. It had been intended that we unite with the Socialist Worker Student Society, but they had gone off elsewhere to form their own gathering (I'd later stroll past the aftermath, or at least I presume so given that there are few other contexts in which you will see a duo of dyed hair, pierced face people being told by a third “...You should hear him in general committee.”). The rather unsettling thing about our circle (besides the fact certain members were wobbling their palms to indicate agreement) was its small size: I'd estimate we numbered around twenty. The SWSS had managed to get 30-40 out. In a room verging on 760 this wasn't so good.

Even worse was to come: a circle comrade revealed that the amendments we would be dealing with after lunch had been fucked around with until beyond recognition. What had been intended as major adjustments to a broken Constitution had been decided upon and cleared by all parties in a meeting the night before, then over-night had been transformed into wrecking bills by Steering, the supposedly objective overseers of the entire affair. They would now delete the entire Constitution, something that was never intended by the drafters and bound to see them rejected. Two other amendments were made mutually antagonistic for no apparent reason other than the Blairites not liking either of them.

To give you some indication of how badly this fucked us over consider the matter of the Trustees: the Constitution suggests that the NUS give voting rights, vetoes over proposals and a host of other powers to “Lay” (I.e. non-student) Trustees. These supposedly advisory figures will be able to fuck around with NUS to their content. An amendment proposed removing them and them alone and now, entirely bizarrely and without any reason, proposed removing everything and closing the whole show.

Fight Blairites in their terrain and these things will happen. At this point I was suspecting we should just give up.

The set-up was cunning in that if you weren't informed then you wouldn't have known. Other examples of institutional rigging were more obvious: London and the North, the two most reliably antagonistic regions, had been packed right at the back of the conference as far from the stage as could be achieved, while the literal Middle England was shoved to the front and centre. The biggest advantage the proposers had, though, was the crowd: it cheered eagerly at itself and was ready to applause pro-Constitution material at the slightest provocation.

Which was what was required, really, given that the advocates hadn't the slightest shred of reason to present to us. Their rhetoric depended upon outright appeals to emotion (a speaker from Aberdeen said that he'd come a long way and was furious at the suggestion that he'd have to go home again) or simply bludgeoned us with assertions of faith that the Constitution would achieve miracles.

The amendments were thus swatted down until we reached the Minority Assessment Report. This suggested that the Constitution be delayed until a report could be performed on it and it was argued for strongly. In response there was a long pause as the chronically PC Conference squirmed and the battle between desire to avoid being seen as having mild racist inclinations and the desire to pass the wretched Constitution as rapidly as possible raged. Eventually a hideously posh and highly hesitant black speaker took the podium to inform us that the problems black people faced weren't so bad any more, to vicious hisses. The Blairite crisis wasn't fully resolved by this apologist, but thankfully for the liberals the amendment was “Parted” to remove the area of the text that actually did anything. The suggestion thus castrated it was suitable for domestication, voted in with minimal resistance now that it wouldn't spray on the walls.

After this there was rejection after rejection of the unintended wreckers, with the only thing really notable being a speech by John Castra. Castra is Columbian in origin but, knowing that nobody knows what that accent really sounds like, has adopted a Jamaican lilt safe in the knowledge that nobody will call him on it. His speech was good fun, with the same being true of Hind Hassan a member of Student Respect (which I believe still exists...?) as well as the NEC.

Once we were through with the stitched-up amendments it was on to the stuff which was still vaguely up in the air. The Scrap No Platform amendment suggested by the University of East Anglia was argued for very poorly and opposed by a black female student, a Jew and a gay (which just leaves us short a trade unionist, gypsy and Jehovah's Witness). According to the revsoc next to me the proposers were being silly since fighting fascism means breaking knee caps but this offended my liberal sensibilities so I voted against on the grounds that the argument made concerning “Free speech” and “Free platform” being very different things cohesive. A bearded man tried to convince us to leave the Rules Committee intact since the proposed body “Weren't sad enough” to do his current job, only he was. I thought that he made a fine point and that no harm would be done by keeping this lonely nerd, but he was laid into by a member of NEC and Blairites don't have a utilitarian bone so he had his forlorn life ruined by a hefty margin. A vote on democracy being introduced to the College Unions was when things went weird: after a strong proposal it was argued against by somebody who urged us to “Imagine that I am Prime Minister, and I tell you that I want an elected Chancellor of the Exchequer”, then reeled off some more figures we could elect, including a head of the Bank of England. “This” he informed us with much deliberation “is ridiculous.” that word spat out with a vigorous contempt that stuck in my mind like a shard of jagged glass. He then continued to rail against how democracy would destroy all our “thought”.

Then something on women's quotas, argued well both for and against as well as largely by women. Ultimately I buy the “No discrimination can be positive” line, and I hardly see how forcing ratios based around it helps eliminate the source of all sexism: the gender binary. I voted against and this won out.

(Oh yeah, and while I'm here - “Liberation” Campaigns? Nice and Hegelian, but my bisexuality makes me feel neither oppressed nor enslaved. What exactly am I meant to be being liberated from, here? Are the views of a view empty headed bigots supposed to be getting me down or something? It's not as if they're the type that'd be invited to my Civil Partnership.)

A proposal on making sure that disabled people were represented on the Board of Trustees was seen off by a NEC member suffering from severe cerebral palsy. I found this section of the conference fairly harrowing and appreciate that it must have been difficult for him to speak but his argument that he wasn't useful to the Trustee Board might have been true but would probably not be for someone less extremely disabled. At any rate, he got a massive clap and it was more than enough?

Ed Maltby and a shaved head SWPer I can't recall the name of both gave fiery speeches against the Constitution during amendment time. The latter told us that you didn't have to be a Revolutionary Socialist to oppose the Constitution (although he was, he added, I think that “...But it helps” would have been better). Somehow I suspect that this failed to win around any New Labourite Sabbaticals but frankly nothing short of giving them a meal accompanied by more expensive wine than Wes had paid for would have managed that.

Finally we actually got to the gist, after a few more amendments which seemed to exist just to make minuscule details and fine tuning to demonstrate that the Constitution had been altered democratically. Then came the final show down, with Rob Owen giving a firm speech but with his shadowy eyes and grim face leaving him looking somewhat satanic. It's without question that the Blairite's finest trick is making themselves look like the most reasonable person in the room and the flustered responses given by the opponents are both entirely understandable given the propaganda bombard they were competing with and exactly what their foes desired.

The New Labour lot finally made a decent argument: if we had a counter-proposal then it wasn't on paper. I'd point out that the amendments could have been considered as much until they got turned into wreckers, but I'd feel a little pathetic. It was true that we hadn't put together a working alternative and certainly hadn't presented one, but it's also the case that nobody else had the focused labour time or the budget that the NUS enjoyed. And that was all the time we had time for, the massive amounts of amendments and tight scheduling ensuring that we got barely any debate on the proposal itself, despite the fact that that's what we were all there for.

Wes then sealed the deal, giving a closing argument that was slick, empty and given a standing ovation by the keenest of the slime present.

The vote was initially called for the “Yes”s, but a call for a count was made, especially loudly by the ENSer next to me. Things got tense and arms tired as the lengthy process was performed and some vague vestige of hope lingered, only to be crushed entirely, by a margin of 614 to 142. The North and London were heavily against, the Middle and Nations a see of approval. I'd thought that there was hope with one member of the mini-bus, who'd said she was finding that as a left winger it seemed Labour weren't for her, but she went for. So did everyone else non-ENS in our contingent. Wes took to the stage again but me and the SDLPer had had enough and strolled out of the venue. We were joined shortly and an ad hoc caucus formed, ENS and SWSS mixing for the debriefing.

All that's left to be said is that I saw Wes the day after, showing the Australian visitor around Cambridge. I was too tired and he too disarming for a shout out, and apparently Maltby had beaten me to it earlier that morning. All I could do was ask questions. According to him the NEC aren't pushing for another Extraordinary Conference but he seemed to deem it likely anyway. All it takes is 25 colleges to request one. If the left still considers NUS worth bothering with the task that faces is tough but isn't entirely vast: it simply requires enough campus crews to get their act together. Another hundred delegates and we'd have secured a cosy win. That's us a couple of successful delegate stuffings away from victory. There's time enough to manage that if we start preparing, but none more for the squabbling which typifies left action groups. When your backs' against a wall you stand as one.

And if you need a bigger inspiration point than saving the cap on fees then remember that Wes Streeting said in a speech that if the Constitution was voted against then he'd tear out all his hair and shoot himself in the face. With that in mind, get going.

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