Grassroots Radicalism Drives Change at NUS

For two decades the NUS has had a reputation as both a fluffy debating club, and a union which withholds its criticisms of the Labour Party in return for senior officers being fast-tracked through the Labour Party. Six of the last fifteen NUS Presidents have represented or are representing Labour as Parliamentary candidates, one more in the House of Lords. It appears that a change has now begun.

This was my first conference, but it seems broadly agreed that 2015 was a much more left-wing conference than it has been for many years.

This was clear from the beginning. The Priority Motion was to condemn the record of the coalition government, and an amendment also condemning Labour for lack of opposition not only passed, but by a fairly big margin and with enthusiastic cheers.

But the conference wasn’t without cynical partisan trickery.

The big motions on Tuesday were Motion 211 (reaffirming commitment to free education) and Motion 212 (calling for NUS to back a demo for free education later in the year, regardless of who the government is at the time).

The cheap tricks started with delaying tactics on Motion 210 (Bad organisation and management makes for a bad university experience). Every motion so far had been settled with a speech in favour, a speech against and a summation (or often just the first of the three). Motion 210, however, found itself subjected to a procedural motion to debate it in parts, meaning it took a considerable amount of time to debate one of the least complicated motions.

Before Motion 211 (Free Education), a vote of no confidence was used as a delaying tactic against the Chair—who hadn’t been in the position for long, and had put in an uncontroversial performance. Understandably, it fell short of the hundred required for it to be heard, and the debate on the motion began. Three passionate rounds of speeches were made for and against free education, with the speakers against arguing that with free education, taxes for ordinary people would go up; that the higher ceiling for repayment meant that the changes had been “proven to be fairer”; and that making higher education free would encourage people to stay in education forever. Outgoing NUS Scotland President Gordon Maloney gave a barnstorming summation arguing in favour of free education, saying the Scottish system made more sense, and that Scotland had been able to dig deeper into the issues around education and student life, having dealt with “the fucking tuition fee elephant in the room”. Although 211 passed to rapturous applause, there was no more time to debate Motion 212 (National Demonstration for Free Education and against student poverty), which will now be handed over to National Executive Committee to deal with.

Also on the opening day, NUS President Toni Pearce gave a passionate speech in defence of NUS’s ‘Liar Liar’ campaign, targeted against the Lib Dem and Tory candidates who went on the record supporting free education, then voted to raise tuition fees. The campaign had been met with criticism before and during the conference, with the Tory/Independent Presidential candidate Leon French withdrawing from the conference entirely as a result.

My view is that it’s a definite positive to see the NUS actively getting involved in the main political arena, but that it’s relatively easy to attack the Lib Dems, given their current reputation. The real challenge will be whether any future Labour government that disappoints or deceives students is met with the same response.

Wednesday saw the main elections.

With the withdrawal of the other candidates, what had been a broad field in the Presidential election came down to a choice between Megan Dunn and Beth Redmond, both having supported the principle of free education. Beth has been a key organiser with, and the endorsed candidate of, the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), one of the leading groups behind the ‘free education’ movement, while Megan is a former member of NCAFC. This conference was the first time I’d seen Beth Redmond in person. She’s an irrepressible force of nature, but, having made a lot of her status as an outsider, it was inevitable that she’d lose out to Megan, the outgoing Vice President Higher Education.

Sorana Vieru won a contest between three strong candidates for VP Higher Education, against Hattie Craig (endorsed by NCAFC) and Poppy Wilkinson (one of the few candidates to carry a ‘Labour Students’ tagline and seemingly, going by the t-shirt endorsements, heavily backed by that group). The speeches may have sealed the victory for Sorana – her pro-immigration, pro-free education speech was powerful, while Poppy Wilkinson’s was strangely flat. Having met Poppy Wilkinson the previous week, she gave a better impression in both her manifesto and conversation than she did in her speech – it’s a shame she didn’t perform as well on the podium.

It was interesting that Hattie Craig came a distant third, despite being the endorsed candidate of NCAFC. NCAFC are, along with Student Assembly Against Austerity, one of the main factions supporting free education, so to see the free education vote rally behind another candidate shows the extent to which it’s a grassroots movement with a life of its own, rather than one dominant faction within NUS being replaced by another.

One of the things that surprised me about the elections in general was how few of the candidates openly identified with a political party. While this is understandable at SU level, at national level I feel more transparency is needed, so delegates at least know the pressures and support candidates are likely to receive if elected. I was more inclined to vote for Poppy Wilkinson, for instance, because she made it clear on her manifesto and choice of tagline that she was aligned with Labour, despite that not being my own allegiance. While I accept most candidates won’t be devious, I know of one candidate who has recently switched from one political party to another, who in the run-up to the conference was appealing to members of both for votes based on party loyalty – with more transparency we wouldn’t have such problems.

Piers Telemacque was re-elected as VP for Society and Citizenship, which, given his easy charisma and track record of fighting for youth and community centres, was the most predictable of the elections.

Shakira Martin was elected as VP for Further Education, citing Piers’ victory the previous year as an inspiration for her. Having made a couple of speeches during the previous day and a half, it’s clear that those of us who want the NUS to be a defiant, strong-minded institution couldn’t hope for a better embodiment than Shakira.

Probably the most exciting result of all was that of Shelly Asquith, who was elected as VP for Welfare, having spent the last few years balancing the practical work of campaigning for more investment from her university with offering support to activists at the edge of the law. When you see how far she’s gone to support activists around the country while working as SU President of University of the Arts London, it’s incredibly exciting to think about her doing the same with the formal backing of the NUS.

In Germany, free education became such a hot topic that it became difficult for politicians to win office without backing it. Though it’s only a start, five of six full-time NUS officers next year are on record as speaking in favour of free education; only Richard Brooks has not made his support clear.

There was drama on Wednesday evening, with the proposed appointment of Andrew Westwood as a trustee challenged because of his past as a Special Advisor to the Blair government, with a motion being called to refer the appointment back to NUS. At first this challenge for his appointment to be referred back was upheld, but on a manual count, Westwood was appointed by 161 votes to 157. From what I’ve read on Westwood afterwards, it does seem the right choice to appoint him (I voted to refer the decision back both times, on the basis that it’s better to play safe than make a bad choice), but there’s two important things learnt from the process.

Firstly, I don’t feel delegates were given enough information about Westwood, either from the President proposing him, or the objector, Barnaby Raine, who seems to have a reputation for going out of his way to ask awkward questions of an organisation reputedly run by a closed clique. Secondly, mere association with the Blair government was this year so toxic that it was nearly enough to block a trustee’s appointment by itself. The consequences of the Blair government’s lies and deceit are still being felt, which should be a warning to future governments.

The final round of elections took place on Thursday morning, with 32 candidates standing for the ‘Block of 15’. (For those who aren’t familiar with the format of NUS, the various full-time elected officers are held to account at National Executive Committee meetings by a group of fifteen part-timers.) Because of the complicated system designed to make sure as many areas as possible are represented—with reserved places for both women and Further Education students—the winners of this election won’t be announced until late next week, probably Thursday 30th.

But there’s a strong set of candidates with a decent chance of making the cut – NCAFC’s Beth Redmond, Callum Cant and Hannah Webb; Young Green and free education organiser Sahaya James; Areeb Ullah, who wants to prioritise helping SUs fight back against misuse of the charity commission to shut down protest; Socialist Students’ Ben Mayor and Courtney Robinson, the latter President of Northern Ireland’s largest student union, where she campaigned for abortion rights; Living Wage campaigner Michael Segalov; Barnaby Raine; Charley Hasted, who spoke reasonably and persuasively several times through the conference and who used her Block speech to underline the importance of reintroducing EMA. Of course, it’s unlikely that all ten of those will make the cut, but there’s a strong chance that the Block of Fifteen will keep a left-leaning senior team pulled to the left.

Making sure that the NUS is run in a way suitable for both radical campaigning and giving practical development advice is only a middle step, towards the larger goal of ensuring students’ voices are heard and respected by the political establishment. But this was a week when the British student movement moved boldly leftward.

This article also appears on Bright Green.

Spaghetti Trees, Lyrebirds and Radical Politics

Fifty-eight years ago today, the BBC carried a faux documentary, explaining how spaghetti is farmed from trees, a story which apparently fooled a lot of people. From a technical point of view, the prank is well executed – getting the tone of BBC news stories spot on, complete with deadpan narration.
It’s easy to laugh looking back at the naïve trust placed in the BBC by those who were fooled. But we’ve probably gone too far the other way, from naïve trust to naïve cynicism. As a counter-example, there’s an Australian bird, the superb lyrebird (yes, that’s it’s actual name), that I’m convinced can’t actually exist.
If you’ve never heard of superb lyrebirds before, you may well think I’ve fallen for a trick in the same way those who believed in spaghetti trees did, there are other pieces of evidence available.

It does seem that only a limited number of lyrebirds, often with prolonged exposure to human activity, are able to pull off this trick, but it’s still an absolutely amazing piece of mimickry.

The naïve cynicism I’m sure many people feel towards the superb lyrebird is mirrored by a broader cynicism, which also finds it’s way into our political discussions.
One of the most common clichés in political discourse is that “they’re all as bad as each other”, and that, as a result, there’s no point engaging in politics.

This isn’t true – George Osborne’s ruthless redistributions from the poor to the rich are worse than Ed Balls meekly going along with them; Michael Gove’s propagandistic redesign of the education system is worse than Tristram Hunt’s ignorance of the highly respected Finnish system; David Cameron’s idea to ban “non-violent extremism” is worse than Tony Blair’s plans to introduce mandatory ID cards.

It’s been a consistent law of the last two decades that Labour are bad, the Tories somehow manage to consistently be worse.
That’s still cynicism of course, but I’d argue it’s more rational cynicism, rather than a broader dismissal of the system as a whole. (You’re entitled to disagree with my individual conclusions.)

That got pretty heavy – here’s another video of the superb lyrebird to lighten the mood.

Standing opposed to the limited range of options we’re generally presented with in the political centre ground, where the layman often can’t tell the bad from the worse, there are potentially transformative, utterly radical ideas.

I’m not a fan of the Labour Party as a whole, but it’s only fair to point out that their renewable energy plans, to make Britain carbon neutral by 2030, are genuinely radical.  The plan is not only bold, but probably achievable – Scotland already gets almost half it’s energy from renewables.

The reason I’m a member of the Green Party is that it’s full of these bold ideas.

The Green Party calls for the minimum wage to be raised to a living wage immediately, and £10 an hour by 2020,with the idea being that moving money from the executives of corporations to those nearer the bottom will move money around local economies. The Green Party calls for the end to all private sector involvement in the NHS and the railways, supported by evidence that vast sums are wasted not only on shareholder dividends, but on an unnecessary NHS bidding process. The Green Party calls for a ‘universal basic income’ which would eventually provide enough money for each citizen to live on and pay into their local economy, even if they chose not to be part of the workforce themselves.

Of course, with radical politics, it’s hard to be certain they’ll work. Is Miliband right to argue that it’s possible to completely de-carbonise the British economy? Personally I’m no expert on the technology, but the evidence from Scotland suggests it might be possible in a decade and a half. Similarly with each of the Greens’ policies listed, I view the main obstacles as being political willpower, rather than flaws in the ideas themselves. (The links will take you to supporting arguments, unrelated to the Green Party or any particular political party, which make the case for these bold ideas.)

The problem is that, in Britain and much of the world, we’ve lost the appetite for political boldness. We’ve gotten used to being given a choice between two flavours of gruel, and being told that feeling a lack of enthusiasm for the choice is our problem, not a problem of the system.

A better world is possible. Believe in radical politics. Believe in the superb lyrebird.

It’s All About the Policies

This weekend saw the announcement that Peter Pinkney, the President and highest ranking lay-member of the RMT, will stand for the Green Party in Redcar. This, as well as the broader rise of the Green Party, was described by Fraser Nelson of the Spectator as part of ‘the unravelling of the left’.
As if to underline his right-wing credentials, Nelson essentially attacks the very concept of trade unions, arguing that the RMT “specialised in holding Londoners to ransom with frequent tube strikes.”

Nelson continues by arguing that Ed Miliband is “not losing voters to the Greens for policy reasons…he’s also one of the worst leaders” that Labour has had.
Trust me – it is for policy reasons. It’s almost entirely because of policy that people like me have either been motivated to get directly involved in politics and join the Greens, or left Labour for the Greens.

Nelson is one of the non-zealots on the right, one of the major not-necessarily-Thatcherite-conservatives in modern British politics, along with David Davis, Zac Goldsmith, Peter Oborne and Ian Hislop. He’s someone I generally like, and think is worth engaging with. But he’s ridiculously wrong here.

One of the earliest parts of the ‘green surge’ came on the day after Ed Balls’ autumn conference speech – I saw several people cite the Shadow Chancellor’s announcement that he’d save money by capping child support, letting pensioners freeze and kicking puppies* as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Though I’d been voting Green whenever possible (which basically meant just in Europe) for me it was the spectre of policies such as the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act and TTIP, and the non-opposition by the biggest parties that tipped me over into joining up.
Paul Bernal, one of the UK’s leading tech academics co-signed a letter opposing DRIP last year and later joined the Green Party, the largest party in England to oppose it. I think it’s plausible that disliking the policies and actions of the Labour Party, and later joining the Green Party, are linked.

Contrary to what Nelson argues, a fair amount of people within the Green Party seem to sort-of-like Miliband, or at least not actively dislike him. I think he’s vaguely got the right ideas – that sometimes the state is more efficient than the markets, for instance on railways, health, energy – but he generally only proposes pitiful half measures. The recent announcement that workers would be allowed to buy out their companies, but would apparently have to pay for it themselves, being one example.
The Green Party equivalent (WR610) in the huge policies document states that this kind of workers’ buy-out would be paid for by a nationally funded ‘Green Investment Bank’. This would involve the business in question needing to meet certain energy standards, but offers a far better deal than requiring that workers fund their own buyout. Whatever you think about the practicality of that, it’s at least a bold aim, and offers a significantly different vision to what the Tories are proposing, rather than just tinkering around the edges.

While Tristram “Labour is aggressively pro-business” Hunt infuriates many Green members and voters with his personal incompetence, this is generally not the case with Miliband.
Personally, I think Miliband will make a far better Prime Minister than Leader of the Opposition – he seems to be generally well-respected for the job he did as head of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, so hopefully he’s a manager by instinct, rather than a substance-free performer, as Cameron and Osborne are.

Nelson’s final paragraph does make me feel a little uneasy – in light of the part crowdfunding has played in funding the current election challenges, Nelson raises the idea of rich Tories funding the Green Party in marginal seats. In fact, by imbedding a link in the article, he seems to be heavily hinting for his readers to do what he’s innocently speculating about. Accepting even the mildest of compliments from David Cameron makes me feel uneasy, so the thought of being a pawn in Tory plans doesn’t sit will with me on any level.

But, ultimately, Labour have got to convince voters that they are more good, it’s not the Greens’ duty to lie down and make the victory easy.

Regardless of what Fraser Nelson thinks, it’s all about the policy.

* one of these three was not in Ed Balls’ September speech. I forget which.

A Green Party Member Responds to Kitty Jones

As an increasingly active member of the Green Party, for a while I have been considering setting up a blog to express my own personal political views. While responding to Kitty Jones’ recent ‘debunking’ of the ‘myth’ behind the Green Party is a proximate cause of the creation of this blog, it is far from the entire cause.

The following is addressed directly to Kitty Jones, and is an adaptation of a comment I made on her blog a week ago, which seems to have been actively deleted, as opposed to still awaiting moderation. (The original comment will be posted as the first comment of this blog post, so you can decide for yourself whether she was right to not let it through.)
While I believe her post is a gross misrepresentation of the Green Party, there are several other of her posts I’d recommend – in particular her look at the way  benefit sanctions punish poverty, and her detailed analysis of the links between Tory policies and poverty. There’s also a post (which at the moment I can’t refind) in which she makes the case that Rachel Reeves has used some highly technical lawmaking to box Iain Duncan Smith into a position where he can’t withhold inconvenient evidence – her case is persuasive and this seems to have been missed by the mainstream media.
While I’m angered and frustrated by the criticisms she made, what makes it worse is that she generally is a provocative and interesting political writer – I’d recommend that anyone who’s open to being persuaded that the Labour Party is still a force for good to check out the blog posts of her’s that I recommended, and her blog in general.
 
Kitty,

There’s some valid questions about the need to question environmental causes, but the objections in this article work better as an attack on ‘greenwashing’ in general than the Green Party/ies in particular – such as Cameron and his huskies. The Green Party policy you’ve quoted seems to me like it would focus on cutting waste – so overcoming wasted energy through better house insulation, encouraging people not to waste food. You make a series of mistakes between Green and ‘green’ (by which you mean Malthusian) policies. Have you any evidence that the modern Green Party admires Malthus?

From your comments: “Labour don’t support austerity and never have, Labour have no funding from corporate organisations. That’s 2 Green lies that are commonly thrown out. “

Labour might not use the phrase austerity directly, but Rachel Reeves has promised to be tougher than the Tories, and Ed Balls has promised to work towards balancing the budget by capping benefits paid for children and pensioners, which sounds like austerity in all but name. (There have been internal analysis of new membership numbers shared on the Green Party members’ website, looking at when membership numbers have spiked. The day of, and immediately after, Ed Balls’ conference speech was one of these, with Balls being the messenger himself, uninterrupted by ‘Green lies’.)

The assistance from Price Waterhouse Coopers has to count, at least, as a ‘donation in kind’, which is more worrying than a direct donation, given that they are apparently helping to write tax laws which they will later be helping corporations find loopholes in.

Misinformation is not necessarily spread deliberately – you argue in the comments that Rachel Reeves meant, when she promised to be ‘tougher than the Tories’ that  she would cut Ian Duncan Smith’s waste. If this is true, then it’s at least a bad way of phrasing what she meant – phrases like ‘more efficient’ or ‘less wasteful’ would have communicated her intent better than ‘tougher’. Either she chose a bad turn of phrase, or the media has misrepresented her intent (The Guardian quotes her as saying “If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important”). Either way you can’t hold Green Party members entirely responsible for sharing what is a common interpretation.

The ‘tougher than the Tories’ line is one I’ve shared a couple of times – if I’ve got the wrong impression, then it’s been a ‘Green mistake’ rather than a ‘Green lie’. While I believe that the Green Party offers a better moral philosophy than the Labour Party, I can respect those who disagree and misunderstand Green statements. I would ask that you do the same when others say things that you believe to be untruths about Labour – they could well be mistakes rather than lies. While I disagree with your depiction of the Green Party, I can respect your intent in exposing a party you see as charlatans.

The criticisms of Green Party alliances is possibly valid, but I’d like to see some specific criticisms. Not every Tory council is as bad as Cameron, some will be worth working with. Brighton Labour obviously consider Brighton Tories worth working with.

I’d accept that Miliband is a decent socialist, albeit one who’s strongest policies are still quite half-hearted. The Green Party focus on attacking Labour is obviously something to validly criticise, but most people who are tempted to vote Green will take as given that Cameron can’t be trusted.

Likewise, I’m aware that Brighton Greens have made some bad choices, but I personally consider this to be a combination of external pressures (inheriting an equality lawsuit which neither Labour or Tory councils dealt with in the previous 14 years, and which had a deadline of November 2013, two years after the Greens came to power; austerity cuts from the national government) and poor decision making (sending officers to negotiate with unions, rather than councillors doing it themselves). There is an implication in the way your argument is presented that excessive cuts are somehow inherent in the Green Party nature, possibly fuelled by our raging Malthusianism. (You have denied several times that you compared the Green and Nazi parties, but that is certainly how the blog post read to me.) While I don’t want to excuse Brighton Greens for every mistake, Brighton Greens are a minority controlled council, with some reports saying that Labour and the Tories are acting as an unofficial coalition government. Brighton Labour have recently forced through a large tax increase for the poorest.

Around 100 jobs have recently been cut in Brighton, around 600 in Labour controlled Manchester, which from my understanding is proportionately similar.

You say in one comment that you’re not a Labour Party member, but I’ve read elsewhere that you work in PR for Labour – is this true? As a semi-regular reader of your blog, I’m fairly sure that you described yourself as a Labour councillor at one point – am I mistaken? (Apologies if I am.)

Edit – I’ve been informed, in a comment below, that I was mistaken. I apologise unreservedly.

Your anti-democratic response to comments is more unambigiously troubling. After a commenter responds to a wordpress blog post, they can see that post, with the heading ‘Your comment is awaiting moderation’ until it is either approved or deleted. I have no issue with you not getting around to approving my comments, as you’ve clearly been busy with this particular blog post. My objection is to some very benign comments being actively deleted, while you have implied that your policy is to let through disagreeing posts – “There are many posts here on this thread, and many raise points that i disagree with, but they have been posted.”

The comment which makes the basis of this blog post seems to have been actively deleted. As does a comment in which I pointed out a factual mistruth in one of your statements (whether this is a lie or a mistake is obviously something which I can’t be sure about). The time on my clock in the bottom right corner in the third image shows that there is no comment ‘awaiting moderation’ at a later time than the second image.

Based on your refusal to share my factual correction that you do have the ability to edit comments on your blog, it seems logical that you did edit Andy’s comment, and possibly that he made another comment (as you requested) which you have not allowed through. I’ve posted a few more examples of this apparent deletion of benign comments at the bottom of this post – though in the later examples, I saved pages rather than took screenshots, so the clock in the bottom right would be no proof of when comments when still awaiting moderation.

It’s unfair and undemocratic to go out of your way to limit the range of debate in this way.

On the whole, I find your site interesting, and although we disagree on several subjects (you’ve obviously got more faith than I do in the current Labour leadership, and you’ve described the Tory leadership as eugenicists) you make a lot of interesting arguments. Along with Eoin Clarke, I consider you one of the most persuasive Labour voices, but transparent nonsense like arguing the Green Party is Malthusian in nature doesn’t help.

I’m sorry if my fellow Green Party members have been bullying you, and I promise to try and call this out when I see it. But I think you’re smart enough to see that drawing a direct line from Malthus, through the Nazis, to the modern Green Party, is going to provoke strong responses. While there’s no excuse for abusive messages, calling people liars is going to annoy them. As is writing an article which compares a significant political party to Nazis and Malthusians based on a single ambigious quote.

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