Campaigning begins in SUSU’s hotly contested NUS Referendum

Posted on November 27, 2010 by

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Campaigning began yesterday (Fri 26/11/10) on the hotly contested and controversial NUS referendum at Southampton University Student’s Union (SUSU), which will decide whether SUSU should reaffilliate to the National Union of Students or stay out.

Referendum time

SUSU disaffiliated from the NUS in 2002 after a narrow vote in their AGM, having had a referendum in 1999 on the issue.  The main reasons at the time were the cost of remaining affilliated, which stood at £68,850, which it was proposed would be better spent on societies budgets and on campaigning.  It was also noted that the NUS failed to campaign on the introduction of top-up fees and was not representative, and that NUS extra cards weren’t used or found necessary by many members.  However, the disaffiliation was heavily contested and only passed by a margin of 12 votes.

This year the new President, Billy FitzJohn, included in his manifesto a pledge to hold a new referendum on the issue, and in a argumentative Union Council meeting it was passed that this take place by December, with 2 official ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to affiliation teams formed under strict election rules (Indeed, here at The Blowhole we can’t actually figure out if this article will contravene the complex rules, but as we’re an external organisation we figured that we would anyway… – see the referendum page for more at http://www.susu.org/referendum/).

Controversy has begun to dog the referendum though, with rumours circulating that members of the supposedly neutral elections committee, who produced the information for members to base their vote on and make sure the referendum is fair, were also on one of the campaign teams (but who have now apparently resigned from the elections committee as a result).  We’ve also heard from some societies that campaigning began early with society presidents emailed during last week to ellicit support for one of the campaigns, which from our reading of the rules is probably a breach too (though we’re not sure on this – rules seem rather complex and we’d probably have to interrogate a campaign team member directly to get all of them).

Criticisms have focused on the fact sheet that SUSU has provided for the election, which seems to be rather biased towards the benefits of NUS, with no particular criticism levied apart from a figure claiming the net cost of affiliation would only be £3,737.40.  This appears to be based on figures given to SUSU by the NUS, so may be questionable.  Indeed, the question of NUS intervention is looming large, with campaigners worrying that the NUS will be sending in their own external people to help the ‘yes’ campaign, much like what happened with Imperial’s recent reaffilliation referendum, and the NUS president has also released a video callingon Southampton students to rejoin (showing significant NUS attention on the referendum).

Another interesting point is that the Union’s Genereal Manager, aka the head of their permanent staff, also sits on the elections committee (as shown in Union minutes – she has been up until now), BUT also is a trustee and treasurer of AMSU, which is directly linked with the NUS as the union for sabbs (soon to merge with the NUS).  Whether or not she has been removed from the elections committee for the referendum as a result we don’t know, but it would be a clear conflict of interest if she still is.

Some students have also raised criticism over the themes of the campaigns, which are dominated by the question of cost on both sides and national representation on the ‘yes’ side.  A student activist at the University we spoke to rubbished the emphasis on ‘pride’ by the ‘no’ team and criticised the NUS’s democratic deficit, telling us that:

I’m personally against SUSU joining the NUS at the moment, but not for the same reason being put across by the campaigns here.  I believe we should be part of a national grouping of unions, but the NUS has become a hugely bureaucratic and unrepresentative organisation (Ed. – please see here for more on this) that has failed to campaign on many issues important to its members (like with top-up fees or the recent decision to not hold any more protests in the issue).  We can’t elect its positions or have a say in its stance, and it’s become dominated by political party factions, making the yes campaign’s claims that they can represent us properly laughable.  If we join now, at a time when several unions have left over these issues, it will represent a vote of confidence in the current rotten system, when we should be campaigning for it become more democratic and accountable first.

Indeed, the national campaign group Democratic Students, the campaign for democratic reform in the NUS and SUs, last week emailed supporters calling for them to encourage Southampton students to use this as an opportunity to pressure the NUS into improving its act.  Other campaigners have also pointed out that SUSU could do with some more democracy itself, after the way last year’s AGM was run and other recent controversies.

All in all, The Dolphin’s Blowhole would reccomend students consider this referendum carefully, and definitely look further than just the information provided by SUSU or the two campaign teams, especially about how the NUS works and has acted in recent years.

The tw0-hour debate on Monday saw Aaron Porter, Head of the NUS speaking for the Yes Team, while the No Team chose to stay within SUSU. For some, the debate seemed a little one-sided since  Aaron certainly spoke well and more often. Most questions were addressed towards the Yes Team and many seemed to be seeking reassurance. Recurring themes were finance, Representation and democracy, and the student voice- although some questions were asked about the level of research into NUS goings-on and also the level of scrutiny over the campaigns.

One student at the debate gave us her impressions:

I think the debate was good in some respects but a little elusive in others. There were lots of points that were used again and again to answer different questions and I felt some points were being avoided by using this method. However the debate did make me understand the other argument and did actually end up changing my mind. It was definitely much more informative than the people who were campaigning outside and clarified some discrepancies. Question time was useful in order to make sure the candidates spoke about issues that were affecting us even if they often avoided the main question!

 

 

UPDATE:

We have received word from Stephen Edwards, who was SUSU President between 2001 and 2002 (when SUSU fully disaffilliated), on what he thinks is going on behind the scenes with the referendum:

I should add that I have emailed Billy regarding errors and clear bias in the so called “referendum facts” page but he has not fixed this. It is clear from his responses that Jaki Booth, the new SUSU General Manager is pulling the strings on this referendum, and it looks like the whole vote is another undemocratic farce designed to push Southampton into the NUS:

1) The last referendum actually took place autumn 1999. Due to the NUS rules at the time (which may still be in place) the vote was for the subsequent financial year. This is done to make it very hard for Unions to leave the NUS because they are sometimes voting on affiliation almost 2 years ahead.

2) The 1999 referendum was an undemocratic farce with NUS officers flooding the campus and lie after lie being peddled around campus by paid NUS staff. I saw better democracy on a trip to North Korea in 2006 than I did in this referendum.

3) To be affiliated to the NUS, SUSU must vote positively *every* year to be a member. A referendum can only bind for the relevant year. This referendum is being rushed through because the President and General Manager want SUSU to be in the NUS for 1st Jan 2011 and it is impossible to get a quorate EGM before the end of term. It is important to remember that this vote could have taken place at the AGM in the summer when *every* other external affiliation is voted upon. However, AGM’s are much harder to influence as NUS officers can’t attend or speak, only Southampton Students.

4) Billy Fitzjohn’s “facts about the NUS” implies much criticism of the AGM vote in 2002 where Southampton chose not to renew affiliation to the NUS. Firstly, the vote was close only because the local socialist students had packed out the meeting whilst doing a deal with the Islamic society on an extremely controversial motion. Despite this extremely unrepresentative AGM attendance there was still a vote against affiliation. Secondly, the motion that Cat and Alex proposed was simplistic because the debate had come down to the sole issue of NUS discount cards (and had been stuck there since the 1999 referendum). All of the other issues had been quite rightly dismissed because the NUS simply offered nothing else. With the exception of a couple of socialist exec-officers, all of the outgoing and incoming executive officers (including sabs) voted for disaffiliation. Anyone who has attended NUS conference and armed themselves with the facts and not blind ideology would have done the same.

5) Lastly, the savings from NUSSL and NUS membership are completely unbelievable. Every recent cost-benefit analysis by SUSU came out quite differently until Jaki Booth took over as General Manager. Now suddenly it is supposed to pay SUSU to be a member of the NUS?! Pull the other one…!

Kind regards,

Stephen Edwards, SUSU President 2001-2002

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