SUSU’s members vote 2-to-1 to remain unaffilliated to the NUS

Posted on December 4, 2010 by

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Students at the University of Southampton have voted 2 to 1 in favour of their Student Union (SUSU) remaining unaffilliated to the National Union of Students (NUS).  Over 3000 of SUSU’s members voted in the referendum which was heavily fought over during the last week (w/b 29.11.10), as well the process itself being criticised by some as potentially unfair.

As reported last week, the referendum was being held on whether SUSU should reaffiliate to the NUS after leaving in 2001 amid criticisms of a lack of value for money and disagreement over the representation the NUS provides.  However, students voted 66.6% against reaffilliation (2293 votes against 1151 in favour, turnout ~14% which (unfortunately) is pretty good for student politics), meaning that SUSU will not be part of the NUS this coming year and most likely not for a few years, until the question comes up again.

Campaign group Democratic Students, who campaign for greater democracy in the NUS and student unions and who were active in the No Campaign, have congratulated Southampton Students on the vote, saying that it was “an election result that will deeply embarrass the National Union of Students in the light of recent activity over tuition fees, students at Southampton delivered a stinging rebuke to the NUS tonight after voting TWO-TO-ONE against affiliating”.  They and other campaigners hope that this illustrate a vote of no confidence in the NUS, helping to build the momentum to reform it.

The Yes team conceded defeat well, with team leader Adam Scott saying that “I think a big congratulations has to go out to the No team, and clearly the student of Southampton didn’t want to join the NUS and I respect that.”  No team leader Aaron Bali said that “The result was wicked, and it’s great to see students have a say on a serious issue. I’ve got to give a big credit to the Yes team, they got over 1000 votes, and we had the status quo on our side”.

SUSU president Billy FitzJohn said after the results that “I wanted two things from this referendum: A big turnout and an overwhelming majority. I wanted a big turnout so that it showed students were interested in their union, and we got that. I also wanted a clear victory because it’s always hard for one side to lose, I saw that at the SUSU Elections last year, and I didn’t want it to boil down to just a few votes; it is clear that students of Southampton do not want to join the NUS right now.”

The NUS have released no official comment on the result, but from some facebook and twitter stalking by The Blowhole we’ve found that the Director of Campaigns and Strategy at NUS Jim Dickinson has made a snarky comment that “thank god that you will still be able to buy obscure brands of pens in susu shops”, and from Ed Marsh, an NUS person who appears to have been posted in Southampton fr the referendum for the week (was this allowed under referendum rules?! Ed.), said on twitter (referring to the afterparty) that “@yes2nus team have requested ‘don’t stop believing’ and they will be back #fact”.

Debate has been raging in the background however over the Union’s handling of the referendum, with criticism coming in particular from former SUSU President Stephen Edwards, who was President when SUSU disaffiliated, and former AU Preisdent and SUSU staff member Mike Tinmouth.  Mike has said that both he and Stephen have had “concerns regarding the democratic running of the referendum… Stephen and I share a great passion for democracy and the truth, the problem with this referendum has been the lack of both and these are not just the ramblings of two old fogeys hanging on to former glories, they are concerns shared by dozens of current students.”  Stephen told The Blowhole that he thinks that “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… I don’t think this referendum will be over when the voting closes”.  For his full critique of the referendum, see our first article on the rereferendum.

Current SUSU President Billy FitzJohn hit back at these comments, saying that “Comments such as this put into question the integrity and competence of myself and other current Union trustees. They also question the integrity and professionalism of the General Manager… To publically question the conduct, integrity and professionalism of our General Manager contravenes this protocol and will not be tolerated. You also make comments that could be extremely libelous and are defamatory.”  He also claimed that the referendum was fully democratic, and indicated that the factsheet SUSU produced on the NUS, which many criticised for failing to bring up any disadvantages of the NUS, was not written by the General Manager or the Democracy & Representation manager (who is apparently an ex NUS-delegate).

Stephen Edwards has replied in turn, saying that “The SUSU Staff-Student protocol is a shield to protect staff in their role. It is is not a shield to protect staff when they go far beyond their role and start meddling in student politics… I look forward to receiving a full response to my detailed email complaint to you. As of yet you have not even acknowledged receipt”.

It is clear that despite the debate over the running of the referendum, students at the University of Southampton have clearly voted to stay out of the NUS by a large margin.  Many people’s eyes will now be on the NUS for how they respond to this and whether it will encourage the reform many camapigners hope for, as well as how this decision will influence the upcoming SUSU elections in February.  Other Student Unions which also have anti-NUS movements may now face the same decision in the coming year, as campaigners use Southampton’s example to launch their campaigns on.  In the context of the growing anti-fees and cuts campaigns and criticism of the NUS’s limited reaction to the proposed higher education reforms, it is likely to be an interesting time for Student Politics in the coming months and years.

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