There is a quiet political revolution underway at the University of Glamorgan Students' Union.
I'll preface this post by reiterating, for my own safety: while I am an officer of Cardiff University Students' Union, everything I write here is in a personal capacity and its opinions are my own. I take very seriously the ideas that I was elected as a representative, that the leadership and direction should come from the people I represent, and that the people I represent are an end in themselves, not a means to an end. If more people in student politics bore this in mind, the vast bulk of this post would be unneccessary.
Helen Wakeford is completing her first year as president of Glam SU and has been elected to a second. Since her re-election a month and a half ago, a student group — independently, I'll note, of the Socialist Students at Uni Glam — has come forward with hundreds of signatures calling for Wakeford's removal. The Glam SU Student Council, which Everyones Favourite Comrade sits on, is considering a motion of no confidence in Wakeford at their next meeting. Two Facebook groups (both now deleted) have raised very serious accusations against Wakeford, most notably the allegation that Wakeford misappropriated funds raised for the victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti toward another event.
Full disclosure of what I know: I've met Helen Wakeford at least three times that I remember. At the first, NUS Wales conference 2010, I asked her for a first-hand figure for the academic cuts at University of Glamorgan; at first she said she didn't know and then she reported back a figure of 7%. This was, it turns out, inconsistent with a report she'd put in just two days before where she said the cuts figure was 5%. The second time was at NUS National Conference 2010. The third time was last week at the Cardiff Communities Against Racism meeting, where we talked briefly about all the work she'd put in campaigning for New Labour in the 2010 General Election.
Finally, I chased up the one accusation leveled against Wakeford that I could directly verify. Wakeford's accusers say that she took credit for a deal with Cardiff University Students' Union where CUSU gave Glam SU some of our Summer Ball tickets. I've discussed this with relevant members of the CUSU exec and they confirm that Wakeford attended only the meeting where the deal was signed off on, taking no direct part in the negotiations.
At any rate: whether the accusations against Helen Wakeford are true or not, something quite dark has been learned out of all of this, which is that at University of Glamorgan, students have basically no route, short of what has been organised, for holding the Students' Union executive to account. Consider the following language from the Glam SU constitution: the Board [the committee of sabbatical officers] shall not be fettered by or required to act in accordance with instructions or mandates issued by the Union Council.
Contrast this with CUSU: the sabbatical team faces censure & dismissal for failure to fulfill Student Council's mandates, it has to present oral reports on a regular basis saying what it's done to fill those mandates, its timesheets are published and subject to regular scrutiny. The Student Council, for its part, uses those powers; I've faced censure myself for getting a report in a few hours after the deadline. I won't call Cardiff's system perfect — I might even call it the bare minimum of what I would see as "democratic" — but the contrast is stark, and Cardiff University Students' Union is all the better for it.
I'll admit that this is a recent development. A functioning Student Council at Cardiff, one that actually holds its employees to account, has only emerged in really the past year and is still finding its voice on a number of issues. What we have at Cardiff, though, is much better than what exists at Glamorgan. The important question here, from the perspective of someone trying to learn a lesson in building democracy and applying that lesson elsewhere, is: what are the critical differences between Cardiff University and University of Glamorgan, two universities of comparable size and located within a few miles of each other, that allow one to build a more functioning democratic system capable of representing students while the other languishes in sordid de jure autocracy?
It would be foolish not to suggest the possibility that it's down to money — Cardiff students are, let's be blunt, more likely to be middle-class than Glam students. Money certainly factors into who's involved: Student Council and the non-sabb Executive are unpaid work and anyone who takes it up is by definition someone who isn't working so much paid time to try to keep afloat that they can't do anything else. (About half of Cardiff students work part-time; I don't know what the figure is for Uni Glam.)
But looking at the wider Wales picture, Cardiff and Aberystwyth both stand out as places where student democracy is comparitively healthy, while Swansea, another rich university, has a similar democratic culture to that of Glamorgan. It's not a question of cash-on-hand (in fact, Glam SU's block grant, thanks to capital investment, is bigger than Cardiff's this year).
I'd like to put forward the notion that an open, democratic dialogue is the natural state for students' unions, and that when a democratic culture does not exist, it is because that culture has been deliberately attacked. I will further put forward the proposition that when the democratic culture has been attacked, it is to an end that serves the interests of some entity seeking to use students as a means to an end. I will finally surprise nobody by suggesting that in universities, this entity is, by and large but by no means universally, the Labour Party.
Nobody doubts that Labour is well organised; for decades it was the natural home for students (although this has shifted as Labour has abandoned students, and many constituencies are Lib Dem constituencies solely on the strength of the student vote). In effective control of the student movement, it did what any bureaucratic-not-democratic party would do: cement control for itself, at the expense of democracy. NUS nationally, now packed with Labour functionaries, operates a farming system: a promising young android spends two years as a Student Union sabbatical officer, then two years as a VP, then two years at the top of the organisation before being trucked off to a job somewhere in Labour as an MP's assistant.
The fact that this means the ostensible leadership of the student movement has spent up to twice as much time since leaving school not being a student than they spent being a student — and becoming more loyal to the NUS bureaucracy than they ever were to the people they allegedly represent — doesn't seem to matter.
The functionaries use these positions of power to promote the Labour Party. I won't cloud this in "allegedly", it's a pretty clear fact. Here's the outgoing VP FE of NUS Wales, Lleu Williams, giving speech where he takes time out to rail against "Trotskyite & lib dem garbage"
I have to admit it's a little odd to hear us and the Liberal Democrats lumped together in the same sentence; but given that the left (mostly SWP) and the Lib Dems are the only two real rival party-political blocs within NUS to Labour, the Greens and Tories not really being on the stage in any organised manner, it's clearly in the ruling bloc's interest to attack everyone (Williams is actually a Plaid member, mind). Party loyalty, in fact, trumps all; when I attended the Cardiff vote count after the general election, I saw most of the NUS Wales executive there as Labour counters, and some even neglected their paid duties in order to spend time campaigning in the general election for Labour.
Never mind that Labour brought in tuition and top-up fees. Never mind that Labour has created impossible mandates for universities. Never mind that Labour enthusiastically rushed to put both higher and further education funding on the chopping block.
This one-party culture has trickled down, with NUS openly grooming sabbatical officers to be good NUS robots even now. In deliberately encouraging bureaucratic rule, students' democracy has fallen by the wayside. Under Labour control this has led to shameful surrenders to Labour policy. I was heartened to hear at NUS National Conference 2010 from Peter Mannion, president of the Irish equivalent organization to NUS, how Irish students, with the backing of no political party, had organized to fight fees and attacks on education, and won. I was amused, meanwhile, to watch NUS president Wes Streeting trying to contain his embarrassment as Mannion, without so much as mentioning the fight in Britain directly, demolished NUS's Quisling strategy.
NUS wonders why the average student thinks of their students' union as only a bar, a nightclub, and a discount card. They need wonder no longer; this is most of the good they do for students, having abdicated their representation responsibilities!
It is absolutely necessary that students' unions be fighting unions; we are under attack and we need a fightback to defend ourselves. But to organize the fightback, we need student unions that actually represent students' interests; this is impossible if the leadership unions put the interests of Labour, or of any political party, first.
This representation cannot exist by top-down fiat. The only way forward for the student movement is a mass democratic movement; if this cannot be built within students' unions, then students will simply ignore their union and build mass movements outside their walls. If NUS is unwilling to take up the fight, and take it up on the students' terms, then they will simply fade into irrelevance while students sweep it aside.
There will be no fight without representation, and there can be no representation without democracy.
So I wish the best of luck to the hard work being done at University of Glamorgan Students' Union tonight. Ordinary students there are showing they are willing and able to take ownership of their unions, across party lines, circumventing the bureaucrats. If they can keep this spirit up, the problem will resolve itself: they won't need a president, they will rule themselves.