After the motion to disaffiliate had been passed at a General Meeting, a statement was released, saying that ‘we could no longer remain within an institution whose democratic failings we feel increasingly threaten to undermine its positive work’. The statement raised several specific issues, including the way in which ‘one of Labour Students’ worst kept secrets is the prominent role of the outgoing Exec in choosing and encouraging a chosen group of candidates to run for positions, with little to no attention focused on encouraging others to enter the race’, as well as the ‘undemocratic culture’ of having a Constitution which is not available online or at the request of members.
OULC continued, ‘We remain committed to fighting for the values that brought us into Labour Students in Oxford and elsewhere, but these wouldn’t be in keeping with our continued presence in an organisation whose democratic deficit increasingly stifles efforts at meaningful reform and improvement.’
But just under twelve months later, it appears that little has improved. In a recent blog post by Jon Chambers, Chair of Hull University Labour Club, Labour Students is criticised again for its democratic failings. Chambers explains how – with one month to go – a venue is yet to be announced for the Conference at which the Chair, Secretary and Campaigns and Membership Officer – the three paid officers of the organisations – are elected. This, he says, means that ‘Labour Clubs will have to spend over the odds to get there – or worse, won’t go at all’. He goes on to criticise the lack of information that is available to members regarding the elections and poor communication from Labour Students. He also states that ‘uncontested elections every year are no coincidence.’
Those who have spoken out have themselves been attacked. The day after OULC made their decision to disaffiliate, Wes Streeting – a former NUS President – tweeted about his hopes that ‘no Labour MPs will now speak at the club’. Mr Chambers also came under fire, via Twitter, from the Treasurer of Swansea Labour Students, John Bayliss. Bayliss tweeted ‘@jonwillchambers For bringing Labour Students into disrepute through unsubstantiated accusations you should resign as chair! #ShameOnYo’.
Others, however, were more supportive of Chambers’ blog. In an exclusive interview, Kevin Feeney (Co-Chair elect of OULC), yesterday said that ‘Jon makes some good points which echo much of what caused OULC to disaffiliate initially. Clearly there are still issues with Labour Students, and the more widely these are recognised and accepted, the more likely it is that they can be properly addressed’. He went on to say that ‘there needs to be a recognition of past failings on both parts (from Labour Students and Labour Clubs), and then Labour Students should take real, concrete action to rectify the democratic deficit at their heart.’
After reading this, many may begin to ask themselves why. ‘Why should I care about this? I’m not even a member of the Labour Party.’ However, Labour Students’ strong links to the National Union of Students mean the democratic failings spelled out above should concern us all.
The Chair of Labour Students holds a lot of sway within the NUS. Indeed, the job description states that ‘the Chair…works most closely with the NUS Group, holding meetings ahead of NEC meetings and assisting with matters related to HE Funding and other student relevant issues.’
This influence – from a person appointed by questionable means – is serious enough, but the Chair of Labour Students also has a role in selecting those that run the NUS. A significant number of NUS officers are themselves members of the Labour Party, and many of these seek to be official Labour Students’ candidates. The Chair of Labour Students is highly influential in this, as they are part of the three-person team that recommends potential Labour Students’ candidates. As recommendation almost certainly leads to being an official candidate, and being a Labour Students’ candidate leads almost certainly to election, the Chair of Labour Students has a significant role in choosing many of our national student representatives.
So it should concern us all that democracy within Labour Students has been found wanting; more so that, after the publicised disaffiliation of OULC, little seems to have improved. With the influence of those in the highest offices of the organisation so fareaching within the student movement as a whole, we should all be encouraging those we know within Labour to make a stand. The democratic changes needed in Labour Students have been long overdue.