My involvement in OUSU started in early 2008 when I stood for the lowly position of Complaints Committee. It was to be my first exposure to partisanship within the movement. I will never forget how when husting, we were asked to declare out political affiliations. Down the line we went; Labour, Labour, Lib Dem, Democrat, Labour,… Conservative. There was a clearly audible gasp from the members of OUSU Council. My first experience of Student Unions and the take home message was ‘you’re not that welcome’. Now luckily I wasn’t put off – there were those from Labour, like Joel Mullan, who saw past my Party, and welcomed me simply as someone who wanted to get involved. I will not forget the kindness that he and other showed to me in the early days.
Things got a lot easier to be a Conservative within OUSU. Once people could see that all I wanted to do was my job, and do it well for the benefit of students, then divide seemed to disappear, and people replaced their distrust with statements like “I’d never vote Conservative, but I’d vote for you” – as if I was some special case among my fellow Tories. I know for a fact I am not.
We now jump ahead to my first involvement with NUS. I was elected NUS delegate in late 2010, on a platform of bringing more openness and accountability to the National Union. When NUS refused to budge on its position, I took matters into my own hands, and set up TheyWorkForStudents.co.uk (TW4S), a hub of information on the NUS that I hope helps people to better understand how they can involve themselves with the NUS and its ‘democracy’. The following story I have never made widely known until now.
Shortly after publishing TW4S, I was contacted by a staff member at the NUS. He informed me that they were concerned that I was going to publish information that shouldn’t be made public, and if truth be told, I felt he was trying to get me to take down the website. I stood firm. However in the weeks after, I received a number of anonymous phone calls, all of which told me to take down the website, to end my campaign for a more open NUS – otherwise my political career would be harmed. I was being threatened. This was a pretty scary moment for me, but I refused to be swayed. Now I don’t know who those harassing calls came from, and I probably never will. But I hope they reflect the environment that those of us who choose to challenge the status quo have to live in.
Soon after, I used a little known student right to attend the meeting of the NUS National Executive Council. My presence was announced by the President as a novelty, and the rest of NEC seemed a little confused that an ordinary student would bother to come a see what they were doing. Scrutiny and accountability are foreign concepts in the NEC. To this day, when I am able to attend, I am rarely spoken to by members of NEC – it is a very insular environment, and hardly anyone makes an effort to get to know me. Anyway, back to my first NEC. Within minutes of the meeting starting, one member began to speak of how the NUS should build a bonfire, with the Lib Dems in the middle and the Tories on the top. Imagine how I felt at my first OUSU meeting, and increase it by several orders of magnitude. I had somehow stumbled into the heart of an organisation where you could joke about the murder of someone along Party lines, and the rest of the room wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
During those early months of my NUS involvement I considered packing it all in several times. I’ve never been one for giving up – but I was constantly questioning how I could possibly make any difference against a never ending stream of derision. Strength came from an email sent to me whilst on the train to NUS Conference 2011, from a Sabbatical Officer at the University of Victoria, Canada. The message closed with “If anyone ever says that your work to open up the NUS is 'damaging' the NUS... always remember... without work like what you are doing, the NUS could be much, much worse than what you may be experiencing right now.” That email, from a complete stranger, remains the thing I go back to whenever I have doubts. Thanks to you Kelsey Hannan.
Since Kelsey’s email, I have attended 3 NUS National Conferences, and while the policies and debate may change, one things is noticeably constant: someone always feels the need to stand up and ask delegates to be more respectful of each other; to recognise that some students are, indeed, Conservatives; and that they have just as much right to attend Conference and be heard.
Back in 2011 at my first Conference I decided to conduct a little experiment. I had heard the rumours of how rampantly Left NUS was, so for one afternoon, I hung my security pass around my neck from a Conservative Party lanyard, rather than the official one we were provided with. There were double takes. There were stares. There were glares. But most strangely, someone felt it necessary to go up to my Student Union President, and inform him that one of his delegation was a Conservative. As if it was something that needed mentioning for the good of public safety. So while others could walk freely, emblazed in their Labour and SWP logos, I was made to feel like I didn’t belong. I won’t even go into the endless speeches to Conference about ‘Tory scumbags’.
National Conference 2013 was an incredible experience, but at times very tough. I was running Peter Smallwood’s election campaign, which was stressful enough, and then, on the first day of Conference, it was announced the Margaret Thatcher has died. This was a tough time; not only had Peter and I lost one of our political heroes, but I, as Returning Officer of Oxford University Conservative Association, has responsibilities to fulfil (Baroness Thatcher was Patron of OUCA). I set about writing a quick statement to be sent to the membership, and also to the Press. I realise that Margaret was a controversial figure, but what occurred next, I could have never expected, not even at NUS Conference.
Sat alone, I quietly typed away. Yet someone sat behind me, who was obviously reading what I was typing, thought it the right time to launch into a speech about how nasty and evil Thatcher was. Now he has a right to those views, and to express them. But to say such strong things to someone quietly writing the obituary of someone who has just died, who they hold dear, is one of the most insensitive things I have come across in all my 6 years of student politics. The vitriol was so great I felt no longer able to remain on Conference floor, and left the building. I was effectively hounded out from participating in the democratic event I was elected to attend. Later that day, a brave women representing the students of Stirling stood up, and as had happened at every Conference before, declared her Conservative affiliation, and called on all delegates to be more respectful. It makes me proud that there are people like Jade around to stand up for Freedom within our movement.
So where am I going with all of this? Well we have a problem, and it’s that our NUS does not reflect the membership it claims to represent. I’ve been doing all I can to counter this. It’s hard to persuade centre-right students to engage with Student Unions and the NUS, but slowly more and more are getting involved. And I don’t expect things to change overnight, or for it to be easy. Politics shouldn’t be easy. But having tried for years now, I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that there is something very wrong within our Student Movement. Something that prevents the open debate we need and desire. Something that prohibits our NUS reflecting the views of the 7 million students it claims to speak for.
This isn’t about being a Conservative. And it’s not about TheyWorkForStudents, or even being a contrarian. It’s about being different from the norm.
How am I to encourage more students to engage in the democratic processes of their Student Union or NUS, if all they will be met with is derision and disdain? NUS says that all its democratic events should be ‘safe spaces’ – I’ve yet to see it myself. I don’t want to be misunderstood – I am not looking for an easy ride, but until the debates can be about policies and not people, how are we going to get the National Union we all deserve?
So I look to all student leaders, indeed to all students, to stand up and protect the right of students to be heard – even if their views are different to yours. Every meeting you go to, from SU Council to NUS Conference, there will be people attending for the first time. Let’s make sure they leave with a sense of belonging – that they had there opportunity to speak, and that they were heard.
My time is coming to an end. I will admit I have become more disillusioned over the years, and disappointed that change was not possible I wanted. But before I move on to the big wide world, I wanted one last try at changing the culture of our movement. It’s time every voice was welcomed and heard. And besides, you might be surprised just how often we all agree.