The NUS referendum will be governed by short-termist, emotional thinking that will get us nowhere.
In 1981, four senior Labour politicians broke away from their party. The ‘Gang of Four’ believed their party had become too radical – and undoubtedly, commitments to unilateral disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC were markedly to the left of the political spectrum (though rather lightweight and moderate in comparison to much NUS politics). The group also believed the party had been infiltrated, with extremists achieving positions of power off the back of popular apathy and not reflecting the views of their electors as a result. Sound familiar?
The far left policies adopted by Michael Foot’s Labour at the beginning of the 1980s did not reflect the views of the gang of four. They belonged to an inward-looking organisation with serious structural issues. Their colleagues were intransigent, resistant to dialogue and wholly out of touch with the vast majority of the British population. And so they gave up on it.
A decade on, however, the New Labour project was underway and in 1997 the Labour Party achieved a landslide General Election victory. Labour had (for the time being) solved its extremist problem. The gang claimed they had helped to bring Labour to its senses, but in reality this extraordinary feat was achieved from the inside. Party leader Neil Kinnock began the purge of entryist organisations, while a group of talented and charismatic Labour politicians transformed the party’s image and policy.
Two key lessons can be learned from this. Firstly, it is far easier to bring about change from a position on the inside. Secondly, if an organisation is established, it is worth salvaging from the hands of extremists. Many will take issue with the notion that the NUS is a body worth fighting for. However, the NUS is an untapped resource that, manned by better (and sane) operators, could prove an engine for genuinely worthwhile initiatives and student representation – the latter being of particular importance in an era where politicians are reluctant to court the student vote.
The NUS referendum will be framed in terms of approval or not of the NUS as it currently stands. Discussion will degenerate into complaints about the unrepresentativeness of student views, the incompetency of the people presently in positions of power and the outright lunacy of many of its policies – not to mention the anti-Semitism of its President. This is precisely why the NUS referendum is a bad idea. It lends itself to short-termist thinking and will be dictated by emotion. If the Remain campaign fails to make the debate about the potential and importance of the NUS as a body, which it almost certainly will, then its fate is sealed.