Thoughts from others at conference will be added here over the coming week.
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31 March 2007 02:00 - Kirsty Patterson
I had been half eagerly anticipating, half dreading conference for a number of weeks. The prospect of arriving 'back in the heart of the student movement' only to be despised as the most right-wing institution in the NUS was not particularly endearing and was a cause of real concern. However, most right-wing institution we may well have been, this didn't stop us from having a considerable amount of common ground with most other unions. I suppose it is suffice to say that right-wing in this case is purely the voice of reason.
NUS sceptics argued that Imperial would not be able to make a difference in the NUS because we were too small and unimportant. I must admit I was worried that this might well be the case. After all we were only nine people sitting on the edge of a room filled with hundreds of other delegates all with considerably more experence in NUS politics and debate. It is therefore with a certain amount of pride that I listened to election speeches talking about Imperial; delegates using our name in their speeches for and against motions and propaganda leaflets spreading our fame even further. Granted these might all have been negative comments but the sentiment was still he same. How sweet that you all noticed! I cannot really comment on the course that conference debate would have taken without us, save to say that self-proclaimed socialist and 'activist' Sofie Buckland described conference in her presidential speech as the most right-wing she has ever seen. The London Region (or rather everyone other than SOAS) really seemed to take us to heart and at one point they were even scalded for heckling a delegate from Manchester who criticised us during his time at the podium.
I came away from conference buzzing. We seemed to have achieved so much and banished a lot of misconceptions. I am sure conference in the past may well have been as appalling as we have heard reported. Only this time it was extraordinarily different. Even some of the more conservative members of our delegation expressed a certain amount of sympathy towards the loony left. I'm sure if conference had gone that badly for us I would have wanted to leave conference floor; leave Blackpool and maybe even leave the country.
Of course it is difficult to take anyone who doesn?t recognise that there are pitfalls in NUS seriously. I went to Blackpool with fingers crossed, hoping for the best, and it seemed that everything went far better than I could have imagined. This isn't to say NUS is perfect. I've come away with more ideas than I arrived with. With a clearer agenda and a better grasp of the problems in my own mind. The major issues that I noticed whilst at conference were the high visibility of factions, particularly Respect with their bright green t-shirts; the punctuality of delegates at the start of the day and after access breaks; the apparent lack of time to debate motions properly or to get policy passed and the frustration of procedural motion after procedural motion delaying discusion and real progress.
In future years I would like to see Imperial demanding slightly more consistency from our delegates. The traffic light system, which council implemented to mandate delegates to vote on certain motions, was excllent and I hope to see it continue. The stance Imperial has taken on not allowing delegates to join factions is also admirable. However, not joning factions did not extend to not wearing tshirts or not campaigning for candidates. Whilst I would encourage supporting candidates in your spare time, or campaigning for factions even, I don't think it is in Imperial?s best interests for delegates to miss voting to campaign or to align ourselves on conference floor. It detracts from our argument and is hypocritical. I hardly feel I can criticise conference for starting nearly an hour late in the morning, due to problems with quoracy, when only five people were on conference floor on time (myself, the chair, a member of the NEC and two FE delegates from Scotland) and only five of our delegation had made it half an hour later.
In some ways I was disappointed conference ended so soon. There was a lot of stuff we didn?t get chance to discuss due to simply not having enough time. Some motions which fell after the guiletine were still very worthwhile, such as better representation for International and Mature Students; campaigning for free prescriptions and liberating canoeists. While having a shorter conference cuts down on costs; prevents more time being spent discussing motions on Stop the War and averts any psychological damage caused by enduring that amount of hackdom over such an extended period of time, I still feel more could have been done. Hopefully the 'no-holds-barred' Governance Review which will now take place will see conference improve.
All in all, I think we can congratulate the NUS for a job well done. At least on this occasion. However, I will reserve any further judgement until next year. It is all very well to come out of a meeting having decided to do something. It is not the decision in this case which is important. It is the action that they take following it.
29 March 2007 23:43 - Ashley Brown
After the encouraging start on Tuesday, conference appeared to go rapidly down hill with a discussion which many found distasteful, including bigoted heckling coming from the Respect camp. The Union of Jewish Students brought a motion calling for the NUS to adopt an EU definition of anti-semitism. Respect sought to strip some elements out so they could continue to criticise Israel, which the UJS opposed because it already allows legitimate criticisms of the actions of the country. An emotive debate followed which headed rapidly towards an Israel/Palestine discussion and left many delegates feeling uncomfortable. Sam Lebens from the National Executive Committee and UJS gave a speech, asking "do I look like someone who doesn?t care about Palestinian children?", to which a number of Respect hecklers showed their true colours and responded "yes". This prompted calls for them to be removed, but no further action was taken.
The behaviour of Respect throughout the debate was considered by most to be wholly unacceptable, with some beginning to compare the more extreme elements to the attitudes of the British National Party, which was universally condemned within the same session and frequently throughout the conference.
Due to the intimidation delegates felt, most regions had several people who did not want their photos to be taken, leading to a ban on photos for all of the conference floor except the National Executive Committee and the London region.
The election for National Treasurer caused a bit of a stir, also sending a message to the NUS: the two leading candidates were just 5 votes apart, with Sam Rozati - essentially a Conservative - coming a narrow second to winner Dave Lewis from Reading. Having a Conservative nearly take a sabbatical position on the NUS is almost unprecedented and continued the running theme of the conference: things needed to change and students were sick of the current state of affairs.
Campaign teams on both sides of Imperial's referendum called for reforms of the NUS, something which was echoed many times on the conference floor. The National Executive Committee, Kings, Sheffield, Bristol and Nottingham were among those other members looking for a wide-ranging, no-holds-barred governance review. The extreme left-wing factions of Education Not for Sale and Respect tabled a number of amendments seeking to limit the scope of the review, to keep many of the structures the same as they currently are.
Fired up by the decimation of Respect's arguments during the higher education debate the day before, followed by their disgraceful behaviour in the morning, the moderate and "right-wing" unions launched what felt like attack after attack against attempts to limit the scope of any review, with motions overwhelmingly being voted down. Time and again the same people in Respect's lime green shirts returned to the rostrum, only to be put down by another speaker.
By the end of the evening Respect had won virtually none of their arguments at all, leading one delegate to quip that they were losing their voice. Responding to Imperial's Alex Guite speaking for reform, an Education Not for Sale representative told conference that "Imperial College does not set policy for the NUS" ? except the amendment we spoke against was struck down, so perhaps in a small way we do.
In the end a motion was put through calling for a full, no-holds-barred governance review, although so much time was spent discussing it that a large amount of other policies were not discussed at the conference.
At least an hour, maybe more, was wasted on procedural motions as time became short. Far more was wasted over the whole course of the conference, but it became particularly bad towards the end. Motions, including those on student activities, were not heard because of attempts by interest groups to have their motions heard. Almost 10 minutes was wasted hearing motions to move other motions up the order, including one by Respect to discuss "Stop the War", as it was the ?biggest political issue affecting students?.
Gemma Tumelty had previously described the reforms discussion as "very right wing" and was disappointed it was such an adversarial process. During her closing speech she attacked the discussion as becoming nothing more than slanging match between the left and right. She said that both sides needed to learn: the left, that money did not grow on trees and national demonstrations were expensive and did not work; the right, that governance reform did not mean changing everything and removing minority representation. Having been characterised as right-wing by certain factions, the Imperial delegation did not take kindly to suggestions by the NUS President that a reduction in minority representation was on their agenda.
28 March 2007 13:22 - Ashley Brown
Sorry for the delay - Blackpool is a bit of an Internet black-hole. Currently in a nice cafe which offers free wi-fi!
Imperial was not officially accepted until our membership was approved by Conference, meaning our delegation was banished to the balcony for the first 30 minutes or so. Amongst a number of slides on show while delegates were entering the conference floor was one title "Imperial comes home", with photos from the referendum.
It is a shame Southampton and Glasgow were banned from attending ? In stark contrast to the financially viable, fighting, effective union which was advertised during the referendum, NUS President Gemma Tumelty gave a terrific and honest speech, describing the NUS as ?a union in a financial crisis? which has ?failed so dismally in the last 10 years?. In what was certainly a re-election speech on a platform of reform, Tumelty continued, describing the ?cruel and disappointing reality? that the national union ?wastes time? and ?squanders money?. Continuing, she stated ?this is the turning point?.
The number of voices calling for reform here is immense, sadly Tumelty went on to state that the NUS would not rest ?until every student [was] a member of a trade union?.
My impression from the first day is that conference is a well organised affair on the whole, which runs smoothly and is mostly far from a farce. Heated debates naturally cause time to be spent arguing over points we do not necessarily agree with, but that is part of a democracy. The debates work really well, with the time spent discussing motions extended as necessary, although this does mean Conference is now several hours behind.
The main contentious vote was on higher education funding, with a main motion and several contentious amendments. The first amendment called for a national demonstration every year until the ?demands? for free education were met, along with a tour of greek universities to learn from them. This was opposed by Edmund Hunt speaking for Imperial, calling for a the student movement to show that their education was worth the money, by putting forward sensible arguments rather than just demonstrations. His speech got a huge cheer from the conference. Sofie Buckland from ?Education Not for Sale? at one point stated that ?fighting in the streets? was the way to win the argument.
Imperial has already become the target of ENS over this, appearing in its "NUS Bulletin" produced overnight, which refers to the "right wing" elements of NUS: Imperial and Kings. In her manifesto speech for NUS President, Sofie Buckland called the first day ?the most right wing? NUS had ever been.
Other important motions passed include:
- reformed (and lowered) the affiliation fee structure
- a motion calling for more support for medical students, including an easy ride for our amendment supporting the rights of current international students to complete their training in the UK.
Reformist incumbents Gemma Tumelty and Stephen Brown have been elected to the positions of NUS President and National Secretary, respectively.
Verdict so far: the conference has managed to keep a lid on the extreme left, even with ICU's old friend Colin Smith directing people from the balcony. Most voices here are calling for reform, with motions on that subject being argued against by the likes of Respect, but ultimately passing (so far, at least).
26 March 2007 23:18 - Ashley Brown
Throughout NUS conference Live! will aim to give you the latest on what's happening - what gets passed and what doesn't, what the reception to our delegates is like and personal views on what's good and what isn't. In the spirit of fairness, all delegates will be invited to submit, with myself and Alex Guite already signed up to bring you updates as and when we can. As you can imagine, you may see quite different views on the events over the next few days.
Whether we achieve regular updates depends mainly on the availability of the Internet connection and time: as you'll have seen already, conference is quite intensive with few breaks.
As this is a blog format new posts will go at the top, rather than be added to the bottom.