The 'Widening Participation' column aims to bring the views of people outside Imperial to Live! Chris Mullan, President-elect at King's, wades into the controversy to comment on the recent furore over banning student military organisations. You can also find this article on his blog.
This article expresses solely his personal views, and not those of KCLSU.
Racism, bigotry, and good old fashioned contrived left vs right pig-headedness all met in the fiery inferno of UCLU's AGM on the 5th and resulted in the kind of divisive outcome that has led generations of students to dismiss their unions as nothing more than crazy demagogues whose internecine bickering serves no purpose other than to warm chairs.
The debacle followed on from the very heated ULU senate meeting where ULU Presiden Jen Huseman was taken apart for her initial refusal to fulfil the most basic task of a union president, representation of her members. Having realised that the room was clear in wanting a letter condemning the condemnation of OTC and other service groups, Jen constantly reiterated waffle about 'cultural and spiritual reasons' for not wanting to sign her name on the basis of 'generations of pacifism'. But this argument was swiftly dispatched by an OTC group leader who pointed out that these students groups in no way participated in any kind of hostile activities so the pacifism argument was a non-sequiter and entirely irrelevant to the argument.
In the end, and despite some desperate squeaks about 'checking equal ops policy' on Jen's part, the vote was a clear cut demand for the 'part-time' President of ULU to actually do her job, the only dissent being 'usual suspect' SOAS. The UCL delegate to senate, Andy Fernando, was pleased to be able to bring the news of success of this motion to the AGM the following day, and was emboldedn by the near unanimity of other UL colleges supporting the pro-OTC motion.
So what when wrong at UCLU? In scenes reminiscent of NUS conference, or the happenings of some dysfunctional polytechnic Student Union, lies, ignorance and fear-mongering half-truths were flung around to irritate and agitate. Students on both sides of the argument were made to feel like their union was riding rough-shod over their views, and was deliberately picking a marmite issue to stir up bad blood between students.
The result was a tense and worked up AGM where no-one present was there to hear the issues discussed and to vote according to the arguments made. Everyone there knew how they were going to vote before they arrived. Any neutral student would be bewildered as the major component of the debating was slagging off the other side. The AGM had little to do with finding out about what students felt and how their union could represent them, and more to do with which group could mobilise the most angry people to turn up and vote their way.
The resulting mess is what drives students up and down the country from feeling that their union is there to work for them and to represent their views. It's what makes it easy for the people we try to lobby to dismiss student unions as nothing more than frivolous and unrepresentative. It's what makes it hard to convince students to come to us with their problems. It's what destroys a student union's sole source of legitimacy, the trust of its students.
Maybe someday student unions will move away from dabbling in geo-political issues like Israel-Palestine, maybe someday student unions will find the issues that unite students around a common cause, not divisive issues and minority pet projects. Someday, student unions will be the defining positive experience of a student's career at university, and have the prestige and legitimacy they deserve.