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The elections for posts within the National Union of Students (NUS) have begun. There are four candidates to succeed Liam Burns in the role of National President. Much to the delight of media outlets, one of these candidates is an ‘Inanimate Carbon Rod’, a mock candidate run to demonstrate disconnections between students and the NUS. Manifestos allow each candidate to set out their vision for the NUS, but whether that vision unveils actual commitments is not always certain.
Toni Pearce is currently the NUS Vice President for Further Education and Deputy National President, which is her second year in those posts. Her record includes “campaigning on and winning £41m for student parents through Care to Learn” and “winning £50m in bursaries for adult FE student support”. Ms Pearce seeks election as a unifier, accepting that “our movement has been a battlefield”, and claiming:
Under my leadership, we will be a united movement that builds capacity in students’ unions to win for our members.
This vision is supported by direct campaign wishes, such as an “Information, Advice and Guidance service for all ages”, a “single central admissions and applications system for HE and FE”, as “UCAS is failing students”. Also, Ms Pearce claims that “I won’t campaign to bring back EMA – I’ll deliver something better”. Employment and movement building are also a focus for Toni Pearce, claiming that under her leadership, the NUS will “deliver an employment strategy for every students’ union, working locally with small business and trades unions”, and that the NUS will:
Re-establish our links with trades union, not just “shoulder to shoulder” clichés, but real campaigns that change the lives of workers as well as students.
However, there are a number of issues with her manifesto: if UCAS is ‘failing’ students, then it is unclear how widening and deepening its roles and responsibilities would ameliorate that damnation. Also, the new information service and the neo-EMA would increase government spending, but the constraints on government spending will mean that other sections of ‘student’ expenditure may be reduced to compensate. It would be a difficult negotiation for the NUS, and the Pearce-led NUS may have to offer what government expenditures they would prefer to be reduced. It would dispel the vision of movement unification, as the recipients of reduced expenditure would undoubtedly complain. Whilst it is veiled in the language of localism, Pearce desires the NUS to deliver an employment strategy for each and every students’ union, even though those unions would be best placed to formulate such a strategy. Further integration with the trades union may also evaporate a unified student movement, as there is not a broad consensus on whether increased links with the trades union would be beneficial to either party.
Peter Smallwood is part of the NUS Union Development Zone, and wants to “see us going back to basics”. The campaign echoes of John Major’s attempted revitalisation of the Conservative government in 1993, and Mr Smallwood is a member of Conservative Future, which is unusual for the NUS. Smallwood seeks a NUS focussed on all its students, with ‘representation for the 7 million, not the 700’. Mr Smallwood would campaign for every Students’ Union to be a member of the NUS, and further collaboration between FE and HE unions. He also supports “independent Student Media, and an NUS that doesn’t interfere”. Employment also receives focus in the manifesto, with various proposals for campaigns, such as demanding that “the work place offers fair and equal opportunities for all”, and “placements and internships are truly a stepping stone and not an alternative to employment.” Under Smallwood’s leadership, the NUS would aspire for ‘a critical relationship with government’:
When government is wrong we should oppose them. When government is right we should work with them.
This stance is a world away from most other NUS candidates. There has been a remarkable transformation of the NUS from a servile puppy to a rabid attack dog, following the change of national government. Often, the NUS is a chimerical fusion of both stances. Mr Smallwood should be commended for his position on student media, as active involvement by the NUS has directly led to some disaffiliations of students’ unions. His desire for full assimilation of the nation’s students’ unions in the NUS is not ambitious, but foolhardy. Some students’ unions cherish their independence, and even if Smallwood could guarantee certain freedoms under his presidency, once a centralist candidate is re-instated that independence would flicker, flail and perish.
His manifesto is peppered with pensioned clichés, such as “a national movement that opens the door to everyone” and “creating an open, inclusive NUS”. There is also a large chasm between a vision and a policy prescription, and turning the NUS into the organisation that Mr Smallwood desires would be a long and arduous process. It would necessarily require a cacophony of elected candidates of thought and mind similar to Mr Smallwood, which given the NUS’s pathological hatred of Conservatives seems a dim hope.
“The Inanimate Carbon Rod is a cylinder of very few words” leads the manifesto for the Inanimate Carbon Rod, which will appear on the ballot sheet as Sam Gaus, the ‘Nominated Bearer of the Inanimate Carbon Rod’. The Inanimate Carbon Rod was awarded the Worker of the Week at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, in the 1994 Simpsons episode Deep Space Homer. The Rod pledges to create a full nuclear arsenal for the NUS, and 8 million death cyborgs.
Whilst the campaign claims to be fun and mocking tired, repetitive manifestos of NUS candidates, the Rod manifesto states:
As an Inanimate Carbon Rod, it has already done more than any National President in the last 3 years to challenge the agenda of the government. From not attacking student protesters; to not refusing to support the 2010 protests when students needed it most; to not telling the government that it was fine to cut bursaries, it has consistantly [sic] puts its status an Inanimate Carbon Rod above the temptation to sell out and shamelessly promote itself.
Even when it has come to the toughest commitments – like not organising a national demo that ends in Zone 2 – it has been there for you. There’s a little bit of carbon in all of us.
Contrary to the assertions of an Inanimate Carbon Rod, the 2010 NUS President Aaron Porter was not “attacking student protestors”, but denouncing violence. This strain of campaign is conjured thanks to the view that the NUS has become overly sclerotic and bureaucratic. However, people tend to believe that such an organisation would become more aligned with their own opinion if the bureaucracy was vanquished, rather than necessarily representing the wider political beliefs of students. In the episode Deep Space Homer, Homer Simpson says: “Stupid carbon rod. It’s all just a popularity contest.”
Vicki Baars is currently the NUS Vice President for Union Development, and chairs the NUS Charitable Services. Ms Baars was brought to national media attention by encouraging students at a protest to chant “Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top, put the Lib Dems in the middle and burn the f***ing lot!” contrary to calls for a peaceful march from the NUS President Liam Burns. Later, an apology was issued. Ms Baars was also a major signatory also a ‘unity statement’ to “defend” the Millbank protesters in 2010, reading:
We reject any attempt to characterise the Millbank protest as small, “extremist” or unrepresentative of our movement.
The manifesto breaks open aggressively, ‘Fighting now!’ claiming that the government is “currently selling our students, lecturers and institutions down the river”, with “international students scapegoated in the name of racist government agendas against immigrations”. Ms Baars wants the NUS to be a “national anti-austerity voice for the student movement” and “campaign against increased fees, student debt and privatisation”. Under her leadership, the NUS will “fight for greater investment in education, because it should be free for all” and “establish a coalition for education with trade unions, leading researchers and you, our members, to co-ordinate a winning fight.” In Ms Baars’ “collective approach to leadership”, she aims to “work on policy irrespective of whether or not I supported it at national conference” and “run a national ballot to decide the priority campaign for the year”.
The main issue with Vicki Baars’ manifesto is that a staunch and acidic stance by the NUS may not win over the government or the general public. Her politics will certainly satisfy a small section of the public and students, with the Socialist Party website calling Ms Baars “the first left-wing vice-president in eight years”, but it will be drowned by the similar politics of the bombastic trades’ unions. In an election involving an Inanimate Carbon Rod, Vicki Baars ends up the least serious candidate. If her victory comes to pass, the public will be convinced that the NUS elections are occurring in an alternate universe and the NUS will be ravaged by an abyss of absolute irrelevance.
The campaigning for the role of National President will be fiercely fought. The NUS’s recent performance, including hyperactive interference in students’ union and startled inertia on the national stage, means that more unions could disaffiliate, leaving it the NUS with a weaker voice, but still burdened by continuing problems. The manifestos have outlined each candidate’s vision for the NUS, and the time for delegates to choose is fast approaching.