This coming week is the NUS conference in Brighton. Over the course of the event, delegates and sabbs will vote on policy and elect our next group of full-time officers. Amongst the wonkish policy debates and overwhelming scale of the conference – with hundreds of delegates attending over three days – so much is happening that will affect students and their unions. Many of the delegates who attend will be doing so for the first time, and less known is that fact a majority of delegates are not from universities – they are representatives of further education (FE) colleges.
With a short time to campaign before conference, elections are conducted halfway through for all full- and part-time roles in the NUS leadership (except womens’, black students’, and LGBT+ officers). Elections will also be held on the so-called “block of 15” – ordinary students who, alongside elected officers, form the national executive council (NEC). They vote on NUS policy in regular meetings while conference is not in session.
Outside conference floor, it’s mainly about parties, fringe rooms and campaigns. By the time they’ve arrived, most delegates already have some idea of who they are backing and why. There are also hustings and of course a wealth of online material to help them decide, and a number of “welcome drinks” events have already served up some good PR.
You’ll probably notice there’s “slates” forming now; Malia, Sahaya, Samayya, Sorana and Shelly vs Megan, Pricsilla, Robbiie, Richard and Munya. Shakira, running alone for VP Further Education, is probably the only candidate to enjoy support from both sides. A lot gets written about ‘factionalism’ at NUS, but you might notice it’s a little messier than that. Malia’s side draws its support from NUS Black Students’ Campaign, in Shelly also the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and the Labour left.
For the centrists, you have people like Robbiie who are ostensibly Labour Students members, famously from the rightest of the right wing of the Labour Party. These candidates generally receive more support from the Union of Jewish Students, which has played out quite dramatically in the case of Malia v. Megan. Conversely, some in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have backed Megan, despite them being an ostensibly left wing faction.
It goes to show these ‘factions’ don’t have a stranglehold on NUS. You won’t win an election by winning one group of people – that’s why largely there is a feeling that at the start, everything is up for grabs and every candidate is very friendly with (almost) every delegate.
Last year there were a plethora of t-shirts and campaign-specific clothes giving delegates (and current serving presidents) the chance to endorse candidates without even having to say anything. It looks set to be the same way this year.
The main event of the NUS conference is the deliberation on motions. Much like a Student Union general meeting, proposals are submitted before the conference begins, and are comprised of a set of beliefs which give grounds for a list of proposed actions that the motion suggests the NUS take.
Motions are proposed before the conference by the delegates of a student union, and the proposers give a short speech to present the motion. Delegates have to ask to give a speech against the motion, and so speeches for and against are made. Ultimately, the chair can decide when there have been enough speeches, and then asks the delegates to vote for the motion by way of show of hands. Some debates can get heated, but more often than not it is terrifyingly homogenous jargon that characterises the average speech, popular crutches such as the “student experience” come up more widely than they might be understood.
Amendments can also be submitted to change the wording of a motion, adding, replacing or deleting certain parts. If motions are amended, they are then voted on as a whole. Some amendments can change a motion drastically, and can be used to put forward policy that might not have been successfully proposed as a separate motion.
Because of the time constraints of the conference, all policies have been composited by the democratic procedure committee (DPC) – elected students who chair the meetings, count votes, and record the decisions made by the conference. In a meeting beforehand, the DPC arranges – or “composites” – the motions in such a way that the most ground gets covered in the time that’s given.
Motions are submitted to different “zones” of the conference, and each zone has an allotted amount of time for all its motions to be read and debated. After a certain amount of time, an imaginary “guillotine” is supposed to bring an end to the policy zone, writing off motions that haven’t been discussed.
Delegates can either vote to extend the guillotine by 15 minutes, giving themselves more time to discuss more motions. Otherwise, they can vote to defer the remaining motions in the zone to NEC, essentially hoping their reps on NEC represent their views and give their motion a chance. Of course, this means the guillotine can fall before a controversial motion gets to be debated, and the DPC have a lot of control when it comes to what can get discussed. That makes the DPC elections some of the most hotly contested.
The guillotine also means you have the chance to filibuster to prevent motions being discussed. This has certainly happened in previous years, though it’s perhaps easy for some to overplay this when their particular motion doesn’t get to see the light of day.
It’s understandable a lot of people are disillusioned by this – the NUS is a creaking behemoth of democratic procedure. But it’s also the largest democratic meeting of students in the world, and nobody said running a national student movement/union/trade association/media company/clothes manufacturer was going to be easy.