All entries for May 2007

May 09, 2007

The N.U.S of today

When I was younger I had a fairly distorted image of students. And to a great degree this inspired me to aspire to going to university myself. Family and friends recounted their experiences nostalgically: inspired demonstrations, generous grants and a powerful student body. I naively conjured a utopia full of hugely intelligent idealists, fighting the good fight and generally having a good time. At the centre of such an image was the N.U.S, the lynchpin of the student movement. Though there are undoubtledly still a few people who mould nicely into the above stereotype, I’ve encountered vast amounts of apathy, and I’ll be frank plain ignorance of the N.U.S’s basic role since coming to Warwick.

I guess a large part of my image was created by the N.U.S’ high-profile status in the 1970’s. Following the election of the then radicalised president Jack Straw in 1968, the N.U.S followed a highly political path. In the 70’s the organization campaigned unceasingly for relaxed abortion laws and gay rights. As it entered the 80’s the organization fought a bitter fight with Thatcher’s administration, many of whom tried to restrict funds and limit the scope of N.U.S activity. Students proudly wore tee-shirts decrying At this point it must have been fantastic to be a student, filled with the passion of attacking the establishment. Even in its early days the organization had a powerful influence: in 1942 it played a key role in mobilizing students for the war effort.

But this image seems to have petered out somewhat nowadays. How many Warwick students could, for example, name the current N.U.S president (Gemma Tumelty)? Probably less than 5%; most of them Boar hacks or members of the Union Council. Even the recent demonstration in London against Top-Up fees failed to stir our apparently apathetic hearts. Held last October, only 7,000 students attended. Is such a state of affairs symptomatic of general changes or is the N.U.S becoming increasingly irrelevant to the students of today?

A short glimpse at the N.U.S website (www.nusonline.co.uk) shows that essentially the organization hasn’t changed much. The home-page is emblazoned with all one might expect: the Admission Impossible campaign against tuition fees, other links promoting the Womens’ Liberation Campaign, the L.G.B.T.U Liberations Campaign, a Black Student’s Campaign and a Disabled’s Students Campaign. A report published last year, and authored by Tumelty, claims that they seek to ‘constantly improve the lives and experiences of students in the U.K,’ and ensure, ‘democracy, equality and collectivism.’ Clearly then, the organizations raison d’etre hasn’t changed.

Or student union has long been a stalwart supporter of the N.U.S. Indeed, the 2000-2002 President was Warwick alumnus Owain James, and the incumbent Women’s Officer is none other than last year’s Warwick Student Union President Kat Stark. And this doesn’t look set to change at any point in the near future. Union President and Gemma Tumelty work together collaboratively on many issues; ‘my inbox has about 5 emails from Gemma today alone,’ Duggan informs me.

But Warwick’s interests are already strongly represented by the Aldwych Group (the Students Union members of Russell Group Universities), chaired this year by Brian Duggan. As the incumbent Duggan meets frequently with the head honchos of the Russell Group to voice student concerns and opinions on developments Recently, Duggan tells me, he met with Wendy Piatt (Director General of the Russell Group) to discuss the impact of the introduction of Top up Fees, as well as lobbying them to extend access to Russell Group universities from lower income backgrounds.

I put it to Duggan that if the needs of Warwick students are already adequately represented by the Aldwych Group then surely N.U.S affiliation is unneccessary? Raising his voice slightly, Duggan answers with an authoritative ‘no.’ ’’If we left we’d lose, office training, welfare services and the ability to helps direct a national movement. What’s more, we’d also be weakening the movement itself.’ Further to this, a report in 2004 (authored by then President Simon Lucas) found that disaffiliation would be financially inadvisable and politically disingenuous.

But the N.U.S doesn’t receive such sterling support from everywhere. Numerous universities, including Southampton, Aston and Glasgow have disaffiliated in the past. Glasgow Student’s Union President Johnny Hardman informs me of the rationale behind such a decision. For Hardman, N.U.S affiliation increases the price of food and beverage prices for students as well as stemming local based political activism which, ‘forced Glasgow banks to change their charges entirely.’

Would such benefits apply to Warwick? Probably not. Lucas’ 2004 report sought to address such issues. Indeed, a hypothetical quote on an individual deal with Matthew Clark Wholesales to provide the Union’s beverages. The result of the inquiry found that under such a deal Warwick would be 117k worse off than at present. The report also found that the University would probably be hostile to disaffiliation and might take away the affiliation fee money from the universities budget- rendering it financially inadvisable.

A frequent gripe of some students is that the N.U.S is unrepresentative of its members. John Collins (President of the recently re-affiliated Imperial College Students’ Union), however, offered me a fresh perspective on this issue. For Collins, ‘the NUS as a body that serves student unions and their officers rather than a body that directly serves the U K’s 5 million students.’ Recently, for example, Collins convened with other Union Presidents and met the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell. Additionally, ‘his year our senior officers have benefited from NUS training, networking events, legal advice, elections support and a channel of communication to the government.’
Perhaps, therefore, the N.U.S has evolved into more of a support-based organization rather than the powerful campaigning force that it once was. Collins partially concurs with such a view, and is enthusiastic for the future of the N.U.S. He asserts that, ‘t is an interesting time for the NUS as affiliation fees have been cut and the politics seem to be moving away from the radical left and towards the moderate centre ground.’
But such enthusiasm is matched by equal cynicism from some parties. NO2N.U.S is probably the most prominent. The group’s credo is boldly stated on its homepage: ‘We think the NUS has failed to get to grips with the problems of student finance, housing, and standards of tuition.’ Amongst their other gripes is the allegation that the N.U.S is a body staffed by aspirant career politicians.

Are these views borne out by reality? Well, at surface value perhaps. A string of Labour politicians (most notably Jack Straw and Charles Clarke – two prominent current Cabinet members) have led the movement. Indeed, 1994-6 President Jim Murphy went straight from his N.U.S office to one in the Palace of Westminster. But this is not exactly a surprising find. Surely those that lead an organization such as the N.U.S with its decision making, necessity for debate, and propensity for passing directives are bound to incline towards politics in much the same way that those who enjoy reading and writing (presumably most people on English Literature courses) are likely to pursue careers in journalism or publishing. And, pragmatics aside, does such a state of affairs really matter? Surely those wishing to pursue a career in politics would want to demonstrate a strong level of competency and management so as not to disadvantage themselves for the future.

But are these cynical views shared by regular students? Are we really that apathetic? I decided to quiz a few students as to their views on the organization. Second Year chemistry student Richard Storr is enthusiastic: ‘I think it’s a good thing that an organization can get together and give students some power. ‘I like the 10% discount from Topshop chips in second year Maths student Verity Fisher enthusiastically. Whether the N.U.S is still a strong campaigning resource or not remains to be seen- but for these students the piecemeal contributions which the organization can implement to make life easier for students certainly seem to make its existence worthwhile.

Regardless of the polemics, the N.U.S seems set to stay; and so does Warwick’s affiliation. It offers a campaigning and lobbying clout unmatched in the student movement- and the gripes (not insignificant by any estimation)- are surely worth the collective power which the organization brings. We might not witness the inspiring scenes of the 80s (anti-apartheid demonstrations for example), but the organizations gains in recent years (the abolition of Council Tax to list but one) mean that I, at least, will always be a fan.


May 05, 2007

The Far Right in Western Europe.

The Far Right in Europe

A few weeks ago we staged the ever-obligatory student house-party. It was a fairly generic affair: cider by the gallon, ear-drum-breakingly loud music and stains on the carpet that we’re still unable to destroy. Yet in amongst the usual predictable shenanigans something happened which really shocked me. No, I’m not talking about the eye-brow shaving, deposit-losing destruction which usually characterises such events. At around 4am, whilst everyone was sitting bleary eyed on the sofa having various drunk-fuelled conversations about metaphysics or the best wine gum flavour, a friend of my housemate (who’d lived most of his life in Amsterdam), decided to share his political views with us. Nothing strange there you might think. Well there wasn’t, until he started outlining his views on race that is; and, no, these views could not be mitigated by his inebriation. He wasn’t parading the regular ‘asylum seekers are stealing our jobs’ style bigotry which I’ve become aclimatised to; rather, he shared his worries that Indians might some day rule the world economy. He, personally, could never subjugate himself to an Indian – it just wouldn’t be right to subvert the racial hierarchy like that. He actually used those words. What’s more, he added, (and to his credit he recognised this as a problem) the far right was gaining prominence in the Netherlands.

And the most worrying thing is that he was absolutely correct in this assertion. In the 2006 elections the P.v.d.V (Party for Freedom) gained 9 seats in the 100 strong main chamber, racking up just under 580,000 votes. The party rejects dual citizenship arguing that it ‘masks where one’s loyalties lie.’ One wouldn’t normally associate such views with the Netherlands, a country perenially associated with Liberalism and tolerance in the popular mindset. Bubbling under such an artifice, however, are some very serious social issues. Following the murder of controversial film-maker Theo Van Gogh in 2006 by a radical muslim these fears were brought to the surface. Some islamic fundamentalists attempted to justify the death, branding Gogh a, ‘free-speech fundamentalist’ who sought to ‘silence his islamic critcs.’ In contrast, many far right figure such as Geert Wilders demanded a five-year halt on non-Western immigration to the Netherlands. In such a polarised and indeed highly politicised climate, therefore, it is hardly suprising that extremist groups gain prominence.

This isn’t a problem confined to the Netherlands either. Indeed, in France the much maligned Jean Marie Le Pen (leader of the Front National) polled over 20 percent of the popular vote in the last French Presidential election. Thankfully Le Pen only gained 11.5 % of the vote in last week’s French Presidential election, but his continued powerful share of the vote is certainly something to be concerned about. To put this into perspective, the B.N.P gained only 0.7% of the popular vote in the 2005 General Election. It was only after a frantic national campaign last time that the French public rallied behind Jacques Chirac, the current incumbent. Amongst Le Pen’s catalogue of reprehensible remarks was the comment, ’”If you take a 1,000-page book on World War II, the concentration camps take up only two pages and the gas chambers 10 to 15 lines.’

Many of these parties don’t just confine themselves to racial bigotry. Amongst Le Pen’s bright ideas for ‘modern’ France is ‘censorship of the arts’, something Hitler keenly purused with the notion of ‘social realism’ (basically painting lots of bland pictures depicting disturbing Teutonic stereotypes.) At the last election the B.N.P suggested that compulsory military service be re-introduced, with those who refused having their right to vote removed. Those ‘fortunate’ enough to complete the military service, however, would be given a standard miltary issue assault rifle- possibly, like present B.N.P member Tony Martin did- to take the law into their own hands (Martin shot dead gypsy intruder Fred Barras at his Norfolk home in 1999.)

It’s important, however, to get the problem into perspective. These parties are not simply one and the same: many of them would probably be horrified to be tarred with the same brush as some of the others The Dutch Freedom Party participates in Dutch parliamentary democracy, and pales in comparison to the B.N.P (who, an investiagtive journalist has revealed, do not seek parliamentary representation, but rather seek to convert britain to a dictatorship.) However, that such parties (to group them together in crude generalisation) are gaining popular support with bile-filled electoral programmes is reason alone be worried.

Nor can we watch comfortably from a moderate paradise in Britain either. At present the B.N.P (British National Party) has 53 councillors and recently came in second at the Bedworth byelection (for those of you with a geographical age of 5 like myself Bedworth is just 6 miles north of Coventry.) They hold 12 seats on the Barking council in East London. In the forthcoming Local Council Elections on 3rd May the B.N.P will field 750 candidates (one in all but two of the Coventry wards and one in Kenilworth.) The B.N.P are no longer staffed by the vacous skin-headed thug stereotype one might associate with this brand of politics. Rather, taking a leaf from the Blair book of P.R they are fronted by professional looking men in suits- something which perhaps explained the optimism inherent in fielding a candidate in middle-class Kenilworth. Cambridge educated Nick Griffin fronts the group, articulating their hate in a fairly eloquent manner. Indeed, In 2006 Guardian journalist Ian Cobain infiltrated the B.N.P, discovering a party far from the skin-head image. Instead Cobain saw a party peopled by company directors and even some teachers. Yet as the attached story shows there remains a tendency for violence among some of their supporters.

The success of these parties in itself is perhaps not something to be majorly concerned about (we are protected, to a certain extent by the moderate implications of ‘First Past the Post’ voting; other European nations, such as Germany have a 5% minimum buffer zone which ensures that these parties rarely get a parliamentary platform) though we certainly shouldn’t be complacent. Instead we should probably be more concerned about what the rise of these parties signifies. Many people have argued as did Boar opinion writer Adam Alston that it is better for these parties to be visible: perhaps based on the ‘better the devil you know’ maxim. They’re probably right, but ‘knowing your enemy’ can only be the start of addressing such a problem.

But what is the solution to the problem? How can these fears be adequately assuaged? Prominent anti-racism campaigner and ex-Superintendent of Lewisham Police David Michael thinks that dialogue is the answer. For Michael, though there is a hard-core of evil at the centre of many of these organisations, many of the people who vote for them, ‘have genuine grievances [...] we shouldn’t fight hate with hate.’ Ex Cabinet Minister and Labour M.P Denis McShane concurs, arguing sternly that, ‘we’re not building enough social housing,’ something which will have dangerous effects. Obviously the government will need to do more to address some of the issues which aggrieve the people the B.N.P manipulate, whilst not pandering to their bigotry. The most worrying discovery of Cobain’s report was the clandestine and complex manner in which the B.N.P recruits and campaigns: the most important thing, then is not to underestimate them, or, indeed, to colour ones vision with skin-head stereotypes.

Students, comfortingly, seem to be at the vanguard of the opposition to these parties. The N.U.S has a Anti-Racism/Fascism convenor, and is a stalwart of the Rise Against Racism campaign. Warwick itself has a powerful anti-B.N.P campaign, headed by Student Union President Brian Duggan. As part if the Unite Against Fascism campaign in Coventry the group has been leafleting the local area, persuading people not to vote for the B.N.P. But all is not rosy on British campuses: there has been widespread press suggestion that the B.N.P has begun to infiltrate certain British univiersities, notably Oxbridge. Clearly then, we must not be complacent: the B.N.P seems to have learnt subtlty- and academic institutions should never see themselves as moderate paradises.

Such parties exploit turbulent times. Hitler came to power as the tremors of the Great Depression were being felt; Pinochet’s emerged at a time of great poverty in Chile. And now is as turbulent a time as any. With continued violence in Iraq, a polarised middle east and social tension in certain parts of Europe, as well as an increasing cluft between the rich and poor, conditions are ripe for the proliferation of such parties. It is the duty of governments and citizens a like to help solve these problems and thereby starve these denizens of hate of any oxygen the can grasp at.

The far right is in some ways much less of a powerful force nowadays than it used to be. In 1974, for example, the National Front- the B.N.P’s predecessor- polled 44% in the Deptford constituency, only narrowly losing to the Labour incumbent. Some of their policies gained eloquent (and consequently popular) support from the senior Conservative M.P Enoch Powell who predicted that blood would run in the streets if the Labour government’s anti-discrimination laws were passed. Thankfully this kind of sentiment is widely considered to be beyond the pale in most of Europe; the resurgence of these parties, then, should provide us with a wake-up call that all is not quite as well as it seems. The Dutch gentleman might not be as much of an anomaly as I first thought.


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