The NUS National Conference runs from Tuesday 25th to Thursday 27th April, after which the historic union’s new leader will be announced. Last year, several student unions voted to disaffiliate from the National Union of Students following a series of scandals, including fellow Redbrick Newcastle University, whose then-President said: “It is clear our students feel that the NUS no longer represents their views, does not prioritise correctly and is not effective at achieving change. The warning signs were there last year when [13 SU Presidents] signed an open letter calling for reform. This fell on deaf ears.”
Despite sizeable estimated savings to be made from disaffiliation, other prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge chose to keep their ties to the national union, which has been fighting for students’ interests since 1922. Liverpool has not held a referendum on NUS membership.
Current NUS President Malia Bouattia came under fire for comments some labelled anti-Semitic, including proclaiming the University of Birmingham a “Zionist outpost”. This year, Bouattia is re-standing, alongside Shakira Martin, whose policies include setting up a student poverty commission to “expose and demolish class barriers in all forms of education”, and Cambridge-born Tom Harwood, whose politics are significantly to the right of the NUS standard. The candidates’ manifestos can be read here.
Since December 2016, when Harwood stood for NUS delegate, the 20-year-old Durham provocateur has been capitalising on NUS ridicule. To the probable glee of many Durham students, he satirically promised to erect a statue of Malia Bouattia on the Durham campus, “to remind students how vitally important the NUS is”. In mocking tones, as a comic-sans-inscribed “wow” moves along the screen behind him, Tom promises to “make sweeping agrarian reform a national priority”, and to “bring down this government by means of violent revolution”. Despite The Durham Marxist Student calling him a “radical right-winger” and his comical use of memes, Harwood distances himself from the alt-right and all other forms of identity politics. Harwood says he wants to bring the NUS back to a time of practical policy changes – such as council tax exemption, won for students in the 90s – rather than “self-aggrandising policies” that serve to “discredit” students. Harwood said he was running a ridiculous campaign because the NUS is a “ridiculous organisation.”
This strategy appears to have paid off in his election as delegate. “At Durham we’ve had delegates sent who’ve had identical opinions for years and years and years. As soon as I ran my campaign this year turn-out was up 300 per cent,” said Harwood. This momentous increase was only enough to take Durham’s voter turnout to 30 per cent, however. In Harwood’s more recent Presidential campaign video, he gets serious, listing the “silly things” the NUS has been involved with, from banning clapping for the benefit of sound-sensitive students, to pledging to bring down the government and abolish all global borders. His number one pledge is to “fix” the union from within.
However, Harwood’s opposition to current progressive trends in NUS discourse has attracted criticism, with some alluding to the dangers of ridiculing identity politics. Students have openly accused Harwood of appropriating the anti-racism cause, controversially asserting that Campaign Against Anti-Semitism’s support of Harwood’s Presidential bid is “not about anti-Semitism”. A fellow Durham delegate recently favourited a tweet that appeared to encourage the possibility of Harwood “gettting egged at the conference“. On BBC Daily Politics, Harwood drew criticism from Jo Coburn, who pointed out that student campaigns on international issues are nothing new. Indeed, Liverpool’s very own Jon Snow faced expulsion for protesting against apartheid; there are very real questions to be asked about being on the right side of history. If the NUS has swung too far to the fringes of the Left, how far right should it move? This is an important question; Harwood believes that approaching “moderate Conservatives” in Parliament is the only way to stop the entire removal of the cap on tuition fees.
Harwood has also been fighting for a one member, one vote system in NUS Presidential elections. Currently, students cannot vote directly for their President – a handful of NUS delegates from each students’ union are allowed to vote. Speaking at York SU recently, Harwood claimed that the fundamental problems of the NUS are self-perpetuating; “students have unrepresentative leadership which attracts further unrepresentative people”. The Liverpool Guild of Students will send seven delegates to represent all 20,000 University of Liverpool students. One place is reserved for Sean Turner, Guild President, who will be joined by Yasmin Gasimova, Siobhan Griffiths, Amina Olabi, Ananda Mohan, Farrah Talsi and Faisal Yousif.
However, it should be noted that the NUS has drawn criticism from The Guardian as well as The Telegraph, and not all objections are political. Anna Greenham of Durham Marxists wrote: “The NUS is crippled by its own bureaucracy and seems to have no tangible impact on our lives. This is why Harwood’s right-wing nonsense gets an echo.” At the time of publishing, several delegates have publicly endorsed a Tom Harwood victory, and he won the mandate for all Manchester delegates’ votes. However, this last-minute momentum is symptomatic of a split-vision of the NUS’ future; likeminded NUS delegates still make up the majority. As support for Harwood’s cause rises, so does fierce backlash against it.
How likely is a Tom Harwood victory? Thanks to the current democratic systems within the NUS, not very. Unverified Twitter polls appear to show that Harwood’s popularity has risen dramatically in recent weeks, which coincides with his tour of student unions and consistent campaign coverage in the national press. However, only NUS delegates’ opinions truly count. “A vote for me is a vote for subversion” says campaign-video Harwood, as he dances on a “do not tread on the grass” lawn. The question is: how many NUS delegates will this week be willing to subvert?