Elections and boycotts at Leeds University Union

The morning of February 17th 2017 saw two headlines concerning the Leeds University Union executive (LUU exec) in the local student press.

The first bemoaned the year on year decline in turnout for the elections that see students run for sabbatical positions as union officers in the LUU exec (http://www.thegryphon.co.uk/2017/02/17/leadership-race-turnout-decreases/). This comes at the end of an election week where the Union has offered the chance to win prizes – including £50 in cash, free printer credits, and free tickets to a popular Union-run club night – as incentives.

The second saw the outgoing executive encourage students to ignore the National Union of Students’ (NUS) call to boycott the National Student Survey (NSS) (http://www.thegryphon.co.uk/2017/02/17/student-exec-refuse-to-back-nss-boycott/). The call to boycott the NSS, which graduating students are asked to fill out to describe their experience at university, was made by the NUS after it was voted on at conference as it is believed that it will be used by the government to justify further increases and fees and their widely-criticised Teaching Excellence Framework.

The LUU exec justified this decision – which they have taken in collaboration with the university’s vice-chancellor and with no consultation with the student body – on the basis that they “do not believe a boycott will have the desired impact on the government changes to Higher Education” and that it will “fracture the strong relationship and standing” they have with the university which allows them to “represent students effectively”. This decision was particularly influenced by the fact that the Union will soon be renegotiating the “block grant” that they receive from the University which is their main source of funding.

This is true, but it is most certainly not a reason to break the boycott. Despite the limitations of the tactic, it should be wholeheartedly supported alongside the pushing for the NUS to advocate militant action between staff and students. If used properly, it could be a stepping stone to a far more radical campaign to fight privatisation on campus and capitalism as a whole.

In any case, the weaknesses of the boycott don’t justify cosying up to the university management. The reasoning seems especially farcical given the university has frequently refused to listen to the democratically reached demands of the student body on a number of issues, including divesting from fossil fuels, keeping BAE Systems off campus, and twinning with a Palestinian University.

Ultimately, the exec’s collaboration with management and falling participation in the Union are two interlinked phenomena. The declining participation of students in elections on campus can be explained by the fact that they ultimately feel disconnected from their Union and from the student movement as a whole. This is precisely because of the failure of their elected officers to carry out even the most basic action in defence of students, preferring instead to be chummy with the vice-chancellor.

The past seven years of Conservative rule have been devastating for students. Yet, in a period of astronomical fees, exorbitant rents, and a crushing cost of living, elections to the LUU exec have descended into farce. Instead of campaigns that raise concrete political demands, they are centred around attempts to go viral with campaign videos and empty slogans. Here are a selection from recent years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vi6tAlE8oU || https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTxe8wTTKb4 || https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSGbM9XDWQE

The elections to the union executive have been diluted of political content to the point where they hold no real meaning for students – they have become Mickey Mouse elections. One third year economics student I spoke to had no idea the elections were for a serious sabbatical post as the campaigns themselves did not reflect this.

This is not to say LUU is an entirely apolitical organisation, and that the exec officers haven’t used their posts to try and achieve concrete change. One such example in recent years is the “Why is my Curriculum White?” campaign which mobilised huge interest and support on campus, demonstrating the popularity of an active and political union among students.

However, LUU is not immune from the vicissitudes of the wider student movement, where we see a fierce battle between the Left and Right of the NUS over the direction of the student movement. The former want to the student movement to take a more radical turn, whereas the latter want an apolitical NUS and are unashamedly resorting to bureaucratic manoeuvres in order to achieve this. On a national level, this has seen attempts to prevent the boycott through bureaucratic “risk assessments” around the action.

On a local level – in Leeds at least – this has seen the exec claim that the NUS position is not their default position. The union has attempted to dress this up in a democratic façade, arguing that because no student at the university has successfully passed a motion regarding the NSS Boycott, they are justified in going behind the backs of their students in siding with the university management. Further, they suggest that feedback from school reps indicates there is no appetite for a boycott, despite having made no effort to publicise the boycott or explain the decision to boycott to the wider student population.

The MSF firstly calls on all student unions up and down the country to support the boycott, and for them to make every effort to publicise it. Additionally, we encourage students in Leeds and across the country to support the boycott, but also to call on the NUS to take more militant action to defend the interests of students. In particular, we should call for coordinated action with Unions that represent workers in the university whose wages and conditions worsen year on year while senior management see their wages increase. Further, we call for the universities to be placed under the control of democratic committees of workers and students – only then will we see the needs and demands of students and staffs given primacy over profit.

by Harvey Dodds, Leeds Marxists