Recent elections at Durham University resulted in a victory for Tom Harwood, a radical right-winger, as one of four delegates to NUS Conference next year.

His campaign was built on parodying and mocking the politics of the Left, describing them as “irrelevant, grandstanding, self-aggrandizing, self-defeating” and pledging to singlehandedly bring down the Tory Government, use NUS boycotts to “destroy ISIS” as well as constructing a 217-foot bronze statue of NUS President Malia Bouattia. He said that he was running a “ridiculous campaign” because the NUS is a “ridiculous organisation”.

Out of 16 candidates, this outlandish right-wing candidate received 29% of the vote, comfortably winning him first place. The voter turnout in 2016 far exceeded predictions based on the previous year and at 10.7% this was 300% higher than last year’s elections. This can largely be attributed to Harwood’s campaign.

Harwood is no stranger to Student Union controversy. The announcement of his election took place just two days after the meeting of Durham Students Union Assembly at which Durham Marxist Society were successfully ratified as an official society at the university. Harwood opposed our ratification at the time on the grounds that we are a “dangerous far-left organisation” which he says is “extremist”.

During that debate on ratification a comparison was drawn between the Marxist Society and the Men’s Rights Society which was de-registered last year after it provoked an outcry by inviting the alt-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at one of its meetings. This comparison was disingenuous, to say the very least, as was pointed out by those who spoke in favour of the ratification of the Marxist Society. The aim of the Marxist Society is to increase campaigning and engagement with the Students Union and to promote solidarity and cooperation. The Right, including groups like Students for Britain, an anti-EU outfit supported by Harwood, exist to sow discord, hate and division and to keep students isolated and apart from a wider movement for transforming society for the better. Harwood himself was also one of the leaders of last year’s campaign to disaffiliate Durham Students’ Union from the NUS after Malia Bouattia became President.

Harwood’s election is no reason for concern. Two of the other elected delegates, Ted Levis Coward and Gina Cuomo, are well placed to strive to give better representation and support for minority students. Ted Levis Coward is President of Durham’s LGBT+a and campaigned on a platform of improving the rights of trans students. Gina Cuomo has a wealth of experience representing disabled students through her involvement with Durham’s Students with Disabilities Association (SWDA). Their election and the ratification of Durham Marxist Society demonstrate that Harwood’s success should not be seen as indicative of any mass support for his ideas at Durham.

But his election does raise a broader point about how distant the NUS feels from ordinary students. 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. The only way fight the Right and convince students of the value and relevance of the NUS is to turn it into an organisation that bases itself on the mass of students instead of bureaucratic wrangling, and which puts forward radical policies and campaigns to tackle rising fees, rents and cuts to courses. This was the programme on which a member of the Leeds Marxist society was successfully elected as an NUS delegate just a few days after the Durham elections.

In Durham we need to connect with the real needs and issues that are faced by students and the working class. Our campaigns and debates should be based on radical socialist ideas which offer an explanation for the problems faced by students; a real alternative to them; and a strategy for winning the NUS over to our ideas. That’s the purpose of the newly ratified Durham Marxist Society – we hope to see you at some of our meetings soon!

by Anna Greenall, Durham Marxists

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