Trigger warning for frank discussion of rape apologists and mental health.
This year was my first NUS Conference. I was a QUBSU delegate, along with five other people- four students and two sabbatical officers. NUS wasn't what I thought it would be. At all. In some ways in was better and it some ways worse.
I'll begin by talking about one of the things I was most proud of. A mass walkout occurred twice, when a known rape apologist and SWP member took to the stage (first for an election speech for one of the FTO positions, and then for Block). Obviously some people could not walk out due to access issues/the fact they were candidates, but I was immensely proud of the fact that we did this. It was cross-party, cross-faction, cross-political persuasion, but I am very proud that one thing we could agree on. NUS made it pretty clear- we don't have time, nor do we have respect, for those who are rape apologists. They have no place in our organisation, and rightly so. I am proud of us.
Another thing I was immensely proud of was the vigil that was held for Steven Simpson. Organised at the last minute by Rosie Huzzard, Sky Yarlett and Finn McGoldrick (the NUS LGBT Officers) spoke at the vigil, as did two members of the Disabled Students' Committee. There was a lot of anger, and there were a lot of tears. It was incredibly moving, incredibly emotional and I'm very proud that it was held.
Now, unfortunately, to talk about the things that disappointed me during conference.
First off, accessibility. My first NUS conference was NUS Women's Conference 2013, and at it, though I found some problems with accessibility, a few members of Women's Committee worked really hard to draft and propose a motion on improving accessibility, and I definitely think that next year Women's Conference will be even more accessible. But NUS Conference was not, in any sense of the word. There were access breaks, thankfully, but the days were very long. I missed debates on motions that I really wanted to be at, simply because I just couldn't do it. The unavailability of water, the fact that there were no reserved seats at the end of rows to facilitate those who feel they will probably have to run in and out for whatever reason, the endless, endless whooping and cheering, even though this was rightly called out by chairs numerous times, was so disappointing. It was also very disappointing to see the leadership actively do this numerous times. I understand people make mistakes, but at Women's Conference, it was noticeable that any time someone whooped, they usually ended up covering their mouth and you could see them telling themselves to try not to do it- at least people were trying. I'm not entirely innocent on this either, and I'm annoyed at myself. A conscious effort by all is definitely needed if we are to improve on this- and not improving on this would be a disgrace.
Secondly, the conscious and visible control that the leadership tried to have over the conference as a whole was not a secret. There were numerous attempts to stifle debate, and specific members of the leadership got up to publicly insult individuals, which I feel is an abuse of the platform. I'm not saying that I necessarily agree or disagree with the specific views that were expressed, just that I think it was an abuse of the platform and was extremely disappointing as a first time delegate to see, especially because it was people who I have had a lot of respect for doing so.
The control shown by the leadership translated into policy debates that resulted in policy being voted/agreed on that I was surprised by. I thought NUS Conference would be considerably more left wing. I would say that for the most part (at least, this is what I thought), within NUS it is an argument between the centre, the left, and the further left, but when a Tory is cheered and whooped at, repeatedly, it begs the question as to what our common aims are. We might not as a conference agree on free education (which frankly makes me shudder), we might not agree on gender balancing, we may not agree on a lot of things, but I thought the one thing we did agree on is that the current coalition is systemically destroying the UK as we know it. But we cheered and clapped for a candidate getting up and insulting other members, and seemed to forget that he is a member of the party who is taking down everything we stand for. Just an observation- though I feel it is an important one.
Another thing is that I didn't necessarily agree with everything 'the left' did, either. I don't think it was conducive to anyone to stand up and call all of NUS 'scabs'. That said, as a whole I think this person made a great speech and I was very proud of her- but I wouldn't be being honest, which is what I'm trying to do here, if I pretended I was comfortable with that word being used. Similarly, I thought the Carbon Rod stuff was funny- but there were a few things in the speech that made me feel uncomfortable, specifically the bit about access. I agree with much of the speech about the demo and its failings, but I don't agree that the leadership pointing out how horrendous the access stuff was when the scuffle happened in the park after the main demo was point scoring, or anything but genuine anger and concern. But of course- some will disagree with me on that. [NOTE: I've talked to people since writing this post, and I realise it was a misunderstanding. They weren't getting at what I thought they were getting at in terms of the access stuff- which is good, because I was shocked at the time, and it makes a little more sense now. I mean, they might not like the leadership and they may criticise NUS but they're also not assholes, which is why I was surprised in the first place.]
I've always thought that within NUS we respected difference, to an extent. The people I have worked with (generally) respect when we differ on things- whether it be policy or campaigns or whatever. We disagree and we put it behind us- in terms of those who are my friends, our friendship is not changed, and in terms of those who are primarily my colleagues, our professional relationship is not changed. But this wasn't the case at this years conference. Insults were thrown about, publicly, on the platform, and that was horrendous to see. I do understand that people will not respect those who do not respect them- I used to be like that. Now, for the most part, I feel sorry for those people (as in, those who do not feel that I am owed respect). I am angry initially, of course, but thankfully I have learnt to let go of the anger because I know that the only person it's hurting is myself. I think that learning to do this is vital if you're going to survive in the NUS/student politics environment, simply because if you didn't, you would have a breakdown- keeping hold of that much anger is too much for any person to do. I feel sorry for people who do not respect things that are fundamental to my existence in that they cannot extend the courtesy to others that others extend to them, I feel sorry that they are so caught up in their own lives that they feel their homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist (or whatever the disagreement may be on) views are fine, even though they compromise and insult the very core of the people they are disagreeing with. I have learnt to let go of the anger, for the most part, I hold towards people like this because if I didn't, I couldn't survive.
Thankfully, I'll end on a positive note. I met a lot of incredible people at this conference, people I would not have met otherwise. Sometimes we met because we were both furious at something that had just been said or passed, sometimes we met because we just happened to be in the same place at the same time. But there were so many people in that room who are fucking incredible, so many people who work incredibly hard in their students' unions and who I would give anything to have working within my own students' union. Vonnie's speech about remembering most of our members are FE and that any attempt for our leadership to push through policy without debate being unacceptable, Stacey and Naomi's speeches about our utter commitment to giving rape apologists the back door, Thais constantly reminding us about accessibility and how important it was, Rosie's speech about remembering our trade union links, Vicki's leaving speech- her unapologetic honesty, her passion and her drive, constantly reminding us that underneath each set of political views is a person, and that no person deserves to be treated the way many people within the leadership were treated this year.
I wouldn't have gotten through the past few days if it weren't for people like Sky and Rosie and Rebecca. They were extremely tough, both in terms of my drive to keep fighting and my own mental and physical health. I want to come back, though. I want to keep working and keep fighting and keep debating and disagreeing and I want other people to want to do the same. But I don't want to see the lack of basic respect again. I'm a member of political parties and anti-cuts groups, but the most important thing in writing this, for me, is my honesty- I am proud of and disappointed in different 'sides' in equal measure, and whilst people may disagree (and they have the right to do so, and I respect that), the least we can do is respect the fact that we have differing opinions. We're not going to get anything done if we don't accept the fact we disagree on some things, and work positively to try and change the minds of others. We bloody love democracy, we do- but I also bloody love respect and common courtesy, of which this conference was lacking entirely.
I am hoping that next year will be better, I am. At the end of the day, I am hopelessly optimistic, and probably have a little too much faith in people. But it is who I am, and I'm unapologetic for that. We need an NUS Conference that is accessible, welcoming, inclusive, and respectful. The vigil on Tuesday night definitely put everything into perspective- and I think many would agree with me on that. At the end of the day, we are all human. And I hope we can respect that. You don't convince anyone you're right when you're spending your time yelling down other people, and you don't make yourself or your opinions look great when you spend most of your time throwing insults.
I am a first time delegate, and this was my experience. By all means, leave comments- but if you disagree, please be respectful. The last thing we need is for the poisonous atmosphere within conference to extend any further.