Sunday, December 03, 2006

Union politics

Someone asked what was wrong with the general meeting held here at Manchester University (student union) a few weeks ago, and I replied, but I thought I'd share it here as well.

I think the word "hate" is a bit strong (I didn't choose it), but I think it's easy to see that the current executive of the union aren't doing their jobs properly.

Did you go to the previous general meeting on the 15th November? There were four motions under discussion:
1. A motion calling for the end of the National Blood Service ban on men who have sex with men donating blood.
2. A motion discussing hatred of Muslims and ethnic minorities.

There were two other motions that we didn't even get on to, by then people had had enough after two hours of rather heated debate to say the least.

Tell me, what has the first motion got to do with being a student at Manchester University? I have nothing against the motion but I don't think it affects students as students. If the LGBT society wants to organise a campaign about it then I think that is a brilliant idea. Other than that, it's not an appropriate topic for discussion.

The motion discussing hatred of ethnic minorities and Muslims on campus is however an appropriate topic for discussion in principle. What I did not like was the pure rhetoric being bandied about by various people at the meeting, such as calling anyone who disagreed with the motion "racist". I disagreed with the motion, and I am certainly not a racist. Name-calling never adds to the tone of the debate and the Chair, as the person running the meeting, should have demanded an immediate retraction or thrown the person out if they did not retract it. I love debating but ruining it by shouting is completely unacceptable.

The way the motion was discussed was polarised from the start. It was presented as an us-v.-them issue. The situation is quite emphatically not that all Muslims hate Jews and vice versa, or that all white people (except members of the SWP) want to deport foreigners.

It is difficult to deny that the BNP are a racist organisation, but it is equally difficult to deny that there are groups of so-called Muslims who are racist or anti-Semitic (meaning they hate followers of Judaism rather than legitimate disagreement with the tenets of Judaism). An example of such an organisation is Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has several convicted members in a number of countries, such as Denmark, where the Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesperson was convicted of distributing racist material. There are extremists in every single walk of life, who hate people of a different religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and a whole host of other characteristics. I don't think that is a controversial thing to say.

What the policy put forward called for was the amendment of the NUS "no platform" policy to exclusively ban the BNP. I do not think this is a good solution. While the BNP do indeed stoke racial and religious tensions they are not the only ones to do so.

The solution, then, is to either ban all groups which peddle racist/etc. material or to ban none of them, where the banned groups are determined by a neutral third-party organisation or governmental body which monitors hate speech in the UK. This is the only fair way to do it. It is not fair to protect some people against religious or ethnic hatred but not others. Such a position in my opinion would encourage religious or ethnic hatred rather than limit it as those not banned could feel a sense of impunity.

So why does that mean I dislike the Union's actions about this. Well, the motion was clearly supported by the executive who are supposed to be representing all students rather than just those who shout the loudest. The fact that the General Secretary spoke in favour of the motion is shameful.

That's not the only thing that is shameful. The fact that the motion was so divisive in the first place is pretty shameful.

Who is going to stand up in the general meeting and say that being racist or hating Muslims or whatever is a good thing? Certainly not me. I think pretty much all students would agree that being racist is a bad thing. They'd also agree that wanting to kill someone because of their faith is also a bad thing. So why didn't the motion just say that? It would have passed quicker than the first motion!

This was my first general meeting. I know a few other people who went along just to see how the Union was representing the students, and they all told me afterwards that all it seemed to serve was for a training ground for careerist politician wannabes. At least in Parliament they are better behaved!

In conclusion, we should be discussing matters which affect students as students, and while a healthy debate is the best thing we could have, deliberately choosing polarising and divisive motions is antagonistic and not helpful in representing the students of Manchester.
Someone also challenged the principle of ultra vires - the principle that only things related to students as students can be financially supported by the union. There is a motion to extend the principle to all general meetings, council meetings and the executive - of which I am not completely convinced of the arguments and am keeping an open mind - but I do think the principle of ultra vires is a very important one. Here's what I wrote in reply:
Now that's out the way, I have to take issue with what you are saying here. Firstly, I don't believe it was Thatcher, it was Major with the Education Act 1994 which so far as I understand it (I'm not a law student) actually required each university to have a representative body for students in the first place. But that's just a minor thing. The concept of ultra vires is an important legal principle and it doesn't just apply to student unions. It applies to all incorporated organisations including public companies, charities and government bodies. It serves a very important purpose of stopping organisations from spending money on issues outside their remit. For example, I donate to Children in Need because I think the work they do is hugely important. However, if they started spending some of that money on campaigning for ID cards in the UK I'd be very upset, not just because I disagree with the idea of ID cards but I didn't give them a monthly donation for that purpose.

In the same vein, part of my fees goes towards the Union because they represent students. I'm happy to be a part of an organisation which supports student issues such as discounted bus costs and no council tax for students in halls (and I think in private homes too, but I'm not sure about this). However, if the Union starts campaigning against ID cards, I would be upset even though I disagree with ID cards because I give my money to the Union because it is supposed to be an organisation for students. If I don't like ID cards, there are plenty of other organisations which I can give money towards (like Liberty, which I do donate to, or NO2ID, or even the Liberal Democrats!). Students at Manchester give money to the Union because they feel it should campaign on student issues. In any other case it just a forced donation towards a unrelated political end - this is why the principle of ultra vires is important to prevent people voting themselves money from the public purse, which is when democracy fails.

I have no problem with people donating to campaign organisations or charities. I do it myself. But I object to my money which I give towards a union which is supposed to support students at Manchester University, being spent on something which doesn't.
Comments welcome.


Will said...

When I was a student in Leeds, it was very relevant for us to have a policy on the blood donation discrimination because the Blood Transfusion Service regularly used on the Union's halls as a donation centre.

Chris said...

That's a fair point; when I gave blood it was on University property. I had forgotten about that, it is relevant after all - though perhaps there are more relevant things to discuss.


Jen said...

Also, you have to debate the blood ban at the union, cos NUS LGBT conference is far too busy debating what to do about Palestine :oP

Dave Page said...

Sticking my NO2ID oar in, identity cards are very relevant to students. People of student age are frequently first-time passport applicants. These are first victims of the National Identity Scheme who will imminently be dragged in for interrogation and registration on the database when they need a passport to open a bank account or go on holiday.

As you know, Manchester Students Against ID will be encouraging the Union to pass a motion opposing ID cards this year, and campaigning within the student body to raise awareness of the risks and costs of the National Identity Register.