Only themselves to blame
Let me preface this post by saying that I am no fan of the NUS – in fact, I was a member of Students Against the NUS at Edinburgh and campaigned for the uni not to join the organisation in 2004. My belief was that as a member of the Coalition of Higher Education Students in Scotland (CHESS), the Students’ Association would have a great deal more latitude in terms of policy, that it was better to be in the Northern Services purchasing consortium rather than NUSSL, that the NUS was too large and diverse a body to represent any one section of its membership to full efficacy without treading on other members’ toes and that far too many activists used NUS as a stepping stone to a political career during which they’d then turn around and squeeze the student body they once represented until the pips squeaked if it got them a post on the Labour front bench. I still believe all of those things.
But let me make clear: despite what you are reading from the LibDems and a set of uncharacteristically malleable bloggers (Andrew and Caron, I’m looking at you), the NUS do have many failings but are not responsible for the LibDems’ current predicament.
The NUS wanted to highlight the issue of their members during the election. That’s a good thing.
They did this by means of a pledge which candidates could sign, promising to vote against fees whenever the issue arose. The LibDems were more enthusiastic about signing this than anyone – candidates from opposing parties were more reluctant to nail their trousers to the mast. You can’t blame the NUS for that, and eight months on from the campaign, you can’t suddenly say, “Oh, shit, it was a trap!” It might well have been a trap, but no one forced anyone to walk right into it.
By signing the pledge, the LibDems made a promise that would have been very easy to keep in Opposition, when you can just say “No” to everything – as Labour found out in Scotland in 2007, and now understand at Westminster.
But the LibDems aren’t in Opposition – they’re in Government. You can’t blame the NUS for that.
The LibDem Leadership was less enthusiastic about this policy anyway, but still jumped on the bandwagon. You can’t blame the NUS for that.
They then negotiated a weak Coalition agreement which basically saw a majority handed to the Tories. You can’t blame the NUS for that.
A LibDem ended up in charge of a pledge-breaking policy. You can’t blame the NUS for that.
The LibDems have only just woken up to the fact that their position is untenable, that you can’t say “Yes” to everything and everyone that comes your way just to get elected and get into power, then keep everyone happy along the way. You can’t blame the NUS for that.
LibDem activists now find themselves making excuses and apologies for a policy which they don’t support and which despite their desperate claims to the contrary (designed, perhaps, to re-assure themselves more than others), is not in any way progressive, and makes the predicament of less well-off students (to say nothing of graduates in a difficult environment for graduate employment) even harder than it currently is. You can’t blame the NUS for that.
The NUS is packed to the gills with Labour sock-puppets – this has been broadly established. But they did still protest against Labour when they broke their promise and introduced top-up fees (remember also that a three-figure majority was reduced to just five votes on this issue); now they’re hitting the LibDems for breaking their promise and increasing fees.
The bottom line is this: the LibDems, and in particular the LibDem Leadership, thought they could get away with just telling everyone what they wanted to hear, and now they’ve been caught out.
So let me make this clear to Liberal Democrats: even someone as hostile to the NUS as I am knows full well that you can’t blame the NUS for that.