London Student

UCL’s NUS Referendum shows why we need real student assemblies – not “e-democracy”

After a week of voting, the results of UCL’s referendum on leaving NUS are in: a 70% landslide for Remain. 628 votes for Remain, 262 for Leave and 13 Abstentions.

As one of the Remain campaigners, this was obviously welcome news to me. The majority was won on the basis of an unapologetically left-wing campaign. We argued that, beyond the NUS discount card, we need a democratic, campaigning union that leads more rent strikes and free education protests. We argued that we need to keep our voice in our national union precisely so that we can push it to do better and go further.

But unfortunately, the turnout wasn’t good enough. Since the threshold wasn’t reached, the vote is not final. The question will therefore be referred onwards to a General Assembly on 5 December – a meeting at which all students can attend, debate and vote.

The low turnout is hardly a surprise.

Reaching large numbers of busy students spread across UCL’s many different departments and institutes is difficult at the best of times. This was not helped by the union officers’ failures to promote the referendum properly, due to the short notice given and lack of resources available. 

But even if it had been successful promoted, this episode points to some of the basic problems with referenda as an approach to decision-making in our student union and others. In fact, the upcoming General Assembly will be a much better forum for this debate – as some of us said from the start.

Twenty or thirty years ago, regular General Assemblies were the lifeblood of most universities’ student unions. Halls and quads packed with hundreds, even thousands of students held rowdy debates about the issues facing them on a monthly or weekly basis. Topics would be argued back and forth, collective decisions made and concrete campaigns launched. These ranged from securing rent cuts through strikes in halls, to being an active part of the movement against South African apartheid.

Why is this a better way to run our union? Surely referenda are more democratic? It’s quick and simple to vote, making participation easy. But casting a vote is only one part of the democratic process, and union referenda make it hard to access any of the rest.

First is the power to determine the options on the table. At an assembly, any student can submit proposals. Students can also respond to others’ proposals by suggesting amendments, if a simple “yes/no” is not enough. There are more than 2 answers to most problems. The Brexit vote should have made this clearer than ever: we are leaving the EU but with zero agreement about how to do so.

Second is the right to a real debate, in which any member gets the opportunity to have their arguments heard by all other voters. Running an effective campaign in a referendum takes a daunting amount of time and energy. Victory may simply fall to the side with more of each. Worse, at UCL we’ve recently seen iPad-wielding campaigners win online votes by pestering and intimidating students into voting without being able to hear all sides, or even defrauding them. At an Assembly, anyone can simply put their hand up, take the stage, speak, and try to win over fellow voters.

And what they have to say won’t go unanswered. Anyone unconvinced will be able to take their arguments apart and debunk falsehoods, and – crucially – be heard by the same audience. For instance, Remainers in the NUS referendum would have liked the chance to tackle the Leave campaign’s inaccurate headline that NUS declared gay men aren’t oppressed (it did no such thing, delegates elected to its LGBT+ conference merely decided that men aren’t under-represented and don’t need reserved posts). We might also have responded to the misleading argument that NUS delegates applauded a speech downplaying the importance of Holocaust remembrance (neglecting to mention that they were a minority that got slapped down and lost the vote – and anyway, our ire really ought to be targeted at those delegates and the voters who chose them).

Finally, the “e-democracy” of referenda go hand-in-hand with a passive, atomised and ineffective student unionism. A vote is empty if it doesn’t lead to some concrete action to make change, and big gains on the issues affecting education, from inadequate facilities to rip-off rents, will require more than clicking a button to tell a handful of union officers to sort it all out for us. The ability of a union to force major change comes from collective action of its members. At their best, assemblies can be launch-pads for action: with everyone already together in the room, the next step to pulling off a protest, sit-in or rent strike is that much closer.

This is why it’s a shame that in recent times, our union’s officers have repeatedly cancelled or failed to properly advertise Assemblies. A proposal from union officers a year ago to entirely scrap almost all of them was only narrowly seen off.

But at the end of the day, there’s only one way to change that and turn around a record of passivity: show up.

See you at the union’s General Assembly on 5 December.

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Ben Towse