Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Helen Symons' retirement from student representation

As some of you may know I've been a student officer representing students for some years now. Student politics can at times seem absurd to those looking from outside, but it has its many ups and downs. There are many people involved from across the political spectrum.

Today Helen Symons, the current National Union of Students' national Welfare officer, has posted her last blog upon her retirement.

Helen's blog can currently be found at http://www.officeronline.co.uk/blogs/helensymons/270937.aspx but I've followed Jo Salmon's lead in reproducing it here so that everyone can read and comment on it. (My comments are at the bottom.)

Well, a final blog. I'm actually finding it quite hard deciding what to say. I wrote a six page essay on how saddened I am by the decline of politics in NUS the other day, but then decided no-one would read to the end!

I was never the biggest fan of blogging in the first place, in my view it takes up NEC time that would be better spent doing our jobs. When people moan about not getting replies to emails from NEC, remember, they're probably blogging or writing a report and plan or some other document that nobody will ever read….

I think I'm just going to make a few observations on NUS at the moment, and then say a few thank-yous, then shut up.

Firstly, NUS is not a nice place to work. If you're not in the leadership's pocket, you can forget it. NEC find out about virtually everything last, and debate and opposition are stifled. This year the NEC have been told again and again that we have to show some leadership and make difficult decisions about the future of NUS. Well, if we had ever been given the financial information we needed to do that, we'd have done it a lot quicker.

I've seen NUS from both sides, from being very close to Mandy to being distinctly less close to Kat, and I have to say it's difficult to tell the difference in presidential style from different viewpoints. But my instinct is that it has become more centralised, and that it has become harder for NEC to make their voices heard. Mandy certainly didn't have an inbuilt majority on the NEC, and lost lots of votes, but I never saw her so terrified of not getting her own way that she resorted to political threats. At least Labour Students acknowledge that NUS is a democratic organisation and you can't win everything.

Secondly, I'm sure many of the people reading this will have an instinctive mistrust of Labour Students and factions. Let me just say, that not once has there been a conflict of interest between my role as VP Welfare and my politics. I was happy to oppose the parts of the Housing Act that left students unprotected, and more than happy to criticise prescription charges that leave students without access to healthcare, and under investment in sexual healthcare that means some people have to wait 6 weeks for an appointment.

The reason there was no conflict was because it is my principles that make me a socialist and a member of the Labour Party, and those same principles that make me care about student welfare. I would not have done one thing differently if I had stood as an independent instead of a Labour Student.

I'm not going to go on any more about politics, but please ask yourselves if it's better to have NEC members who are honest about their principles, and honest about organising together. I was in the same smoke-filled rooms as those independent NEC members who got elected on a platform of faction-bashing, and I know for a fact that they did deals for votes. There's no such thing as a true independent, and at least some of us are honest about it.

Enough of all that, anyway. I want to say a few thank-yous before I head off...

First, to the staff of NUS. You are amazing and NUS would not exist without you and your dedication. I want to say a special thank-you to the Welfare Unit and the other staff who have supported me professionally and personally this year – I wouldn't have got through it without you.

To my comrades in Labour Students, a huge thank you.

Ben – I love you to bits, and you have made me so proud this year. You have put up with so much. Whatever you did or didn't say in your leaving speech, I would like to put on record that I am disgusted by the lies that were told about you, and disgusted by the year-long campaign of bullying that you've put up with.

Mel Ward and Jenny Duncan – You two are fantastic and will both do wonderful things. It's been a privilege to work with such strong women, and Scotland should be proud of you both.

JK and 'Woo' – You two have put up with a hell of lot in Wales this year. In case anyone at Swansea, Cardiff or Aber reads this, believe you me, JK is as anti-fees as they come. If you didn't like the result of the Presidential election in NUS Wales this year, then tough luck. Attempting to bully JK out of the job is not going to do it. Thank you both for all your support.

Smith and Jones – Thank you for being my boys on the Block this year, believe me, I know how crappy it is. Jones, you will be marvellous at everything you do, and Smith, you'd better be bloody brilliant as Chair of NOLS next year, cuz we really need you.

Wesley – Big hugs, you are so talented and you’ve been a wee star this year.

Jude and Jimmy – You are going to be fabulous next year too, I hope you enjoy it.

To all my comrades – I look forward to white wine together while you sit and tell me all the NUS gossip next year! The NOLS Office also deserve a huge thank you. You’ve had to put up with me and a General Election, which is quite a feat! Hug – what can I say? Bless you! Claire and Ollie – thank you for calming me down at regular intervals. I promise to sign up to Friends of NOLS asap!!!

A few thank-yous to the people who were NOLSies before me and have helped me get through this year. Mandy, Douglas and Karim – you have all been amazing and I can't say thank you enough.

There have been some people I've enjoyed working with this year, and others I really haven’t (don’t worry, I don't plan on naming them…).

Jo Salmon and Antonia Bance – You’re two of the only people with politics left. You are true comrades and true feminists and it’s been wonderful working with you.

Alan – You have put up with more crap and more bad luck than anyone else this year! I hope you enjoy your life outside NUS. Good luck to Daniel Randall, the NEC needs AWL people to keep it political.

Pav – You are wonderful and always keep me entertained. Best of luck next year and please work with the NOLSies to keep NUS a socialist organisation and a campaigning organisation.

Finally I want to say a few words about UJS. I am genuinely ashamed about what has happened this year. Anti-Semitism has gone ignored and unchecked, and you should be proud of the stand you took. Danny, Luc, Mitch and Jonny, it's been a real honour to work with you all, and I want to say thank you from me and from Labour Students for opening our eyes and our hearts to Israel and to your faith. I hope we can keep working together.

Well, I guess that's farewell then from me. Best of luck to the new NEC, and I hope you remember what NUS is for, because I think some people have forgotten. Don't let it take another step to the right, because that's not the NUS we all know and love. If anyone wants to stay in touch, my email will be helensymons@yahoo.com and once I've sorted a new mobile out I'll be happy to distribute the number (to some of you!).

Byeeeeeee. X x x

The NUS and students' unions in general can be an extremely bitchy place at times, so it may surprise some to learn that there is a lot of genuine respect for many. Almost everyone who stands for the NUS National Executive Committee knows that they are putting themselves up for a nightmare.

There's quite a bit of Helen's blog that I don't agree with, but it wouldn't be fair to post a point by point response when she has already said this is her last posting. However whilst I agree that there is nothing wrong with a student officer holding political opinions and acting on them - indeed to the contrary this often makes for many of the best - I do think that Labour Students are now experiencing a deserved backlash that has been building up for years. Maybe it's my age, but I know people who can remember the years when NUS was run by people like Jim Murphy, Lorna Fitsimmons and Stephen Twigg - until recently all three were Labour MPs - when NUS often seemed to be acting against the student interest. The abandonment of the opposition to abolishing student grants (the justification given was that this would fill the funding gap in Higher Education and so tuition fees would never be introduced!!!), the welcoming of the introduction of tuition fees and, more recently, the weak fight against top-up fees (on the day of the crucial vote some actions by the NUS leadership were close to surrender when they could have swayed the three MPs necessary) have all sewn a lot of distrust of Labour Students. It is a pity that Helen was the one holding the baby at the point when the backlash came in force.

More widely a culture has developed that "political" is bad - I remember one person who was a students' union President (Alix Wolverson at Kent 2001-2002) who was very proud to proclaim they "didn't do politics" despite holding the most political post of an organisation that is by its nature political. It is a worrying sign when some of the most educated people in the country are turning their back on "politics" as being able to solve the problems that affect ordinary students. Apathy is a worrying disease that is sapping credibility and somehow something needs to be done to turn it around. Those who have the ideas might want to try them in the sudent movement and see if they can harness the energies there as a first step...

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