Former Chair of BULS, John Ritchie, has finished his Christmas shopping, and turns his attention back to real life…
Rather than try to be clever and write my feelings on this issue in some pathetic work of satire, I wanted to write this blog, which will hopefully start a conversation on how best to take forward the issue of Labour Students governance. I don’t expect this all to be a public conversation, in fact, I would prefer most of it went on inside the organisation than on public forums like this. The last thing any political organisation needs is to wash its dirty linen in public, but I hope this can go some way to progressing to a reasonable consensus in our organisation.
I have met some of the most committed, principled and hardworking people I know from my time in Labour Students. They stand for equality, solidarity, democracy, social justice and every thing else I hold close to my own heart. They are aggressively defensive of their views, and they are views that brought me into the Labour Party 8 years ago, and will keep me in the Labour Party. Labour Students have fought for the interests of all students on campuses across the country, whether it be in driving forward liberation campaigns, campaigning against the marketisation of higher education, or, as important as any of those, getting progressive Labour Members of Parliament elected.
Labour Students does not suffer from a bankruptcy of morals, or from ignorance of equality, democracy, social justice and solidarity. Labour Students’ biggest problem is one of perception. This isn’t a problem of our external image, but one of how we perceive each other within the organisation. I proposed a motion to last year’s Labour Students conference, which was an attempt to open our organisation up to its members, and drive forward the organisation in terms of both participation and engagement. Politics is widely criticised for being hollow on principles and action, but all spin and smokescreen in how politicians will allow themselves to be perceived. Bizarrely, Labour Students is the exact opposite – we work hard, we campaign hard, we get things done… but we’re generally seen as a set of corrupt and cliquey bastards. I don’t accept that. But I do accept, in fact would assert, that Labour Students could be so much better than it currently is, and much of that could be solved if we smashed some of the unwarranted perceptions that go with the organisation. The only serious rebuttal to my motion last year was that the governance of Labour Students cannot be reformed by one club. I accepted this, and was delighted that, when my motion fell by 3 votes, I was promised the start of a governance reform process by the end of that sabbatical term.
To start this process, we need to understand why we have this crisis of perception, and we need to remove the barriers that exist between our members, in order to drive the process forward. Everyone in Labour Students, like it or not, is a politician, with values that they want to defend. As a politician, I know that my gut reaction when someone attacks me, my principles, or what I stand for is to defend my stance and then attack my opponent’s. Which is what happens in most internal policy matters within Labour Students. It happened during the most recent governance debate, and I admit part of that was my fault. But if we all paused for a moment to realise what it is we’re fighting for – i.e. exactly the same thing – I think there would be less need to resort to this muscle-flexing. Politically, NOLS and then Labour Students has never been so consistent – I could chose a few minor celebrities from the Labour Students Exec, NUS group, “loyalist” clubs and “rebel” clubs, and not find a thing to disagree on most policy issues. We don’t have whacko trots any more, we have differing views on how to drive our movement and beliefs forward. To hear a significant number of prominent clubs talking about disaffiliating from a great organisation like Labour Students, just because of a lack of trust in procedures, but with no disagreement on principles, is completely terrifying to me.
I could go on writing another thousand words on this without having to think about it, but I’ll try to wrap up by suggesting what I think we need to do. Let’s take immediate steps to put our organisation beyond criticism (albeit unjustified and entirely imagined, but still perceived – and it is the perception that is causing the rot):
1. There was a suggestion that the priority ballot at Council was rigged. I don’t believe this for a moment. But, the priority ballot should be conducted by the steering committee. I understand it was not. Moreover, the constitution requires the steering committee to be elected every year at conference. It was not. Let’s elect a steering committee in line with the constitution, and use it properly.
2. Let’s see if there is a feeling in National Committee for the “committee position” to be stated. If not, let’s just waive it, until the constitution can be changed.
3. Issue a copy of the constitution to club chairs at the start of each year. It’ll take 2 minutes to email, and will get rid of that criticism. PS. Last year’s national secretary, Kiran, supplied me with a copy as soon as I asked for it – I’m sure this year’s will do the same.
4. Get rid of the idea that “office-approved” candidates get preferential treatment and access to information. This might encourage more competition in elections. This was the ethos behind my idea of distributing manifestoes directly to members, but if we cannot do that, perhaps we can supply them to club chairs or something similar.
There are many more issues that I think need resolved, but we can get there by doing just one thing – having a no holds barred conversation on governance within Labour Students. Some ideas will be crazy, some will be unworkable, but some will be fantastic, and if I know my comrades within Labour Students well enough, they will be dominated by the latter. Start the conversation, involve everyone who wants to take part – including National Committee, NUS group, “loyal” clubs, “rebel” clubs, and let’s see what we come up with. At the end of the day, we’ll have lots of ideas that we can fairly and squarely vote on, and put this rotting and divisive issue to bed once and for all.
It has been commented widely that “democracy is improving in Labour Students.” Democracy is not a relative measure, except for in systems that have opposition to it. We know what democracy looks like, and it is a simple and absolute measure.
Let’s get this boring (yet essential) procedural stuff out of the way as soon as possible, and move our organisation and its people forward towards what we’re actually best at – campaigning for a fairer, more democratic, equal and socially just society. We’ll get there not by changing pieces of paper, or the minutes of the last meeting, but by hard work and strong campaigning – but to get to that, let’s put some of those issues to bed.
John Ritchie is former Chair of BULS.