The NUS has long been a farcical bastion of the loony left. For decades it’s offered a platform to countless obscure and unpleasant causes, an open invitation to a rogue’s gallery of apologists for extremists and a nursery for a variety of career Labour politicians.
But for much of that time it’s also managed to strike a peculiar balance all of its own. Many of those who rise to its most senior post, from Jack Straw onwards, undoubtedly held (or paid lip-service to) some hard left views but they also in most cases served to keep in check the various factions who were so extreme that they made them look almost like Conservatives by comparison. By tradition, several of them have been rewarded for that work with a seat in Parliament.
So you know things are bad when a former NUS president, long accustomed to the unpalatable extremes of student politics, says the organisation is beyond help:
‘NUS is lost I’m afraid. It’s had good leadership from Megan Dunn, but it no longer represents students well.’
Those are the words of Wes Streeting, who led the NUS from 2008-10, and is now Labour MP for Ilford North. In his day, there were plenty of barmy people to be found in the NUS, but apparently it has now reached a state that even he can no longer tolerate.
What has happened to make that difference? The quote above was tweeted in response to the sight of delegates at the NUS conference enthusiastically applauding a speaker who opposed marking Holocaust Memorial Day on the grounds that it was discriminatory to mark one genocide rather than all genocides. It was the eventual and inevitable meeting of posturing relativism with the distasteful willingness of some on the left to treat anti-semitism as an acceptable form of racism.
If that was the only sign of the NUS’ sickness, it would be bad enough. But since Streeting’s tweet, things have got even worse. Yesterday the organisation elected as its President Malia Bouattia, who has opposed a motion urging the Union to condemn ISIS on the basis it would be “islamophobic”, and also memorably condemned the idea of Palestinians being urged to pursue non-violence and peace talks.
What we see here is one of the most unabashed examples of a wider trend on the far left: the increasingly deep sympathy – and sometimes co-operation – between Trotskyists and Islamists, finding common ground under the excuse of fighting “imperialism”. That’s a troubling development – and even more troubling is the fact that in places like the NUS and other tracts of the left’s grassroots they appear to be gaining the upper hand.
Does the NUS matter? Not necessarily in itself – for most students it’s a costly irrelevance (and apparently its new leadership has provoked renewed efforts for several universities to disaffiliate from it). Its campaigns on student issues mostly fail, so its blather on foreign policy matters well outside its brief is even less successful.
However, it does still offer a training ground for the next generation of lefties. With its policies, machine and money in the hands of the indecent left, those tools will likely be put to use churning out more people with those disturbing views. At the same time, the opportunity for others – still wrong, but more reasonable and with a dose of careerism to deter them from the worst excesses – to get ahead is reduced. Where in today’s NUS is the space for the Jack Straws, or Wes Streetings?
With the Corbynites on the rise and Momentum infected with the SWP and other political toxins, this is another blow to hopes that a more decent leftism might one day return. It’s enough to make you long for the bad old days.