In the news: Helen Aspell

March 23, 2001

Helen Aspell, who is challenging the incumbent Owain James for the National Union of Students presidency, looks set to put up a tough fight.

Next week's national conference in Blackpool will be the first time for some years that only two candidates have stood for president - and Mr James, an independent moderate who has had a successful if low-key year in office, may have a battle on his hands.

Ms Aspell, a former Leeds University student who has been national treasurer for two years, is a supporter of the left grouping Campaign for Free Education and calls for a return to universal maintenance grants.

But Ms Aspell's combination of leftwing politics and personal skills has meant that her appeal is broader than that traditionally commanded by the NUS's hard left. Her candidacy is supported by the presidents of many university unions, including Sheffield, King's College London and Goldsmiths.

One of her nominators, Ruth Clarke, a sabbatical officer at Leeds students' union, said: "Helen Aspell is a fantastic communicator. The NUS is our main medium for communication to government and the national media and, although Owain James has been a good president, I do not think communication is his key strength."

But others believe that a call for a return to the universal grant is a pipe dream - and that although the left may have adopted a less strident, more voter-friendly demeanour in recent years, it has not really changed.

Mr James has proved himself to be an astute leader who will be hoping for another term at the top. But allegations that he is not truly "independent" but rather a Labour stooge have never quite left him, and he may be vulnerable to attack from the left.

Last year, Mr James defeated a hard-left candidate, Alison Angus, by fewer than 100 votes. Ms Aspell has the potential to close the gap further.

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