Left wins top NUS post

April 2, 2004

The National Union of Students took a historic turn to the left this week as socialist Kat Fletcher broke 20 years of Labour Party dominance to become the union's president.

In a ballot so close that delegates at the NUS annual conference in Blackpool forced a recount, Ms Fletcher, the Campaign for Free Education candidate, scraped home by two votes.

She beat Rami Okasha, Labour Students candidate and NUS Scotland president, in the second round on transferable votes.

Mr Okasha had a majority of 100 votes in the first round, before the transferable votes were included.

Riding on a tide of anti-top-up fees fervour and students' opposition to the war in Iraq, Ms Fletcher stood for the post on a pledge to break NUS links with the Labour Party.

She told The Times Higher : "This result sends out a signal that the NUS is back as a campaigning force which is serious about taking on the government. The student movement is sick of a leadership too close to the Labour Party, whose political youth wing has not done what students wanted."

Ms Fletcher was a founder member of the CFE, which describes itself as a "militant" advocate of free education.

The group supports free education for all, backed by "a non-means-tested living grant for every student in further and higher education". It calls on its activists to "fight the government, with no holds barred" to defeat "the new Labour agenda for education".

Ms Fletcher, who has been on the NUS executive for the past year and has twice been the union's women's officer, came within three votes of ousting incumbent Labour student president Mandy Telford last year, whose prescribed two terms of office have come to an end.

Mounting support for the CFE at last year's conference also saw the group succeed in forcing the NUS executive to adopt the CFE policy of universal student grants funded through progressive taxation.

Ms Fletcher accused the NUS leadership of ignoring this democratically agreed policy. "Despite clear direction from last year's national conference, the NUS leadership has refused to argue - let along organise mass action - for free education," she said.

"Students are increasingly angry with a government bringing the market and privatisation to higher education, seeking war in Iraq and destroying the welfare state."

In October last year the CFE ousted its chair, NUS executive member Carli Harper-Penman, when she joined the Labour Party.

The CFE said in a statement that by joining Labour Students "she has effectively declared her resignation". It said her "defection marks the culmination of a long political journey to the right".

Ms Fletcher said she would not "be taken in by the flattery of MPs or promises of a glittering career".

Having spent a former union sabbatical in a further education institution, Sheffield College, she is keen to raise the profile of the so-called Cinderella sector in the NUS.

Ms Fletcher has been a leading member of the Stop the War Coalition. She has also pledged to "ensure that the shroud of mystery surrounding NUS is lifted, with open accounts, regular and publicised executive meetings and minutes available to all".


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