Leftwingers look to break Labour hold

February 13, 2004

Leftwingers are expecting to capitalise on students' anger over top-up fees and the war in Iraq to break the 20-year Labour Party dominance of the National Union of Students in March's presidential elections, writes Phil Baty.

NUS executive member Kat Fletcher, who came within three votes of ousting Mandy Telford, the Labour Student president, in last year's elections, has confirmed she will stand again this year.

She said this year's campaign would be bolstered by disillusionment over the government's narrow success at the second reading of its higher education bill and the anti-government feeling in the aftermath of the war.

At last year's NUS conference, her socialist supporters at the Campaign for Free Education forced the NUS executive to adopt their policy of universal student grants paid for through progressive taxation.

"The student movement is fed up and there is a real impetus for change," Ms Fletcher said.

"Students believe the success of the second reading of the higher education bill was the result of a failure of leadership at the NUS.

"I'm very positive that the election represents a real opportunity to change the national leadership of the NUS and end the status quo.

"It's time the student movement went back to its roots and became a more radical, campaigning organisation."

Ms Telford is coming to the end of her second and final term as president.

Union rules prevent her from standing for a third term. Ms Fletcher's Labour Student opponent this year will be Rami Okasha, NUS Scotland president.

Mr Okasha denied that the government's victory in passing the second reading of the higher education bill was due to a failure of leadership in the NUS. He said the union would be lobbying to defeat top-up fees as the bill progressed through Parliament.

Mr Okasha also told The Times Higher this week that he saw no conflict between his role in opposing the government over higher education while standing as a Labour Student candidate.

"I have absolutely no problem criticising the government when the government is wrong," he said.

The candidates will also have to address the financial problems at the NUS.

The Times Higher reported in September last year that the union was heading for a £1 million deficit after the collapse of an internet deal in 2000.

It also faces declining subscriptions from university unions. Southampton, Edinburgh and Glasgow universities and Imperial College London have all disaffiliated. Students at Bristol University last week voted to disaffiliate.

The candidates

  • Kat Fletcher, NUS executive member
  • Rami Okasha, president of NUSScotland and Labour Student member
  • Verity Coyle, NUS vice-president for welfare
  • Sam Dobbyn, a member of Conservative Future
  • Tom Whittaker, NUS executive member and a leader of the Stop the War Coalition

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