Party games and curries with Derek Draper

July 31, 1998

NUS must continue its shift away from the shackles of the Labour party if it is to serve students properly, argues Lembit Opik

I HAve got two things in common with the lobbyist and former Labour activist Derek Draper. We both went for curries in the Golden Bengal in Newcastle upon Tyne about ten years ago and we both had a shot at student politics.

At that time I stood on an "independent" ticket, though I worked pretty closely with the Liberal Democrats. As a student Derek Draper was in with Labour, but "a man of independent action". I am a paid-up Lib Dem MP now, but little else has changed.

We did different things in politics. I earned the distinction of being the only person to be runner-up for national president of the National Union of Students (then controlled by the National Organisation of Labour Students) for two years running. I did spend a couple of years on NUS committees, including the executive. That is when I first developed strong views about the power of political parties within the NUS.

While I was standing for election, Derek was being a backroom boy. Through him, and others, the NUS was an extension of the Labour party's headquarters in Walworth Road. The party line reigned supreme.

What really wound me up about the National Organisation of Labour Students was its apparent opposition to any thought of pluralism. NOLS had to be in charge. At that time any power-sharing in the NUS was about as likely as Germany's re-unification. As an independent I was regarded as a weirdo who got in on the funny-name vote. Nevertheless, as with new Labour in 1997, the NOLS strategy in the 1980s was very successful. A winning election machine at NUS conferences, NOLS ensured Labour ruled the roost.

During my term on the NUS executive, I came to realise the importance of some reforms to the election system. In fact, my one lasting contribution to the NUS was the creation of a proportionally elected "block of 12" executive members, replacing smaller blocks of three, four and five, making it harder for Labour to control who was elected to the union's executive. NOLS would get its fair share, but no more.

What I never did, nor really tried to do, was cut the umbilical link between Labour student activists and the mother ship. My complaint did not relate to student politicians with party labels, rather, it was about the NUS being a mouthpiece for the Labour party instead of the voice of students. I felt students deserved an independent voice, not a scripted one.

I still follow the NUS closely. With the election of a Labour government, the strains within NUS Labour groupings have started to show. The tuition fees issue opened a Pandora's Box. Labour student leaders had to balance the demands of party loyalty against the danger of censure by the membership. By some miracle, the astute Douglas Trainer, who has just finished his term as NUS president, did a political escape act worthy of Houdini.

His successor, Andrew Pakes, has the same challenge. He governs an NUS with a more diverse executive. He is going to have to co-operate with different political groupings. This means the Labour line will not always be the NUS line.

So, in many ways, the NUS of 1998 is becoming the NUS some of us tried to create in 1988 - a more pluralist one. It still offers good prospects for eager student politicians, but requires them to work together in a way not demanded in Parliament. Those who become MPs from the current generation of student politicians are likely to possess pluralist credentials which were not needed a decade ago.

I do not think there are any particular lessons to be learned about student politics regarding Derek Draper's recent difficulties. I would say his ability to stitch up deals in NUS showed he was rather more "pragmatic" than me, and his strategy more risky. He was simply a ruthless political operator, which in itself is not a crime, and he knew where he wanted to go.

In the NUS, as in Parliament, ruthless operators only deserve grief if they cheat the system. In the same way, parties deserve grief if they seek to control the NUS with an iron fist. Even so, the student body politic will carry on feeding the parties with players, and that is something to encourage. Given the climate in the NUS today, it could well produce pluralist thinkers, adjusted to the new order of proportional representation.

In the final analysis, if the NUS needs reform, it is to make sure that, while parties have every right to play the game, the union displays a primary responsibility to its membership. Perhaps that means a reform of attitude. Perhaps the real victory from the tuition fees debate needs to be the acceptance in the NUS that parties come second, and students first.

Lembit Opik is Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire.

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