Democratic Mandate Denied: Accountability and Bureaucracy at #nuszc2013

I’m currently sitting in the Manchester Palace Hotel where NUS Union Development Zone Conference is held. I’m in the bar, a public area, because NUS are currently preventing me from getting into the sessions. There are literally people on the doors, just for me. And this is despite the fact that I am an elected committee member of the Union Development Zone.

Zone Conference is the main democratic body for the UD Zone. As a committee member it is not my right but my responsibility to be here. I am responsible for making sure the conference runs as it should. I am responsible for holding the VP to account. I should be accountable to the people at this conference. None of that is possible if I am not allowed to go in. It’s more problematic still that the person who I am supposed to hold accountable is the person banning me.

What is going on?

Last November I was elected onto the NUS Union Development Zone Committee, the body which is tasked with, among other things:

–          The day to day monitoring and implementation of policy passed.

–          Determine the agenda for the Zone Conference.

–          Ensure that there is a policy development section to the conference.

In the past, the Union Development Zone Committee has played quite a good role in the day to day work of the Zone. Raechel Mattey, the VP for Union Development, sent the committee an email earlier this month with a note at the bottom that if we wanted to go to the conference we should let her know in the next 7 working days. I was on holiday in France at this point and didn’t notice it until after the deadline. I responded as soon as I could to let her know I would be coming.

I was surprised to get a reply a few days later saying that I would not be able to come because the deadline had passed and that it was full. I tried to ring a number of times but had no success.

Why is this happening?

There is obviously a general problem with having a conference, which isn’t big enough to hold delegates from every union who wants to come. This is particularly the case when it’s a democratic event which sets policy and holds the Vice President to account. That’s a recipe for disaster in itself. It’s clearly a problem that delegates who wanted to engage in NUS Democracy were told that they couldn’t come.

But as bad as refusing delegates entrance to democratic events, stopping the committee is worse still. I’m supposedly the elected leadership of the Zone. A big part of my job is to be here. I’m supposedly responsible for making sure the Conference happens – how can I do that if I’m barred from it? And I’m responsible for holding the VP to account – shouldn’t delegates be able to speak to me about that? What if people want to run for the committee? Shouldn’t they be able to ask all the current committee members about it?

I would understand if it was literally not possible to let me in without making other people leave, but that is simply not the case. My attendance at workshops and plenaries would not cause any problems whatsoever. There are plenty of spare chairs and plenty of space. On top of that, I have been told of people who didn’t turn up for various reasons.

If there were limited hotel rooms then I would also be happy to stay somewhere else. But I have also spoken to numerous people who have cancelled their room for tonight.

It’s easy to dress this up with bureaucratic excuses but the fact is plain and simple: If the NUS leadership in particular, said I could attend that would be it. I would go into the sessions, it would cost NUS nothing, and literally no one would have a worse time because of it. I would then be able to finish the job I was elected to do.

The real reason why I’m not allowed in though is nothing to do with the bureaucracy, that’s all just an excuse. I am fairly knowledgeable about the UD Zone and I am very willing to criticise the leadership when they do things I disagree with. If I were to be allowed in then I would probably hold the leadership accountable. And they clearly don’t want that.

What this teaches us about Zones and Zone Conferences?

1. Zone Committees do not function as a thing. They are supposedly a way of getting ‘new’ people involved – which in practice means sabbs. This is laudable, though not really amazing, and very often Zone Committees simply sit there and do nothing, unless the VP happens to like or want to profile and promote particular members of them. Ludicrously, members of the Zone Committee are not entitled to even attend the conference that elected them – and which they are supposed to be in charge of organising – unless they register inside an (in my case) unmeetable deadline. Even if the room isn’t at capacity.

2. Zone Conferences are undemocratic and exclusive. How can we have an event, which is supposed to shape policy and the direction of NUS’s work for the coming year, and which elect members to the National Executive, at which not all unions can be present (assuming that they can all afford the £145 fees for a 24 hour conference)?

So, this isn’t about me – though I have to say that sitting around outside a not-full conference typing this on a laptop has really brought home why some things really have to change in NUS.

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