Farewell then, Malia Bouattia. The only president of the National Union of Students to earn herself a condemnation from the Home Affairs Committee, Bouattia has been defeated in her bid to win re-election at the NUS conference in Brighton. Her time in charge of the NUS was ended by Shakira Martin, the Union’s vice-president for further education, who received 402 votes to Bouattia’s 272. Malia’s presidency was dogged by scandal. And as deluded as the NUS is, even it couldn’t continue to tolerate a leader who called Birmingham University a ‘Zionist outpost’ and once refused to back a motion condemning Isis, because she thought doing so would justify Islamophobia.
Martin was effectively the NUS top-tier’s ‘Not Malia’ candidate. The stakes in this election were undoubtedly high: one NUS bigwig even tweeted that if Martin’s bid failed, there ‘may not be an NUS next year’. In her acceptance speech, Martin paid lip service to students’ dissatisfaction:
‘The NUS now is more interested in infighting and factions than fighting for you…the change starts now and here.’
So is this really all change for the NUS? Martin is certainly doing her best to talk the talk that she is prepared to shake things up. She told the Guardian in an interview that ‘politics isn’t ready for me…People think Jeremy Corbyn is radical!’. But what her own politics are remains unclear. Martin’s pitch seemed to be a shopping list of the NUS’s more inoffensive concerns (breaking down class barriers in education, for example) with some warm words thrown in about consulting members more on matters of policy.
But whatever she does stand for, many students will be pleased that the NUS is now an inch closer to normality. The Union of Jewish Students heralded the election result as a rejection of Bouattia’s ‘divisive rhetoric’. While Jewish News went one step further; in its headline reporting Bouattia’s failed bid at re-election, it said simply: ‘Good riddance!’. Yet if having a president who isn’t prone to saying dodgy things about Israel is a step in the right direction, the NUS remains as aloof and up itself as ever. Martin was elected by a few hundred delegates, who are in turn elected by a tiny proportion of the student population. Every motion for ‘one member, one vote’ at recent conferences has fallen on deaf ears.
Bouattia was certainly an unpopular president from the outset: her election sparked a new wave of disaffiliation campaigns on campus, with Lincoln, Loughbrough and Newcastle voting out of the NUS. Now that she is on the way out herself, the NUS can try to move on. But the murky issue of anti-Semitism which has loomed large recently was just the most stark in a series of ugly reminders of how detached and contemptuous of its members the NUS has become. From its unhinged campaigns against ‘lad culture’ to the No Platform policy – which was being used to ban Zionists since before students today were even born – the NUS continues to enforce groupthink mentality. It also prefers to censor and reprogram students rather than listen to their concerns and fight for their interests. ‘Not Malia’ isn’t nearly enough. It’s time liberal-minded students stopped trying to save the NUS. Instead, they should bin it and start again.
Tom Slater is deputy editor of spiked and the editor of Unsafe Space: The Crisis of Free Speech on Campus