Inside the weird world of student politics at the NUS National Conference

This is what it’s really like when you put 1,000 wannabe MPs in a room

In a concert hall on the Brighton seafront, Ali Milani gives a rousing speech to a jubilant crowd. Rhetoric soars about healing a divided union. If it’s not the speech of his life, it’s at least the speech of the week. Some in the room said Ali shouldn’t be on the stage after revelations of anti-Semitic tweets in previous weeks, but by and large his support is easy to spot as great swathes of the audience rise to their feet.

But they’re not clapping. Instead, they wave their jazz hands in the air. Some throw caution to the wind and cheer, which is a rare spectacle.

So what’s going on? Where am I?

Each year, over 1,000 of the nation’s brightest and best student politicians meet for the NUS National Conference to choose their leaders, set the agenda, and squabble. Ali’s is one of a string of speeches over the week, as candidates jostle for election and make their case for being Against Bad Things.

Over the course of my time in Brighton I meet up with a few friends, who never fail to ask the same thing – “but what does the NUS do?After three days, am I any closer to figuring that out?

Luckily they gave all the t-shirts to the homeless

Show your colours

Walking through the lobby as I arrive, it’s clear that I’m an outsider. Somewhere along the line I must have missed the memo about the dress code.

It might seem accurate to describe the scene as an especially polite derby day, each faction proudly clinging to their team colours – orange for incumbent president Malia Bouattia, red for challenger Shakira Martin. In reality, as time unfolds it more closely resembles what would happen if somebody tried to make a stage show out of an accumulator bet, with delegates struggling to keep pace with the outfit changes, rushing to ensure they’re wearing the right t-shirt to support their chosen candidate in each subsequent contest. Conference evolves from the original reds, through to greens and greys. By the end, one candidate’s support is making itself known through fluorescent jackets.

For the time being, this factionalism lingers but doesn’t truly take hold of the place.

First and foremost, this is a gathering of people who love democracy. Conference is bustling with encounters like one I have on the balcony, where those unable to vote are banished. I’m talking to the Bolton SU President-elect and the President of a large college in the South, when she reveals she’s unjustly getting paid pittance for her role. They talk about it and he details the ways she can change it, how he can help, and who else she can speak to. It was a genuinely lovely moment, one which opened my eyes to the fact that this is a BNOC convention of sorts, a meeting of people who care passionately about what they do, and have set out to change things.

They also voted for a new President, Shakira Martin

For all the ridicule it gets as the safest of all spaces, there is stuff that gets done here. Conference votes to approve free tampons and sanitary pads in universities, better action on mental health, and an official commitment to tackle the anti-Semitism that all too often gets swept under the carpet.

That’s not to say the NUS doesn’t indulge in bizarre debates over whether a Vice President should be forced to tweet #LoveSUs weekly, or call for the monarchy to be abolished, but, if you pay close enough attention, work does happen.

Much of the ridicule the NUS receives, too, is often in the line of duty of accessibility and openness. There’s a desire, more so than in any other place I’ve been, to accommodate people regardless of disability. It’s commendable. Yet, there’s a few things that overshadow this. People argue that someone holding up a snake hand-puppet is dehumanising the speaker. The complaints that being labelled far-left is racist just make things seem ridiculous, and I’m still undecided about the jazz hands. It might be more inclusive for deaf people, but it seems to exclude blind people. Conference chairs lecture the hall about the dangers of whooping, yet remain eerily silent when the place erupts to cheer candidates’ names.

Perhaps these contradictions are inevitable when you put a group of teens and twenty-somethings in a room and have them do politics. What seems to be utterly inevitable of any kind of politics, though, young or old, is the factionalism, the divides that form.

Delegates queue to vote for their champion

Democracy reforms lead to all-out war

Up until the last day, the divide was one which simmered under the surface, but as conference drew to a close it threatened to split in half and swallow itself in bickering.

It all came to a head over the week’s blockbuster bill – NUS Democracy Reform. To anyone paying attention, it was clearly obvious that despite debates for it taking place over two days, there would never be enough time to get through all 16 of its amendments and the accompanying for and against speeches. The problem was, if they didn’t get through it all, the guillotine falls and the bill disappears.

For those who had spent well over a year touring SUs and talking to students to work out how to change the NUS, this was unthinkable. To outsiders, democratic reform is deeply dry and unsexy. For the NUS, it’s political Viagra.

Malia Bouattia bids an emotional farewell to her controversial presidency

As speeches ran on, many on the other side of the factional divide were denouncing backroom deals and saying that not being able to vote on each of the ridiculous quantity of amendments would be a bitter, undemocratic pill to swallow. People taking every opportunity to speak and prolong the process resulted in filibusters which put Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory MP who’s so posh it’s almost an affliction, to shame. It may shock you to learn that there were some vested interests. Some who didn’t want the bill to go through because it had been proposed by the opposite side, some because it reduced the power of the delegates.

Time’s running out, and the fate of the reforms hangs in the balance. Up steps Richard Brooks, Vice President Union Development and the architect of the bill. Pleading with the audience to just get on with it and let these reforms pass, he’s cut off by the chair. “This is supposed to be the ‘against’ speech. It seems like you’re giving a ‘for’ speech,” she asks, with mock uncertainty.

He’s broken all convention, and been caught out. He doesn’t care. “Sure”, he replies, walking off stage to a mix of stunned silence and adoring cheers.

Within the confines of the conference, this is a renegade move – brazen contempt for due process and something nobody really knows how to react to. A reprimand is sure to follow.

It gets the job done, though. Conference gets to vote on the reforms, and democracy is saved. Factionalism threatened to derail it, and it came close.

A great open conflict along the Brighton seafront between two young cliques that like to distinguish themselves by what they wear, but war breaks out in motions, speeches, and amendments instead of fisticuffs-en-masse. It’s like if someone adapted a version of Quadrophenia that could only ever be shown on BBC Parliament.

Back in the real world – that place where middle-aged broadsheet columnists assure us safe spaces don’t exist – I try to answer that question asked so often by friends, the mystery of just what the NUS does. Two memories endure. The democratised anarchy is matched only by the quiet helpfulness I saw on the balcony.