We’ll only stay in the NUS if we don’t care enough to leave

Save yourself some time, skip to the foregone conclusion.

anti-semitism CUSU CUSU Council Malia Bouattia NUS NUS disaffiliation NUS let Cambridge decide NUS referendum

I’m writing this before Monday’s CUSU council, and it might be published after, but that’s all right because I know what’s going to happen.

Half of CUSU council will vote in favour of a referendum on NUS disaffiliation, because they rightly believe that if a group of students tells them that they are being oppressed, that they feel underrepresented by an institution, or that they want to be given their say, then it is always right to listen to them. They will never tell a group of students that their response to oppression is disproportionate, since to do so would be against what they stand for and undermine all the rest of their campaigning.

The other half will also vote in favour of a referendum, because they don’t like the NUS. For them, the NUS represents everything they want to be seen to oppose. The NUS means no platforming, it means safe spaces, it means leftism, it means challenges to liberal values, to tradition and to reason itself. They hated it last year, they hated it last month and they will hate it next month, whoever its president is, and whether or not she is anti-Semitic.

CUSU council will vote on Monday whether to disaffiliate from the NUS

Some of these people are also genuinely worried that the NUS has an antisemitism problem, but since they already know how they’re going to vote, this won’t make much difference either way.

So CUSU council will vote for a referendum. Even if they don’t, the Leave campaign only need 350 signatures on a petition to get a referendum.  For context, NUS: Let Cambridge Decide has over 450 likes on Facebook. We’re having a referendum.

Once the referendum starts, it won’t just be about anti-Semitism in the NUS. Pick your chosen student issue of the day, then vote based on that. Everyone else will. This will be a referendum on engagement with student politics, because the only time that any of us ever hears about the NUS is when it does something that feeds the Telegraph/Spectator narrative of the stupid students and their silly policies, and because soon people will start to find out that the vast majority of what the NUS does for Cambridge is in direct support for CUSU, which isn’t itself at all popular with the Leave camp.

NUS: Let Cambridge Decide has over 450 likes on Facebook

So the majority of people who vote in the referendum will vote out. But how many people will that really be? There are two things in this debate more strongly felt than the ideological opposition to the NUS of the leave campaign: the lack of interest most people have in the NUS, and their unwillingness to wade into a fight about anti-Semitism in left-wing politics. Many will choose to abstain, the rest will be too busy revising to notice.

Never mind that the NUS will carry on without us, never mind that the national press (left and right, broadsheet and tabloid) would love to write about how typical it is of Oxbridge to decide that we’re too good for everyone else’s Union, never mind that Malia Bouattia only won by 44 votes and has now become so toxic that she’ll never win so much as a tombola again.

The possibility of our making an active choice to stay in the NUS is vanishingly small. If the referendum result is valid, we will leave the NUS. The only hope for those few people who care about there being a National Union of Students, and our being able to contribute to it, is that the referendum needs a tenth of students to vote to leave for it to count. It is true the Disabled Students Officer referendum achieved roughly double that threshold, but that was on an issue so one-sided that 92% of votes cast were in favour. Not only will this referendum be much closer, but it will also take place almost exactly at the start of many students’ exams. There is a real risk that the threshold will not be reached.

Doesn’t she look disengaged?

It’s right that there is a referendum, because we just cannot ignore the concerns being raised by Jewish students, but its result is almost a foregone conclusion.

The only chance of our staying in the NUS is that most people won’t be engaged enough to disengage.