Reflections On Referenda

Reflections On Referenda

I’m faced, in the near future, with a couple of referendums (referenda? referendummies? referendoesthisreallyhelp?) in which I’m expected to vote one way or the other: in, or out. One’s the much publicised and globally observed ‘Brexit’ vote about staying in the European Union. The other is the vote on whether Cambridge University should disaffiliate from the National Union of Students, a vote that’s happened at a bunch of other universities across the country in recent weeks.

I’m fairly sure of where I stand on the EU vote. I think the European Union is about way more than what it can do for us financially, and therefore we should stay, because all the arguments I’ve seen about leaving have been economic. (Or racist, tbh.) Also, I probably want to move to Ireland at some point, so from a purely selfish point of view, it would make life easier if we were still in the EU. But the NUS vote, for all it probably matters a lot less, is proving more difficult.

Plus I have to vote between now and Friday, which makes it a more urgent decision.

The referendum comes in the wake of complaints about anti-semitism within the organisation, as well as a general feeling that the NUS is failing to represent students, and is undemocratic. There’s probably more to it than that, but I don’t understand all of the issues in question. Which is the problem. I just don’t have enough of an opinion to know how to vote.

In my time at Cambridge (which I realise is currently a sort of nebulous concept, since I’m intermitting and therefore not actually there, and if I do decide I can’t cope and don’t go back, voting in this referendum will have been a little bit weird), I haven’t felt the impact of the NUS at all. Granted, I haven’t been involved in student politics, or on any organisational committees. I’ve never had anything to do with any parts of the university that might be directly affected by the NUS. Until recently, I wasn’t even fully aware of their political role, since all I really knew about the NUS was that they allowed me to get a discount at the Co-op and for Spotify Premium.

I feel strongly that anti-Semitism is inexcusable. Leaving aside my Jewish heritage (which I don’t feel hugely connected to, as my branch of the family hasn’t considered itself Jewish since some time in the 1920s when my great-grandmother married a Gentile), there’s the simple fact that all minority groups deserve to be treated with respect, rather than faced with racist politics.

That said, everything I’ve heard about the anti-Semitism side of things has been secondhand. I don’t know enough to understand the full impact of the NUS President’s words, or what they really mean to Jewish students. In some sense, it isn’t my place to have an opinion about it: I can’t speak for a minority group, and if they tell me that the comments were anti-Semitic, then I have to accept that and support attempts to change the organisation that gave those remarks a platform. It shouldn’t matter that I don’t really get it, because people whose place it is to get it have told me that it’s offensive, and as a Gentile all I can do is support them.

What I’m not sure about is whether the actions of a leader, who should only be president for a year, is worth leaving an entire organisation, and whether leaving is the best way to convince an organisation to reform. Is the NUS invested enough in Cambridge to care if we bugger off to make it on our own, or will they just think, “Good riddance, now we don’t have to please them as well”?

I’ve been told that there’ve been similar anti-Semitism problems in the past, and that attempts to change things haven’t worked. I’ve been told that attempts to reform the organisation from within have failed. I’ve been told that the NUS is, on the whole, not a democratic organisation that truly represents its student body, and that it’s been dismissive of any concerns raised, giving only half-answers and evasions when directly confronted. I’ve also heard it said that the NUS is a bunch of idealistic lefties which, frankly, I can’t object to without being hypocritical.

I’ve been told this. I’ve heard it said. I’ve seen people say. And so on, and so forth. Which is where the other problem lies, the other uncertainty — sure, I don’t know if leaving would help or if staying would be better, but that’s not really the main problem I’m having with making my decision. My main problem is that I don’t know anything myself.

Everything I know has been from other people, because for better or for worse, I’ve never felt the impact of the NUS on my life as a student. Maybe that’s because they’re ineffective and we don’t need them. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been paying too much attention. Maybe it’s because a lot of this political drama went down after I intermitted, so I missed it and didn’t bother to follow along at home. The point is, I don’t have enough of a personal stake in what happens to have my own opinion, and I’m forced to rely on the thoughts and ideas of other people.

Especially now that I’ve been told I could still get half-price Spotify Premium without an NUS card — any stake I might have had in the NUS is gone. Because other than that, what impact have they had on me? Am I missing something?

Maybe this apathy, this lack of knowledge, this complete disconnect from the role of the NUS in Cambridge life, should be a sign to disaffiliate. If people who are affected by the actions of the NUS tell me that they’re underrepresented or unsupported by it as an organisation, maybe I should listen. Who am I to say otherwise? I know nothing about this organisation. I think I’ve demonstrated that pretty clearly.

I want to make up my own mind based on personal experience and reflection, but I don’t have any personal experience to base it on. Maybe this is one of those times I should step back and let the experts (or at least better-informed amateurs) tell me what to think, since I’m clearly getting nowhere with trying to figure it out myself.

I just don’t know. Everyone who discusses the topic with me has their own opinion. Everything I’m told is coloured by the perceptions of the people telling me it. I want to make my voice heard and to actually vote, but how can I in good conscience make a decision about this when I’m coming from a position of such ignorance?

Even though one vote probably won’t make the difference, when it comes down to it, I feel a responsibility here that I can’t live up to. I don’t know enough to feel at all confident in whatever button I decide to click (I think it’s a button. It’s an online vote, but I haven’t logged into it yet to see what it looks like). While I know that many people are probably uninformed about elections and other political decisions that they make, it still rests uneasily with me not to be sure about something. Because what if my one vote made the difference?

Ugh. Politics is hard, guys. I don’t even know why I’m saying all this here, on a blog where the vast majority of my readers aren’t from Cambridge or even England. You probably don’t care. You wanted to know about writing or whatever it is I usually ramble about.

I just… needed to say something in a longer form than on Twitter, and this is the platform I have. I’m so confused about what to think, and I kind of just need somebody to point me in the right direction.

Does anyone with a better grasp of the situation have anything to suggest?

2 thoughts on “Reflections On Referenda

  1. I’m helping to organise the affiliation campaign in Durham so I guess I count as kinda knowing what’s going on? I don’t know if you’ve seen the yestonus hashtag on twitter but that tends to have some good reasons to stay affiliated.

    Personally my main concern is the education white paper. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but basically the government is going to ruin and privatise education to the point where you could get halfway into your degree, have paid an extortionate amount, and then have the uni you’re at fail and you’d be stuck. The NUS is the only organisation that stands for students so other than grassroots activism, the NUS is our only real hope at stopping the government at this point. Of course, if half the country’s universities disaffiliate, the government can just bypass all the NUS’ concerns about the white paper and get on to ruining education.

    I don’t know what it’s like in Cambridge, but here and in a lot of other unis, the disaffiliation campaigns have been started by Tories talking about the hard left, the anti-Semitism, etc etc – basically playing into the current politics. Like labour, NUS is having its problems at the moment, but, while we shouldn’t brush them under the rug, we really can’t afford to throw temper tantrums. Which is what I think this is – in 2011, Durham’s union society (debating society which is also basically the conservative association) got annoyed at the no platforming policy and pushed to disaffiliate. We reaffiliated within the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened again since we yet again have our affiliation coming up next year anyway. I think something similar happened at Cambridge.

    Oops that got a bit more biased than I was going for there! Hopefully the campaigns in Cambridge can shed light? We’re not allowed to campaign yet in Durham so I can’t link you to our lot, but they should have a bit of stuff on Facebook and Twitter and things like that?
    At the moment, the trend is that all these campaigns are pushing how undemocratic the NUS is, but in the end they seem to only be winning the low-turn-out votes, which, besides being a sad proof of student apathy that a small group of angry people can win, it also, I think, shows the disaffiliation campaign’s true nature.

    Tldr, like the EU the NUS isn’t doing too great right now, but we need it and should probably just try harder to work on it. I hope that was kinda useful and not just another random opinion? If not, I strongly suggest the yestonus hashtag because that does a much better job of explaining how the NUS actually does its job of being a union than I could. :)

    1. Thanks for that. My concern is that if the NUS isn’t actually representative, it won’t be capable of doing anything on the larger political stage? If it’s not functioning as a union should, can we rely on it to do anything to help?

      I’m concerned about pretty much everything the government’s doing re education (my mum’s a careers and higher education advisor so the white paper and so on is dinner table conversation in our house), but I don’t know how much faith I have in the NUS to do anything about it. That said, I personally don’t have any real reason for doubting them either — again the lack of personal knowledge gets in the way.

      Blahhhhhhhh. So complicated. I know we need at least 10% of the student body to vote for Cambridge’s vote to count, but that’s still pretty tiny. Most of the campaigns seem to be pushing the anti-Semitism angle; Cambridge is quite a leftist uni but that seems to be the main concern here. That said, I’m not in Cambridge and haven’t been since late February, so I may have missed subtleties. I only have FB posts and articles online to go on.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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