Only a year after Durham students voted to disaffiliate from the NUS, Durham Students’ Union (DSU) is to re-affiliate.
60.4% voted in favour in the online vote last week, a larger margin of victory than the 51.8% winning total achieved by the ‘No to NUS campaign this time last year. 2282 students voted yes to the motion “should Durham Students’ Union be affiliated to the National Union of Students”, with 1498 voting against.
DSU President Sam Roseveare, who openly supported NUS during the campaign, said: “I am delighted that the student body has voted as I had hoped. By reaffiliating with NUS, we will regain the access to a national voice and will make the DSU’s position stronger.”
Speaking about the result, a spokesman for the “No” campaign described it as “not entirely surprising.”
In acknowledging defeat on their website, the ‘No to NUS’ campaign was keen to point out that it “is notable that the No campaign was entirely run and organised by Durham students”, highlighting the perceived mismatch between the resources of the two campaigns with the DSU taking such an active role.
Questions had been raised both about the timing of the referendum and the comparative ability of each side to run their campaigns. Mr Roseveare insisted that all concerned have been aware of the date of the referendum for some time. “The No campaign were fully aware that this was happening, and we have had this in our diaries since June”.
Concerns were also expressed about Roseveare’s personal and public proclamation of support for the pro-NUS campaign. The DSU President admitted that had students voted to remain apart from NUS, he would have proposed a vote of no confidence in himself.
Roseveare insisted that there was “no conflict of interest”, adding that he believes “it’s highly unusual for Sabbatical Officers not to take a position.”
However, this is entirely the opposite standpoint to that held by Roseveare’s predecessor as DSU president, Natalie Crisp, who said at the time of the previous referendum: “As a student union, we were completely neutral on this. We presented information from both sides. We facilitated both the yes and no campaigns.” She went on to add, “We’ve got to be reactive to what our members want.”
Speaking to Palatinate on Roseveare’s role, Joe Taylor, head of the ‘No to NUS’ campaign stated that, “I do feel this biased the response of many students.” Nonetheless he also described this as “not intrinsically a problem… It is just unfortunate that some of his campaigning was poorly researched and thus inaccurate”.
There were also accusations of foul play, for which the ‘Yes’ campaign paid a nominal penalty of 19 votes for displaying posters in the DSU. There were also claims of NUS leaflets being sent to college pigeonholes.
The turnout was markedly higher than in the previous two referenda, as 21.6% of the student body voted, compared with just 14.5% in last year’s vote which led to the DSU disaffiliating from NUS. Kristina Hagen, DSU Societies and Student Development Officer, said: “I’m overjoyed at the absolutely fantastic turnout. It’s great to see such an increase and it’s really encouraging for the future.”
St. Cuthbert’s Society was the only college in which the majority of students voted against reaffiliation. The lowest turnout was at Stephenson College, where just 5.34% of students voted, whereas Collingwood and Grey made up almost a quarter of the overall turnout.
The vote took place almost exactly a year since Durham students chose to disaffiliate from the NUS in last year’s referendum, which was called after the aggressive actions of the NUS caused a debate about multiculturalism at the Durham Union Society to be cancelled.
Controversy began when two executive members of the NUS sent a letter to the Union Society which seemed to threaten violence if the debate, featuring members of the British National Party, went ahead.
The letter attracted significant criticism with its strongly-worded claims, asserting that the NUS would be “mobilising nationally and organising coach loads of students to demonstrate at your university,” and “If any students are hurt in and around this event, the responsibility will lie with you.”
The debate was subsequently cancelled after the University deemed it a safety risk to go ahead. An internet campaign, known as “Durham University Students for Freedom of Speech”, was set up in response, and attracted several thousand members.
In recognition of the high profile of the case, last year’s NUS President Wes Streeting came to Durham to personally address the issue in front of a crowd
of around 300 students. Although he agreed that the NUS had made a “huge, monumental cock-up”, Streeting’s appearance did little to appease students and a petition was filed shortly afterwards which prompted the referendum.
Despite the fact that a vote had already been held on the issue in November, with 80% voting in favour of affiliation with the NUS, a second referendum took place in March. The result was close, but the majority of students voted in favour of the motion, with 1295 students voting to leave the NUS, and 1217 voting to stay.
According to the DSU constitution a referendum may be called on any issue by ‘any member via a secure petition signed by 3% of the membership’.
As such, purely with the number of no votes in the referendum just passed, any campaign to disaffiliate from the NUS can simply call another university wide referendum. The number of ‘no’ votes was 1498, and at just under ten percent of the DSU membership, this is more than enough to force another referendum.
However in November last year the DSU council approved an additional clause to the standing orders, namely the brand new C 2.1.4 which now states, ‘Only one referendum on any given topic shall be held per academic year, except in the case of constitutional amendments.’ This has not yet been added to the document of Standing Orders available on the DSU’s website. While 12 months at least is thus assured, Roseveare added that he hopes “this decision will last for a little longer than 12 months.”