On the 5th November, the Durham Students’ Union (DSU) suspended Jack Pearce and Zoe Haylock as co-chairs of Durham University Labour Club (DULC) for organising canvassing in anticipation of December’s General Election, despite apparent warnings against doing so.
In addition, the DSU have warned DULC that should they continue campaigning, they risk the club’s continued affiliation with the Students’ Union. Gareth Hughes, Chief Executive at the DSU, has said that they have been working with other groups ‘who have not applied the guidance fully’, in order to avoid similar steps being taken.
The DSU argued that ‘student groups are all morally, legally, and practically part of Durham SU.’ Therefore, although they encourage ‘educating students to cast a well-informed vote’, as a charity they cannot endorse any particular party or candidate.
This decision was taken in recognition of charity law from 2014, which states that, although charities are able to campaign with political parties on single issues, this is only permissible if it ‘makes clear its independence from any political party advocating the same policy, and does nothing to encourage support for any political party.’
DULC have labelled the decision ‘unfair’ on the grounds that since this legislation was enacted, they have actively campaigned without any interference during both the 2015 and 2017 General Elections, as well as the 2018 European Elections. The DSU, they argued, should ‘be proud’ of the work they do. Since Tuesday evening, DULC’s Facebook announcement has attracted over 100 responses and 50 shares.
‘Student groups are all morally, legally, and practically part of Durham SU.’Gareth Hughes
In response, Pearce, as well as other members of DULC’s executive, attended the DSU’s assembly on Thursday night, to raise their issues in the ‘Any Other Business’ section. They were told, due to rules in the assembly’s laws, that they were unable to do so.
When asked by Palatinate how the process had been, Pearce replied “pretty terrible – they kind of accused me of breaking the law, which was quite upsetting.”
He also criticised the DSU for their conduct: “The way in which they have dealt with us seems so standoffish and aggressive.” He argued that they had shown “no regard for how we are doing as students and as people.”
In Pearce and Haylock’s absence, it was announced that Rida Aslam Azmi and Ellie Bagley have stood in as interim leaders. Bagley commented that this came “at a very bad time with a general election.”
‘The way in which they have dealt with us seems so standoffish and aggressive.’Jack Pearce
DULC’s frustration, beyond timing, is largely due to a perceived inconsistency in the DSU’s approach. “Why didn’t they tell us this when we passed our constitution in summer?”, Pearce asked. The third aim in DULC’s constitution is “to campaign for The Labour Party in local and national elections.”
In response to questions put by Palatinate to Gareth Hughes about the consistency of the DSU’s approach, he responded by saying that their understanding of how they ‘had to apply certain laws and regulations, including charity law, changed over 2019.’ This was in part in response to new agreements made between Assembly and the Board of Trustees.
Hughes maintained that the DSU had made their change in approach known to all student groups, having run five general election briefing workshops, as well as sending guidance notes. He noted that groups who had been unsure had contacted the DSU for guidance.
Other political societies in Durham have criticised the DSU’s decision. The Durham University Liberal Democrats commented that the decision seems nonsensical ‘when the society name pretty much gives away a political endorsement anyway.’ At their AGM on Wednesday Night, they voted to show solidarity with the DULC co-chairs, saying that they felt the DSU were “being harsh on DULC specifically.”
DULC’s announcement on twitter also saw criticism from Han Latif, who co-chaired DULC during the 2015 General Election, and said that this rule was never put in place during that period.