In Tom Harwood, the NUS faces its own populist insurrection

By Eugene Smith

Tom Harwood is what is known in student circles as a “BNOC” – a Big Name On Campus. He has been President of The Durham Union, his name periodically peppers national headlines, and he has even sat on the BBC’s Daily Politics sofa to tell Jo Coburn how the National Union of Students (NUS) could be made “ever-so-slightly less terrible.”

Now Mr Harwood is running for the presidency of the NUS, aiming to bring the most radical change to the organisation in recent memory. The second-year Politics student presents himself as the antithesis to the NUS’s 30-year-old incumbent president Malia Bouattia, who has been persistently plagued by accusations of anti-Semitism, and also of the wider NUS status quo so divisively supportive of “safe spaces” and “no-platforming.”

Mr Harwood stole the limelight late last year with a headline-grabbing crusade for an NUS delegacy, featuring a caustic, slickly-edited campaign video in which he promised to erect a 217-foot statue of Ms Bouattia and to “defeat ISIS using NUS boycotts”. He comfortably won the delegacy, in an election with a turnout 300 percent higher than that of the year before.

For the budding insurrectionist, however, a mere seat at the table is not enough. His is a mission to bring radical change to the NUS from the very top. There are striking similarities between Mr Harwood’s presidential bid and the so-called populist insurrections of 2016. Here is a telegenic, charismatic outsider who promises to fundamentally overturn a status quo enshrined by a perceivably out-of-touch liberal elite; he may not bear the flaming-orange toupee, but Mr Harwood’s campaign narrative certainly has a distinctly Trumpian air.

The candidate was also himself an outspoken Brexiteer, chairing the national Students for Britain group during the heated campaigning of June 2016. His disdain for an out-of-touch NUS is a mirroring of his disdain for an out-of-touch European Union.

The parallels go further: just as the Brexit brigade made extensive use of the tabloids to gather support, Mr Harwood announced his candidacy via an exclusive interview with the student world’s most lurid purveyor of club-night snapshots and gossip, The Tab. “The NUS is in crisis,” he told them. “It has become an unwelcoming, unrepresentative, and unproductive body. It’s time for change.”

Mr Harwood’s policy platform itself is not overladen with detail. His official two-page manifesto is largely constituted of light-hearted photographs and a cartoon, whilst an endorsement from former Universities Minister David Lammy MP is arguably the only text on the page which isn’t a trite testament to Mr Harwood’s authenticity or to the “crisis” of the NUS.

It also appears difficult for the candidate to promote himself with a straight face. A list of his policy commitments, which include enacting one member one vote, pushing for the Student Loans Company to be adequately resourced, and lobbying the government to remove international students from migration statistics, is interspersed with promises to “make Freddos 10p again” and “ensure every lecture begins with a pledge of allegiance to the NUS.”

But policy details are largely moot: a concrete strategy is not what will get him votes. As was the case last year with the EU and with Hillary Clinton, the biggest vote-winner for Tom Harwood will be the failings – whether real or perceived – of the NUS.

It is therefore perhaps rather apt that the NUS’s new president is expected to be announced only a few days after the time French voters first go to the polls on the 23rd of April; the next pit-stop of populism could well be Britain’s national students’ union.

Photograph: BBC

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