UCLU Women’s Officer Natalie James is hopeful Malia Bouattia could do good things, if she takes the time to address ‘genuine concerns’ about her leadership.
On Thursday, the National Union of Students concluded its annual National Conference. Conference is an exhausting four day whirlwind of motions, debates, and electioneering. In the small world of student politics it’s generally a cause of frustration across the political spectrum as preferred candidates lose elections, bad policy is passed, good policy rejected, debate cut short, and the constant emergence of procedural motions gives everyone on conference floor a big procedural headache. Few people outside the bubble of student politics even realise that anything has happened, let alone considers it important. This year, however, things are different.
This year, delegates elected Malia Bouattia, current NUS Black Students Officer, as the next National President.
This election is notable for a number of reasons. Malia is NUS’s first black female President. She is one of a small number of candidates in the whole of NUS’s long history to defeat an incumbent in a Presidential election. And, finally, her election has attracted an unprecedented level of attention, largely critical, from the mainstream national media. She is unashamedly radical, a grassroots campaigner, a vocal opponent of the Conservative government, and proudly pro-Palestine.
Malia as National President represents a significant shift in political direction for NUS’s national leadership, after years of political malaise at the highest levels of the student movement. In recent years we have seen the introduction of £9k fees, a spiralling cost of living crisis, the abolition of our maintenance grants and bursaries for our NHS students, the implementation of the government’s PREVENT agenda, a rise in hate crimes on our campuses – and the response of NUS to these issues has been either non-existent or mere ineffective posturing. NUS’s leadership enjoys spouting platitudes about the power of students and the student movement, but in recent years it has done very little to support those it claims to represent. Consequently, there are many of us who feel let down, ignored, and unsupported by the majority of NUS’s current national leadership – I would count myself as one of them. Many of Malia’s supporters feel the same way.
Much of the controversy surrounding Malia stems from her radical politics, and particularly her support for Palestine. There are those who criticise her politics by arguing that it is inappropriate for NUS to be campaigning on wider social issues. I have little time for views like these: sorry, guys, but our student population is part of a wider society too. We don’t get to sidestep the effects of discrimination just because we’re studying.
Far more serious are the allegations of anti-Semitism which arose just a few days before the start of Conference. Presidents of over 50 Jewish Societies wrote an open letter to Bouattia, expressing concerns that she had previously used anti-Semitic language during her time at the University of Birmingham and as Black Student’s Officer. In her response, Malia brushed off the accusations, defending her previous remarks as expressing her opposition to Zionism rather than anti-Semitism.
I am pleased to see a more radical President at the head of NUS. In spite of this, I am concerned about these allegations of anti-Semitism, Malia’s insubstantial response, and the way that these allegations have been ignored or dismissed as a political attack by many in the student movement. Malia ran as an alternative to the dismissive opportunists who have headed NUS for the past few years – and I hope that we will see her act differently to those currently at the top, taking the time to address genuine concerns, rather than burying her head in the sand when criticisms are raised. I hope to see Malia own her politics, including her dedication to liberation for all marginalised groups. While I have some concerns, she has been democratically elected and now has the power to set the tone of NUS activities and campaigns over the next year, and I hope to see NUS actually doing something under her leadership.