It's tough at the top - and dirty

The last NUS president was an independent - now Labour says it wants the top job back. Clare Rudebeck goes on the campaign trail
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The Independent Online

Who will be the next president of the National Union of Students? For years the answer has been rather predictable; in the Eighties and Nineties, a Labour candidate won every year. Then, in 2000, Labour Students stood aside, ushering in the current president, the independent, Owain James. Now Labour wants the top job back. The result has been what former president, Andrew Pakes, calls "one of the dirtiest campaigns I've seen in NUS".

The vote takes place next week in Blackpool. The independents claim Labour can't be trusted to run the 80-year-old organisation. Why? Because they say a Labour president would listen to Millbank first and students second. Labour denies this. On the contrary, they say, they are perfectly capable of standing up to the Government.

"NUS needs to be run by someone who isn't representing one group first before they represent students," says Owain James, who is backing the mainstream independent candidate Brooks Duke, the current NUS education vice-president. The consequences of letting Labour back in, James says, could be very serious. "I have fears that if we go back to the days of pushing a political party's ideology above the NUS ideology, student unions are going to wonder why they are paying us money to run campaigns that aren't representing them."

Is he right? Could the election of a Labour president destroy student confidence in the Union – perhaps putting its survival in doubt? The distrust of Labour dates back to 1998. That year the new Labour government introduced tuition fees and a Labour-run NUS did nothing to stop them. James has never forgiven them. "David Blunkett even thanked Labour Students for their role in the smooth implementation of fees," James wrote last month in a letter sent round to all NUS officers, urging them to keep Labour out.

Labour says this talk of doom is just electioneering. Mandy Telford, the Labour candidate and president of NUS Scotland, says, "It has been said that a Labour Student is not capable of standing up to the Government. I would just say that I'm a Labour Student president of NUS Scotland who defeated fees and brought back the grant. I've never been scared to stand up to the Government and tell them when they're wrong."

Telford's detractors say she can't claim the credit for the breakthrough in Scotland. The changes were won before she became president. But the point remains – tuition fees were scrapped in Scotland when the presidency of NUS Scotland was in Labour hands. Perhaps Labour Student's integrity cannot be written off so easily. Telford claims that, unlike many former NUS presidents, she is no careerist desperate to get on to the Labour benches. "My degree is in primary school teaching so perhaps I'll work for a teaching trade union," she says.

Carli Harper-Pennan, the NUS lesbian gay bisexual officer, is the third candidate in the election. She is the most left-wing of the trio and sees the fight between Labour and the independents rather differently. "The independents are aligned with Labour Students. Until they fell out over this election, they organised with them and were supported by them. They have the same agenda."

You can see her point. Owain James is a member of the Labour party. When he became president, he was supported by the outgoing Labour president. It is unclear to many what separates the two groups. David Aaronovich, the last non-Labour president of the NUS before Owain James, also believes there is nothing to be gained from a squabble over whether a Labour or an independent president would be more effective.

"It's a moot point,"he says. "Is it better to be outside the tent pissing in or inside pissing out? You can argue it either way. The real question is: who would do the best job?" Who indeed? It's going to be a very close call.