Gemma Tumelty is, by her own admission, exhausted. Her fatigue is hardly surprising: It is the end of another long day of debating and voting at the National Union of Students' (NUS) annual conference in Blackpool, which will be Tumelty's last as president of the organisation and easily the most important of her two-year reign. Despite her close friend and ally Wes Streeting being announced as her successor a few hours previously, Tumelty is not in celebratory mood. The conference, which was supposed to be the culmination of two years of hard work, has not quite gone to plan.
Tumelty, Streeting and their supporters had hoped to introduce a raft of constitutional reforms, which would have updated the creaking internal structures of the 86-year-old union and brought it into line with modern ideals while also preventing it from becoming too inward-looking. The proposals were widely expected to be ratified, and at first it looked like they had been.
It was initially announced that the required two-thirds majority of delegates – elected representatives for student unions up and down the country – had voted in favour of the proposals. But after a good deal of confusion and a recount, it was confirmed that the reformers had in fact lost by just 25 votes. With immense and agonising irony, Tumelty and her allies had been undone by the very constitution they sought to reform.
"Obviously we are bitterly disappointed, as are the majority of our membership," she says. "Everyone's feeling a sense of disappointment. It's frustrating – we lost by such a tiny margin. It seems ridiculous that to get any changes through we have to get that level of support from the conference floor, because the vast majority of students and students unions wanted this.
"What I'm really disappointed about is the image of the NUS this gives off, after we've worked so hard to change the culture. These reforms would have made us seem like the kind of vibrant, campaigning and forward-thinking organisation that we absolutely should be. We're one of the largest democratic organisations in the UK, and unfortunately we're being held back by people who like the way we are. I really can't understand that."
Perhaps the most significant and controversial change was the proposed formation of a new board of members to run the organisation, aided by a senate made up of student representatives. This would have replaced the current 27-member national executive committee, with greater powers being granted to student officers based at individual university unions.
But Tumelty's approach was not popular with many senior representatives: at the conference, executive committee member Sofie Buckland accused the NUS leadership of waging a "dirty war" against its opponents and of branding them "extremist lefties". Tumelty is even under suspicion of paying delegates to wear orange T-shirts to show their support.
"There are always people who don't like change, and there are some who the current structure suits very well," she says. "These reforms weren't forced upon them from on high: we've had a year of consultation with hundreds of student officers to come up with this model. It's a small minority of activists who aren't involved in their union's structures and haven't understood that, and they're opposing this for what I think are ridiculous reasons. There seems to have been a real misunderstanding of what we were trying to achieve."
Whatever the reasons, Tumelty admits that the delegates' failure to agree upon how best to run the NUS is the worst possible advert for the organisation, which is already regarded by many apolitical students as a cliquey irrelevance. And there's now a real danger it could be stuck in a similar rut for another year.
"That was my concern all along," the president says. "We can't just be navel-gazing for the next couple of years. We've got really big battles ahead, and being stuck looking at our structures again shouldn't be one of them. But I don't think it's going to happen, because Wes has just been elected as president, and the executive have the vision to make this work. I wanted to make sure that we got that change done this year so we could focus on what we're meant to do: change student lives."
Despite the major setback, Tumelty insists that her proposals for reform are still alive and kicking, and it's only a matter of time until they are officially ratified. She points out that the majority of students voted in favour of constitutional change, which proves that she and her team of supporters "absolutely won the arguments" even if they didn't quite manage to push them to a conclusion at the Blackpool conference.
Although Tumelty admits that there will always be students who will vote against the changes, she is convinced that the stalemate can still be resolved, if necessary at an "extraordinary meeting" of delegates in the course of the next few months, before she stands down as president. The solution, she says, is to consult with the remaining doubters and subtly change the proposals until they are content: this should win over at least another 25 delegates, whose votes proved so crucial last time round.
"I'm really disappointed that all the really good stuff in the review – greater representation for mature, international, part-time and further education students – has fallen by the wayside," Tumelty says. "But we will bring it back, and I know that the people who are elected will take it forward. The candidates standing in the elections who have been instrumental in helping me change the organisation have so far been elected, so I'm proud that we've paved the way for the next leadership.
"As somebody said to me, the genie is out of the bottle now, and people are willing to talk about this. We'll take it back, we'll listen, we'll consult and we'll make sure that next time we can absolutely get it through. Those first-time delegates who weren't necessarily aligned – people who came to conference not really knowing a huge amount about it – are the kind of students we really need to reach. If they voted against it, we want to know why. There's a lot we can do to try to make this work."
The rest of the conference did not pass without incident: on the final day, a dramatic policy shift in the union's long-running battle against student tuition fees was announced. Rather than campaigning for a total abolition of the charges – a position from which the NUS has not deviated for decades – the organisation will now concentrate on preventing them from rising.
Future president Wes Streeting described the move as "the uprising of student realism", but it will have done little to repair the executive's troubled relationship with its far-left members, who said the decision marked the death of student idealism. There's a real chance that these members might simply revolt against Tumelty's reforms again out of spite: if so, there could be yet another twist in what has already been a year of highs and lows for the NUS president.
"Yes, our democratic structures are broken," she says. "But some of the wins we've had over the last year – changing the way we deal with our membership and engage with the government – have meant that we're still on track to be a campaigning organisation."
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