The Death of the ‘Labour Sabb’


This year, in the Guild of Students Officer elections, for the first time in a very long time there were no ‘Labour’ candidates. Something which has become quite a regularity at students unions across the country is the domination of particular sabbatical officers that are there to simply ‘Bring Labour values of collectivism to campus’. This is not an attack on previous Sabbs who were party members, it’s a critique on the idea of the ‘Labour Sabb’. Which is something that has bugged me greatly since joining the party, so here is a blog to have a good old rant about it…

In November, I attended the annual Labour Students Political Weekend. I thought i’d give it a go. What I will say is that the message I got from NOLS was a very narrow minded one. A one of a one size fits way of thinking, which couldn’t have highlighted how out of touch they are any better. ‘Let’s campaign for Ken in London’ was high on the agenda, while absolutely no mention was made to campaigning locally in other key elections happening this May, including Birmingham. ‘Let’s get as many of you elected onto the NUS and in Unions so you can be our puppets’ was also another common theme of the talks. Or one of my personal favourites, ‘Lets all pretend to talk to our Vice Chancellor and tell them they should pay cleaners more money, which they will then amazingly easily agree to’. The weekend really could have been summarised into those three snippets.

I believe that Labour Students attempt to have too much involvement in Union politics. It’s a well known fact that they ship supporters around the country to illegitimately boost support for their candidates (http://abercourier.com/2012/03/labour-troubles-tarnish-election-campaign/). They also offer training to their candidates and successful elects before they take office, to… well I imagine to tell them the policies to push onto their students. This is not what they should be doing! And this is not what the student movement is all about. Edd Bauer, current VPE at the Guild wrote during his time as EEO about this very issue on his blog, and I think he got it spot on. I’d definitely recommend giving it a read (http://edwardbauereeo.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/leaving-post.html)

I am currently a Labour member and supporter, and that’s fine. I have my ideological beliefs and i’ll never claim to not have them. There is no denying that we all have a position politically, because we all have an opinion. However, the problem arises when you push your party’s policies onto students. Abusing your position as an elected officer to ensure the party you support, and probably want to work for in future years gets a foot in with students on your campus. Sabbatical officers are not there to influence the students they represent. They are there to serve them. They are there to make the time that their students spend at their university as enjoyable as possible. I believe it is that simple.

As you may be aware, I was elected as Vice President (Activities & Development) in those very guild elections just a few short weeks ago. And next year, I will be tasked with helping every single student society at the Guild and I can’t wait to get started. Because it doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are, what matters is that you want to do something and celebrate what you love doing. That is why I ran for it and why I didn’t ever want to run as a ‘Labour Sabb’, because to do so would to betray what I believe is truly important in student politics. Yes, you guessed it, STUDENTS.

So this will be my 3rd and very last blog I post on BULSonline. My membership to the party expires in May and I will be letting it do so. I’m doing this because I simply have to be as neutral as possible. I represent BUCF as much as BULS and to do so whilst being a Labour party member I feel would be unprofessional. I have no idea if I will rejoin after my term in office, I guess it will depend on how the next year goes for the party and for Mr Miliband. And it will most certainly depend on whether the party (and it’s affiliated organisations) can stop being so narrow minded and unaware that a single solution will not solve all their problems.

The next year is crucial for us all, I’m just looking forward to the journey.

@OllieCosentino, Former BULS Secretary

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13 comments on “The Death of the ‘Labour Sabb’

  1. While I see what you’re saying I think you’ve got things completely the wrong way round. You mention that you ran for VP to fight for students, not the party. I don’t quite see why you think you’re the only party member who does this. You also say that NOLS run training so that potential sabbs can be ‘puppets’ and will ‘push your party’s policies onto students’. Do you really think so little of your fellow students? That anyone with a party membership is just a propaganda mouthpiece?

    As i’m sure you know there are a wide variety of views within the Labour party (which is a blessing as well as a curse). The same applies to Sabbs. Most (not all) of the ones I’ve met are intelligent people with their own views and their own reasons for running. The same values which leads them to believe that they can best represent students also leads them to be a member of the Labour party.

    Maybe your experiences have been different than mine but I think you’re unfairly slating perfectly intelligent and ethical Labour students just because they publicly declare their values.

  2. gusbaker says:

    I’m currently a proud Labour party member and President of the University of Bristol Students’ Union. This has to be one of the stupidest posts I’ve ever read about SUs..

    I’m no puppet, but the same values that motivate me to believe in the power of collectivism within the Labour Party motivate me within the Students’ Union. I’ve spent my year standing up for the poorest students and fighting for Widening Participation (see here http://www.ubu.org.uk/news/article/UBU/Bristol-un-cut-as-University-Brings-Back-Bursaries/)

    There’s nothing unprofessional about having beliefs. Abandoning them at the door to a political institution is simply bizarre, as are your silly attacks on Labour Students.

  3. Hannah Lane says:

    Is it really necessary to stop being a party member to become a student officer? I don’t think so and know for a fact that David Franklin isn’t going to stop being a Lib Dem.

  4. Gary Barlow says:

    You are an idiot. Your clearly not committed to being Labour. Frankly, It is embarrassing that people have helped you out; because of shared values not personal allegiance. Then you stab them in the back with this. Please don’t rejoin – your not welcome!

    • maxattacks says:

      The only person I’ve got time to reply to is “Gary Barlow” (though I doubt that’s your real name). You do realise that the only people from the Labour Student society to help Ollie was myself (outgoing Vice-Chair) and my successor (Ed Gilbert, Vice-Chair-elect). This wasn’t a “labour victory” in any sort of the sense. The vast majority of the Labour society didn’t help anyone this year. Ollie’s team was drawn from a huge variety of different areas of the University and he would have probably won without any help from Ed and I. So please take your petty tribalistic views else where.

  5. wheelybarrow says:

    From what I can see the only value that labour students hold dear is getting people elected. The way that labour students dominate NUS elections is dirty and a farce.

    I have been a Students Officer for 2 years in Hull and have an independent political viewpoint. I represent students through strong and active student representation and high quality evidence and research on what students views are… Not on what Ed Milliband tells me to…

    This year at NUS conference, Labour students will be out in force, campaigning for and voting for fellow labour students… Not because they are the best candidates, purely and simply because they’re labour! It acts as a real barrier for people like me to get involved and leaves a large segment of the student movement completely disenfranchised…

  6. yeebles says:

    I pretty much agree. As good as it is for Sabbs to have political beliefs. I think being the candidate of a political group may not really be beneficial to the are of the union you’re in charge of, e.g. if you’re in charge of societies there is little scope for introducing party politics to lets say the Photographic Society also you need to be as impartial as possible when it comes to dealing with all political student groups be they Labour, Conservative, Lib Dems, SWP, etc.

    Also, being free from political motivations means that your agenda is a real student agenda and your students are clear that the decisions you make are based upon your beliefs. So I applaud you from lapsing your membership to show your impartiality. I don’t think that this is a necessity for all Sabbs, there should just be more room for transparency and accountability across unions.

  7. Talia Akhtar says:

    This article is, frankly, bizarre. It is also extremely insulting to all those “Labour Sabbs” throughout the country who have the maturity and presence of mind not to function as a “Labour Students Puppets”. I have been a Labour Student for 3 years and have attended all events and some of my closest friends are sabbs from around the country. All of these people are highly intelligent and ran to be student union officers because they were interested in student issues and improving their unions. If all they are interested in is preaching the party line then I am fairly sure they’d just graduate and get a job in the party – many of them are talented enough. I also think its a bit strange to criticise Labour Students for wanting Labour Students to be sabbs

    The training Labour Students get

  8. Talia Akhtar says:

    when surely Labour values are exactly what we believe are best for students?

    Also your assertions about the way Labour Students are trained is categorically incorrect. They aren’t fed propaganda and told to shove it down every students throat. They are taught about campaigning and about the NUS and how we can promote fairness in our unions.

    We ran a successful campaign at Manchester which focused purely on issues that effected all students. You can check Nick’s manifesto if you don’t believe me.

    Just because they are Labour Students doesn’t make them blind to wider issues.

    So don’t be so insulting.

  9. What a weird article…

    “I believe that Labour Students attempt to have too much involvement in Union politics. It’s a well known fact that they ship supporters around the country to illegitimately boost support for their candidates”

    How on earth is having the clout to build a nationwide organisation ‘illegitimate’?

  10. Unfortunately a poor blog. Read Chris Nash’s must more interesting one below instead!

    Ollie’s argument just doesn’t add up, and shows he has no experience of the Labour Sabbs that were in place during my time at Birmingham. They weren’t “just” there to espouse their political ideals. They were hard working student representatives. Brigid Jones, Tom Marley, Tom Guise, Dora Meredith, no-one could with any plausibility suggest any of those ‘labour sabbs’ were anything but advocates for the student body. I believe standing openly as a Labour Sabb is the choice of the individual, but in fact is a good way of showing the values that you take with you into office, one’s that I hope Ollie’s still shows even after his membership lapses. That’s how politics works. People don’t vote for Labour candidates because they know them personally (usually), but because their values, passions, and priorities are likely to align with that voters.

    Otherwise what the hell do we vote on? “Ooh, that’s a pretty face/slogan/costume – she’s got my vote”

    There are some half baked criticisms of labour students in there, some of which are valid, and there are huge issues with the National Organisation of Labour Students, not least the cliquey nature of it, reflected by its failure to campaign in places like Birmingham, but the major thrust of the blog is unfortunately nonsense.

    As I always asserted during my two terms as BULS secretary, I couldn’t give a hoot and a half about student politics really, as I felt community campaign was more worthwhile, but I agree that has changed since the fees increase and the failure to translate that into more student power on campus. But Sabb Officers do quite important jobs for students, and the best ones I’ve seen have been Labour Sabbs. Committed advocates for students, but with policies that reflect their Labour values that I can fully support

  11. Liam says:

    I really do not understand this post – this is not the death of the Labour sabb at all. There will be many more after you across the country as well as at Birmingham.

    I really do not understand why you have to give up your membership to be a sabatical member? Should my MP give up their membership of the Labour Party when we elected him? No. Don’t be so ridiculous. The fact you suggest you will wait to see election results on whether you renew or not is pathetic and says more about you then the party.

    You didn’t stand with Labour backing or as Labour sabb. So why on earth do you have the audacity to claim their death? Grow up!

  12. Chris Nash says:

    Right, time for me to wade in.

    Firstly myself, Ollie and the regular writers are amazed at the attention this one post has gained. This blog has declined a lot (in terms of hits at least) since its glory days. Usually we average a mere 20 to 30 hits a day. This post alone has had 630 since it was published last night. Consequently the readership is much wider than was imagined. A lot of what is said in Ollie’s post is related to Birmingham, and to our Guild’s political history. Readers from outside will most likely be unfamiliar with this context and are at risk of misinterpretation.

    Ollie’s point, if I can condense it to a single sentence, is about the philosophy of a Sabbatical officer – who they serve, and more importantly, why a given candidate should be elected. When he refers to a “Labour Sabb” he means the idea that NOLs or university branches should aim to win Union offices for Labour, as if they were some sort of glittering prize to collect, that Labour candidates should be elected because they are Labour. Certainly in the past at Birmingham we used to make election jokes of the “Labour GAIN” variety, but very few of us actually took this seriously. We are probably all familiar with the cynical reference to “a mangy dog with a red rosette” being electable in a safe seat. I don’t believe that we should elect Labour Sabbs for the sake of having Labour Sabbs. It is tribalism at its worst.

    What Ollie is NOT referring to when he says “Labour Sabb” is the many many Sabbatical Officers who have been Party members. @jakelambertonline beats me to it in reference to the legendary figures that were Tom Marley, Brigid Jones, and Tom Guise (coincidently those who first launched this blog to prominence). There are of course others, both here previously in Birmingham, and as @Tom Follett, @gusbaker and @Talia Akhtar say across the country. Ollie is specifically arguing against the flavour of tribalism that says a Labour Sabb should always be elected over any other candidate. He is not criticising any individual Labour Sabb past or present.

    It is worth noting that of the feedback I have seen for this post (in these comments and elsewhere), it has been positively received by neutral/independent individuals. Above me, by @wheelybarrow and @yeebles. To quote @wheelybarrow:

    “This year at NUS conference, Labour students will be out in force, campaigning for and voting for fellow labour students… Not because they are the best candidates, purely and simply because they’re labour!”

    I have had zero involvement in the NUS. Whether this assertion is true or not, it is a common perception of NOLS that rings true among our critics. As I’ve said already, this sort of factional promotion is something I’m glad we don’t have at Birmingham. It is also worth noting that Ollie’s election opponent was one of the first to praise this post.

    Regarding the more negative response from individuals within NOLs, including suggestions that this blog should not have posted a critical article; all I will say is that this is a free and open platform, predominately but not exclusively for BULS members. I can think of no good reason to censor an opinion piece that outlines an entirely personal philosophy about elected union representatives. To say we shouldn’t have published it simply because it criticizes NOLS betrays a nasty authoritarian streak.

    To address individual comments:

    @Tom Follett – I hope I’ve already covered the distinction between Sabbs who are Labour members and the idea of the “Labour Sabbs” (as defined above). Myself and Ollie obviously have no problem with the former. It is the latter, the idea of Labour candidate = always good vs. non-Labour candidate = always bad, which we are glad to be rid of.

    @gusbaker – I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. None of us doubt your commitment to Bristol SU, or your sincerity. But how would you feel if you had ran as an Independent on those same policies, in a union with a strong Conservative Future branch. Imagine that every year that CF branch ran a slate for all of the union positions, and that the slate won based on factional support and overwhelming organisational strength, irrespective of the talents or policies of the individual candidates? How would you feel if they then proclaimed that they had won those elections “for CF”? How would you feel if a candidate’s affiliation was seen to matter more than their character or policies?

    @Hannah Lane – It is not necessary, but I gather Ollie prefers it that way given the nature of his role. His position is not a political or campaigning one, and it involves helping student groups from across the political spectrum, so I imagine there are advantages to being more impartial.

    @Gary Barlow – Max has already given sufficient response to your ill-informed comment. All I will add is that actually a lot of us do have a “personal allegiance” to (or as most people call it, “are friends with”) Ollie. This most often transcends party politics and was true of his campaign team. Nobody who helped him get elected has been “Stab[bed]… in the back”. I seriously question how much you actually know of the 2012 Guild Elections, or of Ollie’s campaign?

    @wheelybarrow – thanks for your support and tweets. As I have said, it is clear that the perceptions of Labour Students that Ollie has highlighted are more widespread than some people will admit. Please don’t become too cynical though – some of us actually believe in plurality! 

    @yeebles – Ultimately it comes down to a Sabb’s priorities and loyalties; are they primarily to their union, or to a national organisation? As you say, in Ollie’s new role there are significant benefits to being non-partisan.

    @Talia Akhtar – If I haven’t made it quite clear already, Ollie is not talking about the type of Sabbs you think he is “insulting.” He is clearly critiquing the idea of a being a Labour Sabb for the sake of being a Labour Sabb. If anyone wants to feel insulted, then it should be the tribalists who push the interests of their own faction above all else.

    @Tom Miller – briefly, the University of Birmingham Guild of Students has election rules which forbid non-students from campaigning in Guild elections. If you are not a member of the Guild of Students you cannot vote in their elections. If you cannot vote, you cannot campaign. Thus it would indeed be “illegitimate” and against the rules if Labour Students were to bus in their campaigners on behalf of one of “their” candidates. In fact, this rule exists to prevent this very thing from happening and to ensure a level playing field for all candidates. Bluntly, if it isn’t your union, it isn’t your business.

    (finally) @jakelambertononline – I don’t get it, nobody seems interested in the implications of minor party vote share in marginal council wards? I hope I’ve covered the distinction between genuinely good Labour sabbs and advocating factional voting fodder. As Ollie himself says: “This is not an attack on previous Sabbs who were party members, it’s a critique on the idea of the ‘Labour Sabb’.” I agree with every word of your final paragraph though.

    No doubt this is now longer than the original post, but there were some misunderstandings that really needed clearing up. More importantly, this post needs to be seen in the context that it mostly refers to the situation as seen from Birmingham Guild of Students. It may or may not be applicable anywhere else. Also please bear in mind that by Ollie’s own admission it is a “good old rant.” Nobody should be too offended by a personal opinion. We believe in freedom of speech here (see http://bulsonline.org/contributing/) and we will also gladly publish a full response blog, if anyone wants to make the case for factional control of student unions.

    Finally, thank you to the many people who have read, shared and commented in the last 24 hours. Opinions and interpretations expressed in this comment are entirely my own, I do not speak for BULS or in any official student, union, or political capacity.

    Chris Nash

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