Why I voted for motion of No Confidence in LS Editor
Somehow, in student politics, more than in ‘real’ or industrial politics – and in particular in the student left in London – it is just accepted that daily life will consist of being lied about, having your words twisted out of any proportion, being personally blamed for the actions of people you’ve never met or spoken to, and accused of whatever else anyone can throw at you. Only in this world can your group be denounced as both tiny and irrelevant, and massively dangerous; only here can individuals be at once accused of puppet mastery and being under the slavish control of others, and all by people who will turn around and call you comrade a week later.
On Thursday afternoon, Jen Izaakson – the current London Student Editor – faced a vote of no confidence at a meeting of the ULU Senate, a body consisting of one voting delegate per College within the University of London, and the only democratic body capable of hearing the motion. The vote was 9 in favour, 0 against and 5 abstentions – meaning, because of an oddity within the Regulations that made abstentions effectively count as no votes, that the motion fell by a single abstention. Following the vote, one abstainer –King’s College – tried to call a revote to reverse his vote, but this was (unconstitutionally) overruled by the Chair. Meanwhile, one of the safest pro-no confidence votes – UCL – swung into abstention at the last minute, and the University of London Institute in Paris, an institute of 150 students attending its first meeting in many years, also counted among the abstentions.
Both I and other NCAFC activists supported Jen in her election in 2012. On Thursday, along with the Vice President and the reps from Queen Mary, the Central School of Speech and Drama, LSE, Heythrop College, SOAS, Birkbeck and Royal Holloway, I voted for the motion. Unlike many in the room, and despite having been on the receiving end of most of the bias and manipulation that has characterised London Student recently, I made my final decision between support and abstention based on the debate in the room.
This debate confirmed everything rotten and dishonest that I had become acquainted with in the past few weeks. None of the allegations against Jen were denied or really addressed, and instead the case against the motion descended into shouting down the chair and threatening Senators with aggressive legal advisors, interrupting everyone, and clasping at every available straw – most notably a bizarre spin on the rhetoric of workers’ rights – to push Senators into abstaining.
Then there was the weird left cover that came to Jen’s aid from a number of observers in SWSS and the ACI, who genuinely defended the taking of expenses and benefits from the Australian government in return for undeclared advertising, and brushed aside the publication of transphobic hate-speech as a device in a “witch-hunt”. There has been a lot of talk of a ‘duty to the left’; but having the loyalty of fellow left-wing activists requires one to meet minimum standards (I’ll address all of this in more detail later).
For me, the incident boiled down to three questions: is the Editor, as an elected officer, democratically accountable to anyone at all, or only herself? Could the totally cynical editing of the London Student be reined in any other way, bar suing or injuncting myself as the publisher? And were the allegations serious enough and true? On all points, I concluded that I should vote for the motion.
From the outset, this was not a battle between left and right. Though there were obviously notional factional lines drawn, they dissolved very rapidly into two camps: Jen’s friends and allies, and everyone else. This was basically a result of Jen’s ultra-aggressive strategy in response to the release of the election results, in which she targeted me personally from the outset, despite the facts (again, read on for more). The otherwise inexplicable behaviour of some – though by no means all or most – comrades within the ACI added another category into the antis: those who wanted to recruit Jen’s friends and allies in the wake of the SWP split.
The whole point of the ACI was supposed to be that it was about a new kind of politics, one which did away with the old problematic forms of some Trostskyist groups: the underlying motive to recruit; the ‘how it looks’ excuse that cynically portrays tactical errors as principled problems; the utilisation of a common sectarian enemy (normally the AWL) to build a baseless ‘conspiracy’ consensus; the use of old personal grudges and perceived injustices to inform reactions to unconnected events; the mercenary blundering into complicated situations to defend perceived interests, making up the reasoning as you go.
On all of these points, I have been profoundly disappointed with some comrades in the ACI over the past few weeks.
The background of the elections
The first signs of a rift within ULU began in earnest during the nominations period (this closed on March 1st), when Jen approached me with her preferred candidate for Editor, Katie Lathan, and asked me and Dan to support her. I knew at the time that it was possible that Oscar Webb, a leftwing investigative journalist from UCL, would want to run – although at the time there was still a possibility that he might go for Sabb at UCL – and so I told Jen I’d have a think about it. I also offered a provisional agreement that I might be willing to remain neutral in the LS election (personally I like journalist elections to be their own world anyway) in return for SWSS and co support for both me and Dan Cooper.
The eventual response to this was uncompromising: either we supported Katie, or Jen would find her own slate – with her running against Dan for VP and a big name FOSIS (Islamic Society) person running against me. This was all backed up with a healthy serving of bad journalism: in the final unregulated issue of the paper, LS printed a prominent evaluation of how well the sabbs had done – and, unsurprisingly, Dan got a hatchet job. It also printed a very favourable column announcing the candidacy of Dan’s Tory opponent, Will Hall.
Luckily, the slate fell through: if it hadn’t, the Tories would almost certainly have overcome Dan’s 29 vote victory margin on VP. Nonetheless, it became clear that Jen was determined to get Katie elected: she took annual leave to campaign, and Katie was profiled heavily in the paper. And that’s all fair enough and fair game, if at times a bit frustrating.
The illegal action, and the cause of the later dispute, was the use of official elections coverage in the paper to promote one candidate over another. The LS elections pages are supposed to be checked over by the Returning Officer (which they weren’t); they are the one piece of official literature that ULU puts out about candidates. Abusing these was the equivalent of me logging into the website and annotating candidates’ manifestos, or sending out an all student email telling people to vote for Oscar, or me or Dan.
And this is precisely what happened. Jen has never denied or accepted that she wrote the coverage – though there is a lot of evidence to suggest that she did. Some of this is witness and I won’t disclose it; some of it is just the fact that no-one else on that Editorial team would have known who the AWL were, let alone that until 2006 they supposedly supported troops staying in Iraq (these were the substance of some of the ‘random facts’). Either way, it was malicious or negligent.
The result of this abuse was in no-one’s favour. In their deliberations (there were two meetings, each lasting more than 3 hours), the Elections Tribunal decided to annul the elections, impound the results, and call a re-election at Senate. As the (now newly re-elected) President, it was going to be my job to hear the first layer of appeals to this decision (after which it would go to Trustees and then the University).
Immediately, it began. I refused to sign the petition that Jen had started up for two reasons: firstly, I was part of the appeals process; secondly, it was LS that had created the mess – and it was fishy and a distortion of history for the campaign against the Tribunal rulings to be led by them of all people. For this, I was immediately earmarked for what an unnamed ex-SWP member has referred to as ‘Izaakscorn’.
You would not even have known from the LS coverage of the ensuing dispute that I wasn’t on the Elections Tribunal (they comprise 2 non-involved students, one of whom is a QC, one Senator from CSSD, 1 external from NUS, and the Returning Officer). Neither would you have known what the Tribunal had said, or what I had said. Instead, the presentation was of Katie and Jen fighting against a stitch-up, with a massive emphasis on lawyers and procedure. From the outside, the narrative must have been compelling.
At the time, I thought that the outrage directed at me might have been genuine: perhaps Jen genuinely thought that I was engaged in rigging an election. With hindsight, and as I realised more and more during the No Confidence Senate meeting, it is much more likely that this was a conscious tactic which Jen used to pile pressure on me while I was still technically in charge of hearing the appeal.
With all of this happening around me, and with an obvious problem of not having been neutral in the LS election (I’d backed Oscar), the easy thing to do would have been to duck my way out of the appeals process – but this would not have been responsible. Had I not stepped in in the week after the Tribunal decision, we would have ended up holding an election for Editor at Senate. This would have been awful, both in principle and for whoever won (which would certainly have been Oscar if we’d let it happen). So my approach in my rulings was to stop anything bad that was time-sensitive, sit on the fence a bit, and then to get out of the way. If you haven’t already read this, do.
But Jen had bet high. Because of the ‘stitch-up’ narrative, and because it looked like Jen and I were publicly disagreeing, the situation was easy to polarise and it was easier to claim that all of the ‘good’ things I’d done were just a result of external pressure. For instance, throughout the course of the past few weeks, the London Student has claimed that my original intention was to hold the re-vote for the Editor election at Senate; this was never the case, and, as I’ve outlined, my primary reason for ever getting involved in the appeals process was to prevent this.
The coup de grace during this passage of the dispute was the leaking of my confidential initial thoughts, which I’d circulated around the Trustee Board the night before I was due to meet Katie Lathan about her appeal. Of course, this was perfect: they could claim that I’d already reached my conclusions, that the corruption of the case was undeniable, that everything they’d said was vindicated. The speed and gutsiness of the transformation of the corrupt paper to the crusader for democracy was almost complete, and they had control of the biggest student newspaper in Europe to make it happen.
Then came the Senate meeting that was ordered by the Tribunal to hold the re-vote on the Editor election (Jen and co had of course claimed that I’d willingly called it). It was the timing of this Senate that had been the cause of my hurry in making my rulings, as any cancellation of the revote would have to happen before Friday 22nd March. Right up until the meeting itself, Jen was still publicly claiming that it was her lawyers that had ‘blocked’ the vote – at one stage even claiming that they had ‘blocked’ any meeting that even discussed elections. Such was the extent of the respect allotted to ULU’s democratic processes that it was deemed fine to threaten anyone who engaged in a minuted discussion of democracy with a lawsuit or prosecution by the Crown.
This claim was backed up by perhaps the most extraordinary piece of manoeuvring of all just before the meeting began. On Twitter and in the ether, Jen claimed to have an injunction. This always struck me as an extraordinary thing to say: normally you get invited to defend yourself if you get injuncted (I’ve been on the receiving end of them from UCL management enough times to know) and normally it costs a lot of money. Nothing ever arrived, and Katie Lathan later clarified that it was ‘injunctive relief’ rather than an injunction: i.e. they’d sent me a lawyer’s letter asking for clarity, to which I’d responded (somewhat tersely on three separate occasions) that I’d already overruled the Senate re-vote and not to worry. I’d like to believe that Jen confused an injunction with a lawyer’s letter in good faith, but I don’t for a second believe it.
It was at the end of this Senate meeting that the most frustrated Senators from quite a few of the Colleges first met up to discuss a No Confidence vote. I deliberately stayed out of the substantive bits of this meeting, in the full knowledge that I was probably, once again, going to face the wrap for whatever happened.
The arguments in the room
The allegations presented against Jen on Thursday were that she had cynically manipulated elections coverage to support her Deputy Editor’s election campaign, resulting in the annulment of the results; that she had published transphobic material; that she had effectively taken benefits in exchange for stealth advertising; and that she had used the paper as a personal and vindictive vehicle in the aftermath of the elections saga. A number of other slightly random things were also mentioned in what was ultimately not a well drafted motion: but these were the serious points.
The main thrust of the case against the motion was built not around refuting or apologising for any of these allegations. Instead, we began the meeting with a loud, aggressive solicitor who insisted that, despite the fact that the meeting had barely been opened, he would “talk whenever I like and for as long as necessary” to make his point. He proceeded to do so, on a number of occasions.
With no real way to object to the allegations substantively, the majority of the meeting was taken up with process arguments. These were various: that the Regulations were out of date; that the meeting wasn’t called properly; that the Regulations breached were not cited enough by chapter and verse.
However, the most rhetorically important idea – and also the most misleading one – was an unprincipled fudge on the idea of employment rights. There were a number of arguments used: that there was no warning on quality given by ‘line managers’; that this was a ‘first offence nuclear option’; that it was unprincipled for left-wing Senators to vote to ‘sack a worker’.
To begin with, as was made clear in the meeting, the Senate’s role is political: it is the accountability body for officers – and for the Editor. It was never the case that its decision would be final in terms of employment rights: it was entirely possible, as I repeatedly made clear, that the Trustee Board and the various appeal processes might overturn the political decision of Senate, at the very least continuing to pay the Editor’s salary, if there were technical or legal grounds. That was the proper place to hear the finer detail.
But more importantly than the non-finality of it all, the entire approach reeked of a disdain for democracy and accountability. As paid elected officers, we are accountable to the people who elect us, and, failing the structures existing for that to happen directly, to the people who represent them. We are not workers in the ordinary sense: we should have the right to a safe space working environment, and there are instances when we should continue to receive our salary even if relieved of our duties. But the idea that you can dodge being held accountable because you have an aggressive lawyer and a load of technicalities isn’t just procedurally wrong, it’s unprincipled.
It was this argument most of all that swung abstentions – and it was backed up by an inferred lie that Senators might ‘find themselves liable’ if there were later technical grounds for upholding an appeal.
It was in this context that I voted for the motion.
This piece is a reply to Simon Hardy’s article, The crisis at London Student: an outsider’s view, and was published unaltered except for the possible correction of typos.