On the 20th April, at this year’s NUS Conference, Malia Bouattia was elected as the new president of The National Union of Students, making her the first black, female NUS president, and the first Muslim to ever hold the position. NUS has not seen an incumbent president lose their election since 1969, and this year we feared would be no exception.
The atmosphere on the conference floor preceding the election was one of defeat amongst the left. Though her speech was pitched and delivered perfectly, all the odds were stacked against Malia, not least due to the vicious smear campaign led against her in the weeks leading up to conference.
Then, amidst the somewhat monotonous cycle of motions, speeches, votes, followed by procedural motions, more speeches, more votes, the Chief Returning Officer shuffled onto the stage to announce that the results were in. I have never experienced such an enormous surge of emotion in a political setting as I did when the results were announced. The conference floor erupted in applause and the chair could do nothing to control the hundreds of delegates who had all jumped out of their chairs in a mixture of exhilaration and amazement. The stunned cheers from our delegation and from every one of Malia’s supporters did more to restore my faith in the radical student left than any speech had throughout the entire conference. Malia had proven that despite the ever-present criticism of radical tactics and liberation-focused campaigning, a far-left victory was possible for a candidate who ran on a radical platform.
I had anticipated that the media reaction in the days after the election would focus on the new role of radical left politics in NUS, and that this period would be a chance for Malia to set the agenda, showcase her work thus far, and lay out NUS’ vision for the next year. Upsettingly, what followed was a barrage of articles, open letters and blogposts of condemnation and concern about the new president. Far from the outpouring of support and optimism that I was expecting based on my experience of conference, the mainstream media seemed fixated on the worrying picture being painted of Malia as an ISIS-sympathising anti-semite.
Where a white, left wing candidate may well have been referred to as ‘radical’ in many mainstream media spaces, Malia is spoken of by the Telegraph as an ‘extremist.’
But of course, there is a reason that the vast majority of Malia’s election coverage has been extremely negative. We must not overlook the fact that Malia being the first woman of colour to be elected as NUS president is ground-breaking, yet almost all reporting of this so far seems to incite fear. Where a white, left wing candidate may well have been referred to as ‘radical’ in many mainstream media spaces, Malia is spoken of by the Telegraph as an ‘extremist.’ She is being used as a scapegoat by institutions with a resentment of NUS and Students’ Unions, and is already being tied into the ongoing and irrelevant ‘free speech on campuses’ debate, despite her not taking up the post until July.
With the election of Malia, and the re-election of Shakira Martin, Sorana Vieru, and Shelly Asquith, we should be celebrating the victory of liberation and the left in NUS this year, but instead we are allowing the agenda to be set by populist, right-wing echo chambers like The Tab, and by establishment papers like The Telegraph that have always been hostile to student movements and our attempts to organise.
Only yesterday did Malia publicly defend herself since her election. She offered a loud, clear response to her critics, stating that her issue was with ‘zionist politics’ and not with ‘being Jewish’. She attacked the accusation that she is a ‘young Muslim who supports ISIS’ and rejected the notion that opposing the Prevent agenda made her an ‘extremist’. Malia has offered a robust rebuttal of these claims and has begun to reshape the debate so that it centres on her work so far, and around priority campaigns for the coming year, but we must stand in solidarity with her if we are going to truly affect this narrative.
We need to turn the discussion around Malia’s election away from stories of fear and suspicion, and towards a message of optimism, focusing on key campaigns that NUS will have to push for. The voices of students that should be being given representation by NUS are being drowned out in this sea of negative press. When we elected Malia, we voted to put issues like the black attainment gap, hate crimes on campuses, and the Prevent agenda at the forefront of organised student politics. So let’s not allow negative press to derail our campaigns, and let’s write our own dialogue on the future of student politics.