Students are "fed up" with the bad press the Oxford Union is generating. Photo: Flickr
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Oxford Union speakers urged to withdraw after rape allegations against president

The women’s officer of Oxford’s student union, OUSU, and another student have started a campaign for the Oxford Union president to resign from his post after he was accused of rape and attempted rape.

Oxford students have launched a campaign to force the Oxford Union's president to resign after he was accused of rape and attempted rape. 

The Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, Sarah Pine, and second year history and politics student Helena Dollimore are asking high-profile speakers to withdraw from Union debates.

Two weeks ago, the Union's current president, Ben Sullivan, was called in by police for questioning on allegations of rape and attempted rape. He has been released without charge on bail, and returned last week to his position. He denies the allegations, and made this statement to the debate chamber:

“As you may be aware no charges have been brought against me and I have the utmost faith in the police and Crown Prosecution Service and the British legal system as a whole. I know that sooner or later the truth will prevail and justice will be served.”

Pine and Dollimore have so far contacted about 30 of the upcoming speakers, explaining the situation and asking them to pull out of their appointments at the Union. They include Human Rights Watch’s David Mepham (who has agreed to pull out), band Foster the People, American entrepreneur Julie Meyer, Newton Investment CEO Helena Morrissey, MEP and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, actor Evanna Lynch, Baroness Lawrence, singer Paloma Faith, and New Statesman editor Jason Cowley.

Pine, who is campaigning in a personal capacity, calls it a “push for equality in the Union”. She decided to contact most of the Union’s booked speakers because they “wouldn’t have been aware of the situation and might not have been aware of the students’ feelings around it”. However, she admits that “there are differences in opinion” about whether or not Sullivan should resign.

Oxford student Helena Dollimore, who is campaigning jointly with Pine, said that she believes high-profile speakers should reconsider their commitment to the Union. “Ordinary students are just getting quite fed up at the Oxford Union and the press it’s generating, the reputation it’s generating, the message it’s sending out about our university.”

A vote of no-confidence in the president has been called for this Thursday by an ordinary Union member, but I am told that even if this passes, it does not automatically mean Sullivan will resign.

The open letter has been signed by New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.

UPDATE: Under Oxford Union rules, a member can only be suspended if criminal charges have been brought, in which case the Standing Committee can take action. See p16 of the Oxford Union rules for further details.

UPDATE, 18 JUNE 2014: Thames Valley Police confirm that the case against Sullivan has been dropped and he will not face charges.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition