Wednesday 22-10-2014 - 14:30
The 1970s was a turbulent decade for student politics and indeed for life in general in the UK. It culminated in the country electing its first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979. However, it was two years earlier that the student movement elected its first female figurehead.
Sue Slipman was not only NUS’ first female president, but also its leader during one of the most significant periods of transition in the movement’s history.
Born in 1949 to a working-class family in Brixton, south London, Sue Slipman has journeyed from modest beginnings to fulfil a truly unique career. Now the Director of the NHS Confederation Foundation Trust Network, she has been at the pinnacle of a diverse range of organisations over the years, including the National Council for One Parent Families, the Gas Consumers Council and National Lottery operator Camelot, with every position underpinned by her passion for delivering social justice.
However, none of this would have been possible had she not taken the decision in the mid-1970s to engage with student politics.
After studying English at the University of Wales in Lampeter, Slipman took a postgraduate course at the University of Leeds, from where she was elected NUS vice president in 1974.
She swiftly gathered momentum within the organisation, moving on to become deputy president to Charles Clarke in 1975 and then the first female full-time officer as national secretary in 1976.
The following year, she set her sights one step higher, running for president as a member of the Communist Party on the Broad Left ticket – her campaign was successful, and in 1977 she was elected the first female president in NUS history.
Slipman sees her election as a significant moment for the student movement. “In the whole history of the union since it being set up in 1922, being the first woman was clearly going to attract a lot of media attention, and it did,” she says.
“Certainly student politics had been in the spotlight for some time, particularly given what was happening in the early 1970s in terms of where students lined up with areas of unrest and with unions in general. I think being the first woman highlighted that.”
During her presidency, Slipman was hailed for her role in negotiating with the Labour Government on proposals to change the system of students’ union financing. Unfortunately, her carefully crafted compromise deal was rendered redundant by the election of the Thatcher Government in 1979, which came as a tough blow.
However, by transforming NUS into a pluralistic movement, Slipman left the union well equipped to deal with such a departure. “We had a positive relationship with the previous government, and clearly the Thatcher election was a very radical departure, because what it signalled was the end of the post-war consensus on the role the socialised state,” she says.
“I think it took a while, but learning to work with all governments was an absolutely necessary turning point in the union growing up.”
Slipman is also renowned for her opposition to NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy; indeed she was the last president to have the policy reversed. It’s an issue that she still feels strongly about today.
“At the time, the UN passed a declaration that Zionism is a form of racism, and that got conflated in a number of universities because of the support for Zionism within Jewish societies,” she explains.
“On that basis, Jewish societies then started to be banned, so you had this ludicrous situation in which something that started off being anti-racist, ended up cementing racist acts! Someone had to stand up against that degree of complete and utter nonsense, so we did.”
She considers the conference that saw the policy reversed as the finest hour of her presidency: “We also worked with both the Union of Jewish Students and the Palestinian Students’ Union to reach a consensus position on the Middle East, and it was glorious really.” Unfortunately for Slipman, the ‘no platform’ policy was reinstated shortly after her departure.
In addition to being the first female president, Slipman is noted for being the last president before Aaron Porter to serve only one year. She sheds some light on her decision to stand down: “There were lots of reasons for it, but what was key was that had I done two years, Trevor Phillips would never have had the opportunity to stand because of the way the election system worked. I really liked the idea that the first woman president would be followed by the first black president – it’s pretty cool, isn’t it?”
If every public figure were capable of such self-sacrifice for the perceived overall good, then perhaps there would be more faith in politics today.
After leaving NUS, Slipman took on a new direction in politics. She left the Communist Party to become a founding member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a move that certainly caused a stir among her opponents.
“I was a communist because of all those beliefs in a much more widely open society based on opportunities for people,” she explains. “It was a really vibrant place to be at one stage, but it became clear to me very shortly after leaving student politics that I was moving in a much more pluralist direction, and the Communist Party was not able to change.
The reason I joined the SDP was that I had located myself as a social democrat, and it was an opportunity to try to do politics in a new way. It was based on an alliance between parties, therefore not believing that you had the holy church of answers but having to negotiate with people from a different political tradition, which was where I wanted to be. It seemed to me that it might break what had become a logjam on the left.”
The SDP positioned itself in the middle ground between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and a Labour Party that had lurched drastically to the left. In doing so, Slipman believes it paved the way for a new politics in the 1990s.
“I would say that the SDP–Liberal Alliance ultimately created New Labour,” she says. “I think that when we threatened – as we did, quite significantly – the political establishment, that gave impetus to those in the Labour Party who wanted to change it.”
The merger of the SDP with the Liberals in 1988 signalled the end of Slipman’s direct involvement with mainstream politics. Since her departure, her career has taken what appears on the surface to be a somewhat disjointed path, although she stresses that a recurring theme of social justice has remained at the heart of everything she has done.
“One Parent Families was about a marginalised group on the edges of society who were vilified, and my mission was to move them from the margins into the mainstream, and we did that,” she says. “Camelot as a privatesector organisation had an absolutely key role in running a national institution that had huge social accountabilities.
The National Lottery has been one of the most significant factors in producing huge amounts of money for social good, and my job was to make sure that it did that with a clean conscience.”
Slipman is currently Director of the Foundation Trust Network, an organisation that works to raise the profile of issues facing authorised and applicant NHS foundation trusts.
“I think the National Health Service is probably the one significant institution we have left that is about social solidarity,” she says. “It holds an extraordinary place in people’s hearts that defines what kind of society we are.
But up to now, it has been run in kind of a command-and-control way, which is deeply inefficient. In simple terms, if you are running a hospital and you make a surplus, under the old system it would have been taken away from you and given to the inefficient guy down the road who didn’t make a surplus. That did not encourage organisations to be efficient.
What we do as foundation trusts is precisely that, we make surpluses and we have to reinvest them in healthcare. We have to involve our stakeholders in determining how those funds get spent, so foundation trusts are accountable to elected governors. So we are a really significant part of upholding the NHS.”
It has been over three decades since Slipman moved on from NUS, and the landscape has changed almost beyond recognition for the student movement. “I think we were probably the last of the postwar idealists, and the world has become far more managerial since then,” she says.
“I think that the challenges for students now are about keeping those pockets of opportunity open in a world where higher education isn’t as accessible as it was.
Things are going to get a lot tougher for everybody. I think the student leaders of today have to be a lot more grown up than we were in terms of negotiating their way around – I am not sure if it is as much fun as it was when I was doing it, but it is certainly critical.”
Education funding is indeed at the pinnacle of the modern NUS agenda. So what advice would a woman of Sue Slipman’s experience offer today’s movement? “I really do not want to preach to this generation of student leaders about what they should do, but it seems to me that they have to be into the politics of mitigating the worst things that might happen,” she says.
“The realities are the realities, and I think it is likely that students will be charged more for their courses. It is about how you manage loans and paybacks, whether you do it through a graduate tax, all of those issues on the agenda – which hopefully can protect as much access to education as we can maintain and then really focus on those who would otherwise be excluded.”
Slipman professes that student leaders are in a unique position to develop as people: “It seems to me that the generation coming up have an opportunity to express their dreams through student politics.
They keep some of that idealism alive, and they get to have an influence on the shaping of society, which has always been the case with students’ unions. It doesn’t always get well used, but it is an enormous opportunity to have that level of involvement in being able to shape your society.”
Slipman certainly pinpoints her time in the student movement as being crucial to her further career development. “I can’t think of any other thing you might have done in your early 20s that would have exposed you to real leadership of a huge force,” she explains.
“I was learning to chair conferences of 2,000 people, about a third of whom were baying for your blood. So you got used to the real rough and tumble of how to manage difficult situations, of negotiating with ministers, of a lot of media exposure.
All of those huge learning experiences, life skills and political skills, all of us who were involved in student politics got very early on, and that has been incredibly useful in life, and it gives you a kind of confidence in your ability to manage difficult situations, to make decisions, to be a leader.”
And as for women in politics? There have been six female NUS presidents since Slipman left, but she believes that the battles are far from over. “You look at the frontline in the current coalition cabinet and it doesn’t give great hope that women have really made those breakthroughs and are taken absolutely seriously in politics,” she says.
“Women are still a small minority – the moment there was that photograph of Blair’s Babes I thought, ‘Oh God, we haven’t really changed that much, have we?’”
The biggest ongoing challenge for students’ unions is to be relevant to an ever-evolving membership demographic, and despite being out of the movement for so long, it is a challenge that Sue Slipman remains very much keyed into.
“One of the issues is of course the way that the union behaves, and whether the voice it speaks with makes sense to the ears of the students it is meant to represent,” she says. “If you get that right then you can reaffirm for a whole generation beliefs that will take them through the rest of their lives.”
The first female NUS President that never was
In 1940, Marie Corsellis of Bedford College was the first woman to be elected as NUS president, but she never took up office.
Before the war broke out, Ivison Macadam, the founding president of NUS, was given the task of secretly creating what was to be the Ministry of Information, a department that in the event of war would take charge of wartime propaganda.
Macadam was working at the Royal Institute of the International Affairs as its director; he was also a trustee of NUS. As part of the process he had to recruit people who would work in the new ministry.
When war broke out, all NUS staff had been so recruited and left to work in Whitehall, with Macadam deputy permanent secretary to the new department. The president-elect Brian Simon wanted to recruit a permanent secretary to keep NUS going during the war years.
However, in 1940 the NUS Congress of that year voted to condemn the war, a source of embarrassment for Macadam as it was seen as unpatriotic and newspapers roundly condemned the decision.
The reason delegates had taken this position was that the Communist Party line had shifted following the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact between Stalin and Hitler, and the ‘war against fascism’ had become a ‘war against imperialism’. Delegates, including Simon, followed the party line.
Macadam and other trustees were generally concerned about the political turn NUS had taken, and they tried to shut NUS down. The rest of the year was spent in legal dispute, however a compromise was agreed and part of the deal was that all trustees and all the executive-elect would resign their positions and re-seek election.
On the day of the presidential election Brian Simon had to rejoin his regiment in Dorset, and unfortunately Corsellis lost the re-run by one vote to Peter Rivett of Leeds University. Had she won, it’s very hard to believe that it would have taken another 37 years before another woman took office, but it was not to be.