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Durham University Labour Club co-chairs suspended over election canvassing

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The co-chairs of Durham University Labour Club were temporarily suspended from their roles after organising canvassing for December’s General Election.

On 5 November, Durham Students’ Union (DSU) suspended Jack Pearce and Zoe Hayloc

On 5 November, Durham Students’ Union (DSU) suspended Jack Pearce and Zoe Haylock in accordance with charity law from 2014. DSU is a registered charity and by extension so are its societies, and charities are not allowed to endorse any political candidates. Charities are only able to campaign with political parties on single issues, and must remain party-politically neutral.

The decision by the DSU was prompted by 11 members of the Club canvassing on Saturday 2 November, and 20 on Sunday 3.

Alongside suspending the co-chairs, the DSU has warned the Club that they may face disaffiliation from the Union if they continue to campaign in the run up to the election on 12 December.

The Club has argued against this decision, denouncing is as “unfair”, as they have continued to campaign since the introduction of this law in 2014, with sustained efforts during the 2015 and 2017 general elections alongside the 2019 European elections, yet faced no opposition. The Club explicitly states on their page on the DSU website that they “will also campaign for the local and national Labour Party, as well as on campus to spread Labour values amongst the wider community”, and the Club argues that this was also included in their constitution, which was passed by DSU in summer. On their Twitter, the Club expressed their frustrations, saying that “With this many activists out we can make a real difference. The SU ought to be proud of the work the club is doing, not trying to shut us down.”

When questioned by Durham University’s student newspaper Palatinate, Pearce described the process as “pretty terrible – they kind of accused me of breaking the law, which was quite upsetting”. He furthered this by describing the DSU as behaving in a “standoffish and aggressive” way with the Labour Club.

An additional objection that the Club has to DSU’s ruling is that many other Students’ Unions in the UK which are registered as charities are allowing their Labour Clubs to canvass for the Party without penalty.

Writing in the Palatinate, Durham student Charlie Taylor argued that “if other universities follow suit, Tory, Labour or Lib Dem associations and clubs will become completely redundant”, and he described the DSU’s decision as “an outrage for student activism.”

Loughborough University Labour Society has issued a statement of solidarity with their counterparts at Durham, maintaining that “canvassing is an integral part of politics, and Durham SU have set a dangerous precedent of suppressing student political activism”. They further stated how they “find it upsetting to see the organisations that are meant to be upholding our best interests undermining the political process and devaluing the benefits that a Labour government would have for the student population”.

On the NUSU website, Newcastle University Labour Society state that their activities include “organis[ing] and coordinat[ing] campaigning with local Labour affiliated groups”, and they have been canvassing in Newcastle for the upcoming General Election. The Conservative Society, on the other hand, describe how they are “broadly associated but not officially affiliated with the Conservative and Unionist Party”, while the Liberal Democrat Society simply say that they “participate in politics at all levels”.

Both co-chairs at Durham were temporarily suspended, with two society members standing in as interim leaders, but the Club was still able to operate in affiliation with the DSU. On 27 November, it was announced that the Labour Club’s co-chairs’ suspensions had been lifted. This week the Labour Club have been showing their solidarity with striking UCU workers on campus. The Club also recently organised a Register to Vote bar crawl to encourage students to register in Durham.

Last modified: 1st December 2019

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