The student activist coalition National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts held its national conference at Birmingham Guild of Students on 8-9 December – its fifth since it was founded in February 2010.
About 120 student activists took part – by no means small considering the time of year and the sectarian in-fighting which took place at January’s conference in Liverpool. A big majority of those present were independent left students, in addition to groups from Workers’ Liberty, the Socialist Party, the SWP and Socialist Action. That the latter two groups had again come with a sectarian agenda was clear from the outset.
This time, however, their disruption failed. The conference was extremely democratic and constructive, with lots of time for motions, good-natured debate and useful, positive discussion and planning in the workshops. Workshop topics included FE and schools organisation, international students, what's happening in HE, organising at work, the lessons of the Quebec struggle, abortion rights, student union democracy and campaigning on the NHS.
The conference elected a committee of national committee of 14 people (9 independents, 1 from SA’s front “Student Broad Left”, 4 Workers’ Liberty) and autonomous caucuses – Women’s, LGBTQ, Black Power, Disabled, International Students – elected reps and people to sit on the NC (all independents, except the Women’s Campaign which elected a committee that will decide its NC rep).
Most significant, though, was agreement, by an overwhelming vote (with only SWP and Socialist Action trying to block it), to develop the structures of the campaign by agreeing a formal constitution with individual membership and an affiliation system for anti-cuts groups and student unions, as well as a charter of political demands. For an organisation that has been held back by lack of structure, this is a genuine step forward. The NCAFC should now not only be stronger, but more dynamic and responsive during periods of heightened struggle in the coming years.
There was much debate at the conference about the federal model of organisation used by the radical student federation ASSE which led the recent student uprising in Québec, and how – in the absence of the long-established departmental associations which form the base of ASSE – something similar might be accomplished here. The clause in NCAFC’s new constitution facilitating for emergency conferences of delegates from local activist groups reflected these lessons.
It was also decided to call another conference within six months to discuss the setting up of something along the lines of a “Fighting Federation of Student Unions”, ie an alternative SU federation organising and operating independently of NUS. Whether NCAFC should operate within NUS was a contested point – we generally believe it should. (More on this here.)
A sizeable number of independents, reacting to the record of the SWP, as well their own scepticism about the possibilities of working in NUS, voted against the SWP proposal to work towards a united left challenge at the 2013 NUS conference. Workers’ Liberty’s Rosie Huzzard spoke in favour of the proposal, and we voted for it alongside a majority of independents. In contrast, the conference overwhelmingly voted down attempts to say that left unity should include “Student Broad Left”.
The conference passed a motion on developing the NCAFC which argued that, instead of waiting next “big bang”, during the relative lull in student struggle we must develop our organisation, education and campaigns. Policies to extend the campaign’s focus towards previously neglected areas such as the NHS, student debt, housing and organising student workers were adopted, as well as the proposal to facilitate a speaker tour with a striking Wal-Mart or fast-food worker from the US.
There was debate on “bigger” political issues too. A Royal Holloway Labour Club motion to demand trade unions fight for free education, including in the Labour Party, passed but was predictably controversial. After several critical socialist contributions, Socialist Action’s motion presenting Venezuela as a model for free education was rejected with only four votes in favour. There was a lively debate on how to express our opposition to war and militarism. The conference also passed an emergency resolution in solidarity with Tamil students in Jaffna suffering repression from the Sri Lankan state.
The NCAFC is the only forum on the student left where activists with different views can debate these kind of issues while organising together for a serious struggle. NCAFC is now far stronger and better equipped for the coming battles. Those who have been involved in its development should be proud of what has been set up – and should continue to develop it, organise within it and draw new activists in.
Get in touch with the NCAFC:
07775 763 750
The report of the conference published by Socialist Action's student front "Student Broad Left" is a seriously mendacious concoction, even by their standards.
Socialist Action are attempting to cover up their comprehensive, crushing defeat at the conference - and the contempt most left-wing student activists feel for them - with a series of lies. So packed is the article with falsehoods we cannot cover everything, but here is a selection.
"The majority of the conference opposed supporting FE students in their fight to bring back EMA... A proposal that the NCAFC support the campaign to Bring Back EMA, initiated by over 100 student leaders last month – including an impressive coalition of SU Presidents, Officers and activists from Further Education – was voted down... In refusing to support the Bring Back EMA Campaign, NCAFC has positioned itself in opposition to a mass FE student-led anti-cuts campaign. The position put forward by supporters of Workers’ Liberty at the conference was that NCAFC shouldn’t support the Bring Back EMA campaign because it is backed by a range of students, including supporters of the Student Broad Left."
Reality: In fact "Bring Back EMA" is not a campaign at all, but a cardboard-thin Socialist Action front with no structures or way to get involved other than adding your name a statement (which is what AWL members actually said). The fact that they have got some people to do so doesn't change this. Its politics are totally inadequate, urging the restoration of the old, £30 a week, heavily means-tested EMA, emphasising how "modest" a demand this is, and talking about how this will "benefit the economy as a whole". In place of this, the conference demanded living grants for all college and sixth form students and a real campaign around this and other issues. Naturally SBL does not mention that the relevant amendment was moved by a black FE student who received EMA herself - an independent, not a member of the AWL.
"[The conference] rejected a proposal that NCAFC pressure the NUS to fight to defend students, with many instead favouring splitting from the national union to form their own federation of Students’ Unions... The main thrust of the speeches against the motion were explicitly opposed to left unity per se and called for the “smashing of the NUS”.
Reality: In fact the conference voted in favour of working for a united left intervention in NUS, as proposed by the SWP, but rejected SBL's text puffing up themselves and their various fronts. A majority indeed supported creating a new, independent federation of SUs, but only a small minority advocating not working in NUS. No one talked about "smashing the NUS" or anything like that.
"NCAFC’s new constitution contains measures... brought in so that political minorities can be removed from the campaign altogether. This will serve to weaken debate and discussion within the campaign and also further highlights the deep sectarianism rife within NCAFC, which does not seek to unite all those who want to campaign against fees and cuts... These undemocratic measures were introduced with no debate allowed."
Reality: What SBL actually object to is that the campaign agreed a democratic constitution with clear and accountable structures. They attempted to delete provision for a membership system, just as in 2011 they opposed the election of a National Committee (!) - before standing for it in order to disrupt the campaign. All this from an organisation that as far as you can tell has no constitution, no democratic structures, no debate - if it does, they are secret - and is simply run by Socialist Action. No one has been bureaucratically excluded from the NCAFC: this was an incredibly democratic conference where all motions submitted, even those from organisations which are not really part of the campaign, were discussed and voted on, with repeated votes for extra rounds of speeches, open elections and so on. In fact SBL supporter Matt Stanley was elected to the NC. (To read the new NCAFC constitution, see here.)
"NCAFC rejects working with the peace movement... In the course of the debate a supporter of Workers’ Liberty stated that he supported British troops remaining in Iraq... making the NCAFC more reactionary on this question than NUS."
Reality: The conference rejected a motion to support Stop the War on the grounds of its deeply problematic politics, for instance in regards to the Iranian regime or the recent Julian Assange case. It did not say it was impossible to work with Stop the War, specifically rejecting a clause which said this. The NCAFC already has policy against war and militarism. But, again, for SBL, voting against their twisted version of "anti-war" politics (which are in fact pro-Chinese and Russian imperialism) means that you are pro-war. As for the claim made about AWL member Bob Sutton, he said nothing of the sort - how could he, since in fact there are no longer any British troops in Iraq! What Bob actually said was that Workers' Liberty had opposed the occupation of Iraq, but rejected the slogan "Troops out now" (obviously this is now a largely past debate... which must be why the rejected SBL motion said nothing about Iraq). As for the ludicrous claim about NUS, we note that SBL (and Stop the War) have done nothing to support the high profile student officer victimised for opposing militarism this year - AWL member Daniel Cooper at ULU.
"A motion called ‘Venezuela shows there is an alternative: free education as a right’ was also rejected. This motion drew attention to the amazing social achievements made in the past 14 years under the Chavez-led government including eradicating illiteracy, introducing free education at all levels as a constitutional right and trebling the number of university students since 1998 so that now 85% of young people are enrolled in higher education in Venezuela, compared to just 43% in Britain."
Reality: Here SBL come closest to telling the truth. What they don't say is that, apart from their four votes, the conference rejected this motion unanimously, with about a hundred people (including the SWP) voting against. Of course, social reforms one in Venezuela do not mean that we should support the bourgeois Chavez government. But in addition, many of the "facts" in the motion were highly questionable (see here.)
We call on Socialist Action to stop telling lies about others on the left, admit they in a minority on many issues (as any honest socialists would) rather than wildly denouncing their opponents, and stop attempting to disrupt the NCAFC.