After six months of significant student struggles in support of campus workers and against repression, the left won important victories at the National Union of Students conference in Liverpool.
By a clear margin, delegates defeated the NUS leadership to pass a left-wing motion opposing all forms of paying for education - including not only fees but the graduate tax currently proposed by Labour - and demanding free education, funded by taxing the rich and taking over the banks. The vote was significant because the leadership fought the motion hard.
Except for strictly on paper in 2002-4, NUS has not supported free education since 1996, when it ditched the policy to help Blair introduce fees.
The conference voted for active solidarity with lecturers' fight for better pay; for a maximum 5:1 pay ratio on campuses; for a default policy of supporting strikes; and to campaign for the creation of decent public sector jobs and for the Minimum Wage to be raised to the Living Wage. It also voted to fight the repression of student activists, and called for pledges from managements not to invite the police onto campus without student union permission.
Very importantly, delegates repeatedly and overwhelmingly took a strong stance on migrants' rights, explicitly calling for freedom of movement and equal rights for all. They passed a motion to campaign against UKIP, specifically endorsing left-wing arguments against withdrawal from the EU, and rejected affiliation to 'Unite Against Fascism' in favour of a class-struggle anti-fascist policy.
A new system of guaranteed representation for women on the National Executive and on conference delegations also passed, having been narrowly rejected last year following a right-wing campaign.
In a result no one expected, after an extremely strong speech, left-winger Piers Telemacque from Bradford College beat both the Blairite favourite and a previously more prominent left candidate to be elected Vice President Society & Citizenship. Telemacque is an independent; his campaign was promoted by Student Broad Left, the student wing of the Socialist Action group.
Most of the extensive left-wing policy proposed to the conference originated with the left-wing student coalition National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), and quite a bit of it with Workers' Liberty students.
However, it was very much a mixed picture. The leadership and in some cases open right wingers beat the left on some extremely important issues. Delegates rejected the abolition of zero hours contracts, the idea of fighting for maximum rents and - crucially - the call for a first term national demo on jobs and education.
In the debate on police repression, the conference deleted the call for police needing SU permission to come onto campus to be enshrined in law.
Birmingham Defend Education activists' attempts to expose their SU president Poppy Wilkinson's collaboration with university management and the police against student protesters was ludicrously condemned as bullying, because Wilkinson was one of Labour Students' flagship election candidates.
Delegates voted for democratisation of universities and colleges, including 'opening the books', but deleted calls for management to be elected and recallable.
The long, continuing process of bureaucratisation had produced a small (less than 800 delegates, against more than double that 15 years ago) and in many ways depoliticised conference. The conference building used to be full of all kinds of political caucuses - now the NCAFC is the only organisation to hold them regularly and on any scale.
Incumbent president Toni Pearce was re-elected overwhelmingly (with AWL and NCAFC member Daniel Cooper coming third behind SBL's Aaron Kiely), and the leadership held onto four of the five Vice President positions. Apart from Society & Citizenship, the closest VP election was for VP Union Development, where NCAFCer Hannah Webb took 38 percent against 59 for the incumbent.
There are openings for left militants and grassroots activists in NUS, but they are limited, and stronger organisation throughout the year as well as at the conference is needed to make more of an impact.
NCAFC held a packed first night social and fringe meetings on defending the right to protest and campus workers' struggles; distributed large amounts of materials including a daily bulletin; and in addition to candidates for President and the Vice Presidents, stood four members, including our comrades Beth Redmond and Daniel Cooper, for the part-time section of the executive. (Results out next week.)
The campaign met many new activists, and worked with other groups including the Young Greens and SWP-split RS21 to organise two meetings on fighting to actually put NUS's new free education policy into practice. One result is a national event to plan the way forward on 15 June.
In the year running up to the general election, the NUS leadership will do very little to fight for left-wing policies, unless it faces substantial pressure and a movement willing to organise action independently. That is what left activists at the conference determined to make happen.
To contact AWL Students, ring 07775 763 750 or email Ed Maltby.
It seems that the conference actually voted in favour of banning zero hours contracts, in the motion on creating decent jobs, but later voted against the same proposal in another motion following an actual debate. So this is formally NUS policy, but was in fact rejected consciously by delegates.
The essential reason is that a big proportion of the delegates, maybe a majority, are student union sabbaticals, and that many of them will be reluctant to end use of zero hours contracts in their SU bars, shops and so on.
The members of NUS NEC voted overwhelmingly with the left on this, but did not get up to join the fight.
The student left needs to develop clear explanations of why abolishing zero hours contracts does not rule out "flexibility". The point is we want flexibility (alongside guaranteed rights and income) for workers, not for employers.
The left, broadly defined, will be a bigger presence on NUS executive this year.
7 of the 15 part-time positions "Block of 15" positions on the NEC were won by broadly left-wing candidates.
There are some elections still to come (eg at the autonomous LGBT and Black Students' conferences) but it seems as if the left could make up at least a third of the incoming NEC (total size 46). Even though this left is amorphous and shades off at the edges, this is a substantial shift.
Workers' Liberty, RS21, the Socialist Party and Socialist Action all have a member on the committee. The Green Party has more than one, though they were not all elected as Green candidates. The NCAFC has at least five supporters on the new NEC, and possibly more since some people are NCAFC members but not elected under that banner.
With good organisation and an orientation to grassroots struggles, this could have a positive impact on student activism and on NUS.