A well organised coalition of aggrieved and right-leaning candidates prevailed against the left at this year’s conference of the National Union of Students (25-28 April). After three years of substantial shifts to the left on policy in the student movement, the mood of left delegates was, at times, one of exasperation and sadness.
The political tone was set during the earliest debates, when liberal arguments for free education prevailed against left-wing counter-arguments. Conference was asked to vote for free education on the grounds that it would be “good for the economy” (i.e. big business) and be more appealing to those in power.
In elections to the National Executive Shakira Martin, standing on a apolitical platform (“listening, learning, leading”) ousted Malia Bouattia as President. Bouttia’s presidency, despite weaknesses, brought about a tangible leftward shift in NUS. Similar candidates won other full-time positions — VP Welfare (Izzy Lenga), VP Further Education (Emily Chapman), VP Higher Education (Amatey Doku) and VP Society and Citizenship (Robbie Young). Although left candidate Ali Milani won the final full-time position, VP Union Development, he positioned himself as a centrist. While we should avoid centring our analysis in an individualistic way around the winning candidates, this is a concerning outcome. How did this new grouping achieve success?
For the first time in a very long time, the left candidates — Bouattia alongside left-backed candidates for VP Welfare (Shelly Asquith) and VP Higher Education (Sorana Vieru) — were equated with the mainstream of NUS. Opposition to them came from many areas. For some, it was a clear political opposition to the left-wing leadership — either as opposition to left politics or from a desire for an “apolitical” NUS. For some, it was an organisational dissatisfaction with the way the left leadership had operated in a cliquey way and had failed to be effective at reaching out to lots of campuses outside of its own bubble. For some, it was legitimate concerns over the left antisemitism existing in parts of our movement. For some, it was overt or subtle Islamophobia directed towards Bouattia and others that led a drive to oust her.
Through speeches which talked about bringing a change to NUS, the anti-left candidates were able to channel dissatisfaction into winning hundreds of votes in each election for one set, or slate, of candidates. Part of the reason they were successful undoubtedly lies in the fact that a string of disaffiliation campaigns from right-wing student unions have taken place during this year. These campaigns brought together various dissatisfied groups and unified them behind a single “No to NUS” campaign, which registered dissatisfaction with the left NUS mainstream.
While many right-wing officers campaigned for students’ unions to stay in NUS, they also openly and honestly made their opposition to the left in NUS well known. By the time of conference, the right was pushing for change in NUS, and a model of dissatisfied groups lining up together with the aim of kicking out a left establishment, had already been practised across the country.
The left understandably feels deflated, but the situation is not as dire as it seems. Before Bouattia and for over a decade, a right-wing (led by Blairite Labour students) successfully argued for a graduate tax against free education in NUS. Those forces are now politically weak. The new anti-NUS coalition has not politically won over its supporters to anything like these politics, nor does it look likely to do so. Policies in favour of free education, in support of universal living grants, of nationalising the big six energy companies and free movement all passed. A motion saying that all protests should be peaceful and non-disruptive was voted down.
The new president, Shakira Martin, is an advocate of free education; the new VP Higher Education not only supports free education, but ran a respectable NSS boycott campaign on his campus this year and voted for Corbyn in the Labour leadership elections. The point is not that we should expect this group to do left-wing things — we should not — but that the political territory that they felt they needed to compete in was vastly to the left of previous years.
The left is has many problems — from antisemitism to a cliquey and top down way of organising. Our poor results prove we need to change our game. We should not try to retreat into secret and informal cliques but should drive forward uncompromisingly for democratic organising and a mass movement, as the only effective alternative to the new leadership of the student movement, and the only effective way of defeating the Tory government.
A left which focusses on building grassroots campaigns and organising through democratic structures, which has genuine political debate, is a left which will grow and become more and more politically sharp. This has to be our project for the upcoming year: to help spark local activism and bring in new activists and link them up with workers’ struggles.
We need to build a coherent national movement against the Higher Education reforms which have now become law and for free education in spite of the political shift in NUS. We need to convince people of socialist politics and recruit students and campus workers to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. In the first place Workers’ Liberty students will be campaigning hard for a Labour vote from students.