Why we voted for unity with the SWP

At the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference at Birmingham Uni on 8-9 December, Workers' Liberty students voted for a proposal from the student wing of the Socialist Workers' Party:

“To mandate the incoming NCAFC NC to work towards a united left challenge to the current NUS leadership in the elections for President and Vice Presidents at the forthcoming NUS National Conference 2013.” (Which will take place 8-10 April, in Sheffield.)

Our comrade Rosie Huzzard, just elected to the NCAFC national committee, made one of the two speeches in favour.

Although the resolution passed comfortably, a big chunk of independent activists (who made up a large majority at the conference) voted against.

It seemed that there were three basic concerns among those who did so (obviously not everyone who voted that way shared exactly the same views):
1. That there is no point in intervening in NUS;
2. That unity is not really an advantage;
3. That the SWP has behaved incredibly badly in the student movement, using the call for “unity” to try to dominate the left in a disruptive, unprincipled way.

We disagree with the first, although we share much of the analysis of many of those who argue it. We disagree with the second, though we can see where the argument is coming from. We agree with the third – but we don't think it follows that any degree of united front with the SWP is undesirable or impossible. We will explain all this in more detail below.

Why left unity is a powerful idea

It is easy, as an established left activist tired of the SWP's antics, to think: “Fuck 'em”. But in addition to relating to the many good activists who exist within or close to the SWP, it is necessary consider the issues from a wider perspective.

Left unity is a powerful, inspiring idea. That is one reason why so many people have rallied to the left-wing coalition Syriza in Greece – because its championing of a united left and a united left government, against the deep-rooted sectarianism of the Stalinist Greek Communist Party, speaks to the demands of the struggle.

Many of the thousands of broadly left-wing student activists, and tens of thousands of students who lean that way but are not currently active, instinctively value and identify with the idea of left unity. The fracturing and bickering which particularly plague the student left (not the same thing as real political argument, which we need much of) are one factor which puts people off involvement. Any substantial move towards unity will give hope to, galvanise and draw in many new people.

There are very likely big struggles ahead in Britain. In that context, seeking a greater degree of unity, or at least united action, on the left is vitally important.

This is not just or primarily a matter of NUS elections. We in the AWL want unity of the revolutionary socialist left in a single, democratic party where freedom of debate is not regarded as a luxury but as a the necessary flip side of unity in action. Over many years, the SWP has done a lot to hinder progress towards that goal. We are a very long way from it happening. Yet we still advocate it, because it is necessary.

Of course some independent NCAFC activists will have a different view. But the NCAFC as a whole has consistently argued for (and to the extent it can, tried to become) a real united left student activist network in which different political tendencies, and activists who are not part of any tendency, can work together. The SWP do not want that either, and we cannot change that at will. But we can advocate the still more immediate goal of different left-wing student organisations genuinely working together in struggle, in a spirit of honest cooperation. This would be a real step forward.

Unity does not, or should not, mean pretending we have no differences or keep quiet about our criticisms of each other. It should mean putting forward our distinctive ideas, criticising each other and debating things while uniting in commonly agreed struggles.

The most important struggles demanding unity are on our campuses, in our workplaces, on the streets. But if we can get unity for a left challenge in NUS, all the better.

Counter-argument 1: There is no point in intervening in NUS

We agree that NUS is a bureaucratic behemoth geared to stifling activist initiative, that it is vital to organise independently of it and that the student left needs to think creatively about this, rather than continuing business as usual. However, we disagree with completely giving up on NUS, for several reasons.

Firstly, despite their decline, NUS and its affiliated student unions (the overwhelming majority of SUs in Britain) still involve substantial numbers of students and have substantial potential mobilising power, as shown even by NUS's very poorly organised and fought for demonstration in November.

Secondly, despite the bureaucratisation of NUS, NUS conferences are still, at least to an extent, a place where very large numbers of activists from across the country come together, where the left can “network” and make new links and which many more activists look to as a decision-making centre for the movement.

Thirdly, disaffiliating student unions from NUS will do nothing to make them more radical (disaffiliation has basically been a right-wing cause); being part of NUS does not prevent SUs and activists from doing anything; and, as many activists are now discussing, it is possible to coordinate SUs independently anyway.

Fourthly, the student left is – unfortunately – predominately concentrated in the posher universities, and it should not cut itself off from activists and students at other institutions. Work in NUS is not the only way to develop links, but it is one of them.

Lastly, we do not think the activist left should cut itself off from NUS's Liberation Campaigns, which in addition to being important as such, sometimes take more radical positions than the central NUS leadership.

The SWP – to say nothing of the Stalinist, careerist bureaucrats of “Student Broad Left” – is far too focused on elections for NUS national executive at NUS conference. Nonetheless, these elections are not without importance. And a serious, united left campaign around them – which has not happened for years – could help mobilise student activists outside the conference, before and after.

Counter-argument 2: Is unity really an advantage?

Some at the NCAFC conference did not disagree with intervening in NUS, but argued that left unity for the NUS elections is not really an advantage, and that the left could achieve more by standing competing candidates with different ideas and perspectives. There is an element of truth to this, at least in the sense that "unity" should not be an excuse to let the SWP and its friends stitch things up behind closed doors, exclude or marginalise the NCAFC, prevent political debate and stand weak candidates on a weak platform. Nonetheless, we believe having a single radical left candidate for each of the full-time officer positions, with a common set of basic demands in addition to their own more extensive programmes, would significantly boost the impact of the left's intervention, and more importantly have a very positive impact beyond the conference too. Having a united slate of candidates should absolutely not prevent disagreements and different ideas on the left being aired, including through motions to the conference.

Counter-argument 3: The SWP's record and way of operating make unity undesirable or impossible

At this NCAFC conference too, although their behaviour was nothing like as bad as at the January conference in Liverpool (probably because they could not have got away with it), SWP members were unconstructive, to put it mildly.

Apart from proposing unity in NUS, their main goals seemed to be getting elected to the NC (they failed – good, given their disruptive role last year) and trying to prevent the adoption of a membership structure for the campaign (again, they failed). SWSS leader Jamie Woodcock's utterly disingenuous speech when he proposed deleting any provision to have a membership system – on the nonsensical grounds that it would stop new people from getting involved – was a classic of opportunistic cynicism.

In NUS, for several years, the SWP has dominated discussions about left candidates for the National Executive, preventing a genuine united left from being created, carving out its factional opponents in favour of “Student Broad Left” and imposing weak candidates. A big part of its drive to disrupt the NCAFC in 2011-12 seems to have come from a fear – this is quite sad – of losing its pre-eminent position in a weak NUS left.

Of course, this approach is not peculiar to the student movement – many activists from the labour movement and other fields of struggle know all about the SWP leadership's sectarianism, its stitch-ups, its preference for undemocratic fronts (eg Education Activist Network, but also many others) and so on.

What's wrong with the SWP?

More and more student activists are familiar with and outraged by the way the SWP operates. Why is it like that?

We would argue that the SWP's approach represents “apparatus Marxism” – putting the perceived interests of an organisation, as such, above commitment to any ideas (we say “perceived” because in fact by doing this the SWP repeatedly shoots itself in the foot). This is what creates the basic problem that the SWP does not stick even to its own principles as proclaimed by itself, but does whatever it thinks will benefit it as an organisation.

Over the years, this tendency has also shaped and reshaped the SWP's political ideas. It has contributed strongly towards producing their deeply flawed positions on a whole series of issues: the trade union bureaucracy, anti-fascism, feminism, anti-semitism, national conflicts, the right to criticise religion, Islamism, reactionary anti-imperialism and much more... Just when you think nothing the SWP comes out with can surprise you, there is some new ideological disaster. Advocating a vote for Egypt's far-right, neo-liberal, Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in May was perhaps a new low.

Obviously not all independent activists will share our political criticisms of the SWP on all these issues. But we think most would agree that after their behaviour in the student movement in recent years, it is necessary for the NCAFC to treat them with great suspicion and caution. Hence many independent comrades at NCAFC conference voting against their motion.

What is needed

But it does not follow that working with the SWP – including in NUS – should be ruled out.

Despite everything said above, the SWP can (unlike SBL/Socialist Action) meaningfully be called a left-wing organisation. It involves many decent grassroots activists in the student and workers' movements, and sometimes plays a useful role in class struggles. Although, like all the left, it is weak, it is a relatively strong force in the student movement and a layer of students do look to it.

Just as AWL members and other NCAFC supporters often cooperate with SWPers in local struggles and particular campaigns, there is a strong case for us to see if we can form a united front with them to politically challenge the leadership at NUS conference.

In 1998 and 1999, there were united left slates for the full-time officer positions on NUS executive involving the SWP and the broad group called the Campaign for Free Education, which was in some respects a distant predecessor of the NCAFC. Because these slates represented a genuinely broad cross-section of the most active parts of the movement, there was a big campaign generated around them, they had a big impact and they did well even in terms of votes (in 1998, CFE candidate Kate Buckell, an AWL member, only lost NUS President by 15 votes).

The conditions for meaningful unity now are:

1. The SWP breaks with its bad habits and enters into discussions in a genuinely open, constructive, democratic spirit, instead of trying to impose solutions, stitch things up, “get one over” on others on the left, disrupt the NCAFC etc.

2. It breaks with its allies in “Student Broad Left” and orients to working with other socialists and grassroots activists instead. This is not to say that no one associated with SBL in any form can ever conceivably be part of a united left – just that the SWP needs to stop propping up and covering for these Stalinist hacks, who without their help would probably have disappeared from the student movement long ago. (The way the SWP disrupts left unity to ally with SBL is reminiscent of the way that in 2003 they destroyed the Socialist Alliance to ally with SBL's hero... George Galloway.)

Of course, this may not happen. But we should fight for it.

The resolution passed at NCAFC conference commits the campaign to “working towards” unity – and the strong, democratic, independent National Committee elected at the conference means the NCAFC can now make its own independent decisions. The NCAFC can no longer be bullied by the SWP or excluded through stitch-ups – which makes it all the more important we take the lead in trying to build a united front with them.

We understand why many independent NCAFC comrades want nothing to do with the SWP. But the logic of the struggle is more important than our (justified) disgust or irritation.

Please get in touch to tell us your views on this, whether you agree or disagree: students@workersliberty.org / 07775 763 750.