Lessons from the student demo: if the NUS leadership doesn't want to fight, many students do!


(National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts/University of London feeder march)

Despite the rain, more than ten thousand school, college and university students marched through London on the National Union of Students demonstration on Wednesday, illustrating again the passion and dedication of student activists in Britain. Despite past defeats, many thousands of students want a serious fight.

Unfortunately, the indications are – still are – that the leadership of NUS do not. Whether this is for straightforwardly careerist reasons, because they are afraid of things getting out of hand as in 2010-11, or because they simply cannot imagine winning, the facts are clear.

That the giant bureaucracy of NUS mobilised not that many more students than the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts did last year is an indictment of them. So is the fact that they organised a route which studiously avoided any and all centres of political and economic power and national attention. So is the lack of support given to constituent unions and activist groups in building for the demo.

The NUS leadership ignored conference decisions on what the demonstration should demand, substituting the vague slogan “Educate, employ, empower”, with no real demands on the government. At NUS’s 2012 conference, in April, the slogan “Tax the rich to fund education”, proposed by NCAFC supporters, was democratically adopted. However it predictably found its way into the bin. Having ignored conference, the leadership did not even undertake significant consultation with its affiliates or with student activists about what they wanted from the demo; National Executive members who raised questions about the slogans and the route were ignored.

NUS claims that “the demo was not an end in itself, but is a key part of our strategy to create lasting and significant change”. It has launched ongoing campaigns, many of which are very worthwhile. But a quick glance shows that NUS is demanding very little or and that much of its activity exists only on paper. On 5 December, the day that student activists have called for a National Day of Action to follow up on the demo, NUS is… publishing a report about student finances.

Whether it was route, slogans, mobilisation or follow up, NUS’s approach smothered political clarity and activist energy in bland lobbying and management-speak. No wonder the demo failed to catch students’ imagination.

On the day itself, student activists made up for some of NUS’s failings. Defying police obstruction and NUS threats, the NCAFC and supporting unions including ULU organized a feeder march of up to 2,000 with clear slogans: free education, the abolition of student debt and a living EMA/grant, with education as a public service, funded by taxing the rich and expropriating the banks; defence of international students; and solidarity with workers fighting to defend themselves at our institutions and beyond. Our slogans and chants were explicitly political, radical and articulated clear demands.

Despite the bland tone of the official publicity, many students’ unions and individual activists brought placards with more radical demands. “Tax the rich” was very popular. The atmosphere was generally left-wing. Hundreds of students wore the red felt square symbolic of Quebec students’ magnificent struggle this year – hopefully this will become a common sight in the British student movement.

NCAFC and other left activists organized thousands of students to occupy the end of Westminster Bridge and the area by Parliament Square, so that the police did not have it all their own way on the day.

It is overwhelmingly clear that there is huge support for the ideas of free education, of education as a public service, and of student-worker unity – and that are many, many students want to be active for them. How do we mobilise this sentiment in a powerful, ongoing fightback?

The NUS leadership is bureaucratically entrenched, as are its supporters in many student unions. It will take a big fight to shift or replace it. That fight has to be built now, combined with the biggest possible mobilisations independent of NUS.

What you can do:

• Organise action on your campus or in your town for the Wednesday 5 December National Day of Action. Full details will appear on the NCAFC website by the morning of Friday 23 November, and be updated regularly.

• Help build the rank-and-file and left opposition to the NUS leadership by getting involved in the NCAFC. The NCAFC has played a key role in mobilising the student movement since 2010, particularly since NUS failed to lead the student revolt against fees, cuts and the abolition of EMAs in winter 2010-11. Invite a speaker, order materials, move a motion to affiliate to the campaign!

• NCAFC conference takes place at Birmingham Guild of Students on 8 and 9 December. It is an opportunity to discuss alternatives to NUS’s failed strategy and where the student movement should go next. Bring a delegation from your school, college or university! (Many more details and Facebook event here.)

• Come to NUS conference with us next April and help challenge the NUS leadership on its home terrain. There are also demands now being raised for students and/or student unions to "leave NUS". A lot more debate is needed about what is meant by that and what the alternatives are. Workers' Liberty students will be publishing our views on the issue soon.

To get in touch with me email dancooper13@hotmail.com or ring 07840 136 728.

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