At the National Union of Students conference (19-21 April, Brighton), the NUS right (broadly right-wing Labour or similar but less political) and left (broadly soft left, in many cases not much left of the right, shaped by identity politics* and overly simplistic, reactionary anti-imperialism**) will struggle for dominance. The harder, class-struggle left, shading off into the soft left, is the third force.
Last year’s conference saw the left dislodge the right from substantial control of NUS for the first time in decades. The left, broadly defined, won four of the six full-time officer positions, a majority on the National Executive Council and many, though far from all, policy debates. At this year’s conference, the right will try to make a come back.
The 2015 left victories came out of a relatively lively year for student struggles – immediately after the wave of occupations in London, it was only a couple of months before the surge of youth enthusiasm which helped carry Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. This year has been less lively, and NUS has not helped. That is partly because of the continued grip of the right, and partly because the dominant left is defined not by militancy in struggle or drive to educate students in anti-capitalist and class-struggle ideas, but mainly by mostly wrong positions on identity politics and on international issues, particularly boycotting Israel. Some of the left officers have, for the most part, behaved like bog standard NUS full-timers.
The left majority on NUS NEC has repeatedly discredited itself by taking ridiculous positions – to take one example, voting down support for Palestinian workers fighting Israeli bosses in Israel’s settlements, on the grounds that this would supposedly legitimise the occupation…
On the issue of free speech and organisation on campus, which has wracked the student movement this year, the dominant NUS left has mostly been on the wrong side, promoting the idea that suppression of the right to speak and organise is central to challenging oppression and bad ideas.
NUS has rightly campaigned against the Prevent agenda, but done so in part by promoting the right-wing Islamist campaign Cage. It has helped educate a left where the idea that the SWP, say, or Germaine Greer, should be banned from speaking is not untypically combined with positive assessment of an organisation, Cage, whose central leaders admire the Taliban.
Almost everyone in NUS is in favour of support for the Palestinian struggle. But the unthinking “anti-Zionism” which now dominates is a political culture medium for anti-semitism.
The left candidate for NUS President, Malia Bouattia, is representative of all these problems. Her record is defined not so much by being a leader of struggles as a spokesperson for these kinds of political ideas and positions.
The controversy surrounding Bouattia’s attitudes to Islamism and to anti-semitism over the last two weeks is not simply a matter of interpreting this or that comment at a meeting, or exchange on the internet. It has deeper political roots, which we are precisely attempting to sketch out here.
Last year, Bouattia denounced a left-wing motion to NUS NEC in support of the Kurdish national liberation struggle as “racist” and “imperialist” and helped get it voted down. This sparked wide criticism from Kurdish and left-wing students, but when some right wingers including in the press noticed this and tried to whip up a storm against her by absurdly and shamefully portraying her as a supporter of Daesh, she responded by whipping up a storm against the proposer of the motion, Workers’ Liberty comrade Daniel Cooper.
We remind the movement of this because we believe that Bouattia, at the same time as being the victim of a right-wing and racist campaign, behaved like a petty and unprincipled factionalist, putting her prestige, the chance to attack a left-wing political grouping she doesn’t like and then her understandable resentment at her bad luck above the massive issue of the Kurdish struggle. Although the NEC eventually, three months later (five months after Cooper first tried to raise the issue), passed a motion proposed by Bouattia about Kurdistan, NUS circles spent far more time and energy on the row than on supporting the Kurds. So much for anti-imperialism!
We have little confidence that an NUS led by Malia Bouattia would be more habitable for political minorities and dissenters, more democratic or more serious about political debate and discussion than one led by Megan Dunn.
Self-evidently, the NUS right does not offer a coherent, let alone a positive, alternative to all this. Not only it is record on students’ struggles absolutely dire, but much of it is also permeated with identity politics (or at least opportunistic willingness to use them as a weapon) and hostility to rational political debate.
The right’s candidate for VP Society and Citizenship, LGBT Officer Robbie Young, was a leading Liz Kendall supporter and has been a vocal advocate of the Labour right’s war against Jeremy Corbyn.
Bouattia and co are more left-wing than Dunn and co on a whole series of class struggle-type issues. In the context of a Tory government attacking all along the line, and important battles against them – junior doctors, other strikes, anti-academies fight, Labour Party struggle – breaking the grip of the old right over NUS is of no small importance. That is why our position is to vote for Malia Bouattia above Megan Dunn – not because we can in any real sense endorse her candidacy, let alone her politics. (Although is is secondary, we also think NUS electing its first black woman, and first Muslim-background, President would be positive.)
Contrast this to last year’s Presidential election, when Bouattia refused to either support the left candidate, our comrade Beth Redmond, against Dunn, or to explain her position, remaining silent. (Beth still got the highest left vote for President since 2006, and the highest hard left vote since 2003.) We want our position – which is of course not without tensions or even contradictions – to be widely understood.
We have little time for the tendency on the student left to act as though support must always mean uncritical, wildly enthusiastic support. We think much of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, of which we are part, is far too uncritical of the dominant NUS left – in part because not everyone in it shares all our political positions, but in part because people are not willing to be open about their criticisms. We are bending the stick towards sharp criticism in part precisely in order to counter this tendency.
At the conference, we will also, naturally, actively support the better left candidates – including incumbent VP Welfare Shelly Asquith, with whom we have serious disagreements but who has a real class-struggle record and was central to the Corbyn campaign; NCAFC candidate for VP Union Development Sahaya James; and NCAFCers Sahaya, Ana Oppenheim and Omar Raii for the part-time NEC Block of 15 positions.
* By identity politics we do not mean taking specific oppression seriously and making it central to left politics – which is absolutely right – but the view that identity is decisive in the validity of a particular political position or analysis. In that sense we would contrast “identity politics” and “liberation politics”.
** By this we mean an overly simplistic world-view, which sees the world’s injustices as mainly shaped by a conflict between Western imperialists (by which advocates mean the USA, its European allies and Israel) and the rest of the world. This results in downplaying the importance of, or even actively supporting, other imperialist countries; excusing or supporting groups and governments just because they stand or claim to stand against Western imperialists, even if they are themselves mostly right-wing, oppressive, and have little real democratic anti-imperialist content; and deprioritising the struggles of workers and oppressed groups within both sets of countries.