For the first time since Jack Straw was elected National Union of Students President in 1969, an incumbent NUS President lost their attempt at re-election yesterday, 20 April, with left candidate Malia Bouattia defeating current President Megan Dunn by a small but clear margin (44 out of 731 votes).
Bouattia's victory is not really the result of some kind of grassroots upsurge, as the small size of the conference shows. There was probably a strong element of personal popularity involved, since - as last year - right-wing (here right-wing means, broadly, right-wing Labour) candidates won two of the six elections for full-time NUS officer posts. The result is the fruit of a process of leftwards movement which has been going on in NUS for some time, at least in part linked to an on-and-off higher level of student activism since 2010 (see our detailed analysis of last year's NUS conference). With it come serious political problems, but also opportunities for student struggles and left-wing organising.
Bouattia's election immediately produced an outbreak of right-wing denunciation, including in the national media - all of it reactionary, some of it racist and a fair bit of it based on lying. We suspect there is more to come.
The claim is being widely repeated that she refused to condemn ISIS. This is one of those lies, manufactured and now recycled by right-wing media.
We in Workers' Liberty are in a position to know, because the motion which Bouattia in fact opposed (about the Kurdish struggle and mentioning ISIS in that context) was proposed by our comrade, then NUS national executive member Daniel Cooper. We think she was seriously wrong on the politics of that argument, that her position was indicative of wider problems with her and others' ideas, and moreover that she behaved badly in the dispute. (For more see here.) The fundamental problems were a view of international conflicts in which everything, in all circumstances, must be subordinated to opposing Western powers, and an intolerant response to political criticism from a left-wing factional opponent (see our comments here). Supporting ISIS had nothing to do with it. That claim is an absurdity, and a racist one, targeting Bouattia's ethnicity and Muslim background.
NUS can be proud of having elected its first black woman and first Muslim-background President. And the fact is that, at a left-leaning conference, many delegates will have voted for Bouattia simply because they were sick and tired of the way the student movement has been held down by right-wing NUS leaders. The fact that we want, and are fighting for, a better, more radical, more consistent and more principled left does not abolish that fact. If people on the Blairite wing of politics want to complain about this result, then they have only their student comrades to blame.
Of course if a class-struggle socialist had been elected NUS President, the right and their press would have denounced her or him too, although for different reasons.
We advocated delegates vote for Malia Bouattia above Megan Dunn, in order to help break the right-wing grip which has paralysed NUS. However, our criticisms of the former - on “anti-Zionism” and anti-semitism, freedom of speech, freedom to criticise religion, Islamism, international conflicts, the political culture of NUS, and many other questions - were both explicit and sharp. We stand by all of that and we have no doubt the issues we raised will now become more important. We are not going to stop talking about them.
The reality is that Malia Bouattia is not a right-wing bigot, an anti-semitic racist for instance, but a deeply flawed leftist, of sorts, whose inadequate and even reactionary positions (including on anti-semitism) are sharper versions of ideas that are common on the left. Only the left, not the right, can challenge these politics in the name of something better.
We recognise that even some of those influenced by the right-wing agitation against the new NUS President will have legitimate concerns about her. Nonetheless there is right-wing agitation.
Three tasks for the socialist left in and around NUS:
1. To defend Malia Bouattia, and more importantly NUS and the student movement, against right-wing attacks.
2. To continue to criticise, challenge and fight Bouattia and the trend she represents politically, particularly on the kind of questions we indicate above.
3. To take this opportunity to build the serious class-struggle student left, including the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, educate people in socialist ideas (including what is wrong with the dominant left politics in NUS), push to transform NUS and student unions, and revive student struggles.
• Our statement on the election before it took place.
• Our report and analysis of the 2015 NUS conference.
• Analysis of the 2014 NUS row over Kurdistan, by Daniel Cooper (NUS NEC 2014-2015), by James McAsh (NUS NEC 2013-14) and by Beth Redmond (NUS NEC 2015-16).