This year’s National Union of Students conference (24-26 April, Sheffield) saw left-wing student activist groups, most notably the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, defeat the NUS leadership on a range of issues. These votes reflected the changed, more radical atmosphere in the student movement after the struggles of the last two years. At the same time, there were signs that NUS’s bureaucratic degeneration is nonetheless continuing. Rather than celebrating its victories as sufficient, the student left must use them as footholds and levers to build grassroots activism and generate a new wave of struggles in the period ahead, as well as strengthening its position within NUS.
For a fightback in education
There is a bad habit on the student left of hailing every NUS conference as a victory for the left. Usually this is mostly hot air. This year, however, was different.
On a series of votes, mostly to do with the education campaigns which form the core of NUS’s activity, the current leadership – which is a coalition of different varieties of “New Labour”, mostly somewhat more left-wing than Miliband and co. – did not gets its way. In addition to the bland jargon which makes up the vast majority of motions proposed by the leadership, left-wing motions and amendments were passed. The conference
• agreed to “call for fully-funded postgraduate degrees and living grants open to graduates”, working alongside UCU and campaigning for postgrads to join UCU.
• voted, against the leadership’s militant opposition, for left-wing amendments on Further Education from the NCAFC and SWP, calling for “the abolition of all fees; no hidden course costs; a living grant/maintenance allowance... stop the cuts… tax the rich and business” and for a national walk out of college students in the autumn. (Mention should go to AWL member Demaine Boocock and SWP member Jamil Keating, who made excellent speeches.)
• voted to “campaign against the government’s whole HE [Higher Education] agenda, including all private providers, and for a public university system”, for “students and workers unite”, “tax the rich to fund education” and a “year-long national campaign using mass-mobilising”.
• voted for a national demonstration “against cuts, fees, high interest on student debts and privatisation” in the autumn term. (This followed an activist campaign on the issue during which more and more of the leadership gradually came out in support of a demo for their own opportunistic reasons.)
Due to lack of time – after many attacks on NUS democracy, the conference, is now only just over two days long – there was no vote on one of the central controversies of recent years: whether to call for free education for undergraduate students, as the left advocates, or stick with the existing policy of supporting a graduate tax. No doubt the leadership will attempt to use this anomaly to wriggle out of support for free education, despite the fact that the graduate tax policy has now lapsed and that the will of the conference was clearly for free education. Activists must campaign for the new National Executive Council agrees policy for free undergraduate education when it meets.
A number of other key NCAFC motions – including for a “take back your campus” campaign on university democracy, and on student workers – also fell under the ‘guillotine’ for lack of time. But the left did win votes on extending student union democracy, including support for general meetings, on opposing the anti-trade union laws and on defending the right to protest, including opposition to police violence and congratulations for victimised Birmingham Guild Vice President and NCAFC activist Edd Bauer.
Unlike last year, the conference voted to reaffiliate to Unite Against Fascism, against our opposition. A more radical motion on anti-fascism, from NCAFC supporters, was not discussed.
None of the motions on international issues were discussed. The NUS leadership now has a fairly reasonable position on Israel-Palestine, supporting the Palestinians and opposing Israeli oppression on the basis of two states; meanwhile, there was a “left-wing” motion in favour of boycotting Israel on the agenda for the first time.
The conference saw an act of anti-semitic vandalism against the stall of the Union of Jewish Students. The stars of David on the UJS banners were plastered over with “boycott Israel” stickers. The issue here, clearly, is not one’s view on boycotting Israel per se, but the targeting of Jewish students – and the poisonous atmosphere which “left-wing” agitation on the question of Israel-Palestine has helped to create. There is no way of knowing, but it seems very likely this was carried out by someone from the left. UJS circulated a statement of protest which was signed by AWL delegates and many others in the NCAFC.
In the elections for the full-time positions on the NEC (president and five vice-presidents), there was another upset for the leadership, with left candidate Vicki Baars, who is currently one of NUS’s LGBT officers, winning VP Union Development. This is the first time the left has won one of the VP positions for over a decade. Although Vicki’s was the least openly radical of the left campaigns, her victory was an impressive achievement, on the basis of a creative and well-organised campaign. Other left candidates got substantial votes, but did not come near winning: clearly many delegates were willing to vote for left-wing policies on campaigns, but were not convinced to vote for left candidates.
In run-offs between right-wingers, the more left-wing of the leadership candidates won, with President Liam Burns re-elected and Rachel Wenstone elected VP Higher Education, against candidates who in effect oppose any real campaigning on education.
The NCAFC stood three candidates for the part-time “Block of 15” section of the executive – incumbent Michael Chessum from UCL, Mike Williamson from Edinburgh Uni and AWL member Rosie Huzzard from Sheffield College. The results will be out on 3 May.
Elections aside, the conference was not a success for the left, or for militant student activism, in every respect. To start with it, it was very small. Only 720 delegates voted in the presidential election; a decade ago that figure was more like 1,100, and a decade before that 1,500. At various points during the debate there were not many more than 400 delegates on conference floor. This is partly due to attacks on NUS democracy, with a reduction in the number of delegates for each affiliated student union, but also a decline in involvement – the number taking part was down on last year.
There was also a feeling among many left delegates that, despite the policy victories, the conference did not seem particularly radical or political. When the debates on defending the right to protest took place, large numbers of delegates became extremely angry at the idea of NUS criticising the police. While the NCAFC motion on SU democracy won, a sharper amendment opposing the existence of Trustee Boards was heavily defeated. Similarly, the conference voted through all the leadership's appointments for external members of the NUS Trustee Board, despite some decent speeches and substantial votes against. The leadership also had some right-wing, anti-democratic figures address the conference as guest speakers (see the AWL bulletin below).
It is possible that the control of the broadly ‘Blairite’ factions which dominate the NEC is loosening, allowing the left to win votes on some issues, but also accompanied by a degree of depoliticisation. It is not hard to imagine a serious right wing forming, gaining influence and even taking control, if the left does not get its act together. This needs to include a much more serious attempt to form a united left slate for the executive, and a campaign around NUS democracy, beginning with the size and length of the conference.
Prepare for new struggles; build the NCAFC
In winter 2010, a 50,000-strong NUS demonstration prepared the way for the left to spark a massive wave of student struggles despite NUS’s opposition. Although this movement declined from January 2011, the left was strengthened enough that the NCAFC was able to organise its own (10,000-strong) national demonstration last November, after NUS refused to do so. The left victories at NUS conference should be used to build for a new wave of student struggles this autumn. That in turn could play a vital role in encouraging and strengthening workers' struggles and other campaigns against the cuts.
The NCAFC, which has now existed for just over two years, has proved itself in action; it also proved itself at the conference, where its supporters put forward a clear majority of left policy on the order paper and where it was the only serious left force uniting and organising a large range of activists. AWL students are proud of the role we have played and continue to play in building and developing this campaign.
The NCAFC will be holding an activists' event to discuss, plan and train for campaigning on 2 and 3 June in Edinburgh (see here and comment below). Those who want to make the most of the left’s victories at NUS conference should bring a delegation from their university or college.