Left victories in NUS can lay ground for new round of student struggles

Submitted by AWL on 1 May, 2012 - 12:11

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.

Other issues

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.

Elections

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.

Counter-currents

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.

Contact AWL students: students@workersliberty.org or 07775 763 750
National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts

Comments

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 01/05/2012 - 12:13

In earlier years, when NUS was more political and the student left bigger, NUS conference was a kaleidoscope of different left factions and groups. That has become less and less the case, with even the scattering of small groups with one or two delegates largely disappearing. This year, the left forces at the conference were

• The SWP, with about 20 delegates. They operated very much as the SWP, with the only nod towards their Education Activist Network front a stall (it is worth noting that the EAN website has not been updated since 24 January!) They were a very visible force, taking lots of speeches and so on. The SWP had about twenty non-delegate organisers and helpers at the conference.
• The secretive Stalinist group Socialist Action, operating entirely through Student Broad Left and other fronts. It is unlikely SA itself had more than two or three delegates, and even SBL was too small to hold caucuses. What allows SA to operate as a force is its skill at maintaining footholds in the NUS bureaucracy, particularly in the Liberation Campaigns. Again, also very reliant on non-delegates.
• The Socialist Party, which seemed to have had three or four delegates, and played a highly limited role at the conference, though they did speak on some motions etc. This is for the same reason that the SP, which actually has a lot of students, has played relatively little role in the struggles of the last two years: sectarianism.
• The Green Party, with about half a dozen delegates who took part in its caucuses.
• Workers’ Liberty, with a dozen delegates. We had two non-delegates from our student committee there, plus various Sheffield comrades who came to help at different points. We caucused as the AWL as well as taking part in the bigger caucuses of the NCAFC.
• The NCAFC, mainly made up of independents, though a fair minority formally Labour or Green Party members.

The size of the NCAFC at the conference is obviously harder to define precisely than the others, but the biggest NCAFC caucuses were about 50 people and its influence spread widely beyond that. NCAFC caucuses took place throughout the conference, and were a forum for serious discussion and debate (unlike the caucuses of most other factions, left or right, including the SWP). The NCAFC was also the only faction to produce a daily bulletin (the AWL produced one bulletin on the second day).

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 01/05/2012 - 12:28

1. Document with all motions to conference
2. NCAFC notes for delegates on motions debates

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 01/05/2012 - 12:41

Workers' Liberty bulletin, NUS conference 2012

Conference defies leadership and demands fight in FE
By Demaine Boocock, KGV College Southport, and Rosie Huzzard, Sheffield College

On Tuesday evening conference woke up and delivered a blow to the determination of the leadership to prevent anything vaguely radical being passed. The shambling attempts of the NEC and various rightwingers to persuade conference we shouldn’t support a fight for the restoration of EMA, free education and no cuts in FE were blasted out of the water by speeches from left-wing FE students.

No one should rely on NUS to actually fight for its new demands or organise a serious walk out in the autumn. But this is a big new space for activists to jump into.

For the left at the conference, the lesson is: be bold, don’t apologise and if in doubt, fight. We should use the momentum from this victory (and the passing of left-wing policy on postgrads) to follow up with victories on a national demo, public universities, taxing the rich and free education for HE students today.

Vandalism of the UJS stall: no to anti-semitism!
By Daniel Lemberger Cooper, SURHUL President and ULU VP-elect

Yesterday anti-semitism raised its head at NUS conference. Somebody plastered the Union of Jewish Students stall with boycott Israel stickers, specifically covering the Star of David logo.

The issue here is not what you think about boycotting Israel. It is the targeting of Jews. The person or people did not sticker other organisations with a similar view on the issue – Labour Students, for instance. They deliberately targeted the only Jewish student organization at the conference. If you’re not sure: what would you think if someone covered the Federation of Student Islamic Societies stall with stickers because of their stance on a foreign policy issue?

The whole of conference, and in the first instance the left, must react fast and strongly in condemning the vandalism of the UJS stall. And the left should ask itself questions about its role in the political atmosphere around Israel-Palestine where this sort of thing can happen.

For an anti-fascist movement that can win: support motion 406
By Bob Sutton, Liverpool Guild of Students VP and Liverpool Antifascists activist

In the French elections on Sunday, the far right Front National got 6.4 million votes, 18 percent. In Britain, the English Defence League can mobilise thousands on the streets, and is poised to enter electoral politics. Meanwhile the Tory government steps up its attacks on migrants and minorities, and the Labour Party does little to challenge their narrative. Fighting racism and fascism must be top priorities for the student movement, and the labour movement too.

But in NUS words are cheap. Repeating over and over how anti-fascist we are won’t cut it. We need an anti-racist politics that can actually beat the far right scum, from driving them off the streets to undermining their attempt to build a political base through fake-socialist demagogy. Motion 406 sets out the kind of demands that should be the basis our anti-fascist campaigning. If we pass it, and if it actually gets implemented it will be a big step forward. Meanwhile we should stop pretending that British capitalist society is “built on respect and solidarity” (amendment 604a). It is built on exploitation and oppression, including racism. To defeat racism and fascism we need to fight to change society.

The lesson of Stanley Jenkins: Neither Cold War right-wingers nor Stalinism!
By Esther Townsend, University of East London

Having invited Paul Blomfeld, Labour MP and anti-socialist witchhunter to open conference, the NUS leadership excelled themselves by inviting former NUS president Stanley Jenkins to speak. The degree of enthusiasm for Jenkins on conference floor (cheering when he said how long he’d been married) was a bit surreal. But there were real political issues to consider too.

We don’t think Jenkins’ record – serving the British empire, witch-hunting the left, supporting Western imperialism in the Cold War – is anything to be proud of. On the other hand, it fits in well with the red-baiting tendencies of the current leadership (witness Ed Marsh’s slightly sad “joke” about Marxism).

At the same time, the left’s response should not be to accept Jenkins’ understanding of the world, in reverse. For the most part, what he fought was NOT communism, but Stalinism – the system of bureaucratic exploitation and oppression which draped itself in the red flag, and still does in regimes like China and Cuba. The fact that Jenkins fought it in the name of Western capitalism and imperialism does not make Stalinism any less reactionary or any less of a problem for the real left. When Jenkins and his mates were witch-hunting socialists, Stalin and his were murdering us!

That “left-wing” delegates responded to right-wingers cheering anti-communism by cheering Che Guevara is idiotic. Guevara was an architect of the police state in Cuba when it destroyed the vibrant Cuban labour movement. We expect this rubbish from the Stalinists of “Student Broad Left”/Socialist Action, but the rest of the left in NUS should know better.

We should oppose both capitalism and fake Stalinist “socialism” in the name of real socialism: independent working-class struggle and liberation.

Workers’ Liberty: who we are

Workers’ Liberty is a socialist organization active in the student movement as well the labour
movement, the feminist movement and other struggles. We helped set up and are involved in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

We stand for independent working-class struggle and workers’ revolution to replace capitalism with a society based on collective ownership, provision for human need and consistent democracy. We are Marxists but our critical thinking Marxism is quite different from the top-down, my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend Marxism of the SWP.

Come and find us at our stall, buy a copy of our paper Solidarity from one of our sellers or drop us a call or text: 07775 763 750

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/05/2012 - 12:01

Hi Ryan,

We are playing nice. "Sectarianism" isn't a swear-word, it doesn't just mean "stupid", "rude" or "something we don't like". It has a political meaning, we use it to describe something about the way the SP does politics.

I got on perfectly well with SP comrades at conference, think you were all nice guys, whatever. But I can think that and still think that the SP behaves in a sectarian way!

What is sectarian in our view about how the SP behaves is this: it "ploughs its own furrow" in terms of doggedly setting up its own groupings to compete with the NCAFC rather than working as a tendency within NCAFC (or other broad campaigns not of the SP's making); it takes no responsibility for the student movement more broadly; its work at NUS is mainly to do with saying "socialism is the answer, join the socialist party" rather than trying to fight for a grassroots takeover and transformation of the union.

Ploughing your own furrow: individual SP comrades (well, ES from Wales) participate constructively within the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. But the activity of the SP as an organisation is to run Socialist Students groups which make propaganda for socialism and that's it - the attitude of SS groups to the NCAFC is, to put it one way, pretty ambivalent. Sure, lefties are all pleased when lefty motions go to conference, etc. etc. But if the day to day activity of the organisation is to abstain from the major anti-cuts grouping the student movement and *just* make propaganda for socialism (with a heavy accent on recruiting to the Socialist Party), then that's politically not good: it means that on the student front you cut out the "agitate" and "organise" bits from "educate, agitate, organise".

At its worst, the SP shows an attitude towards work in broad groupings in education that sees them as being just about organisational advantage, rather than taking responsibility for the struggle. I remember (vividly) the sudden creation of Youth Fight For Education (out of thin air!) at the height of the student movement of 2010. It was pretty clear that this was just a vehicle through which the SP wanted to "get a seat at the table" of the London Student Assemblies and find a cover under which to do things like call national demos that clashed with the calls being issued by the NCAFC. Again, the attitude to the rest of the student movement was ambivalent, "do what you like mate, we're doing our thing"; and geared towards getting maximum prestige for the SP rather than engaging with and taking responsibility for the overall movement.

No responsibility for the student movement more broadly? Sounds harsh. But look: the SP is the second-biggest socialist group in the UK. It might be 6 or 7 times larger than the AWL. But the AWL got more than a dozen delegates to NUS Conference, and helped the NCAFC put a very large amount of leftwing text to conference. We ran a number of serious full-time elections and have a decent chance of getting a number of comrades (AWL and NCAFC) on block. By contrast the SP had about 3 delegates. This is not because SP comrades are incompetent - it is because the SP does not regard transforming the official structures of the student movement as important. There is no central, organised drive to stand for election and transform the structures of the movement, capture positions, change policy - instead, Socialist Students groups are set up to make propaganda for socialism and recruit and that's about it.

Fighting to transform the NUS is important! It has a big impact on the struggles that the student movement mounts. The process of fighting in NUS teaches large numbers of students basic lessons about organising and democracy - larger numbers than we would be able to educate by recruiting ones and twos to socialist organisations.

At conference, the SP reproduced this strategy. Build Socialist Students, be polite and pleasant with the NCAFC comrades but don't organise with them in a serious way, make propaganda for socialism... that's it. There's something missing from the recipe, comrade. That's why we say that the politics of the SP in the student movement are sectarian. Not because you go charging round breaking up meetings or being rowdy and disruptive - because of the political priorities of your organisation.

Ed Maltby

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/05/2012 - 12:50

Here.

I think this says it all. Edmund - one of your few students who does engage with broader campaigns beyond the local level - is on the NCAFC national committee but says nothing about anything actually happening in NUS beyond the fact the SP is standing two candidates for the NEC.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 03/05/2012 - 12:18

11am, Saturday 2 June - 5pm, Sunday 3 June
Edinburgh University Students' Association
Teviot, 13 Bristo Square, EH8 9AJ Edinburgh, United Kingdom
For more info email againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com
Facebook event

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 04/05/2012 - 09:14

NCAFC candidates Michael Chessum (UCL) and Mike Williamson (Edinburgh Uni) were elected to the part-time Block of 15 section of NUS NEC. Michael was restanding and Mike standing for the first time. The third NCAFC candidate, AWL member Rosie Huzzard (Sheffield College), narrowly lost out. Two SWP members and one supporter of Student Broad Left (a Young Green, so probably not a Socialist Action member - yet) were also elected.

Full results here.

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