Despite a background of grassroots struggles against cuts and fees, NUS conference 2010 saw the Blairite leadership entrench itself and push further down the road of bureaucratisation, depoliticisation and capitulation to the government.
Conference was dramatically smaller than in previous years. Nearly 50% of delegates were full-time sabbatical officers. They voted overwhelmingly for the anodyne-sounding goal of “progressing the Collaborations Agenda”. What this actually means is the merger of part of the union’s structure with its commercial services organisation NUSSL and, bizarrely, AMSU, the “union” of top managers in student unions! The result will be a commercial behemoth with a shrivelled campaigning arm.
On education funding, the conference voted down the left’s proposals for free education and endorsed support for a graduate tax. It opposed the call for occupations and direct action. Delegates did pass a left-proposed call for solidarity with industrial action by UCU and other education workers. Pro-trade union demagogy is fashionable among the NUS leadership; Wes Streeting even commented in his leaving speech that he stands solidly with “my comrades in the BA dispute”.
How seriously they take such statements is shown by their failure to back UCU in recent anti-cuts disputes, symbolised by Streeting’s written comment that students need industrial action “like a hole in the head”, and by the scab-herding of Jak Codd, NEC member and Leeds University Union communications officer. He ran a campaign for his members to tell their lecturers not to strike, until he was forced to retreat by grassroots student outrage.
Toward the end of the conference, Streeting bombastically whipped up delegates into re-electing as Trustees not only David Fletcher, the former Sheffield Uni registrar who used the courts against student Gaza occupiers, but Kate Davies, the CEO of Notting Hill Housing who has cut her workers’ pay and conditions so viciously that they have voted 95 percent to strike. Apparently, she knows “how to make tough choices”.
On the last morning, with only 200 people in the hall, conference voted to censure Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who as Black Students’ Officer organised protests when Durham Union Society (a posh debating club) invited BNP MEP Andrew Brons and one of the BNP’s local councillors to speak. (It almost censured LGBT Open Place Officer Daf Adley, but a few more delegates had made it into the hall by then.)
The furore had resulted in Durham SU disaffiliating from NUS; the leadership want Durham’s tens of thousands in affiliation fees, so they backed the censures, despite their formal support for “no platform for fascists”. Thus they provided the BNP with a propaganda coup in the run-up to the general election and a green light to intervene on campuses.
The left was divided, the SWP preferring to ally with the left-bureaucratic remnants of the Student Broad Left group and its periphery than with grassroots radicals such as supporters of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). Although SWPer Mark Bergfeld was elected to the NUS NEC, the conference cannot be seen as any kind of success for the left.
Is it still worth attending the conference, and intervening in the structures of NUS more generally?
The NCAFC fringe meeting attracted a number of people and the campaign met new contacts, including from Further Education colleges. These opportunities, along with the fact that there is currently no groundswell inside any SU for disaffiliation from NUS, are the positive case for continued intervention. But the left will have to change the way it works inside NUS if it wants to relate to conference as anything more than a pool in which to fish for contacts.
Will Lodge, a delegate from Harlow College:
“This was my first time at a big conference, and it was quite a daunting experience at first. Everyone else seemed to know what was going on, and how things worked, but I soon picked it up.
“Conference was a shambles politically. The central bureaucracy got most things rubber-stamped, including their favourites in the elections.
“I did gain a lot of confidence from my experience, especially after making some speeches, some of which I had to do on the spur of the moment. Talking to people, flyering and attending fringe meetings was also interesting and helpful to me politically.”