Student unions: "remould a rank-and-file student movement"

Submitted by Matthew on 27 May, 2010 - 10:01

This year a number of socialists, including supporters of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, have been elected as full-time student union sabbatical officers. Below is an interview with one of them, Michael Chessum, who is a non-aligned socialist, an NCAFC supporter and Vice-President Education-elect at University College London Union.

What’s your political background?

I’ve been politically conscious since forever — my parents were Marxists in the 70s, my dad later a left Labour parliamentary candidate — but only got active from university onwards.

I’ve always been consciously independent of the (capital letters) Left Factions — although I was briefly a very inactive member of the Scottish Socialist Party — but found myself involved in Education Not For Sale, which I met at NUS conference last year, as well as being on the Another Education is Possible Steering Committee.

My main project now is the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which I hope will be able to bridge the gaps and remould a rank-and-file student movement. I’ve also been involved with Palestine solidarity activism.

What’s the political culture like at UCL?

UCL Union has been characterised as a “Tory-Liberal marginal”, but there’s been a strong undercurrent of non-aligned left-wingers, some Revo members, Palestine solidarity work, and a Labour Society which self-defined as “Bennite” when I arrived. We had a big Stop the War Society for years, and managed at one point to get the Officer Training Corps banned from campus.

The union varies from year to year, but in general the left can get stuff through General Meetings (which, thankfully, we still have). We have Free Education policy, and take a good line on cuts and strikes. The union elections have changed the landscape a bit, and we may be stronger than before.

Tell us about your campaign.

UCLU’s regulations prohibit joint campaigning, so I couldn’t run on a slate (though needless to say we co-ordinated). Cuts were the main issue — we had demos of hundreds during vote week — but I also ran on Free Education, the London Living Wage, doing more Liberation Campaigning, Human Rights, Global Justice and the Environment, and “Effective National Co-Ordination”.

It helped that my main opponent was the president of the Tories. Slightly bizarrely, I had informal backing from Labour and the Lib Dems, who to be fair are not careerists. But in the end it was a surge in grassroots anti-cuts, living wage and Palestine campaigns that won.

What do you hope to achieve next year?

At a national level, I’d like to see NCAFC and the student movement in general take on the government over and fees, win, and then generalise that struggle into something recognisable to the student movements of yore — bringing together vast swathes of students on everything from international solidarity to environmental activism. On a local level, I think we can achieve the London Living Wage. I want to promote liberation and internationalists campaigns. I want a great wave of interest, anger and activism.

Why do you think most student unions are quite conservative?

Governance reviews, careerists, slick meaningless fluff... I think the widespread death of General Meetings is very dangerous for the left: our arguments need time to be articulated and discussed; the right is much better at vacuous one-liners, and more likely to win in small meetings and referendums.

More broadly, the recent history of student politics has been a history of tipping-points: every material defeat (e.g. on fees) means a shift in consciousness: students-as-consumers, unions-as-businesses, democracy-as-expendable. And a highly bureaucratised NUS has managed to systematically institutionalise the spirit of New Labour.

What are the prospects for building a united, effective student left?

Good, if people are willing to put aside the acrimony of years of splits and defeats. We need a broad re-alignment of the left. This will almost certainly come from a general non-sectarian surge in support rather than a strengthening of one or another Trotskyist faction.

• More interviews:

www.workersliberty.org/suinterviews

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