NCAFC conference: hard facts

Submitted by AWL on 10 June, 2011 - 1:32

From AWL Students

The student activist network National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts held a conference at Birmingham University on 4 June (see our report here). A group of activists within the NCAFC, mainly but not exclusively associated with the Workers Power/Revo group, have put out statements denouncing the conference as illegitimate and undemocratic. One of these, which has been put up on the NCAFC website, is a short letter signed by six NCAFC supporters, four of whom were not present at the conference. The letter is not only extremely hazy about details, but includes a number of straightforward falsehoods/inaccuracies.

We want to respond briefly. We considered asking other NCAFC supporters to sign something, but since we do not want to prolong the row which Workers Power are working hard to generate in the NCAFC, we have decided to issue this statement of the basic facts and leave it at that.

1. The conference was not called by any political group, but by five local student anti-cuts campaigns - Royal Holloway Anti-Cuts Alliance, Stop Fees and Cuts in Birmingham, Hull Students Against Fees and Cuts, Newcastle Free Education Network, and Merseyside Network Against Fees and Cuts.

2. The event was hosted by the Birmingham group. We do not have any student members in Birmingham, and in fact Birmingham students at the conference voted overwhelming against creating a national steering committee, the main issue of serious controversy - ie the opposite way from the AWL. (Afterwards, however, several Birmingham students stood for and were elected to the committee.)

3. The conference was publicly launched on the NCAFC website, Facebook, email etc with four weeks notice, greater than many previous NCAFC events (indeed a recent problem has been London meetings called at extremely short notice, sometimes as little as four or five days). The last NCAFC conference, in January, was launched with less than five weeks notice, and this announcement just before the Christmas holidays (19 December).

4. 4 June is, indeed, in the middle of school and university exams, but like many others we think it was important for the campaign to hold a conference to discuss the way forward before the summer holidays. The idea that it is illegitimate to hold an event at the start of June is weird: many student political events take place around this time, despite exams. In fact, it should be noted that earlier in the year Workers Power called repeatedly for a "united left" student conference in June! Even more bizarre is the idea that, because there were no students present from some important institutions (eg Manchester), the conference was illegitimate.

5. The last NCAFC London meeting which took place before the conference did not oppose the conference going ahead - though most of those present did not support the idea of electing a national steering committee.

6. Despite the time of year, between ninety and a hundred people attended the conference (not sixty or seventy as has been claimed), with delegations from areas and institutions including Royal Holloway, London Met, Westminster, UCL, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Merseyside, Aberystwyth, Hull, Sheffield, Lincoln, Nottingham, Oxford, Newcastle, the Open University and Northern Ireland. Of those present, three quarters were not members of any socialist group; the AWL only had 13 members at the event.

7. The conference did not only discuss structures, as has been claimed: there was extensive discussion on campaigning activity, and proposals were drawn up, discussed and voted on.

8. The conference's vote to create a national committee was by a clear margin: 42 for and 18 against, with 20 or more abstentions. (We repeat: we only had 13 members at the conference!) On this and any other issue, proposals could be submitted up to the afternoon session of the conference. The conference then voted not to allow further proposals from the floor during the debate (except deletions and small amendments, a number of which were made). Whether or not you think this was the best way to proceed, it is perfectly normal democratic procedure.

9. The elections for the committee were open, with any NCAFC supporter whether at the conference or not free to stand, and it was made clear in advance that a committee might be elected. 25 people stood for 14 committee places, in an open election held by Single Transferable Vote. However, the WP comrades chose not to stand. This was not because of principled opposition to organisations forming committees: both Workers Power and Revo have national committees and structures much 'tighter' than the NCAFC. They almost certainly regret this decision, which may be part of why they are trying to generate a row in the campaign and delegitimise the elected committee.

10. The steering committee is made up overwhelmingly of independents, not members of any socialist group. The campaign is not a front for any group, including the AWL. We have no interest in building a front; we want to be part of a broad, democratic campaign, which is why we fought for the conference to happen. The committee's members are from nine different institutions; six of the 14 are from London. We are certainly sorry that some very good and central activists, including Michael Chessum, were not elected - this is a case for a larger committee. 14 may be too small, but this is an odd accusation from Workers Power, who at the January NCAFC conference proposed a committee of... nine!

11. We (continue to) support the proposal to hold another, hopefully bigger, NCAFC conference in the autumn; and we welcome the fact that those criticising the 4 June event support new elections for the committee at that conference - hopefully a sign that they have abandoned their opposition to a democratic, accountable national structure. In the meantime, we will be pushing for the NCAFC to get on with mobilising students in support of the 30 June strikes, re-establishing regularly functioning regional structures, and preparing for a renewed battle against cuts and fees next academic year. We call on all NCAFC supporters and groups to throw themselves into building the campaign.

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