The election of Malia Bouattia — the left candidate for President of the National Union of Students (NUS) — earlier this year has created opportunities for the student left. But also dangers. This article spells out those dangers.
For many years, politics in the NUS has been defined by a ruling Blairite right wing, which negotiates minor concessions from Vice Chancellors and government, while accepting defeat in advance on the big issues: fees, soaring rents, marketisation.
The main body of the soft left in the NUS leadership has tended to organise itself as a clique within various committees, and regarded its purpose as winning office and prestige for other “lefts”, rather than organising struggles. It has trimmed its politics to reflect this goal.
The preoccupations of the NUS soft left revolve around demonstrating adherence to this or that article of faith, or winkling out admissions of ideological impurity in factional opponents: in ways that are simply bewildering to outside observers, to say nothing of being politically regressive.
A case in point would be the decision of an NUS soft-left Full Time Officer to “no platform” LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, in support of which the rest of the NUS left closed ranks. The politics of the NUS soft left invariably focus on soft targets and tend to rely on administrative action.
Bans on leftists with bad — or even controversial, or potentially-upsetting — ideas take precedence over struggles against right-wing bigotry. Solidarity with the Palestinians degenerates into a competition between activists and officers within this narrow circle to demonstrate the most-blinkered adherence to the politics of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign: campaigns to ban Jewish-Israeli academics from an institution, or disrupt the meetings of leftwing Jewish group Yachad. Howling down “Zionists” is viewed as an adequate substitute for solidarity with the Palestinians: after all, it provides more opportunities for noisily signalling one’s “activist credentials”.
As we have previously noted, on the subject of this pseudo-leftism: “The left majority on NUS NEC has repeatedly discredited itself by taking ridiculous positions – to take one example, voting down support for Palestinian workers fighting Israeli bosses in Israel’s settlements, on the grounds that this would supposedly legitimise the occupation…
“On the issue of free speech and organisation on campus, which has wracked the student movement this year, the dominant NUS left has mostly been on the wrong side, promoting the idea that suppression of the right to speak and organise is central to challenging oppression and bad ideas.
“NUS has rightly campaigned against the Prevent agenda, but done so in part by promoting the right-wing Islamist campaign Cage.
“It has helped educate a left where the idea that the SWP, say, or Germaine Greer, should be banned from speaking is not untypically combined with positive assessment of an organisation, Cage, whose central leaders admire the Taliban.
“Almost everyone in NUS is in favour of support for the Palestinian struggle. But the unthinking ‘anti-Zionism’ which now dominates is a political culture medium for anti-semitism…
“Malia Bouattia is representative of all these problems. Her record is defined not so much by being a leader of struggles as a spokesperson for these kinds of political ideas and positions.”
The politics here is reactionary: but also the method is unserious and performative, more concerned with manoeuvres and denunciations within a small circle than addressing political problems rationally.
Put simply: to many students, including left-wing students, the culture, preoccupations and language of the dominant left wing in NUS are bewildering. Little wonder, then, that the campaigns to disaffiliate local students’ unions from the NUS which rightwingers have launched in recent weeks have met with so much success: Hull, Newcastle, Loughborough and Lincoln University students’ unions have voted to disaffiliate from NUS since Bouattia’s election. The case to remain can’t succeed if it is based on trying to rally support to the sect-positions of the dominant soft left faction.
Rather, to fight off right wing disaffiliation attempts, the NUS needs to prove to students the worth of a national organisation: and the student movement’s left wing needs to slough of the reactionary and illiberal ideas in the Bouattia faction. How can the new NUS prove its worth?
The new leadership of the NUS has an opportunity to mobilise much wider support to force back the government’s programme for NHS cuts and privatisation across the board. At University College London, students organised a rent strike this academic year, protesting against extortionate rents, building noise and rat infestation. 238 students won £400,000 from management: effectively a whole term’s rent each. Profit-gouging rents in university halls and private student accommodation are not limited to London. UCL’s Cut the Rents campaign already offers an example: NUS’s leaders should take up the question of rents and organise a drive for rent strikes elsewhere in the UK. The NUS should issue a nationally unifying demand for a £100/week rent ceiling.
At Manchester University, students have launched a campaign of direct action, public meetings and demonstrations against management plans to sack catering staff, and cut pay for others. They point out that cutting just two senior management roles could pay for a living wage for all staff. The NUS should follow the lead of students at Manchester, and promote militant student action in defence of campus workers in the pay and job disputes that constantly flare up throughout the sector.
Previous NUS leaderships, where they have addressed the issue of students in work at all, have effectively reduced the issue of organising students in work to a matter of marketing union membership as if it was just an extra discount card. NUS should push its activists to run a real campaign of unionisation amongst working students, especially in Further Education, taking the lead from such campaigns as Hungry for Justice in the UK, or Supersize My Pay in New Zealand, which organise young workers in the service sector. And in fact the first port of call for organising students in work is students who are employed by their students’ unions! NUS should “civilise the sector”, with a drive for the living wage and union recognition for employees of students’ unions.
NUS conference 2016 voted for a campaign to disrupt the National Student Survey, as the centrepiece of a campaign to prevent the implementation of the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework. This was a strategy promoted by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. To work, it will need the NUS leadership to be a determined advocate for the campaign, winning over teams of student union officers and organising public meetings to discuss the plan up and down the country.
There is a danger now that under Malia Bouattia NUS could be turned in a direction which is advertised as “left wing”, and thought of by its leaders as “left wing”, but which is in fact regressive. That is what will happen if the new NUS leaders, for example, campaign to get Cage leader Moazzam Begg speaking on all campuses, and then organise large protests against the likely refusal of some university administrations and student unions to allow Begg to speak. We do not favour bans on Begg speaking, but we do favour protests and denunciations when he speaks, and it will be a regressive move if promotion of a pro-Taliban speaker is made into the test case for free speech on campuses.
The tone and direction of such a Begg campaign would almost certainly go together with indifference to or positive support for other and bigger suppressions of free speech and critical dialogue on campuses. Equally, it will be a regressive move if the new NUS leaders campaign energetically to get universities to break links with Israeli academia and to hound students of Israeli origin off campuses.
The student left needs to cast off the confused inheritance of a long period of inactivity, and think big. It needs to set its sights on bold and militant action to assert social need above profit, defend democratic rights on campus, and take an approach to international questions which is rational, and based in solidarity, rather than pseudo-left posturing. That is the standard by which the new generation of NUS leaders should be judged.