The success of ENS Women at this year’s NUS Women’s Conference (13-15 March) in passing radical left-wing policy and mobilising a significant number of conference delegates around socialist feminist politics, is testimony to the hard work of our activists both within NUS and outside it with Feminist Fightback over the last two and a half years. So is the result of the election held at the conference for NUS National Women’s Officer. Our candidate Sofie Buckland very nearly won the election, getting 29 votes against 33 for Labour Students’ Katie Curtis.
Sofie’s activist record persuaded a number of first-time delegates not only to vote for her, but to sign up to get involved in ENS Women and Feminist Fightback’s campaigns. Cat Smith, a third, soft-left candidate, supported by the Socialist Action front “Student Broad Left”, got 15 votes and did not to get through to the second round. After Cat failed to call for a second preference vote for Sofie, only 8 of her supporters transferred their votes. Had they not taken this disappointingly sectarian approach, Sofie would have won.
As always, the most important reason for attending the conference was to argue for our politics, make contacts and persuade others of the necessity of a socialist feminism based on anti-capitalism and class-struggle. We successfully proposed policy committing NUS Women’s campaign to a No Borders position and mandating the committee to organise a picket of Serco (Feminist Fightback organised such a picket on Internatational Women’s Day), as well as donate £100 to both the All African Women’s Group and the Trade Union and Community Conference Against Immigration Controls. This was a significant achievement — in 2006 we were laughed down by members of Labour Students for even daring to raise the idea of No Borders. We also voted to support asylum-seeker and nursing student Flores Sukula in her struggle for access to education.
In another indicator of the shifting political terrain in the campaign, we won recognition of the right of sex workers to organise, that sex work is labour, and that criminalisation harms sex workers. Current NUS Women’s Officer Kat Stark is now mandated to sign the Safety First petition against the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which seeks to further criminalise street workers, and to support the International Union of Sex Workers and the English Collective of Prostitutes. Our campaigning around this issue over the last year meant that women’s conference held two workshops prior to the motions debate in order to discuss and clarify the issues. As a result, the debate was informed and intelligent, with much less hysteria about allegedly whitewashing prostitution.
We also passed policy against privatisation in further education, and in favour of further direct action initiatives on reproductive freedoms to complement the parliamentary lobbying carried out by the Abortion Rights campaign. Unfortunately, Bryony Shanks from Student Broad Left and Cat Smith spoke against holding a national demonstration for abortion rights this year.
Unfortunately also, its right wing around Labour Students managed to defeat our proposals to campaign for a living, non-means-tested grant for every student and to oppose the the NUS leadership’s democracy-destroying Governance Review. They were not brave enough to bring their own motions on these issues, with the result that last year’s policy for universal grants still stands and the campaign has no official policy on the Governance Review!
“Violence against women” was a much-used phrase at the conference and many motions were passed on this theme, particularly with an internationalist perspective. ENS Women are in favour of an internationalist feminism which makes solidarity with women fighting for their rights all over the world. However, some of us were concerned that a VAW-centred perspective, combined with an emphasis on women’s rights abuses in developing countries, can at times lead to conceptualising women as eternal victims, and can perpetuate racist or pro-imperialist ideas amongst western feminists. We want to continue further discussions on this.
ENS Women also held a thirty-strong fringe meeting on “Is women’s liberation possible under capitalism?”. As a result of the meeting and our other activities at the conference, a number of activists expressed an interest in getting involved in ENS Women and Feminist Fightback.