On April 18, those involved in the wave of university occupations over Gaza, and other left-wing student activists, met at a “coordination” conference to discuss the way forward for the student left. About 90 took part, including members of Workers’ Liberty, Education Not for Sale, Workers Power and Weekly Worker (CPGB), with the SWP sending along a contingent to keep an eye on things. The clear majority was unaffiliated, with a large number of anarchists.
The event was broadly positive in that it allowed activist networking and — to a certain extent — political discussion, without launching the last thing we need: another competing student left organisation.
The day began with a speech by a student activist from France's New Anti-Capitalist Party, focusing on the big struggles currently being waged by students and workers in French universities. There was then a general discussion about the political situation as it faces student, including activism after the Gaza occupations, how to fight for free education and the economic crisis. Workers’ Liberty members and other ENS supporters promoted solidarity with workers' struggles including at Visteon and on London Underground and the idea of occupations in the new academic year against fees, cuts and marketisation.
The conference then split into three for workshops on Gaza, climate change and free education.
The climate change workshop, by far the smallest, evolved into a discussion led by supporters of Workers’ Climate Action about the relationship between ecology and class struggle, and the kind of “green” demands students and young people can raise from an anti-capitalist perspective.
The Gaza workshop began with a general discussion of the politics of Gaza and of the occupations movement. We did what we could to challenge the pseudo-left commonsense on these issues, but unfortunately a majority were so keen to break into groups to discuss practical issues arising from the occupations (demands on universities, fundraising, the misguided boycott Israel campaign) that this discussion was stopped before most people could speak. While making progress on practical solidarity is important, it is a shame that an event like this, bringing together activists from across the country, did not provide a chance for serious debate about the politics of Palestine solidarity.
The education session was extremely useful, bringing together ENS and other activists to discuss the possibility of occupations next term and plan for actions including a protest at the Universities UK conference on 7 May.
The last session was supposed to take motions, and we supported several: on student-worker unity; on direct action against fees; for a new federation of campaigning student unions independent of NUS; and on Israel-Palestine. (The first three represented united ENS positions, while the last was proposed by Workers’ Liberty, though I think probably a majority of ENS people present supported it.) Weekly Worker had a motion which combined the usual call for everyone to unite around “communism” and their version of a “Marxist programme” with hysteria about Zionism and about "imperialism” being “the worst enemy of the world's peoples”. They really seem to be degenerating fast.
However, anarchist comrades argued very strongly against the conference taking motions, and this was agreed by 38 to 30 with about ten abstentions. Thus a useful chance for political debate was lost. (We did, however, get agreement for support for the Visteon and Tube workers, and took a collection for Visteon at the end.)
There was general agreement that activists should keep on “coordinating”, but that there is no need for another student left organisation to be launched. Workers Power have hinted that they see some kind of alternative student union coming out of the conference; but it was clear how ludicrous this perspective is. 80-90 lefties in a room is good, but it's no alternative for even a small alternative federation based on student unions.
A number of people expressed interest in getting involved in ENS and in Workers' Liberty; all in all, despite its limitations. an interesting and useful day.
• Education Not for Sale: www.free-education.org.uk.