At the 2011 National Union of Students conference, 12-14 April, the minority votes against the leadership on a national demo and on universal grants were very strong.
NCAFC supporters Michael Chessum and Sean Rillo Raczka scored well in the elections for VP Education and VP Welfare. The results for the part-time section of the executive, where AWL member and Royal Holloway president-elect Daniel Cooper withdrew in favour of Michael Chessum, were not out when we went to press. In the election for President, the leadership was split, after incumbent Aaron Porter’s decision to stand down following his humiliation by student protesters.
The more left-leaning of the two leadership candidates, Liam Burns, was ahead of Porter’s handpicked successor Shane Chowen in the first round and won easily after three quarters of left candidate Mark Bergfeld’s votes transferred to him. As President of NUS Scotland, Burns has led a somewhat more active campaign than NUS UK; the day before the vote he was at the Newcastle College picket lines and argued in favour of a national demo.
However, overall the student movement bureaucracy remained firmly in control. The leadership beat the left in the elections for every full-time position by a big margin. We were defeated narrowly even on the demand for another first term national demonstration.
Though it has left behind a sediment of increased student activism, the high tide of struggle last winter has receded. Most student unions involve only small numbers of students, and have opaque, bureaucratised structures which make this difficult to change. NUS itself is much less open and democratic than it used to be; the conference is about half the size it was a decade ago.
And there were some danger signs for the future. A small minority of right-wing delegates got up to oppose even very moderate motions as too radical. A motion from Birmingham University which hinted that NUS should accept £9,000 fees and move on was passed over left opposition.
But both the fringe meetings AWL members were involved in organising — one in solidarity with the Newcastle College strike against jobs cuts taking place as the conference opened, and one joint NCAFC-SWP meeting on the way forward for anti-cuts activists — were well-attended.
The strike got an enthusiastic response and set a tone for the left at the conference. There were more people around than in previous years dissatisfied with the NUS leadership and looking for something better.
While last year’s struggles show the necessity and possibility of organising action outside the framework of NUS, there are also possibilities for organising within the national union, and perhaps growing ones.
To take advantage, the left needs to be better organised. Much of the left intervention at this conference was shambolic. The slate put together for the full-time executive positions was a sectarian stitch-up dominated by the SWP and running on a not very radical programme; there was not enough left text submitted; and many “left-wing” speeches were dire, making no attempt to seriously challenge the right’s arguments.
None of this is just an organisational matter, however. It is linked to the lack of a properly functioning rank-and-file network in the student movement which can link up anti-cuts groups, left-wing student union officers and other left activists into a force capable of seriously challenging the NUS leadership. At the conference, the NCAFC was the only group that even attempted to play such a role; the SWP made no attempt to organise anyone beyond themselves. But for reasons discussed previously, the NCAFC is not adequate.
What happens at the next NUS conference depends not only on whether there is a new upsurge of student activity, but how effectively the already growing number of activists can organise ourselves into a rank-and-file movement inside and outside NUS.