The British student left in NUS

Submitted by Anon on 25 March, 2006 - 12:44

By Daniel Randall, NUS NEC (personal capacity)

2005/6 will not go down as a proud year in the history of the National Union of Student. NUS’s campaigning has detoriorated to the extent that its national demonstration was actually cancelled. Meanwhile the union continues to cosy up to both Blairite ministers and education sector bosses. The union’s democracy and the engagement of its members with its structures continue to diminish. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have gone to waste on needless fripperies while right-wing bureaucrats on the NEC told the membership that there was no money available to increase campaigning.

The political culture of the union has continued to decline, too; largely apolitical infighting between the two groups of politically indistinguishable right-wing “independents” and the lack of a substantial left-wing counterweight have seen the union’s structures become even more bureaucratised and atrophied. In the year that top-up fees will be introduced, it has, in short, not been good enough.

While French workers and students will be on general strike, Britain’s official student union will be holding its annual conference. Unfortunately there will be no fighting spirit at our conference. Instead, more political timidity from the current leadership. France is only twenty miles from Britain, but the relative militancy of the two country’s student unions could not be further apart. A left fringe meeting at which an activist from France has been invited to speak may well be the only taste of genuinely radical activism that this conference gets.

There will be no large-scale debates on key “class” issues at this conference (free education, the welfare state, students’ rights at work and so on). With the right-wing maintaining the “fees are bad but whatcha gonna do?” consensus, and most of the left refusing to take up radical arguments to challenge them, it has been left almost entirely to the Education Not for Sale network (in which AWL members are active) to make sure that left-wing, anti-capitalist arguments are heard and discussed on NUS conference floor.

The biggest political argument at conference will be over the issue of Coca-Cola; the activist left in NUS wants NUS’s trading arm (NUS Services Ltd.) to break its monopoly contract with Coke and allows local union more autonomy when it comes to deciding what products are sold on their campuses. Again, ENS activists were central to ensuring that pro-boycott, pro-workers’ solidarity text made it onto the order paper.

What ENS has achieved this year is one encouraging aspect of an otherwise bleak picture. From representing little more than a name at NUS conference 2005, it has now developed structures and a political life of its own. It has held two successful gatherings, including one at the University of East London attended by around 70 students. At this year’s conference, it will stand candidates for all but one of the full-time positions on the NUS National Executive as well as two candidates in the election for part-time Executive members. This intervention into the elections shows how far ENS has come.

ENS candidates will be the only voice for a democratic, fighting union that sees itself as allied to the broad labour movement and fights uncompromisingly on this basis. The other main left factions — Student Respect and Student Broad Left (a narrow front for the shadowy Stalinist organisation Socialist Action) — have stopped well short of promoting the same kind of radical agenda as ENS, opting instead for liberal anti-war populism in Respect’s case and a conservative accommodation to lowest-common denominator politics in SBL’s.

It is not the case that student activism in Britain — whether on day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues such as course cuts or campus closures or on bigger, international issues — has dried up. The mobilisations around the G8 in summer 2005, the continuing growth of campaigns like People & Planet and the growth of grassroots anti-cuts and anti-privatisation campaigns at Plymouth, Sussex, Swansea, Lambeth and elsewhere prove that Britain’s students are still angry, still mobilised and still fighting. This activist base has always existed, but this year NUS’s disengagement from it has accelerated rapidly.

If that descent is to be arrested, activists within and without the national union will have to organise to reclaim it from the bureaucrats and managers-in-the-making who currently control it.

The debates and elections that will take place at NUS Conference are only a small part of the work that’s necessary to turn student activists towards the student movement’s official structures in order to reclaim it for activism and campaigning. But they are a necessary part, and hopefully ENS can build on what it has already achieved this year and continue to raise the activist voice within NUS. If we can do that, then perhaps 2006/2007 will be the year Britain’s student movement learns from its French counterpart and starts to flex its muscles.

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