The annual conference of the National Union of Students (NUS), which took place in Brighton 19-21 April, saw a further advance for the left in the student movement. Left-wing officers were elected and left-wing policy passed.
The conference resolved to join with the junior doctors and other groups of workers fighting the Tory government. It voted to sabotage the National Student Survey, as a means of disrupting the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework, and marketisation of higher education. Conference demanded living grants for all students, funded by taxing the rich, and to support Labour councils in defying Tory cuts. All good, but overall, the advances made were for a disorganised and inconsistent left: the task for socialists will be to increase the political cohesion and clarity of that left, and to organise it around a rational programme and to instill in it a democratic spirit.
Conference voted overwhelmingly to re-assert its support for Holocaust Memorial Day; but worryingly, two speeches against the motion (arguing that “all lives matter” and that HMD was exclusivist and Eurocentric) drew applause from the floor. Leftwingers were elected to Full Time Officer positions, including Malia Bouattia for President, Shelly Asquith as Welfare Officer and NCAFC supporters Sahaya James, Ana Oppenheim and Omar Raii to the NEC. But the majorities for some leftwing officers did not translate into success across the board: Blairite ultra Robbie Young took one Vice-Presidential post and boorish Richard Brooks another, both against leftwing challengers.
The conference decided on an important structural change: it voted to create and fund a full-time Trans officer, to run an autonomous organisation of transgender students. This is to be welcomed, and is a result of the march of the left. At the same time, the dominant left in NUS is timid about moves to restore democracy to the union by making conference longer and larger, and restoring the NUS Areas which were abolished by the right, and helped develop organisation in colleges.
The left, though now dominant, is not organised. It represents the “common sense” of the activist student movement: a common sense within which the organised left, through the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, has won several key arguments. But many ideological battles remain to be won, and a great work of organisation lies ahead, before the NUS left is sufficiently self-conscious, politically worked-out and organised to make good on its progress.
The election of Malia Bouattia as President marked a departure in many respects. The overturn of an incumbent NUS President has not been seen since 1968; Bouattia is the first Muslim-background woman to lead NUS; and the first person from the “left” of the union to take President for many years. The election of Bouattia caused an outcry, on the basis of statements she has made (and refused to retract) to the effect that “Zionist lobbies” were the authors of the government’s Prevent policy, and that a part of the UK media was “Zionist-led”. In our view, these remarks were not those of a worked-out anti-Jewish racist, but unusually candid expressions of a set of (bad) politics common on the UK far left. This considers Zionism to be a uniformly and uniquely racist form of nationalism, and ascribes conspiratorial explanations to government policy and world events, linking them to Zionism. This set of ideas is sadly common currency for many on the far left, and has an anti-semitic logic. Workers’ Liberty called for a vote for Bouattia, while harshly and publicly criticising her for her bad politics on this and other issues. We disagreed with those who saw her comments as representing a poor choice of words to express a left-wing position. The issue is not so much the words as the underlying politics, and we want to expose and change those politics.
However, Bouattia’s election has removed the road-block to the left represented by successive Blairite leaderships in NUS, and opens the way for some of the left-wing policy passed at conference to be implemented. In addition to a justified outcry against anti-semitism, Bouattia’s election saw an outbreak of right-wing media hysteria, carrying slanderous headlines to the effect that she supports ISIS. We reject these attacks against her, and defend the NUS against such right-wing libels. By the same token, many right-wingers who oppose the existence of a broadly left-wing national union like NUS have opportunistically seized the moment to launch campaigns to disaffiliate local Students’ Unions from the NUS. The only antidote to a rightwing disaffiliation campaign is for the NUS to show its value as a union by fighting against the government and university managements; and at the same time, for the left within the union to sharply distance itself from, and struggle against, any and all forms of anti-semitic politics in NUS. To achieve both, the student left needs to organise, clarify its ideas, and assert democracy within its ranks and the NUS.