The conference of the National Union of Students meets in Brighton on 19-21 April. It’s the first conference since the left and soft left partially took control of the union last year, winning four of the six full time positions and a majority on the national executive. With huge government attacks in universities, the virtual destruction of further education, the upsurge in the Labour Party, the junior doctors’ strike, a burgeoning fight on academies and other significant battles, it is crucial that the student activist left is built up.
But this hasn’t been the most lively year for student activism, despite student and youth support for Jeremy Corbyn in Labour Party leadership election. Unfortunately the new model — or not so new model — NUS has done little to change that. This is partly because the record of right-wing NUS President, Megan Dunn, has been been bad. The NUS failed to campaign effectively against the cut to maintenance grants; failed to back the NCAFC organised national demonstration in November 2015 (the previous year Megan Dunn was involved in getting NUS to withdraw its support for the national demonstration); and hijaked the NHS students′ Bursary or Bust campaign to the extent that NHS students have started a petition calling on Dunn to respect the campaign′s grassroots organising.
Disgreements have also been badly conducted. When the National Executive (NEC) voted to give money to the NCAFC to help run a national demonstration the right spread false accusations that the NCAFC was using the money to fund NUS election campaigns. Policies passed on Cage and BDS have been ignored because they are disagreed with, rather than being challenged politically.
Inactivity has also been caused by new NUS officers behaving less like militant organisers and more like bog standard bureaucratic NUS officers who happen to have different positions on e.g. Palestine. That isn’t the whole story. VP Welfare Shelly Asquith, who is a left-wing Labour person, was central to the Corbyn campaign, and is linked to NCAFC, has done some good organising; so, to differing degrees, have other left officers. But the overall picture isn’t good. Alongside unprincipled cliques, and factionalism, identity politics and reactionary anti-imperialism have mingled to produce a damaging mix. Those politics, rather than class-struggle politics, defines the dominant left in NUS.
The left-dominated NUS national executive council (NEC) has repeatedly discredited itself by doing such things as voting down a left-wing motion in support of the Kurdish struggle because some other leftists labelled it “racist” and “imperialist” (after months of controversy it passed a pro-Kurdish motion, before forgetting about the issue completely), and voting down support for Palestinian workers organising and fighting Israeli bosses in the Israeli settlements on the grounds that this would mean recognising the occupation! The NEC also voted to end the customary Jewish representation on the organising body for Anti-Racism and Anti-Fascism. This representation was not democratic or formally guaranteed, but now it is gone altogether. There will, rightly, be an argument about policy and attitudes on anti-semitism at the conference. NUS has rightly opposed the government’s debate-stifling, Muslim-targeting Prevent agenda, but has done so by promoting the right-wing Islamist group Cage and touring its leader Moazzam Begg round the country. On the crucially important issue of threats to free speech and free organisation on campus, NUS has mostly contributed to the problem rather than helping solve it.
The left candidate for NUS President, Black Students’ Officer Malia Bouattia, is essentially a spokesperson for all these political views. Sections of the left are the driving force here, and the right around Megan Dunn, naturally does not present a coherent or positive alternative.
At this conference, the tasks for the serious, class-struggle and socialist left include:
• Pushing forward left policy on issues including fighting the government’s higher education reforms by finally winning a boycott of the consumerist, market-driven “National Student Survey”, free education, further education, student housing, and international students, as well as wider issues including the NHS, the living wage and workers’ rights, and the EU referendum. NCAFC has got a lot of policy submitted on this, much of it written by Workers’ Liberty activists.
• Raising big issues which are not on the conference agenda. For instance, there will not be a debate on free speech. The dominant left on the NEC has not submitted its positions on working with Cage and on a full boycott of Israel — presumably because it thinks that it is safer to renew these at the NEC than risk defeat in a conference vote (a full boycott policy has never passed at NUS conference, and there was no opportunity to debate the policy that committed to work with Cage).
• Not dodging but tackling head on the big arguments behind these issues.
• Recruiting and organising people around the NCAFC to develop a grassroots left that can lead a successful fight against the government’s policies.
• Defeating any attempted comeback by the old right while also challenging the dominant soft left. Electing serious left candidates to the NEC, which includes the NCAFC’s Ana Oppenheim, Sahaya James and Omar Raii, the last of whom is an AWL supporter.
We’ll be publishing a magazine for the conference, selling literature, helping produce and distribute NCAFC bulletins, participating in the NCAFC fringe meeting and campaigning for policy and candidates.
• Come and help us! firstname.lastname@example.org / 07775 763 750