The 2016 National Union of Students (NUS) Conference was the most militant in years, reflecting the waves of radicalisation sweeping the student and youth movement. There were electoral victories for the left, radical motions passed and tense confrontations between the stale bureaucrats who have dominated the NUS leadership for decades and a rebellious grassroots, invigorated by the dramatic events that have shaken British politics into wakefulness. It is now the task of this emboldened grassroots to consolidate and build on its newfound strength to fight for a socialist transformation of society.
Prelude: Corbyn, cuts and conflict in the student movement
Before Conference floor even opened, the winds of change could be felt. Despite a relatively uninspiring turnout at Young Labour Conference a few months’ prior, the left performed better than expected. While the Blairites took the top spots in Young Labour’s elections, left candidates seized the majority of the positions on the National Committee. The impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is beginning to transform the political character of the youth and student Labour movement, gradually dragging the consensus away from the careerists who have for so long utilised Young Labour as a stepping stone into establishment politics.
Aside from Corbyn’s election, the political character of students has been shunted into a more assertive direction by relentless attacks on Further and Higher Education by the pitiless Conservative government. From cuts to FE college staff to scrapping maintenance grants, from casualisation to academisation, the sustained Tory assault on students in general and working-class youth in particular has resulted in an intense feeling of ‘enough is enough’. A growing number of students are ready to take the fight for free education directly to the ruling classes.
However, there are roadblocks in the students’ midst. Tremors of impending conflict were felt prior to Conference in a vicious campaign of slander (led by the right of Young Labour) against left-wing presidential candidate Malia Bouattia. The accusations of anti-semitism levelled against Bouattia strongly resemble smears faced by Corbyn throughout his own leadership campaign and are similarly baseless. However, they have become a rallying cry for the right-wingers and bureaucrats who feel their stranglehold on student politics loosening.
Day one: Sabotage the National Student Survey (NSS)!
Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), gave the opening address to a packed conference floor in the Brighton Centre (with around 700 delegates observed from the balcony by a further 300 visitors). She addressed the recent Panama Papers scandal and discussed the need for coordinated strike action to achieve decent pay for young people in casualised work. O’Grady’s speech introduced a core point of contention: the question of uniting students with workers in a joint battle against the Tories.
It became immediately apparent that a significant faction of delegates was eager to isolate student politics from the wider struggle, as was indicated when an amended motion calling on Conference to jointly coordinate campaigns with the TUC was narrowly defeated thanks to a block vote by Labour Students. This was the first shot across the bows from the right and gave the impression that they held a majority. However, the balance was to swing against the Blairites and bureaucrats as Conference wore on.
A dramatic victory was scored for the radical wing when Conference voted to oppose the Tories’ Higher Education Green Paper (which will introduce a raft of ‘reforms’ aimed at further marketising universities) by boycotting the upcoming National Student Survey (NSS). The narrow but clear passage of this motion came after a fiery debate between ‘moderates’ who proposed ‘working with government’ to win ‘meaningful amendments’ to the Green Paper and more left-wing delegates. On the side of the latter were a number of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), who spoke passionately about their direct experiences of an increasingly casualised Higher Education sector.
While support for the NSS boycott is some of the most militant policy passed by NUS in decades and a huge leap forward for student politics, the root cause of marketization went unaddressed in the debate. At a subsequent fringe meeting of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, a Marxist Student delegate welcomed the boycott but explained that education will always be boiled down to an exploitable commodity under capitalism. The objective, he explained, should be to break with the capitalist system altogether and fight for a socialism, the only system under which free education for all can be achieved.
Day two: grassroots versus bureaucrats
The second day of Conference was both the longest and the most dramatic. A militant mood was felt in the morning session as Conference passed a number of extremely positive motions and amendments that (amongst other things) reified NUS’s commitment to defending the NHS, fighting for the return of maintenance grants and lobbying Labour councils to refuse to implement Tory austerity cuts.
Better still, in a Q&A session the incumbent Vice-President for Welfare, Shelly Asquith affirmed her support for Jeremy Corbyn and defended her decision to take time away from her normal duties to assist in his leadership campaign. This was met with rapturous applause from a significant portion of the room. Given the depth of support displayed for Corbyn, it was a shame that a motion submitted by Marxist Students (calling on Conference to openly endorse and defend Corbyn’s National Education Service proposal) was not discussed due to lack of time the previous day. Doubtless this motion would have enjoyed enthusiastic support from many delegates and might well have passed, although it will still be transferred to the National Executive Committee of the NUS for consideration.
The NUS presidential elections (typically the centrepiece of Conference) were especially tense, given the formidable grassroots campaign between the left-wing challenger, Malia and the vitriolic slander emanating from her competitors’ support base on social media. In spite of all the abuse, Malia ousted incumbent Megan Dunn by a margin of 44 votes, making Dunn (a fairly ineffectual president with an aversion to direct action) the first NUS presidential incumbent to be defeated electorally for decades. Left candidates Shelly Asquith, Shakira Martin and Sorana Vieru were re-elected as vice-presidents for Welfare, Further Education and Higher Education respectively. The left-wingers all won by roughly the same margin (of 40-60 votes), which indicated a slight but notable left majority in the room.
Malia’s election is a very positive development for the student movement. A noted radical, Malia has a reputation for carrying out militant, direct action campaigns, particularly against the Tories’ outrageous ‘Prevent’ counter-extremism strategy. Her work in the Palestinian liberation movement has provided fodder for her critics, as have her past attacks on “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets” and her description in 2011 of the University of Birmingham as “something of a Zionist hotspot”. While somewhat blunt for dealing with an issue that requires considerable political skill, these two statements have been unfairly interpreted by some as veiled attacks on the Jewish community in general.
The MSF welcomes Malia’s victory and we see scant evidence to support claims of anti-semitism on her part. However, her election speech heavily emphasised the significance of her becoming the “first black, woman, Muslim” President of NUS. If we have learned anything from the Democratic primaries in the USA (in which Hillary Clinton has run on a platform of ‘girl power’ while receiving vast donations from the chauvinistic despots who rule Saudi Arabia), it is that class interests supersede all else. While it is true that oppressed minorities tend to suffer the sharp end of capitalist exploitation; being black, or a woman, or a Muslim does not equate automatically to good politics. Instead of emphasising her identity foremost, Malia should encourage students to rally behind a radical, socialist programme. Only in this way, through a concerted class-struggle uniting students and workers, can our movement achieve the free, fair and accessible education system it deserves.
The left momentum at Conference seemed unstoppable as delegates voted through policy on supporting student rent strikes (such as the one currently underway at UCL) and a motion of solidarity with the striking junior doctors. During a debate on a motion mandating student unions to reduce their carbon footprints, a delegate from the university of Oxford pointed out that addressing the problem of climate change is a matter of international solidarity, not individual lifestyle changes. He went on to say that the planet will not be safe until we have ‘smashed capitalism’, a statement that went down well with much of the conference floor, contributing to the militant atmosphere.
Throughout the Conference, clearer and clearer battle lines were emerging, with tension brewing between the bureaucratic and grassroots camps. In a dialectical fashion, this underlying ferment finally erupted during a debate on what was at first glance a fairly-innocuous motion, calling on the NUS to furnish students’ unions with ‘toolkits’ for campaigning with local councils and trade unions. A Labour Students’ candidate gave a speech in which she expressed “disgust with the amount of political opinion expressed” at Conference. She argued that NUS should represent all students, not just the left, and that it should be aloof from party politics, directing its time and attention to “student issues.”
A Marxist delegate gave a response from the podium saying that NUS is the collective voice of students and that if it hopes to effectively fight for their interests it cannot be apolitical. He went on to stress that, with the Tories inflicting unprecedented attacks on students and youth, the only hope for our movement is to unite our struggle with that of workers and take the fight to the ruling classes. He declared that he was a socialist, because only a socialist transformation of society can bring about the free education system to which NUS is committed in principle and urged the delegates to remain politically engaged. The speech resulted in a standing ovation from many delegates as the Marxist Student comrade left the stage saluting with a raised fist, a gesture taken up by several others in the room.
After a string of defeats, the right was offered some respite in the afternoon, with several vice-pesidential victories. Robbie Young, a Labour-backed candidate and former LGBT+ Officer, was elected Vice President for Society and Citizenship following a hustings speech in which he had criticised the NUS for debating ideas and disavowed himself from all forms of politics.
Both camps (unfortunately) shared a platform during an EU debate that followed the VP election. While left and right candidates quibbled aspects of a motion stating NUS’ commitment to remaining in Europe, all were in favour of the common market. Throughout the debate, nobody raised the essential point: that the EU is a brutal instrument of international capitalism that will never be rehabilitated through reforms. Rather than campaigning for a ‘fairer, more democratic’ EU, the NUS should be condemning both sides of the upcoming referendum and be arguing for a Socialist United States of Europe.
Day three: where next for the student left?
The final day of Conference was mostly occupied by procedural matters, although a majority of delegates unfortunately voted against introducing a ‘One Member, One Vote’ system that would have given hundreds of thousand students a political voice at the executive decision-making body of NUS. The argument against (that such a system would afford larger institutions disproportionate representative power) was a thin veneer for the faction of conference committed to depoliticising the NUS and handing control of the student movement to a small cabal of student bureaucrats. It also ignores that fact that, under the current system, it is Russell Group and other large HE institutions that make up most of the delegates at conference, while FE students who make up the majority of the student population in the UK have comparatively few delegates. It is essential that policy is discussed in a democratic way at a national level so that an informed vote can be taken by delegates, but there is no reasonable argument as to why every member of the NUS shouldn’t be able to elect their representatives at a national level. Allowing this would free up more time at conference for debates on policy. Not to allow this is to lock millions of students out of having their voices heard.
The last gasp of this ‘apolitical’ faction came with the closing remarks of outgoing president, Megan Dunn. Her tearful speech (rapturously received by her supporters) lamented the presence of party politics in the student movement and counterpoised her efforts to ‘get things done’ by working with the Tory government to idealistic and ineffectual direct action campaigns. However, as was pointed out by a Marxist delegate, Dunn managed to put very few of her objectives into practice during her tenure, having presided over some of the most brutal government attacks on students in living memory with few victories of which to boast. The reality is that Dunn regarded her position as a cosy appointment – nothing more. In her last speech as President, she mourned having her comfortable gig ripped away before its time.
The fall-out from this year’s Conference, which could mark a turning point for the student movement as a whole, is already making an impact. Towards the end of the event, the hashtag ‘#NUSConference holocaust’ was trending on social media and several bourgeois news sources have run hysterical headlines accusing the NUS of ‘rampant anti-semitism’ for debating a motion on commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. In fact, while this motion was spoken against briefly by one delegate, it passed by an overwhelming majority (a fact scantly-mentioned in the coverage). Similar groundless accusations are liable to be utilised as rods with which to beat the student left in the immediate future.
The leadership of several conservative student unions (including Cambridge and Oxford) have responded to Malia’s election with threats to disaffiliate from the NUS. To the individual student union bureaucrats making these threats we say that if you are unable to stomach a leftward moving NUS then feel free not to involve yourselves. But to the students who these people are supposed to represent we say that your SU leaders are throwing their toys out of the pram because they lost the debate. They want to isolate you from an NUS that, with your help, will be actively fighting the government in the interests of students. These people have no business representing students, and it is your job to throw them out. Union hacks who place themselves in opposition to the powerful left current roaring through the student movement can expect to be swept away.
The onus is now on the newly-elected, majority left-wing leadership of the NUS to utilise its mandate to put all of the radical policy passed this week into practice. Beyond that, this vital and militant youth movement must become a vanguard for obliterating capitalism, which for too long has denied millions of young people a future, saddled them with debt and robbed them of meaningful employment. It is by inspiring students with this radical vision of what society should look like, by providing them with something positive to fight for, that the NUS will be able to engage students in its campaigns and make itself relevant to their day-to-day lives.
The student left has won many battles in the past several days, now it falls on us, alongside Corbyn and the organised working class, to win the war against the Tories and the diseased system they represent.
by Joe Attard, KCLSU NUS delegate