Marxist students at NUS conference – live updatesApril 9, 2014
Day Three – Thursday 10 April
9:35am: Today has begun with reports from the “liberation” groups (black, disabled, LGBT and women) on the work they have been doing this year. Very few delegates have turned up to hear these reports. This is the inevitable product of separating the struggle for the rights of these groups away from the NUS as a whole. All students, of whatever race, ability, sexuality or gender must join the fight against oppression, which in the final analysis is a fight against capitalism. This has to be an active struggle of building campaigns and movements that involve all students, it is not enough to section off these struggles into separate groups and then expect all other students to listen passively to a report once a year rather than actually get involved. These liberation struggles need to be brought under the banner of the NUS as a whole to engage as many students as possible in the fight for socialism that should be common to all of them.
Day Two – Wednesday 9 April
12am: The final discussions of the day saw motions concerning gender quotas and positive discrimination in favour of women passed by the conference. Marxist students are absolutely opposed to positive discrimination in all its forms because we believe that people should be elected on the basis of their politics, not their gender. The NUS needs delegates and leaders with bold socialist ideas, an attribute that is not specific to a particular gender. A full explanation of our opposition to positive discrimination can be found here.
All of the discussion this evening has focussed on changes to the rules and constitution of the NUS. It would have been far more productive if we had spent more time discussing actual policy than rule changes. Organisational and bureaucratic changes are not what will engage students in politics. What we need is a campaigning, political union that seeks to challenge the root cause of why more people, including women, don’t get involved in politics. That requires a fight against capitalism and a struggle for socialism.
4:36pm: And as if discussion on just one motion in “Society and Citizenship” wasn’t bad enough, not a single motion in the “Union Development” zone was discussed, with the whole lot remitted to the NEC. There seems to be plenty of time for would-be careerists to give empty election speeches but no time for delegates to make NUS policy for next year.
4:14pm: Disgracefully only one motion has been discussed in the “Society and Citizenship” Zone. Discussion on this motion took over an hour with loads of time taken up by procedural motions and bureaucratic nonsense. This means that motions on questions of tax-dodging, cuts to legal aid, public ownership of the banks and a demand for councillors to refuse to carry out cuts will not be discussed. Instead these motions will be remitted to the National Executive Committee of the NUS (the same body that argued against free education earlier today) to take a decision on these things. No prizes for guessing which way they’ll decide. It is this failure to engage with big political issues that offer radical solutions to student issues which causes so few ordinary students to engage with the NUS.
4:03pm: The big debate this afternoon has been on the topic of zero-hours contracts. A motion calling for zero-hours contracts to be banned was framed in terms of taking power out of the hands of employers, for whom zero-hours contracts are a dream come true. Speeches against argued that many students rely on zero-hour contracts so that they can fit study in around working. The motion fell, meaning that the NUS refuses to campaign against zero-hours contracts.
It’s disappointing, especially after yesterday’s vote to back a TUC demonstration, that the conference is unable to see the very real damage being done to workers on campuses, in schools and throughout society by zero-hour contracts. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workers so NUS support for zero-hours contracts is very short-sighted. We would propose that, to deal with the problem of students having to fit work around study, every student be given a living grant while they are studying thus eliminating the need for students to work while studying. This would leave students with a much better standard of living and solve the problem of fitting work around study. There’s plenty of money available to fund this living grant, but it’s all in private hands. This is why the NUS should be arguing to expropriate the wealth of the banks and biggest businesses and place them under the democratic control of the working class so that their resources can be invested for need and not profit.
In short, students shouldn’t have to work while they’re studying, and workers should have to suffer casualization and degradation of their working and living conditions. We have to be clear that neither of these things can be achieved under capitalism. The NUS has to fight for socialism.
2:50pm: We haven’t had much to update this page with since this morning for the simple reason that nothing much has happened. As expected the current NUS President was re-elected by a landslide, despite have spoken against free education in the debate on that motion earlier today. Meanwhile the UKIP candidate received just 18 votes out of over 500. In general, what little policy discussion there has been, and the candidates hustings, have been for the most part uninspiring.
This reflects a wider problem with the NUS which is that, despite the inflated sense of self-importance of many of the delegates here, the NUS doesn’t actually do a great deal for students. We are facing an enormous assault on living standards and educational establishments. What is needed from the NUS is not equivocal motions, empty electioneering and endless wrangling over procedural points, but a clear, coherent and bold argument for socialism as a solution to the problems faced by students.
Because the NUS is not providing this socialist stand, does that mean revolutionary students should abandon it? We say no. Despite all its faults and the betrayals of the past, the NUS still holds a position of authority in the student movement. Any action called or policy passed by the NUS has a much greater echo among students than anything a small organisation on the edge of the student movement could possibly achieve. It’s for that reason that the Marxist Student Federation intervene in the NUS in an organised way, to win it round to socialist policies.
10:51am: Discussion has now turned to questions surrounding student housing. It is unfortunate that so many of these motions are worded in such a vague way. Clearly the motivation for such mealy-mouthed motions is provide enough wiggle-room for the bureaucracy to get out of having to actually deliver on policy commitments. Some proposals are made regarding rent strikes and rent capping but they refrain from calling on the NUS to organise and support rent strikes and make no mention of the need for socially owned housing or demands that go beyond rent capping such as not-for-profit housing. If the NUS really wants to fight in the interests of students then it has to stand up with clear, bold policies that demand decent, affordable housing funded by expropriating the rich landlords who profit off extortionate rents. In a climate of economic crisis rent-capping is unattainable without getting rid of the cause of crisis – capitalism.
One argument against the motion for rent capping is that it won’t make any difference to students because it will never be achieved. This misunderstands the role of the NUS as a campaigning organisation. NUS policy does not exist simply to state what is already the case for students, it is supposed to provide the framework around which the NUS can campaign for real change. It is no wonder that students take little interest in what the NUS does if its activity is limited solely to describing the state of student living at the present time.
10am: NUS conference adopts policy that calls for free education by 280 votes to 231. This is a remarkable achievement as it has been almost a decade since the NUS has had policy that demands free education. In fact, the majority of the National Executive Committee of the NUS, including the NUS President, argued against this motion, but conference has gone against the leadership and voted in favour.
It is also noteworthy that the motion calls for free education to be funded by “taking banks and their wealth under democratic control”. The task of the NUS now is to build a campaign around these demands and to link them up with demands for the biggest businesses to also be taken under the democratic control of workers as part of a socialist plan of production so that we can fund decent wages, pensions and standards of living for all.
Day One – Tuesday 8 April
The day began with a speech by NUS President Toni Pearce who seem more concerned with name-dropping every group and campaign within the NUS that she could think of than offering analysis of the student movement and offering a fighting programme. The speech was peppered with vague phrases like “when we dare to do things differently we can inspire a whole generation to take action”. These empty soundbites infect student politics at every level and are carried into student unions by careerist student politicians.
Pearce mentioned the Cops Off Campus campaign, which is to be welcomed, and said that she was “not convinced that we can trust the police”. However she didn’t give any reason for this and certainly didn’t link it to the role of the state in enforcing the austerity of the ruling class.
The “Priority Zone” proposals were about the empowerment of students and their engagement in politics. This is something that Marxist Students are very much in favour of, and we are implacably opposed to the idea that student unions should be apolitical. However it is not enough simply to tell students to get involved in politics, or to use organisational methods to empower them. The way to get students interested in politics is to adopt policies that fight for their interests. This is a question of fighting for affordable housing, free education, an end to privatisation and for linking up with the labour movement to fight for socialist policies. It is through a fighting socialist student union, labour movement and Labour party that students and workers will be engaged in politics.
It was disappointing to see an amendment to this effect voted down by the conference, and this lacklustre attitude was also reflected in the narrow loss of an amendment that proposed that the NUS hold a national demonstration in the run up to the next general election. This unwillingness to fight reflects the low ebb that the student movement as a whole is in at the moment. The result of this is that student union bureaucracy is able to assert itself and avoid national demonstrations that would require some activity on its part.
On the plus side the NUS voted to support any demonstrations called by the TUC which demonstrated an awareness of the importance of linking up the labour movement with the student movement. On the other hand, as the NUS leadership well know, the TUC bureaucracy is as unwilling to put up a decent fight against austerity as student union bureaucrats. The NUS should be actively organising and co-ordinating with trade unions at all levels and pushing the TUC to call a demonstration, not passively waiting it to happen.
Another amendment that was passed declared that politicians should be held to account for their broken promises to students. Clearly Marxist Students support this. But student unions should remember that this applies as much to student politicians as national ones. In Sheffield the student union executive failed to submit the Marxist motions passed by the student council to the NUS on time, thus removing the only chance that Sheffield students had this year to have their voice heard at a national level. These student union officials should be held to account for what was at best, serious incompetence, and at worst wilful obstruction of union democracy.
An amendment was passed that declared the NUS’s opposition to UKIP, causing a veritable storm of protest from Young Independence (the youth wing of UKIP) who declared that they had been “banned” from the NUS. Naturally no-one had been banned, and as unions ultimately require political representation to fight for their members’ interests it should come as no great surprise that the NUS oppose a right-wing and xenophobic political party. However, once again Marxist students have pointed out that it is never enough to say what you are against, but you must say what you are for. The NUS must put forward a political programme that fights for the interests of students using socialist policies. The NUS should link up with workers in the labour movement, whose interests are aligned with ours, and fight to win the Labour Party, as the mass political party of the working class, to our socialist programme.
Happily a motion was passed opposing the privatisation of the student loan book, and the anti-privatisation mood is strong at NUS conference this year. Marxist students have been pointing out that the move towards privatisation in education is an inevitable consequence of capitalism in crisis which is forcing the capitalists to search for new avenues of profit such as education. If we are serious about fighting privatisation we must fight for socialism.