NUS conference 2018: why did the Left fail to win the presidency?

The challenge mounted by the student Left for the position of NUS president has failed. The attempt, had it been successful, would have taken control of the NUS out of the hands of right-wingers who are intent on ensuring the NUS remains apolitical and disconnected from students. It would have put the NUS under the control of Corbyn-supporting activists, and that could only have been a good thing.

To answer the question of why the Left failed to win the presidency of the NUS we need to understand the broader context in which this vote took place. Ten years after the economic collapse of 2008, living and working conditions for the vast majority of people continue to deteriorate. There is no end in sight for the crisis of capitalism sparked by that collapse. And as long as the capitalist system persists, it will be working class people, and young people in particular, who are forced to pay for that crisis.

This situation has produced political polarisation all over the world, with more and more people looking for radical solutions to their problems. In Britain we’ve seen this polarisation to the Left in the form of the Corbyn phenomenon. At the NUS conference in 2016 this polarisation reached the top of the NUS, with the election of left-wingers to the leadership of the union. But the opportunity that this presented, to put forward radical socialist politics which could solve the problems faced by students and young people, was wasted. Those NUS leaders spent more time bickering in the backrooms than organising the mass of students around radical left-wing ideas. As a result, the NUS conference in 2017 kicked them out and voted in a right-wing leadership team.

This year, the student Left should have learned the lessons from 2016 and understood that a victory for the Left can only be guaranteed by clear socialist ideas that can take the NUS and the student movement forward. Being loosely ‘left-wing’ and a bit of a campus activist isn’t enough. Without clarity of ideas and a bold, coherent programme, the student Left won’t be able to solve the problems faced by students and young people. It’s not surprising that people don’t vote for the Left if the Left doesn’t present clear and serious ideas about how they plan to fight for students.

Unfortunately, this lesson does not seem to have been taken on board sufficiently. For example, some of the left-wing students at the NUS conference have described themselves merely as “campus troublemakers”, whose leaflet bears the headline: “Socialism: saving you from boring debates”. One campaigner at the conference has been exhorting delegates to take leaflets for one of the Left candidates, without reference to her politics, but rather on the grounds that “they’re the best designed leaflets at the conference!” The overall impression created is that these are not serious people. For students sinking deeper and deeper into debt, who can’t afford their rent, and who will graduate into zero-hours contract jobs, these “troublemakers” don’t seem like they’d have any idea about how to fight for students’ interests. If we want people to take socialism seriously, then surely the starting point has to be that we take it seriously ourselves?

The Left candidate for NUS President made a number of good promises in her manifesto, including spreading rent strikes, building unity between workers and students, and fighting for free education. These are struggles that should be pursued vigorously within the student movement. But beyond these promises, there weren’t really many clear ideas about how to carry on these struggles, and how to make them successful. To mobilise large numbers of students for a rent strike, for example, it requires a clear political explanation that rent is high due to the marketisation of universities and the profit-seeking of landlords. From this we can understand that a rent strike is not a solution in and of itself, but part of a broader strategy to bring down a Tory government that promotes marketisation and landlordism; to fight for the nationalisation of the land and the construction companies to provide cheap and good quality housing; and ultimately to overthrow a capitalist economic system that makes profiteering inevitable. Without this clarity of political ideas, it won’t be possible to lead a rent strike to a victorious conclusion – that is a conclusion that will actually solve the problem of extortionate rent once and for all. We need to put this kind of explanation forward consistently and coherently if we want Left candidates to be taken seriously.

Free education is something that has been consistently defended over the last few years by left-wing students. But the proposed strategy for achieving free education is not always consistently convincing. At every demonstration for free education over the last few years, the dominant demand has been to “tax the rich to fund free education”. The problem is that the rich know how to avoid tax. If we want to make the rich pay for free education, we have to expropriate their businesses and put them under workers control as part of a democratic plan of production for all of society. Happily, one leaflet (other than the Marxist Student leaflets!) being handed out at the NUS conference this year made the suggestion that “nationalising the banks” might be a good idea. But this demand is included in the same sentence as a repetition of the demand to “tax the rich”! This creates an impression of extreme confusion – are we in favour of taxing the rich or nationalising the banks? One is a mild reform that makes no fundamental change to the capitalist system, the other would strike a fundamental blow against the institution of private property. The implications of each demand are very different and if we’re serious about striking blows against the foundations of the capitalist system by nationalising the banks, then we need to be ideologically and organisationally prepared for that struggle. Throwing around contradictory slogans isn’t a serious approach to politics – clarity and consistency is the prior condition for winning people to radical ideas.

This point is particularly important in relation to the UCU strikes. The student Left has rightly condemned the NUS leadership for taking almost no interest in the most militant industrial action seen on university campuses in many years. But the approach of some on the Left to the strikes has been extremely confused to say the least. One leaflet being handed out at the NUS conference features a For and Against debate between two members of the same left-wing group over the question of tuition fee refunds for teaching time lost during the strike. This is astonishing because the demand for fee refunds incontrovertibly erodes student/worker solidarity and fully buys into the marketisation of education. The student arguing for tuition fee refunds writes that “while solidarity ideally should be automatic, the reality is that it cannot be expected of students…”. This reads like the argument of a Tory student. It’s no wonder that the Left can’t put forward coherent and serious arguments for socialist policies if it can’t make up its mind over whether we can expect student/worker solidarity or not.

In general it’s never a good approach to focus on organisational questions, at the expense of political ones. For example, many activists at the NUS conference this year have talked about how incredible the recent wave of university occupations has been and how this marks a fundamental shift in the student movement, akin to the wave of student occupations in 2010. What is ignored is that the vast majority of these occupations were lacking in clear and serious political ideas. The Cambridge occupation, for example, focused more on the question of divestment from fossil fuels than it did on solidarity with the UCU. Meanwhile the Reading occupation issued statements which included such devastating political analysis as “the university is a fuck”. The consequence of this was that these occupations remained disconnected from the vast majority of the student population, involving just a small handful of the usual activists who had no real perspective of using the occupations as part of a broader strategy to bring down the government and fight marketisation and capitalism. We are right to demand that the NUS support these occupations – but this support doesn’t mean uncritical cheerleading of activism for its own sake. Real support means giving political direction and leadership to the student movement, and linking it to a broader struggle for fundamental change in society.

The defeat of the Left at this year’s NUS conference is disappointing, and this time the student Left can’t afford to ignore the lessons. The fact is that organisational questions and political ones go hand-in-hand. The way to build support for any campaign or candidate is with clear, coherent and radical political ideas. People are drawing radical and even revolutionary conclusions about how society needs to be fundamentally changed. But they are not stupid and will be able to see through fudged ideas or campaigns that mash together lots of contradictory ideas and try to pass them off as something worth mobilising for. This is the lesson we need to learn from the defeat of the Left at this year’s NUS conference. Ideological clarity is the prerequisite for a successful campaign, and it’s the ideas of Marxism that are the only ones which can offer a way out for students, young people, and the working class.

by Marxist Student NUS delegates