The NUS conference has now closed for another year. This time it met during the most militant industrial action on university campuses in years, and while strike action is also taking place in FE colleges around the country. The conference should have been a war council to discuss how the NUS could mobilise students to develop this struggle of our staff into a broader struggle involving all layers of the working class, to bring down the Tory government and the capitalist system.

That’s what Marxist students argued for this week, with our leaflets, the motions we submitted to the conference, the articles we’ve written, the content of our Revolution newspaper, and our fringe meeting on Nationalising the Monopolies at which an NUS delegate and a UCU rep both spoke, to highlight the need for student/worker solidarity.

Unfortunately, with this view, we were in a small minority. The incumbent right-wingers at the conference won most of the elected positions and used a healthy dose of bureaucratic manoeuvres to ensure that more time was spent discussing plastic straws and a second Brexit referendum, than free education and solidarity with the UCU strikes. The re-elected right-wing president of the NUS, Shakira Martin, closed the conference with a speech in which she said she would “welcome the Tories” and that some of the politics at the conference made her “scared for the student who might be a little bit right-wing”. Unsurprisingly, this speech sparked a walk-out by huge numbers of conference delegates and a spontaneous demonstration with chants of “Shakira Shakira Shakira, Out Out Out”.

But beyond walkouts, the more left-leaning students at the conference weren’t really able to challenge the Right because they lack clear ideas around which to campaign. Just one single Left candidate said the word “socialism” in a speech – in fact many of the ‘left’ speeches on motions and for election were indistinguishable from those of right-wingers. Unless the Left mobilises the mass of students around clear revolutionary socialist ideas, it won’t make much headway at the NUS.

Frustration at the defeats being suffered by the Left boiled over into a spontaneous occupation of the conference stage on the second day of the conference, which shut down the conference for three hours. The frustration is understandable, but can only be avoided by organising properly in advance of the conference on the basis of clear socialist ideas, so that the defeats can be avoided. Substituting stunts for serious politics is not a good way to win the NUS to a radical socialist programme.

The lesson we need to take on board going forward is that a a serious clarification of ideas is necessary for left-wingers if we’re going to mobilise students to support our candidates and our ideas in the run-up to and at NUS conference. It’s not just a question of being better organised – it’s a question of having better political ideas. We need to say clearly that we are revolutionary socialists who want to fight for free education by fighting against capitalism. We want to unite students and workers to bring down the government and put universities and colleges under the democratic control of staff and students, as part of a broader plan to nationalise the monopolies and plan the whole economy for need, not profit.

These ideas are the ideas of Marxism. Marxist students study these ideas week in and week out on campuses all over the country so that we’re able to argue convincingly for them in our student unions, at the NUS, in trade unions, and everywhere else. We were in a small minority at this conference, but we’re building up our forces and we’re certain that it’s only our ideas that can fundamentally transform the NUS into an organisation that can tackle the problems faced by students on a day-to-day basis. If you want to help us to turn the NUS into a fighting organisation that unites students and workers to struggle for a fundamental socialist transformation of society, then get in touch and join us!

by Matt Rider (Swansea NUS delegate), Emily Smith (UCL NUS delegate), Sam Tollitt (UCL NUS delegate), and Fiona Lali (SOAS NUS delegate)

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