Whatever happened to student radicalism?

The National Union of Students annual conference was held from March 27-29. Ben Lewis and Dave Isaacson report on the consolidation of rightwing control

A "rightwing orgy" is how Student Respect member Assed Baig summed up the proceedings at this year's National Union of Students conference in his hustings for the part-time 'block of 12' elections. This is, of course, quite correct. However, what the comrades from Student Respect clearly miss, if one considers both their actions at conference and their post-conference assessments, is that the left itself (and this includes them) currently constitutes the main barrier to developing a coherent opposition to the ascendancy of the right in NUS.


In both the policy debates and elections to the NEC the right slaughtered a ridiculously weak and divided left. Last year Labour Students narrowly managed to overturn long-standing NUS policy to oppose means-testing by arguing that targeted grants would actually boost equality by withholding money from the richest students. This year this policy was supported again, and built upon, with the right gaining a much clearer majority for its attack on the principles of free education. The idea that means-tested grants would combat inequality is nonsensical - above all if one considers the increased potential for discrimination against minority students. The Socialist Workers Party's Rob Owen said that this motion "sells out LGBT and black students" and "does nothing to address the gap between rich and poor".

Much of the Labour Students plans were supported and pushed though by rightwing 'independents' who seem to be increasingly united in a 'non-factional faction' under the ridiculous banner of "Not for Politics, Just for Students". However these labels are just about as ephemeral as their holders' connection with reality - consider the 'Thunderkat' faction organised around the ex-Alliance for Workers' Liberty NUS president of two years ago, Kat Fletcher, which has now been superseded by the 'Organised Independents' (OI) around current president Gemma Tumelty. The movers and shakers within these 'independent' factions are invariably in or around the main bourgeois parties, yet their highly attuned careerist instincts prevent them from openly admitting their affiliation.

The Not for Politics supporters also argued against universal grants for all on the basis that students from wealthy families would receive extra money and that this would be unfair. Again, a ridiculous suggestion - what a universal grant ensures is financial freedom and independence from parents' funds. Tellingly, most of those arguing against this were well-spoken, white, middle-class, public school types. Who cares if a grant helped them buy a few more expensive things? - the point is that every student, regardless of income, ethnicity or sexuality, should have the right to this support.

Of course, any policies which would really challenge inequality - such as hitting the rich hard with progressive income tax or corporation tax - are rejected outright by this faction. Raising the slogan 'Tax the rich' was in fact something that even Student Respect and the Student Broad Left group felt was too radical when it was proposed at last year's conference. On a more technical level, the left spoke a lot of "living grants" or "living wages", but in reality, their minimalism means that what they are actually arguing for is nothing of the sort. Communist Students, by contrast, are committed to a genuine "living grant", based on what is actually needed for an adult to reproduce themselves physically and culturally.

Reflecting on the debate on means-testing this year, Student Respect and SWP member Hanif Leylabi, a delegate from Leeds University, has commented that he was "glad that the OIs and Student Respect were for once both on the side of free education". However, a bulletin put out by Education Not for Sale, the AWL-sponsored student organisation, reported that it now "seems as if the 'Organised Independents' around Gemma Tumelty are starting to discuss abandoning their opposition to means-testing".

'Fighting in the streets'

In the debate on a motion entitled 'How to win the fight for free education' the right criticised the Student Respect speakers for having a "narrow vision" of what a political campaign is. However, for such Labour Student types, sitting around and having rational debates and wine and cheese press dos with government ministers is the only way that we can effectively campaign for free education.

At this point, conference got quite exciting. As Assed Baig mounted the stage to address conference, the hapless SWP student organiser, Colin Smith (not a delegate), was waving frantically at him from the balcony, asking him to allow another comrade to speak instead. This led to the chair getting very upset after asking him repeatedly to sit down, while many delegates shouted, "Out, out, out!" Conference was temporarily suspended while comrade Smith was removed from the balcony. The ENS bulletin claims his behaviour was a "contributory factor to the loss of motions 510a and b" and concludes that "all this is particularly irritating since it seems to have transpired because Pete Leary from Socialist Action/Student Broad Left came and demanded SWSS [Socialist Worker Student Society] did it. All we can say is: SWSS - sort it out!"

However, the AWL and ENS's very own Sofie Buckland drew much laughter when she outlined her vision for free education as involving students "fighting in the streets." Even though I do not think she meant it that literally, this was picked up by the right as proof of the left's strategic poverty on the question of free education. There is some truth in this. Simply calling for demonstration after demonstration will get us nowhere. This is surely a lesson that should be learnt from the experience of Britain's anti-war movement around the Stop the War Coalition.

Since the NUS's acceptance of loans in the 1990s the student movement has been massively on the retreat, with the majority of students simply accepting the ideological consensus prevalent in society that every individual student must pay for tertiary education. Whilst the left, and NUS as a whole, has been able to mobilise thousands for one-off demonstrations, what is needed is the winning of the battle of ideas through the open espousal of working class politics.

Of course, the NUS bureaucracy is in no way interested in any such approach, walking as they do the ever thinner plank between nodding in the direction of improving student conditions and setting up their own career prospects. The logical outcome of this has been that those like Gemma Tumelty, who has said that the October 2006 'Keep the cap' demonstration was the "highest point" of her political career, are now tending to turn their backs on such actions. At the urging of NUS vice-president for education, Wes Streeting (Labour Students), conference voted against mandating the NEC to call another national demonstration next year - clearly a step backwards.

Last October it was Wes Streeting who told us on the 'Keep the cap' demo to "go home and write to your MP". This year he told us that we needed to be more "creative" - not just writing letters, but dressing up too. Actions that will certainly have the government quaking in its boots!

With regard to the further education sector, conference also voted to support the government's white paper on FE despite the fact that it will result in massive privatisations. Attempts to improve the representation of the poorest FE unions by reducing the minimum affiliation fee from £250 to £50 were then rejected.

Much time was wasted hailing the benefits of the NUS Extra discount card, and discussing such idiotic things as paperwork deadlines, rather than tackling the key issues facing the student movement. Shamefully, conference also voted by a two-thirds majority to get rid of guest speakers, with its proponents again referring to the lack of time and resources at conference. As comrades Rob Owen (SWP) and Laura Schwartz (AWL) pointed out, this was an "embarrassing" move that in reality has much more to do with the depoliticisation of NUS rather than a commitment to get through the agenda.

It should be noted here that NUS annual conference is now packed into one and a half days, with a gruelling schedule starting at 8:30am and finishing at 11pm (sometimes even followed by unofficial hustings or fringe meetings). A huge number of motions go undiscussed because they simply fall off the agenda. Back in the early 1990s there used to be two conferences a year, each five days in length. Clearly if we are interested in increasing democracy in NUS we need to start reversing these 'reforms' (cuts) and giving members the time (and energy) to discuss motions properly.

'Reform' will also affect the financing of future conferences, thanks to a successful motion stipulating that from 2010 delegates will have to pay for their own accommodation and then apply to be reimbursed by NUS - a shameful move.


One of the most controversial debates of the conference was around a motion which pledged to support the EU Monitoring Centre definition of anti-semitism and consequently no-platform anybody in NUS who disagrees with the line taken. The Union of Jewish Students (UJS), led by rightwing Zionists, believes it should have the last word when it comes to definitions. In a leaflet entitled 'Tackling anti-semitism' the UJS argues that "it ought to be the ethnic minorities themselves who should define the parameters of the prejudice waged against them. UJS, recognised as the sole voice of Jewish students in Britain, believes it is those Jewish students that fall prey to anti-semitism who ought to define what 'anti-semitism' should mean."

Jewish students with more progressive politics are to be left high and dry - "Of course, there may be some Jews who choose not to accept this definition - but this is the definition chosen by UJS, a democratic union open to all Jewish students." The text goes on to argue that "sometimes anti-semitism is dressed up in the cloak of anti-Zionism. Using the holocaust against the descendants of its victims by comparing Jews to Nazis ... is completely unacceptable." The motion was supported by members of the AWL, including Sofie Buckland.

Nobody is denying that anti-semitism must be vigorously combated. But UJS leaders want to define it so broadly that virtually any criticism of Israel or Zionism itself will be caught in the net. The motion states that anti-semitism can involve "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination: eg, by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour".

Clare Solomon of Student Respect pointed out that the motion "does imply that criticisms of Israel are anti-semitic" and that this would "have consequences" for organisations like Respect or Fosis (Federation of Student Islamic Societies). She then went on to say that the policy of no-platform should only apply to "fascist" ideas. This illustrates one of the problems with trying to defeat an idea by banning it. After all, there are those - "fascist" or not - whose anti-Zionism is indeed anti-semitic - the call to 'drive the Jews into the sea' being a good example. But blanket bans can be directed against the left as well as the right.

The point is that we should in general be for the most open and frank exchange of views, and treat no-platforming as a tactical question rather than an iron principle. This catastrophe certainly demonstrated how it can be used arbitrarily in order to sideline criticism. At the end of the day this is another area where we must win the battle of ideas.

One Jewish student lambasted Student Respect, arguing that it is critical of Israel, but supports the Iranian theocracy. SWP member Suzie Wylie replied that to criticise Israel is not anti-semitic, just as it is not islamophobic to criticise the Saudi Arabian regime (she did not mention Iran). This was a bit rich, considering the way in which allegations of islamophobia have been thrown about at anyone who has dared to say that political islam is not a working class movement, or that Ahmadinejad, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iraqi islamist resistance are no friends of the workers.

Yet the majority of conference, including a section of the left, was happy to extend the no-platform policy to further broaden what it is unacceptable to say. Paradoxically they also voted to keep the definition of what is acceptable broad. For example, conference also pledged its support for Unite Against Fascism and "encourage all students to get active, including using their vote, to stop the BNP" (our emphasis). So for NUS, and the student left, it is acceptable to vote for New Labour or the Tories - despite the fact that the neoliberal agenda they support is actually in part responsible for the rise of far-right ideas in society.

Society and citizenship

The motions in the so-called 'Society and citizenship' section, probably because that is where most actual politics is discussed, were left to the end. Despite repeated efforts to get the question of Stop the War Coalition affiliation and the war on Iran moved up the agenda, conference repeatedly voted these down, preferring to discuss the shambolic NUS Extra card, which offers students more or less the same benefits as their current union card, but charges them £10 for the privilege.

The 'big' questions, we are led to believe by the people around Not for Politics, Just for Students, are something over which NUS simply does not have any influence. As a student from Bristol put it, speaking against a procedural motion to bring forward the discussion on Iran, "We can't stop wars", but we can "help students". Unfortunately this disdain for taking political questions seriously is not the exclusive preserve of those on the right. Nevertheless, the refusal to discuss Iran meant that the Communist Students-initiated amendment on Iran - not simply opposing an imperialist attack but expressing active solidarity with the Iranian movement for democracy, and for NUS to support the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign - was also not taken. We were therefore deprived of the opportunity of hearing the arguments from Student Respect, which was down to speak against this amendment.

ENS supporters, no doubt frustrated with the left's impotence on conference floor, were keen to leave their mark on the conference. Following comrade Glass's reading out of the NUS death rites (see 'Right tightens grip', right), ENS dumped a bunch of black bags full of recyclables in front of national executive members - unfortunately, though, this was a less than successful demonstration, as many of the delegates had no idea what was going on.

Not to be deterred, the ENS comrades then organised a slightly more effective action - attempting to carry a coffin into the hall. Despite such misplaced chants as "Tories out of our union" (it was largely supporters of the Labour Party and Labourite independents that were responsible for the rightwing orientation of conference), they were enough to draw in Student Respect members, and the procession was therefore quite sizeable. Nevertheless, the handful of security workers were able to persuade the comrades to turn around - meaning that the corpse of bureaucracy never made it onto conference floor.

It is clear that a holy alliance of Labour Students, Students First (Tories) and the 'Organised Independents' (now joined by Not for Politics, Just for Students) are maintaining a tight grip on proceedings and sitting on anything that even nods in the direction of radical democracy and politicisation. The SWP's Hanif Leylabi is absolutely correct to note: "This was a bad conference for the left and a bad conference for students".

Overcoming this, especially in the face of huge attacks on students and the lack of politicisation more generally in society, is a huge task. Crucially though, it is the left that is in even more of a state. Sofie Buckland, who, despite the dominance of the right, was elected onto the NEC, partially recognises this, but she fails to see that her organisation too is part of the problem: "The various Blairite groupings which dominate the NEC defeated the left on all the central points of debate, and we also saw the growth of a new, more aggressive right wing among student union sabbatical officers. The student left can rally to stop this political retreat - but only if it does some serious rethinking." (How about starting with her own organisation's despicable first-campist pro-imperialism?)

The left too is marred by short-termism, bureaucracy and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring - mirroring some of the worst aspects of the NUS right. It is high time that the 'Marxists' within the student movement broke with populism and openly advocated the politics of revolutionary socialism. In its current state, it is no surprise that the right can ridicule the left so easily. We need the ideas of Marxism, not only to unite the left, but to pose a viable and real alternative to the hegemony of the right.