NUS: Right prepares for fresh assault
Although the right's governance review was not passed at this year's National Union of Students conference, the fragmented left suffered a series of defeats. Chris Strafford and Ben Klein report
If last year was a rightwing orgy, then this year’s conference at Blackpool was certainly no different. Labour Students and the so-called ‘Organised Independents’ further extended their control over NUS policies and structures. The only thing that did spoil the right’s celebrations was the failure to get rid of awkward things like delegate elections as part of the plan to transform the NUS into nothing more than a corporate-friendly gravy train for aspiring bourgeois politicians. The mood at Flares nightclub - where outgoing president Gemma Tumelty and her clique of self-serving careerists gathered - had a certain flatness.
Using her Bonapartist powers, she awarded herself an extra speech following the review’s defeat (the poor delegates had already been subjected to her self-congratulatory valedictory). Wagging her finger at delegates, she told us off for “making a mistake” by voting down the governance review (actually the necessary two-thirds majority was lost by a mere handful of votes). Tumelty was, she said, “sick and tired” of those blocking reforms - ie, the left. President-elect Wes Streeting also made clear that he was not going to back down on the anti-democratic reforms.
So at least things were not all bad this year. Scuppering plans to get rid of the directly elected ‘block of 12’ executive members, splitting the executive up into a largely unelected ‘board’ and ‘senate’ and reducing the NUS to a sort of lobbying group is certainly a good thing. News of it even made its way into the bourgeois media. Channel 4 ran a piece on the struggle between the left and the right and how “student power” and “radicalism” is “set to continue” within the NUS.
Yet the rest of the proceedings saw the left suffering defeats in both elections and policy-making. And Streeting is already making his next move. He organised a ‘questionnaire’ to all delegates which read more like a declaration of war. Forthrightly, he claimed he had a “clear mandate for change”. One of his questions is: “How could we have improved consultation with you about the proposals?” Well, “consultation” definitely does not involve pro-review hacks trying to forcibly remove the voting cards from those who insisted on opposing the review despite being undemocratically ‘mandated’ to support it - as happened to Manchester delegate and Communist Students member Chris Strafford. Other delegates from Sheffield and Edinburgh are in a similar position.
There is no room for left hyperbole or complacency. The right won every crucial vote (apart from the review) and swept the board in the elections (apart from the Left List’s Rob Owen and Hind Hassan, who were elected to the ‘block of 12’). Indeed it is rumoured that the leadership may go for two extraordinary conferences before the year is out. Hence SWP triumphalism belies the fact that the left lost the argument, with most delegates being in favour of the review. The requirement for a two-thirds majority is, of course, completely undemocratic. But it has at least given the left a breathing space to think things through.
In an extremely limited sense the right are quite correct to underline how there is a pressing need for “change”. Formally there are seven million members, but it is doubtful whether most students would even know what the NUS is beyond the scope of a cheap pint and a pasty in the union bar, or a 10% shopping discount on the high street. Given that the left has been unwilling to actually present its own alternative that would look to expand democracy and bring politics to the fore, the right has been able to dismiss opponents of the review as conservative diehards.
So there are now only two leftwingers on the executive - the SWP’s Rob Owen and Hind Hassan, who is not an SWP member. She gave an impassioned speech, which won a lot of support. As well as winning an excellent vote in her bid for vice-president, she came first in the block elections (comrade Owen came third). Alliance for Workers’ Liberty member Heather Shaw very narrowly missed out by 0.8 votes. Communist Students did not vote for her because, despite previously claiming to support ‘troops out now’, she was not prepared to actually come out and say so. Unlike Daniel Randall and other Education Not for Sale candidates, she did not respond to our written questions. When asked face to face, she told us she did not agree with the ‘troops out of Iraq’ formulation we use.
Talking of comrade Randall, he did well in the elections for president, giving a well honed speech about the relationship between the students’ and workers’ movements. It is a shame that his politics are so tainted by social-imperialism. Two ENS candidates that Communist Students did support were Koos Couvee and Laura Simmons - who, unlike their comrades in the AWL, both agreed with the demand for the unconditional and immediate withdrawal of US-UK troops from the Gulf.
Chris Strafford, standing as Communist Students candidate for the block of 12, received just six votes. This is not much of a surprise, given that voting is largely based on factional considerations and numbers mobilised to conference. What was important for us, however, was putting across ideas and in this sense our standing was a success.
The right’s strength was seen in the vote to formally drop the demand for free education. There were leadership appeals for common sense and realism. What we have now is a position for the defence of top-up fees - up to a certain level.
Two minor successes. The NUS will oppose asylum-seekers being charged the higher fees for overseas students and also calls for the latter to be reduced. But these were pretty meaningless decisions, given that there are no plans for any real campaigning. In other votes conference resolved to support the 2012 London Olympics and agreed to encourage students to vote in local and national elections.
Showing that the political spectrum in the NUS is considerably to the left of society at large, there was an overwhelming vote to maintain support for Unite Against Fascism. Ditto the policy of no-platforming fascists. But where this leads could be seen when comrade Singh - a member of Workers Power’s youth group, Revolution - proposed a motion calling for the state to ban far-right websites like Redwatch.
Whilst it is obvious that such websites encourage attacks on left, LGBT and peace activists, any law banning them would inevitably be used against the workers’ movement. That has been the case in the past; eg, so-called anti-fascist legislation passed in the 1930s was turned against the left. Communists call not for more state powers, but less.
The debate on ‘society and citizenship’ saw a motion agreed on Darfur which essentially supported African Union troops and called for a United Nations peacekeeping force. The ‘Don’t attack Iran’ motion put forward by the SWP/Student Respect was also carried. While this was positive, there was no mention of solidarity with the most consistent anti-imperialist forces in Iraq - the working class and the democratic opposition to the Tehran regime. A point made by the ENS motion, which had thankfully been reworded to remove the statement that “American (and British) military adventures in the Middle East have almost inevitably disastrous consequences” - implying that on occasion such adventures might not be so bad. However, the motion was not reached.
The SWP’s Rob Owen has claimed that the NUS conference left the Labour rightists and so-called independents “demoralised and reeling” and that “students are radicalising, with grassroots movements springing up on campuses against war, racism, climate change and many other issues.” Socialist Students, the student front of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, write in similar fashion that anger exists in the colleges and shows the potential for “campaigning against fees and against cuts, closures and privatisation”.
ENS has made a more serious attempt at getting to grips with NUS reality, arguing that the left must now take up the fight for the “real expansion of NUS democracy” and listing some good demands. However, the author of the ENS report claims: “We are now the only left grouping of any size to exist in NUS”. Even if this were true (it is not), the main problem with ENS is its economistic agenda and lack of elementary democratic structures. Where it has politics, they are of the labour bureaucracy or, what amounts to the same thing, the social-imperialism of the AWL.
Pious calls for free education, opposition to ultra-right crazies, campaigning designed to build this or that sect and tinkering with NUS structures are in fact woefully inadequate. Leftwing and all genuinely progressive students need the politics of extreme democracy, republicanism and unity in the fight for human liberation. In a word they need to learn Marxism.
There were plenty of backroom deals in order to win votes. Matt Dobson, SPEW’s student organiser, told us that, although Chris Strafford of CS was politically preferable to the AWL candidate, his comrades would nonetheless be voting for the AWL, as a deal had been struck. Communists are not opposed to wheeling and dealing. It would be stupid to reject horse-trading, yet that does not mean throwing principles overboard. Communist Students will continue to make propaganda not for warmed over Labourism, but for the ideas of Marxism.
Given the contradictory class dynamics of student life and politics, it is fatuous to treat the NUS like a trade union and make the core of our intervention questions of fees and grants. Students must be armed with ideas - not to equip them for some dead-end office job, but to empower them as revolutionaries linking up with the workers’ movement to change the world. We are well aware that at present only a minority can be won to such an outlook, but that does not mean advocating left reformist politics in the meantime.
The Save NUS Democracy campaign organised a fringe meeting following the defeat of the governance review. It was a funny gathering for more reasons that one. Communist Students, along with Socialist Students, it should be recalled, were deliberately excluded from its leadership. Since its inauguration in September 2007 it has been run by the SWP and Socialist Action. Frankly, they have made a hash of it.
To her credit, Sofie Buckland of the AWL, refused to join in the ‘rah rah, we won’ rhetoric of Rob Owen and Ruqqayah Collector (Socialist Action). Comrade Buckland argued that left unity in NUS had been blocked by sectarianism - principally from the SWP - and criticised the decision not to allow a speaker from Socialist Students onto the platform. The reason given was that Socialist Students did not have a member on the NUS NEC - a thoroughly bureaucratic response. She called for a “united rank and file movement” amongst students - a call that was repeated by a number of AWLers later on in the meeting.
Ruqqayah Collector, who on the NEC had failed to oppose the review outright, nevertheless celebrated its defeat. Likewise comrade Owen. He argued the NUS had never been at the leading edge of radical struggle. But his solution, repeated by other SWPers, was that the left should base its intervention on “the movements”. No mention of what politics we need. Presumably that was to be saved for the later Socialist Worker Student Society meeting entitled ‘Why you should be a socialist’. This was addressed by former Sheffield SWP organiser Alan Kenny, who just a couple of years ago aborted a Student Respect meeting, as there were “only socialists” present. How short some people’s memories are.
Arran Cottam of Socialist Students said this should be seen as “a historic day” because of the defeat of the NUS governance review and the National Union of Teachers vote for a 24-hour strike.
Any worthwhile campaign must have a broadly representative steering committee, which should meet openly. This was suggested by CS comrade Chris Strafford. It is as clear as day that the left needs to thrash out a wide-ranging programme of extending NUS democracy, including for the election of NUS officers. We are for ending the present system of electing a Bonapartist president and other little Bonapartes by conference. Instead, elect a working committee, which in turn elects - and can recall - its own officers.
It is incumbent upon the left to use the window provided by the defeat of the governance review to build an open and democratic campaign that can turn the outdated structures of the NUS on their head. Merely saying ‘no’ and avoiding rocking the boat - hitherto the method of Socialist Action and the SWP, will simply not do. Nor will organising a democracy campaign that mirrors the bureaucratic shortcomings of the NUS itself. Communist Students looks to extend NUS democracy and above all the fight to educate students in the politics and programme of Marxism.
Hands Off the People of Iran held a successful fringe meeting addressed by Yassamine Mather and Chris Strafford. Despite the fringe taking place at the same time as meetings of the Stop the War Coalition and Unite Against Fascism, 18 people attended from campuses across the country. Which is not at all bad.
Comrade Strafford talked about Hopi’s principled politics. He condemned the opportunism of the STWC in giving a platform to reactionary organisations like Hezbollah and apologists for the Iranian regime, while moving to sideline any organisation that dared to criticise the theocracy in Tehran, let alone talk about raising the profile of the increasingly radical student movement in Iran.
Comrade Mather gave an interesting insight into the dynamics of that movement. She rejected the notion that Iranian students were hoping for some kind of imperialist intervention. Their slogans are against war and against the theocratic regime, whether under the sway of the so-called ‘reformists’ or the hard-liners. She called for the student supporters of Hopi to forge closer links with the Iranian students. Such activists form the core of the movement for radical change in Iran.
Although there was little time for debate, an interesting discussion ensued which largely focused on the British anti-war movement. SWP member Hanif Leylabi was first to speak and defended the SWP’s record. The STWC leadership were not apologists for the Iranian regime and the refusal to allow Hopi to affiliate was based on decisions taken at a mass meeting. Apparently, this is how all decisions are made in the STWC.
Vicky Thompson from the Hopi steering committee pointed out that the decision to ban Hopi was made by the officers of the STWC and then pushed through conference by the skilful Stalinist chairing of Andrew Murray. She said she had left the SWP because it would not support demands similar to those of Hopi.
Kath McMahon said it would be stupid to call all STWC activists apologists for Tehran, because her Hopi branch in Edinburgh is actually able to work alongside Stop the War comrades. She did, however, underline the point that the SWP leadership has allowed apologist views on the Iranian regime to go unchallenged within the movement - especially through leading figures such as Abbas Eddalat and Somaye Zadeh.
In response, comrade Leylabi defended Campaign Iran by arguing that there were people and ideas in the organisation with whom he did not agree, but the campaign nevertheless had a good record of raising anti-war awareness. He claimed the reformist movement had scored successes in Iran - particularly in terms of women’s rights and dress codes in comparison to other Middle Eastern regimes like Saudi Arabia.
This was refuted by comrade Mather. Advances made by Iranian women compared with women from Saudi Arabia could be traced back to the economic characteristics of the country - ie, Iran’s capitalism as opposed to the tribal and semi-feudal system in Saudi Arabia - and to the fight of women and the progressive movement, not the generosity of the hugely discredited ‘reformists’.
On the question of the STWC, Yassamine said she would remain an individual member and encourage all comrades to do the same. She agreed with Hanif that our main focus in Britain is to stop any war on Iran, and that Hopi is first and foremost an anti-war campaign that seeks to bring genuine internationalism into the movement.
Conference overwhelmingly voted for Iranian student Anoosheh Azaadbar as honorary vice-president of NUS. The struggles that she and her comrades have engaged in should be an inspiration to students across the world - not merely for their militancy in the face of the regime’s brutal repression, but also in terms of their fresh and radical ideas, inspired by Marxism.
The election was, however, complicated by the fact that the SWP, having seen that ENS and Communist Students put forward Anoosheh, decided at the last minute to propose its own candidate. Namely the co-founder of Military Families Against the War, Rose Gentle. This stunt created a potentially farcical situation where delegates would be forced to choose between supporting an anti-war activist in Britain and an anti-war activist in Iran - as if the two were not in some way connected!
However, thanks to an amendment from ENS, conference was able to vote for both.