Getting things into perspective

The defeat of Clare Solomon offers us a snapshot of the student movement, argues Ben Lewis

Elections can be used as a barometer of the class struggle and an insight into the health of our own forces. Notwithstanding the peculiar dynamics within the world of student politics, this can also be true of local student union sabbatical elections.

On the back of some of the biggest and most influential student demonstrations, occupations and walk-outs seen in this country for decades, one would therefore expect this rise in militancy to find reflection in the various local union elections up and down the country. Yet, whilst there have been some prominent leftwingers elected in Liverpool University, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths, in many places the left has not been able to make advances - or even register on the radar.

Arguably the biggest blow to the student movement was Clare Solomon losing out in her bid to be re-elected as president of the University of London Union. Dubbed by many the de facto leader of the student movement, Clare has played a valuable role in coordinating demonstrations and other actions. She used her influence to rock the boat rather than simply slot into existing structures, and also set up the London Student Assembly, which was an excellent initiative. Although another activist from Counterfire, Sean Rillo-Raczka, was elected as vice-president at ULU, things will be a lot more difficult without comrade Solomon as president. As she correctly pointed out in an interview with The Guardian following the election, one of the reasons she lost was because a "rightwing alliance" was able to cohere around a single candidate, Vratislav Vrap Domalip. Domalip's candidacy was clearly anti-leftwing and anti-Solomon, explicitly on the basis of transforming ULU from an institution of social criticism to one of "social mobility", as his manifesto put it. Beyond some rather inane pledges and platitudes, Domalip also made clear that he would "condemn any violent protests". One wonders whether Mr Domalip would also "condemn" police violence, open mass imprisonment (kettling), horse charges ...

Clare Solomon's defeat was a setback, including symbolically, and it is an election we should have won. The media, all too keen to hound and slander comrade Solomon from the outset, have taken great pleasure in the outcome. But what does it say about the current state of the student movement? Firstly, it is clear that student politics is subject to extreme volatility, meaning that movements can disappear as quickly as they emerge. Whilst the passing of measures to triple fees and scrap the education maintenance allowance has had a direct and immediate negative effect on the numbers being mobilised, the sheer scale of proposed closures, cutbacks and redundancies on campuses yet to come into effect make the resurgence of student protest a question of when, not if.

Secondly, and more importantly, the inability of the left to actually make substantial electoral gains underlines the urgency of getting our act together. For all of the talk of the winter's events heralding another 1968, the far left is in a profound state of disarray. Indeed, while certain groups may have come into contact with more young radicals from the protests and grown as a result, the fact remains that collectively we do not have any viable organisation in the student movement capable of attracting the mass of students. The perspectives are to strengthen this or that group, not the movement as a whole.

It is always a good idea to draw on the experience of previous struggles for inspiration and guidance, but there has been a huge exaggeration of the similarities between autumn 2010 and spring 1968 (the title of comrade Solomon's new book, for example, is Springtime: the new student rebellions). This nostalgia for 1968 also overlooks the fact that those tumultuous events actually culminated in a strategic defeat of the working class in France and elsewhere. In this sense, the Socialist Workers Party spiel about "the streets" undoing parliament's work reveals an absolute poverty of strategic thought - we cannot and should not simply rely on spontaneity and anger, but should instead organise and educate. As with the 'adult' groups, however, the division of the student left into warring sects and their manifold 'united fronts' only serves to miseducate and disorganise the movement. In these conditions it is perhaps inevitable that the left has been unable to create a pole of attraction distinct from the 'official' structures - ie, the machine turning out future professional politicians that is the National Union of Students.

Despite convening in times that have not been normal, the NUS annual conference, in session as this paper goes to press, has, I am told, been fairly run of the mill. However, given the ever increasing gulf between the NUS's crusty careerist structures and actual students, it is likely that even hell freezing over might pass unnoticed by the self-serving cabal that is the leadership, with its elaborate standing orders and self-serving apolitical initiatives.

Whilst it is true that thus far this year's conference has seen more rhetoric against the cuts on offer from NUS tops - conference even agreed a policy supporting all protests and strikes against the cuts, and calling for coordination with the unions - a militant campaign is completely alien to such people. Here too the right has been able to largely outflank the left. It may have been forced to drop its dithering leader, Aaron Porter, who will be replaced by current NUS Scotland president Liam Burns. But it has ensured that there will be no national demonstration this year (the one mandated by last year's conference saw 50,000 people on the streets and the occupation of Millbank!)

The left may have just been able to carve out a 'united' slate for the NUS elections behind closed doors, but this actually reflects the left's divisions and its attendant political conservatism. Thus, while it is no bad thing for comrades from the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power et al to stand together, what they are actually for is classic 'student trade unionism' - predominantly focusing on fees and free education around the slogan, 'For a fighting NUS'. Although some of the votes were not bad (SWPer Mark Bergfeld received 149 out of 744 votes and Michael Chessum of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts polled 174 out of 527), this does not represent any substantial increase on previous far-left efforts.

Not that the NUS should bother us all too much. Of crucial importance now is to build the student movement at the base - not just in terms of mobilising for demonstrations and agitating around the rather unambitious demands on fees and cuts we have seen, but actually taking ideas to the mass of students, and attempting to win support for the basic principles which should unite all those who see themselves as Marxists. We need to explain the background to many of the issues they face - the role of state violence in protecting the interests of the ruling class, the need to fight for democracy at all levels of all society, the need for a Marxist political alternative, and so on. In spite of their lofty claims and pretensions, this cannot be done effectively by any of the purportedly Marxist grouplets in isolation.

As within the workers' movement more generally, the greatest obstacle to taking up these tasks in a serious way remains the lack of unity of our forces around a project which is both inspiring and viable. There is no iron law which dictates that far-left student politics must be limited to unambitious 'fees, cuts and conditions' activist networks. Such practice is only 'common sense' at the moment because of an amateurish and constricted vision. Instead of mass perspectives which have the long-term aim of winning the majority of society to a project guided and informed by the politics of Marxism, time and time again we see groups like the SWP, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and Workers Power consciously limit their politics to projects like the Education Activist Network, Youth Fight For Jobs/Education and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts - usually in the hope of chasing (largely illusory) allies to their right in the student bureaucracy.

The onus is on us to take up these basic tasks - not to look back to the illusory halcyon days of 1968 and carry on ignoring our debilitating division. Unless the left in the student movement can get together as Marxists then student radicalism will surely be unable to effectively confront the enormous attacks being made upon us.