Embracing socialist ideas in the age of austerity
Claire Laker-Mansfield, National organiser Socialist Students
Socialist Students met for an enthusing national conference. Around 100 students packed out the venue, with virtually every seat taken. The day’s discussions showed a flourishing organisation, confident in socialist ideas and leading in the fight to defend education.
In the main, delegates were university students. But this year, for the first time, a large group of school and college students attended.
Throughout the day’s discussions tremendous enthusiasm for socialist ideas shone through. There was a sense that these ideas are resurgent – as international developments like the campaign to elect “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders in the US attest.
The conference took stock of the huge steps forward that Socialist Students has taken in the past year – evidence of the growing appetite for an alternative to austerity and for ideas that can offer a future to the next generation.
The opening session was: ‘Building the student movement in the age of austerity’. This set the scene for the day’s discussions. Platform speakers – who included Lily Douglas of Willowfield School, Huddersfield Socialist Students member Jackson Mouldycliffe, Jane Nellist of the NUT teachers’ union executive and Myka Abramson, a UCU member and anti-casualisation campaigner – outlined the devastating attacks taking place on education and the much needed fightback.
A video from the 2010 student movement was a good introduction to this – a reminder of how rapidly a seeming calm in society can give way to explosive developments and mass movements.
Lily outlined how her and her school friends had drawn the conclusion that they needed to get organised as part of the fight to stop the war on Syria. She described the anger that she and many students at her school had felt when the local Labour MP – Stella Creasy – had voted for the bombing.
Since then, Socialist Students has set up a group at the school, and they have been organising discussions, taking part in protests and have even had to face disciplinary measures for wearing ‘books not bombs’ badges!
Now Socialist Students at Willowfield school is getting involved in the campaign against the huge cuts that are on the way. Schools in some areas are facing more than 20% of their funding being lost.
This picture was expanded on by Jane Nellist, who described the huge pressure piled on teachers. Jane spoke about the need for coordinated national trade union action in the fight against cuts, and the importance of students linking up with workers and trade unions to defend education. This was a point reinforced by Myka, who explained that, incredibly, more than half of teaching staff in universities are now on casual contracts.
Jackson gave plenty of examples of the work our societies are involved in on university campuses. At Huddersfield, Socialist Students has organised a substantial free education protest this year and is now playing a part in the campaign to save a local hospital’s A&E.
These examples were expanded on in the discussion – with students from other universities contributing reports of similar successful initiatives. Seb Robyns from Cardiff University described how their society had initiated a housing campaign, taking up the sky-high rents and problems with quality.
Amy Cousens from Leeds Beckett talked about building for a regional demonstration in Yorkshire against tuition fees and cutbacks. Gareth Bomhall from Swansea described how his group is participating in a campaign to oppose cuts to mental health services. Vlad from Portsmouth explained how Socialist Students there had initiated a campaign to fight for the university to provide scholarships to refugees, linking this demand with the fight for free and decent education for all.
A theme of the discussion was the failure of both the National Union of Students (NUS) and other left organisations within the student field to measure up to the task of building a movement capable of defending education at a time of such unprecedented attack.
There is a clear need for a mass national campaign to combat both the vicious attacks outlined in the Higher Education green paper and the new round of austerity being visited on schools and colleges.
That’s why Socialist Students has decided to launch ‘Education Fightback’. This will be a campaign opposing the attacks taking place on our education system at all levels. To kick-start this, we have called for a national day of action to take place on 26 February.
This was a date that had been named by some on the left as a student strike. But in the absence of a proper strategy to mobilise for this, it has been cancelled. Rather than accept that nothing will happen, Socialist Students is taking the opportunity to launch a re-invigorated campaign to end austerity in education.
We plan to organise protests, stunts, lobbies and sit-ins at all the universities, schools and colleges where we are present, and to use this as a springboard to building a huge campaign to defend and improve education.
Join us and get involved!
Building in schools and colleges
Eilis Mulholland and Nur Bahram, Newham school students
We went to the inspiring Socialist Students conference and one of the workshops we attended was on ‘Building in Schools and Colleges’.
Lauren and Trishika from Walthamstow introduced it by saying how they organised with school friends in opposition to their local MP, Stella Creasy, voting for the bombing of Syria. They leafletted their school twice, produced badges against the war and took to social media to directly question Stella Creasy’s voting. They ran a petition asking their school’s head to invite the MP and an anti-war activist to speak to students.
One of their meetings in a café was reported on Channel Four news. The TV reporter tried to patronise the meeting because it was mainly made up of 15 year old students. But that was the point of it – young people organising themselves.
Walthamstow Socialist Students are also campaigning against cuts and over fast food workers’ rights, including attending two meetings in Parliament.
During the workshop we discussed the first steps to getting school students involved in campaigns. Nancy said: “If you realise that people are angry about stuff, make leaflets and badges about it and go as far as you can on the issue”. Holding bake sales is a good way to get money to pay for the campaign. Walthamstow Socialist Students holds local meetings each week at Costa and goes on demonstrations, leading chants.
The workshop agreed that meetings should always be inviting for students – informal, held near their schools and not using jargon.
NUS conference and elections
Zoe Brunswick, Manchester Socialist Students
During the conference a breakout meeting was held for those students who are looking to intervene further in the NUS over the coming year.
A number of Socialist Students members will be attending NUS conference as delegates – a nationwide conference to decide the direction of the union for the following year.
Socialist Students are also standing for sabbatical positions at some universities, a position which would allow them to influence the running of and campaigning within student unions.
Students standing for sabbatical positions agreed to coordinate campaigns between universities and support each other via social media.
Delegates to the NUS conference will meet again in the coming months to submit motions to the conference and agree who will speak on which motions. The meeting also discussed standing for a position on the NUS NEC, which, if successful, would allow Socialist Students to participate in the running of the NUS at a national level.
We are confident that involvement with the NUS will help Socialist Students engage with a wider audience and are excited to push on with the campaign!
Corbyn, Labour and the fight against the Tories
Introduced by Lenny Shail from the Socialist Party, the session on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party was full of enthusiastic contributions. Momentum, the Corbyn supporting group, was invited to debate but didn’t attend.
The discussion was mainly concerned with in what way Socialist Students should now engage with the Labour Party in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the party leadership.
Corbyn was unexpectedly thrust into power after Labour’s defeat in the 2015 general election. This defeat was largely a result of Labour’s politically deficient programme. Instead of mobilising the mass anger present throughout society after five years of the Con-Dem government, Labour sought to mimic the narrative peddled by the Conservative Party and its allies in the media.
It was clear to everyone in the room that Corbyn’s victory has opened up a new period for the growth of socialist consciousness for students wanting to fight the Tories and their austerity agenda.
Yet beyond this was an acute awareness of the tasks which still lie ahead if Corbyn’s anti-austerity message is to be realised. Clearly, the Labour Party is divided between Corbyn (supported overwhelmingly by students and young people) on the one side and Blairite MPs and councillors on the other. Labour for the time being contains within it two irreconcilable opposing forces.
There was a clear consensus from all who contributed during the session that the capitalist policies of the Labour Party up and down the country have not changed. The right wing still holds a dead hand grip on the party in local councils, voting to cut public services and undermining Corbyn’s leadership.
“If Corbyn isn’t careful, he runs the risk of compromising on what made him so popular. The right wing of the party shows no signs of taking a conciliatory approach,” said one student.
As such, Socialist Students has to intervene at every opportunity in public meetings to both help Corbyn and his supporters in the fight against the Blairites, as well as building Socialist Students as a campaigning socialist organisation. In my view this means all Socialist Students groups supporting anti-austerity candidates in upcoming local elections, be they Labour Party candidates or otherwise.