by Claire Laker-Mansfield, Socialist Students National Organiser
This year’s National Union of Students (NUS) conference took place amid a growing mood of anger at austerity in education, and renewed eagerness to fight back. This mood was reflected in the conference, particularly in the outcome of the leadership elections and with some of the motions passed.
Throughout the conference Labour Students (which remains dominated by Blairites and which has, until recently, occupied a leading position within the structures of NUS) found itself unable to challenge the arguments of the left or to effectively block motions calling for action to resist the Tory onslaught.
Perhaps most significantly, a motion was passed by the conference mandating NUS’s leadership to organise a mass demonstration in the autumn as part of a ‘save our futures’ campaign. Every year since 2010, Labour Students has fought a fierce battle to prevent NUS organising a national demo.
It is a measure both of the pressure that exists from ordinary students and of the deep disorientation that has engulfed Labour’s right since Jeremy Corbyn’s election, that this year not one delegate made a speech against organising a demo. The motion was passed unanimously.
The most dramatic culmination of the shift in mood came when the sitting right-wing president, Megan Dunn, was unseated by Malia Bouattia, the current black students officer, who presented a challenge from the left. Malia’s victory was followed by the reelection of three vice presidents who also stand broadly on the left.
A key strategy employed by Labour Students was to attempt to conflate any criticism of the Israeli regime with the very serious charge of anti-Semitism and to try to smear the entirety of the left with it.
This smear is unfortunately made easier because many on the left do not take the same clear stance as the Socialist Party on the issue – calling for two states, Israel and Palestine, which would be possible on a socialist basis.
Megan Dunn based much of her reelection pitch on the assertion that her opponent would not challenge anti-Semitism. Malia’s election was followed by a frenzied backlash in the right-wing press and on social media – a precursor to the crisis now whipped up within the Labour Party nationally.
This backlash has included a right-wing campaign for student unions to disaffiliate from NUS. This is, in reality, an attempt to undermine the possibility of its resources and authority being used to organise effectively against attacks on education.
It is important that students organise to oppose disaffiliation from NUS, while continuing to argue that it must adopt a fighting strategy and organise on a genuinely democratic basis.
The fact that NUS has failed to organise effective opposition in the face of the austerity onslaught will mean that some students who are not on the right may feel tempted by disaffiliation. But we would argue that there remains potential, particularly given events at this year’s conference, for NUS to be a vehicle to organise a fightback.
In 2010 the NUS showed this potential when it organised a demonstration against tripling tuition fees which attracted over 50,000 people and kick started a mass movement. Had the leadership of NUS been prepared to build on this and organise an escalating campaign which united with workers – instead of abandoning the struggle as they did – the outcome of this battle could have been different.
One of the few amendments to be seriously contested by the right was raised by Socialist Students. We argued that, in the context of the government introducing a vicious anti-trade union bill, as well as wider attacks on democratic and workers’ rights, simply celebrating the work done by student unions is not enough.
We therefore opposed the outgoing NUS president’s #loveSUs initiative – instead arguing for a serious campaign to defend student unions, seeking to build links with trade unions and workers to defend the right to organise and oppose austerity. Following a substantial debate this amendment was narrowly defeated.
Many other important motions submitted by Socialist Students members unfortunately fell off the agenda. This including one arguing for a strategy to support Jeremy Corbyn’s call for free education and to take on the pro-fees, pro-cuts majority of Labour MPs. Another called for a £10 an hour minimum wage.
Nevertheless, there was a big interest in socialist ideas among the delegates present. Socialist Students took part boldly, particularly supporting our candidate for the national executive committee, Zoe Brunswick.
Zoe is a medical student who helped organise student solidarity with the junior doctors’ strikes. She used her election speech to argue that the change in direction set by NUS conference must be followed through with the organisation of mass action – that radical rhetoric must be matched with deeds.
While Zoe’s speech received a warm reception from conference floor, unfortunately she was not elected despite receiving a good vote.
The most important task now facing our movement is to organise for a huge demonstration in the autumn, which must act as a springboard to an escalating campaign in defence of education. This should involve students in universities and colleges, but must also seek to organise school and sixth-form students fighting brutal cuts and academisation.
Socialist Students will seek to work alongside NUS and others in order to help build this. This conference could potentially mark a turning point for the student movement.
But for this to be true, it must act as a launch pad for a mass democratic movement organised on every campus and linked on a national level. If you want to be part of fighting to build such a movement, join us, get involved and help us to build the fightback today.