At last year’s National Union of Students conference, NUS’s broadly leftish leadership was displaced by a new, mostly more right-wing team of officers. President Malia Bouattia, whose re-election we critically supported, lost to incumbent Shakira Martin.
Under Martin NUS has moved to a much less radical, combative and dynamic stance. The NUS leadership refused to support the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts-organised national demonstration for free education; failed dismally to mobilise support for the UCU strike and displayed hostility to the wave of student solidarity actions; and built a relationship not with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party but with the Lib Dems and the government’s “Office for Students”. In order to achieve these things it has even further undermined democratic control and accountability in the structures of the national union: judging by the size of this year’s conference it has run the national union into the ground.
To give the political flavour of Shakira Martin’s leadership, last April, just after being elected, she told the Guardian that she was “undecided about who [to] vote for in the general election”...
At this year’s conference, delegates have a chance to change NUS’s direction by refusing to re-elect Martin and instead electing the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts’s Sahaya James – a class-struggle socialist who has been central to the student-UCU solidarity movement and, in her capacity as University of the Arts SU campaigns officer, was victimised for leading an occupation her university management’s plans to work with major property developers to gentrify Elephant and Castle.
Together with fellow activists from NCAFC and socialists Ana Oppenheim (running for VP Higher Education), Monty Shield, Justine Canady and Stuart McMillan (all running for the part-time Block of 15 section of NUS national executive), Sahaya James represents the best of the Corbyn surge and worker solidarity in the student movement.
There are six Full-Time Officer positions elected at the conference. In the other four, Martin’s allies are opposed by candidates roughly similar to the soft left NUS leadership ousted last year – Ali Milani, Zamzam Ibrahim, Eva Crossan Jory and Neal Black.
We advocate a vote for all the left candidates in these FTO elections – despite numerous and large criticisms of the politics and record of the grouping these four represent. To summarise, the leaders of this grouping are not, in general, very left-wing. They do not campaign vocally for radical policies to transform NUS or student unions into an effective campaigning force. Their approach to organising is not democratic or inclusive but all too often top-down, cliquey and sectarian and denunciatory to those to their left. For instance, many of them have so far failed to back Sahaya James for NUS President, without starting any political differences (and despite, rightly, backing Ana Oppenheim for VP HE). They have, despite their prominent positions, played relatively little role in the movement to support UCU. They have not used their times in office to lead struggles in the manner that Sahaya has.
But everything is relative. To remove the current leadership of NUS and replace it with leaders from the left, and moreover leaders to whom a layer of left-leaning student union officers and activists look, would be a step forward. It means that student activists can put those leaders to the test. They need to be put to the test. NUS’s record under the leadership of Malia Bouattia was not very good and at best did nothing to change the conditions for the mess the union is now in.
The most important thing in the elections at NUS conference is to elect the socialist NCAFC candidates – Sahaya, Ana, Monty, Justine and Stuart. But we should also work to elect as many left-wingers as possible.
Delegates also have the opportunity to pass and start organising around more militant policies – on the UCU strike; on democratising our institutions; on free education and a campaigning strategy to win it; on linking up with and pressuring Corbyn’s Labour Party; on housing, maximum rents and rent strikes; and on organising young and student workers and solidarity with workers’ struggles.
Whoever wins the elections, we urgently need a discussion about how to organise serious left activists to build an open, democratic left-wing network in NUS, capable of pushing forward a campaign to transform the national union into a fighting force.
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