It has been some time since there was any meaningful link between the real struggles faced by the working class majority of students and the debates that took place at the annual conference of what is, officially, their union – the NUS. This year that disconnection will be as acute as ever, and (more significantly) we may see the end of the potential to ever reconcile it.
If the new constitution that will be voted on at this year’s conference – the result of a profoundly undemocratic “Governance Review” – is ratified, NUS will essentially be voting to abolish itself. Conference will be abolished, the National Executive Committee broken up, and the very limited channels that currently exist by which an ordinary student might intervene in the life of their national union all but concreted over. NUS conference 2008 may be the last in history.
This is not a sudden development; it is the logical endpoint of decades of savage attacks on NUS democracy that have gone hand-in-hand with a largely successful policy offensive by the union’s Blairite leadership against the semi-radical paper policies it was forced to adopt by activist pressure at conference. Unless the left can win in Blackpool, British students will from 2008 be faced with a “union” that has no conference, no real democracy and policy against free education.
For the sixteen year-old FE student working part-time in McDonalds or Starbucks, for the refugee student facing ESOL cutbacks, for the university students seeing their courses cuts and their departments closed to make room for vocational courses geared towards churning out workplace-fodder and for all the other working class students who make up the bulk of NUS’s membership, these changes will be disastrous. But the bigger tragedy is that these students, the people who will potentially be hit hardest by the lack of a representative organisation capable of helping them fight for their interests, probably do not know these changes are taking place.
They probably do not know that NUS conference is taking place. They may not know that the NUS exists at all as anything more than a logo on the back of a discount card.
The worst effect of the right-wing assault on NUS democracy and policy is not that it has become progressively harder for revolutionary socialists to get policy passed or for members of Trotskyist groups to get elected to NUS committees. The worst effect has been to widen almost beyond repair the enormous rift between NUS (and its structures and campaigns) and any significant proportion of its membership and their struggles.
AWL members will intervene in this year’s NUS conference, alongside others in the Education Not for Sale network, to attempt to defeat the new constitution. If we fail, then any prospect to close that rift may be lost for a long time.