Co-ordinating the occupations

Submitted by AWL on 12 February, 2009 - 12:16 Author: Koos Couvée

As Solidarity went to press, students at the University of East Anglia, Edinburgh University and Goldsmiths College in London had just gone into occupation in solidarity with Gaza — bringing the total number of colleges that have now occupied to 29. Koos Couvée reports from the meeting to coordinate the occupations called by the Stop the War Coalition on 7 February.

The meeting started with a number of high profile speakers. Jeremy Corbyn praised the student movement rising again after years of apathy. Students involved in the LSE and Manchester occupations spoke about the disgraceful attitude of NUS towards the movement, and the possiblity of it broadening out to cover other issues like anti-fascism and free education. Lindsey German of the SWP made a predictable analogy between the situation in South Africa in the 1970s and Palestine now and spoke in favour of a boycott of Israel. Tony Benn also spoke. The general tone of the meeting was celebratory.

A bit of debate arose around the boycott issue, when a member of the Socialist Party argued a boycott would hurt the Israeli working class most, and inhibited united action for socialism in the Middle East. The majority of the room was heavily in favour of a boycott. This was the end of the debate, and it did not resurface. Interestingly, the student charter that the StWC drew up for their local factions did not include the boycott demand.

After the reports back from the various occuopations, the final session again included a number of speakers — Chris Nineham from StWC and the SWP, George Galloway MP, and Rob Owen, NUS Executive member and SWP activist. Nineham broadened the emphasis on Gaza to imperialism worldwide, and stressed the importance of the demos around the G20 and NATO. Galloway tried to rally support for his Gaza aid convoy.

After the conference many delegates felt quite dissatisfied, despite the general tone of the meeting being constructive and celebratory. It seemed to me that a lot of the socialist/libertarian/unaffiliated delegates wanted to network and share skills, which the conference did not cater for.

Apart from this there was the call from Revo/Workers Power for the “radical coordination of student struggles”. Then of course there is Education Not for Sale’s call for a new student union network alongside NUS (a lot of frustration about the NUS was voiced in the meeting), and the planned meeting to discuss this idea on 7 March. We joined forces and called for a meeting at ULU after the conference. We were joined by 40-50 delegates, and the SWP turned up to it as well.

Because of the various intentions behind this spontaneous meeting its aims were quite unclear, but I think there were a number of elements to it. People wanted to have a general discussion about this occupation movement and its relation to broader politics and student struggles. Some people did not want to network and organise through the bureaucracy of the StWC, and were opposed to the creation of a national committee, something that was proposed and voted through on conference floor earlier. Other questions were on how this movement related to NUS and could foster involvement in the “new centre”, as well as how it related to various existing broad left student initiatives.

SWP comrades tried to block this discussion, arguing for national coordination through the structures they control (STW, the Another Education is Possible group). The legitimacy of people in the room was questioned by Rob Owen, saying he didn't feel “the meeting reflected the leadership of the occupations”, which pissed a lot of delegates (especially those who are on principle opposed to the idea of leadership) right off. By this time the SWP, except for Rob, had all walked out. With numbers dwindling we decided to set a date for for a national meeting (provisionally Saturday 18 April), and we agreed that our struggles should be linked up through the creation of an email list and regular meetings.

Whether the SWP is up for building for a new conference on April 18 remains to be seen. By that time, the Nato and G20 demonstrations, as well as the 25 February demonstration for free education, will be behind us, and we will need a national network to continue our various struggles, especially over fees.
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