At this year’s National Union of Students Scotland conference, socialist and National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts national committee member Gordon Maloney was elected NUS Scotland President. He spoke to Solidarity.
Although it didn’t always feel like it I did expect to win.
The size of Scotland means that candidates can — and have to — make the effort to visit and speak to the majority of delegates in the run-up, and that allows the campaign to go quite deep into the politics of the candidates.
Some very bold left-wing policy was also passed.
My support was very broad. The organised left all backed me, but so did most of the NUS Scotland leadership.
The make-up of NUS Scotland conference is very different from the rest of the UK. Even Labour Students, traditionally by far the biggest faction, could only claim about a dozen delegates on conference floor, with a similar amount identifying themselves as NCAFCers.
Unlike NUS UK’s conference, over half of our delegates are from colleges, and most of them are very clued-up and politically switched on. College students’ associations are now just as active as lots of university Student Associations.
We had three key themes. Firstly, building the capacity of the movement. NUS Scotland has been very effective over the last two years, but it’s done that in meetings with ministers and managements. I want to take the campaign out onto the campuses.
Secondly, the social value of education: the big arguments in Scotland are around access and retention in higher education, parity of esteem and funding for colleges, and how universities and colleges are run. I want to tie these all together to say education should be a public service.
Lastly, campaigning around students’ rights as tenants and as part-time workers.
NUS’s policy is to remain neutral on independence.
Any stance would be hugely divisive — it wouldn’t be surprising if unions disaffiliated over it, for example. And picking a side would hinder our ability to be a part of the discussion, to win concessions.
We should lay out a vision of the kind of society we want and force the two campaigns to have the debate on our terms.
[The left has won a lot of student elections in Scotland, why more so than in England?] Scotland generally — and most of the institutions where lefties are getting elected — doesn’t have a history of factionalism in the same way as much of England. A lot of them have never had organised left groups at all, not in living memory. I know of student officers down south who are left-wing but have been alienated by what they (often understandably) see as the petty, sectarian and dogmatic nature of the organised left at their campus. The lack of these groups on campuses means that this happens less.
The fact that tuition fees are off the table up here helps. The discussion on further and higher education, free from the big fight on fees, has been able to flourish into something more mature and nuanced.
In Parliament, the SNP dominates everything. Outside Parliament, most of the left seem busy with the debate on independence.
Both of these situations will probably change after the referendum (whatever the result) and the, medium-term task for the left is to make sure we have something to say once the question of independence is settled.
People often attribute losing elections in NUS to some bureaucratic conspiracy. The organised left often run ill-qualified candidates in elections they plan to lose under the flimsy auspices of “propagandising”.
There are two key lessons for me: firstly, the left can win elections. The second is that running an election is a lot of hard work, during and before.
We should run serious, competent candidates because we think they’re the best placed for the role, and we should put serious effort into their campaigns.
The idea that someone getting up and shouting, and then coming last, is a good result is absurd but it’s a trap we fall into far too much.