If a measure of a union’s worth as a union is its willingness to fight for the interests of its members, then this year’s NUS conference (8-10 April) saw a new low.
The leadership and its supporters aggressively rejected any suggestion of a campaign on fees, grants/loans, education funding or how our education is structured. They voted down support for free education, dusting off the argument that it means the poor paying for rich kids to go to university.
They voted down holding a national demonstration in the autumn, using their own failings in connection with last year's demo to justify this and to attack the left.
They voted down a campaign to bring back EMAs for sixth form students. Last year, slogans like “Tax the rich” were quietly accepted before being binned, this year both “Tax the rich” and “Expropriate the banks” were defeated.
A motion to campaign for public, democratically run universities and colleges was gutted. In place of this, conference passed bland waffle about “celebrating the public value of education” and so on.
The NUS leadership was able to get away with this because the conference as a whole was less political than in previous years. The whole feel of the thing was flatter and less political, with fewer fringe meetings, fewer stalls — fewer stupid election gimmicks, even.
There was also the growth of an element at the conference that was not just right-wing in the traditional NUS sense — broadly Blairite — but Tory-leaning. The one big defeat for the leadership a defeat from the right: on guaranteed representation for women on the NEC and conference delegations.
Into this atmosphere strode Peter Smallwood, Tory candidate for president and the NEC. Playing hard on the joke of being a fish out of water, Smallwood would have been funny – if he wasn't appalling. While constantly attacking the NCAFC, the leadership clapped and cheered him (they also urged delegates not to celebrate Thatcher's death). He will very possibly get elected to the national executive and, breaking with his party's recent traditions, start to establish an organised Tory base in NUS and SUs. This is a major political threat.
The radical left has been reduced to a relatively small minority. The only left organisation that appeared as a force at the conference, with caucuses, a stall, extensive materials, a bulletin, a fringe meeting and so on was the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).
Hundreds of delegates walked out during speeches by Tomas Evans, an SWP member and supporter of the Central Committee’s handling of the rape allegations against Martin Smith. Shereen Prasad, a dissident SWP member who explicitly criticised the party leadership in her election speech, faced no walkouts and won a much higher vote.
There is a debate within NCAFC about the usefulness of far-left activists intervening in NUS at all. Although the prospects for any radical transformation of NUS are remote, Workers’ Liberty students believe intervention is still worthwhile. By intervening in conference NCAFC met new activists, publicised campaigns including the Sussex anti-privatisation struggle, organised a well-attended vigil to demand justice for Steven Simpson, and more besides.
As well as continuing to build itself as an independent activist force on campuses, NCAFC will be continuing a debate about both intervention in NUS and the possibilities for building a federation of radical students unions.
• More on the NCAFC website