By Daniel Randall, NUS NEC
The Annual Conference of the National Union of Students began on the same day as two of the most important pieces of industrial action in recent history in Britain and France. Unfortunate coincidence it may have been, but it did serve to nicely highlight how much NUS needs to change. What was NUS doing while the UK local government pension strike and the French struggle against cuts in job security were taking place? It was voting to charge its members £10 for a discount card and, worse, to overturn its committment to universal free education.
Conference’s endorsement of the NUS Extra project — charging members for a discount card — holds the obvious danger of creating a two-tier membership within NUS based on ability to pay for the card. The project will be introduced in 2007.
This was a bad year for the left in NUS. In a conference at which the political culture was very low, the dominant group, Labour Students, succeeded in re-introducing policy in favour of targeted grants, scrapping the commitment to a universal living grant for all students.
In her opening remarks, outgoing President Kat Fletcher talked about her desire for the NUS to “move towards activism-based — rather than service-provision — models of organising.” But despite these fine words, she uncritically supported NUS Extra — the clearest indication that the union is moving very fast towards “service-provision models of organising.”
There was also a controversial debate around whether to remove the far-right Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir from NUS’s “no platform” policy. It could have been an opportunity to have a genuine and much-needed debate. However, that opportunity was lost, as the amendment that proposed Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s removal was essentially an apologia for the group. Under such circumstances the debate was not about NUS’s “no platform” policy, but about whether or not Hizb-ut Tahrir are reactionary. A victory for the amendment would have been a victory for its political sympathisers, not for free speech, and it was positive that it was rejected.
The very fact that an amendment excusing and defending the politics of an organisation like Hizb-ut-Tahrir could find its way onto conference floor — and that members of the SWP could speak in favour of it — is a sign of how far politics within NUS have degenerated. Equally bad was the SWP denouncing an amendment supporting resistance to the the Iranian dictatorship as as “Islamophobic” and “repressive”.
This wasn’t the SWP’s only contribution to discrediting and undermining the left and aiding the leadership. “Student Respect” united with the deeply right-wing and Stalinist, Socialist Action-dominated Student Broad Left group to help the right defeat a call for “Tax the rich” and “Living grants for all” to be NUS’s main slogans. They also voted for a motion which not only defended religious schools but argued that they provide a “uniquely” nurturing environment for “minority” children. Luckily a number of Respect delegates rebelled and helped make up the majority of the conference which voted this down.
In a rushed “Society and Citizenship” debate (the only opportunity NUS conference gets to discuss international issues), the motion resolving not to renew NUS Services Ltd’s contract with Coca-Cola was defeated comprehensively, with the right-wing’s stock argument — “this will cost too much” — being wheeled out over and over and again. Some pro-boycott unions are now considering disaffiliation from NUS. That would be unfortunate as it is a recipe for giving the right-wing free rein at future conferences.
It was not, however, all doom and gloom for the left in NUS. UK Students Against Coke and No Sweat both held successful meetings, with a representative from United Students Against Sweatshops speaking at both.
Education Not for Sale also held regular caucuses which attracted up to 40 people at their height.
In the National Executive Committee elections, both of ENS’s candidates for the “Block of 12” (the twelve NUS NEC members without portfolio) were elected. Sofie Buckland (an AWL member as well as an ENS supporter) was elected above one of the Labour Students candidates, and Joe Rooney (an ENS supporter and member of the Young Greens) beat a Tory for the last place on the Block. Considering that, at Conference 2005, ENS was little more than a political tag, the way in which it has become a significant political force in NUS in the last twelve months is very encouraging.
The most serious work that socialists, and anti-capitalists radicals in the student movement need to do won’t take place on the floor of NUS conference. It’ll take place through the sort of campaigns against cuts and privatisation that students in Exmouth, Sussex, Lambeth and elsewhere have been running all year.
It’ll take place at events like the one ENS is helping to organise on the 27 May at Falmer House, University of Sussex. But if that work is done properly next year, it will reflect itself at NUS Conference 2007. Maybe we’ll even have a few strikes and occupations of our own to talk about!