By Sofie Buckland, NUS National Executive (personal capacity)
To most of its 5,200,000 paper members, the National Union of Students’ annual conference, which takes place on 27-29 March means nothing. Most will not even know that it is taking place. It means even less to ordinary NUS members than, say, Unison’s conference does to its rank-and-file members.
Decades of political mis-leadership and anti-democratic structural reform have led to a huge crisis of disengagement between NUS’s structures and the political activity — let alone the actual day-to-day struggles — of its membership. For revolutionary socialists active in the student movement, intervention into NUS can not be our only focus.
But it must still be a focus. As the only mass representative organisation of students in Britain, it has the potential to connect grassroots struggles and spread them nationwide. If revolutionaries do not intervene in it, the grip of the Blairites who currently run it will never be challenged and its potential will never be realised.
That’s why student members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty will be organising at NUS Conference 2007 as part of Education Not for Sale — a left-wing activist network bringing together anti-capitalist radicals from various backgrounds to fight for the politics of free education and student-worker solidarity, both inside and out of NUS.
This year’s big policy battle on conference floor will once again be over the question of whether the NUS should advocate “targeted grants” (a Blairite phrase to make means-testing sound more palatable) or instead fight for universal living grants for all students.
Although the main left motions on the subject are not as radical as they might have been (they originate with Student Respect and Student Broad Left — a front for the shadowy and right-wing Stalinist sect Socialist Action), the debate will undoubtedly expose key political fault-lines.
However, even right-wing NUS bureaucrats (such as the National President Gemma Tumelty) oppose means-testing. The job of the left at NUS Conference is not to simply argue against means-testing on the basis of whatever lowest-common-denominator politics will allow us to accommodate to pro-grants bureaucrats, but to argue clearly not only for universal living grants but for universal living wages, the defence of public services and the taxation of the rich and business to fund them.
In short, the left must use the education funding debate to make the case for a society run in the interests of human need rather than the interests of profit.
Unfortunately, most of the left factions intervening in NUS are not up to the task; Student Broad Left’s politics are liberal at best, and Student Respect will be too busy pushing their distorted conceptions of anti-racist and anti-war work to bother with back-to-basics anti-capitalism. Other left groupings — such as Socialist Students and Communist Students – are either too small or too sectarian (or both) to make much of an impact. It will be left to ENS — and to AWL members as Marxists active within ENS – to make that basic case.
ENS will be distributing daily bulletins (a once-common practice; now ENS is practically the only faction to do so) as well as sponsoring fringe meetings aimed at connecting the fight for free education to a wider struggle for students’ and workers’ rights.
In the elections for NUS’s National Executive Committee, I will be re-standing for my current seat as an Executive Member without Portfolio as well as standing for President. I will be joined by ex-NEC member Daniel Randall and Dan Glass (an independent anti-capitalist who is the President of the University of Sussex Students’ Union), who will stand for Vice-President Welfare and Vice-President Education respectively.
The work of intervening in the heavily-bureaucratised, right-wing dominated structures of the NUS can be depressing for activists who see no connection at all between NUS and the campaigns they are involved in at campus level. But without such intervention, those connections will never be made.
Student members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty involve ourselves in NUS to fight for a union that means as much to the 16 year old FE student working for minimum wage at McDonald’s as it does to sabbatical officers at big universities. Beyond that, we involve ourselves to use the political debates NUS generates to argue for socialism.
If you agree with that project, come to NUS Conference 2007 and help us out.