Now build a fighting union!
By Alan Clarke (NUS National Executive) and Michael Wood
It's not unusual for speakers at the National Union of Students conference to tell delegates that they are attending a "historic" event - but it is more than a cliché to say that this year's conference (which took place on 29-30 March) could prove to be a major turning point.
Last year, Campaign for Free Education (CFE) candidate Kat Fletcher came within three votes of removing Labour Students incumbent Mandy Telford in the election for NUS President. This year, Kat defeated the Labour candidate, Rami Okasha, by two votes - the first time in 22 years that Labour Students has not won the position (the 2000-2 President, Owain James, was formally an "independent", but he was elected and held office with the full support of Labour Students).
The background to the election has been two years in which a Labour-led NUS has failed to seriously mobilise students against the Government's plans for top-up fees. Given the precariousness of their position, the current generation of Labour Students did not dare to repeat the farce of 1996-8, when NUS topped its refusal to call a single national demonstration against tuition fees by actively supporting the abolition of the grant.
Instead, they chose to quietly ignore the free education policy forced on them by the CFE at NUS conference 2003, and dismissed calls for a second national demonstration around the second reading of the Higher Education (top-up fees) Bill on 27 January.
This refusal to organise mass action against or promote a positive alternative to top-up fees allowed the Government to survive the Bill's second reading with a five vote majority. Then ministers announced that the third reading would take place on 31 March - what was scheduled to be the third day of NUS conference.
With less than two weeks to go to conference, NUS's National Executive Committee took the decision to cut conference from four to less than two days and organise transport to allow delegates to protest outside Parliament. A welcome decision, but it was too little, too late.
This was, after all, the same leadership that, from 1996 until last year, threw the bulk of its energy into resisting calls for NUS to demand free education and who sent out national press releases insisting that they were not "anti-Blair".
At the same time, NUS members on the ground are prepared to take action. Tens of thousands of students have taken part in the movement against the Iraq war and remain active now that the war has ended.
Add to this the fact that, on the initiative of the CFE, the left has organised a united slate for the NUS elections since 1998 (although this year the SWP chose to stand its own presidential candidate, Tom Whittaker) and Labour Students' position was weaker than it might have appeared.
Kat Fletcher was elected as a "democrat, activist and socialist" who is "sick and tired of seeing [NUS] tied to the government". She pledged a militant campaign to defeat top-up fees and win free education for all, putting into effect NUS policy to oppose all forms of fees and graduate repayment schemes and demand a "non-means-tested living grant for every student". Crucially, she promised an NUS "that stands with the labour movement, not the Labour government" and a campaign of direct action, with "no holds barred" to defeat top-up fees. She was able to win because it was clear the left represented the only real alternative to Labour Students.
Of course, as the left has always said, winning the election doesn't change everything.
The right-wing still holds four of the six NUS sabbatical posts, and the National Executive is dominated by an amorphous "independent" majority. More importantly, despite the shift to the left, NUS is not in a good state. One indicator of this is the size of conference, which has shrunk by several hundred delegates since 1999 (when the defeated CFE presidential candidate received a hundred more votes than Kat did this time).
More generally, the grassroots radicalisation around Iraq has yet to reinvigorate the official structures of the student movement, including local student unions, because many of the new activists look on NUS with disdain.
Nonetheless, the election of a socialist president provides the left with a crucial opportunity for change.
Because everything had to be crammed into two days, the conference was heavily dominated by elections, with the whole of the National Executive (not to mention a plethora of technical committees) elected in less than twelve hours. Thus the space for political debate, both through the discussion of motions and amendments and at fringe meetings, was radically limited. Nonetheless, the left managed to holds its own.
The CFE education funding policy passed at last year's conference was upheld, with Labour Students and their friends not daring to openly oppose it - one Labour amendment coyly called for grants targeted at "students in the most need", but it was not discussed. In the "Education" debate (separate from "Education funding" this year), conference passed policy for a properly-funded, comprehensive, secular school system and for every Further Education student to receive a living grant or equivalent benefit - again, both policies proposed by the CFE.
The three most hotly contested debates, however, dealt with education only indirectly. Firstly, conference discussed an amendment opposing the French government's ban on the hijab; Alliance for Workers' Liberty members voted for this motion (which passed), but we also took speeches to criticise it on the grounds that it did not specifically condemn the veil or advocate secularism in schools.
Secondly, conference endorsed an amendment from the Union of Jewish Students committing NUS to "no platform" radical-right Islamist groups such as al-Muhajiroun and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. We opposed the amendment. At the same time AWL dissociated itself from self-styled leftists (eg the SWP and Socialist Action) who argued that such groups are really not so bad.
Lastly, conference voted to affiliate to No Sweat and to buy a thousand copies of the No Sweat pamphlet on globalisation as a resource for local unions. Sixty people attended the No Sweat fringe meeting.
Conference closed late on Tuesday 30th; and early on Wednesday 31st, something like 800 delegates travelled to London on NUS coaches to join hundreds of others outside the third reading of the Higher Education Bill. Though unsurprising, the Government's increased majority (316-288) cast a shadow over the left's victory in Blackpool.
There are three things to say here. Firstly, the Government's victory is not an indication that direct action doesn't work - rather it is an indictment of the NUS leadership for failing to organise action for so long. A serious, NUS-sponsored protest outside the second reading of the Bill could have made all the difference.
Secondly, the fight is not over. The Bill still has to get through the House of Lords - and, much more importantly, it still has to be implemented. Assuming the Bill passes, variable fees are not due to be implemented until after the next general election, which probably means autumn 2006. A campaign of direct action, demanding that university administrations refuse to levy the full fee, can still blow the policy off course.
Lastly, and most of all, what our defeat in the Commons demonstrates is the need for a positive campaign, one which refuses to let the debate take place on the Government's territory. Even if Ian Gibson's amendment to the Bill had passed students would still have been stuck with fees and a completely laughable maintenance grant.
This is something that the Labour-led NUS, unwilling to demand that the Government tax the rich, has largely accepted! A political battle to carve out a real alternative to the Blairites pro-market education agenda is needed; Kat Fletcher's election should be seen as part of that process.