By Sacha Ismail
Events at National Union of Students Conference, which took place in Blackpool between April 5 and 7, should sound the alarm for socialists in the student movement and beyond. The deterioration of NUS’s political culture is gathering pace, with the leadership and sections of the left facilitating the rise of right-wing forces that previously had no presence in the student movement. The Islamist-led Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) was strong enough to conclude alliances not just with the SWP and others on the “anti-imperialist” far left, but with large swathes of the politically primitive “soft-left” or a-political “independent” bloc that has now consolidated its domination in NUS, with consequences which we will see.
At the same time, the conference demonstrated both the need and the opportunities which exist for a student left which sticks by democratic, class-struggle principles in difficult times.
Following the anti-democratic “reforms” pushed through at totally unrepresentative Extraordinary Conferences last year, the conference was probably the smallest in memory, with not many more than 800 delegates meeting for not much more than two days. Fewer delegates meant more delegations dominated by full-time sabbaticals and a more right-wing, apolitical tone. Speeches from Conservative Future members arguing that NUS should keep out of politics received substantial applause; for the first time in several years, references to taxing the rich and the demand for a rebuilt welfare state were defeated, as was the call to force the NUS leadership into active campaigning against attacks on student living standards by insisting on a first term education funding demonstration in London.
Although a Labour Students attempt to restore NUS support for means-testing grants was defeated, this was due largely to an apolitical appeal from ex-left (and former AWL member) president Kat Fletcher, who clings to universal grants as pretty much the only principle she hasn’t ditched since being elected. Fletcher is now the de facto leader of the amorphous bloc of independents who dominated the conference, winning every single full-time position on the National Executive and giving Labour Students a severe bloody nose. In her leaving speech, Helen Symons, the Labour incumbent who the conference booted out as Vice-President (Welfare), pointed out that Kat Fletcher’s cronies are now effectively to the right of Labour Students – and she was right.
The rout of Labour Students was both inevitable and deserved and took NUS in the wrong direction, away from the campaigning left.
The key struggles at the conference, however, were not between the traditional left and right at all. What dominated the event was the new strength of FOSIS, a previously largely apolitical organisation now energised and radicalised by activists from the Islamist Muslim Association of Britain. MAB is the British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Naturally, the SWP and their friends in Student Broad Left, a front for the ultra Stalinist group Socialist Action, operated in full solidarity with Islamists — to the extent that, when FOSIS delegates walked out in protest at the speech given by Iraqi Marxist-feminist Houzan Mahmoud, these self-styled socialists trailed after them.
In addition, however, FOSIS also received tacit backing from sections of the “independents”, with Kat Fletcher offering public support to Jamal el-Shayyal, a prominent MAB activist and FOSIS candidate for the National Executive Committee (in return for votes in the presidential election). This allowed the Islamists to make the running at conference, with some alarming results. FOSIS played a key part in defeating the call for progressive taxation and they did this through an alliance with right-wing Christians. It came close to defeating an amendment supporting the extension of abortion rights. The same day, the conference voted to reject Yanar Mohammad of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq as NUS Honorary Vice-President.
In other words, both the “far left” and the right-wing leadership of NUS have opened the door to the growth of a religious right in the student movement, with no principle too precious to avoid being thrown over board in the rush to conciliate this important new voting bloc.
When a motion against faith schools and for a secular, democratic education system was discussed, Kat Fletcher was so afraid of offending someone that she did not even raise her hand to abstain; the SWP and Socialist Action, of course, voted with the Islamists and against secular education.
When Union of Jewish Students members resigned from the National Executive in protest at the distribution of a foully anti-semitic leaflet, the leadership made no comment. So concerned were the dominant forces in the national union to avoid a row that the conference’s Steering Committee actually banned an AWL bulletin for the crime of pointing out that Jamal el-Shayyal is an activist in the MAB — which Jamal denied, despite the plentifully available evidence.
However, the genuine left, largely organised around the AWL, fought back hard. Education Not for Sale published daily bulletins exposing the opportunism and chicanery of other factions, and organised a successful fringe meeting on the left and universal human rights (40 people took part in the lively debate, despite the fact that it clashed with Make Poverty History, Unite Against Fascism and other fringe meetings). Despite the defeats on progressive taxation, religious schools and other issues, we were able to push through backing for No Sweat and, in the face of SWP/FOSIS opposition, support for the new workers’, student and women’s movement in Iraq. On the last day of conference, we forced Steering Committee to allow us a statement denouncing their censorship and exposing the FOSIS leadership’s dishonesty about its links with the MAB.
The result was that a new layer of activists, disgusting by the right-wing leadership of NUS and the political betrayals of the “left”, organised around us at the conference. The challenge for the coming weeks and months will be to start the process of rebuilding a student left which takes socialist principles seriously. We urge activists to join the AWL to help us in that task.
- Texts from these pages, along with the AWL bulletin banned by NUS Steering Committee — a dossier on the Muslim Association of Britain will be available on this AWL website.