Solidarity spoke to Shelly Asquith, newly elected NUS Vice-President for Welfare.
Solidarity: How do you account for the left victory in NUS?
Shelly Asquith: I think a part of it was a momentum of student activism from the demo in November 2014. After a lot of occupations and local demos kept up the momentum. Usually it’s seen as something that the left do, but I think it was normalised this year. Maybe there was a change in the people who are organising within that movement. For example, there were more women this year. Also it was a general election year and people were feeling very anti-establishment and some of that was turned towards the NUS. Mostly we just worked harder, organised and campaigned really hard.
I think that the demographic of NUS conference was different as well. There were far more black students than ever before and more first time delegates who were questioning the status quo.
S: How do you think the left will work together on NUS Executive — there has been an issue of people getting elected and then coming under pressure and not being as bold as you would want?
SA: When you are taken away from campus you have less contact, traditionally, with campus activists and grassroots struggles. I think it is easy to get removed from what is going on and get influenced by the people you’re around a lot. It’s something we need to be aware of.
S: What’s your take on the general election?
SA: The result was devastating. But it is good there’s been massive demos and meetings in response. Labour lost because they were not offering enough of an alternative. They made some good pledges around freezing energy prices and increasing the minimum wage but they didn’t go far enough. The lines on immigration and austerity, two very big issues, were just a cop-out – very similar to what they Tories were offering. I don’t think that the unions and others in the party were putting enough pressure on Miliband to be bold enough. I am convinced that a left-wing Labour government could get a majority but it would take others on the left to get behind that and at the moment I don’t blame anyone for not.
S: What do you think are the big issues we need to be organising around now?
SA: Immigration is going to have a huge impact on international students. The Tories’ are talking about reducing migration from hundreds of thousands to just tens of thousands and that means international students will face a massive reduction. Taking EU migrants out of any kind of benefits will have a big impact, potentially causing people to become homeless.
The other thing is the welfare state, particularly the Disabled Students’ Allowance and Access to Work benefits. The attacks on the NHS are something the students’ movement needs to wake up to. Also trade union freedoms and the cracking down on the right to strike. If the education unions can’t fight back then that weakens students as well. It’s good to see people organising around the Human Rights Act already.
S: What do you want to achieve this year and what is your measure of success?
SA: I went into the election talking about fighting for the welfare state, rent controls, things that I thought we could win and now I am not as confident. We should build movements around these things though. I want to change the way the welfare campaign works for students and campuses. I’ll be looking at where people are already doing stuff and link them up, with the rent strike at UCL for instance. One of the first things I’m going to do is write a guide on how to implement Cops Off Campus, because that’s been something that the NUS has side-lined. It’s going to be more about going out to campuses and helping people do their own stuff. But also doing a lot of work about how we resist the cuts that are coming to the NHS and benefits and being active around anti-racism and anti-fascism. Given the fact that UKIP came second in one hundred and twenty constituencies means these issues should be a priority. On housing I think that a lot of NUS’s output has been about creating tool kits and guides. Meanwhile in Scotland we’ve had a massive campaign around the living rent campaign which is engaging tons of activists and making waves in the Scottish Parliament. It should be something that’s going on across the UK.
The argument around rent controls has won. It’s just about making it happen now.
I also want to link up with faith groups and liberation campaigns.
S: Could you say something about student-worker links?
SA: It’s really important for students to link up with workers. It’s something we did quite a bit at my union and ran some very successful campaigns. If the limits on the right to strike go through, it’s going to be really important for students to link up with trade union branches on campus and give them courage to fight.
NUS’s links with unions should be less about going to meetings with the general secretary and signing a statement and more about seeing where things are happening, for example the 10% of jobs at risk at London Met, and going down to the picket and working out what you can do. Can the NUS send money? Can it send people down to the picket? It is about convincing students why this is important. In turn staff that were in a struggle we support will want to support student action.
SI: We have criticisms of the culture of the student movement and the left, about a culture of a lack of debate and an attempt to, in various forms, to no platform and shut down people that you don’t like. There’s a very dramatic version of it with the SWP, but more generally there is not much of a culture of debate on the student left and in the student movement. Do you think that is true or unfair?
SA: In NUS I think there are not enough forums for debate; the Executive meets five times a year but that is a few people in a room and it is not translated into the wider movement. And then there’s the annual conference but that’s about it. This year we need to get the student group together as a whole to debate and sort out strategies. I think the left in general is way too inward-looking but that’s changing. If people are wrong we do need to be critical of them. I guess we need to create the spaces where those debates can happen. I have been quite encouraged with the Radical Assembly.
S: What do you think is the role of the NCAFC?
SA: I think it’s role is to keep building activist groups on campuses, making sure that they’re linking up with together, that they come together two or three times a year and are taking part in the national debate. Holding me and others to account, making sure we’re still in touch with those groups and are doing what we set out to achieve. And also being the group that does things when NUS fails to do it, like the demo in November.
S: Do you think that there is the possibility of more unity on the student left? You’ve got NCAFC, SAAA, fewer groups than you used to have but you have got those groups. So do you see a more united student left?
SA: Yes, I think it’s really necessary. Some of the action that’s happened since the general election result has shown a real willingness of people to work together more. There are still elements of people calling actions just to spite another group and that kind of thing. But people just need to wake up and work together more. People will always have legitimate criticism of others and they need to be vocalised.
More debate but the same time working with people where you can and where there are shared aims.