On Sunday 4 November, a meeting was held at Birkbeck College in London to launch a united campaign against the attacks on democracy included in the “Governance Review” of the National Union of Students. Attended by 50 student activists and student union officers — including members of Education Not for Sale, Workers’ Liberty, the SWP, Socialist Students, the Young Greens, and a variety of independents — the meeting discussed the nature of the attacks within the context of years of NUS inaction and mismanagement, began to plan a campaign against them, and elected a steering committee to take things forward.
ENS members proposed that our statement, advocating a vision for the student movement and positive proposals as well as defensive slogans, be adopted by the campaign. With the SWP having mobilised a fairly large number of their members for the meeting, that was voted down 14-24 with eight abstentions. The SWP is sticking to the idea that positive proposals will endanger the fight to defeat the Governance Review — missing two key points.
Firstly, the campaign as a whole adopting a particular platform does not mean that people have to agree with every dot and comma to work with it — as anyone who has ever been involved in any sort of activism knows. Even if they don’t put their name to a particular statement, no one opposed to the Governance Review proposals is going to vote in favour of them on the grounds that they disagree with some aspects of the campaign against.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, it is clear that we cannot run an effective campaign unless we tell the truth about NUS’s current short-comings. For the leadership to be able to present opponents of the Governance Review as essentially conservative would be fatal. In particular, we will not mobilise any significant number of student activists if we fail to make clear that we are not defending the status quo.
The meeting adopted the slogans “Defend NUS democracy”, “Defeat the Governance Review” and “For a democratic, campaigning NUS”. While we came up with the last of these and thus welcome its adoption, we would make the point that it needs to be filled with some definite content — since, after all, no one in NUS would disagree on paper with the need for it to be democratic and campaigning.
We will continue to work within the campaign, arguing against a purely defensive stance, for a positive vision and for concrete demands to win a democratic, campaigning, political NUS. ENS supporters Sofie Buckland (NUS NEC) and Daniel Randall (NUS NEC member 2005-2006) were elected to the steering committee, as were a number of others who have worked closely with ENS. Steering committee meetings will be open to all activists to attend and speak at, and we hope to be able to publicise the first one soon.
As the meeting heard from Dan Swain of NUS Steering Committee (in effect NUS’s conference arrangements committee), it is certain that an Extraordinary Conference to push through the cuts will now go ahead, since the right-wing majority on the NUS Executive will have little difficulty getting the requisite 25 member unions to call one, although so far only seven requests have been formally made. The Conference will take place on 29 November or 4, 5 or 6 December. The immediate focus for student activists is now to pass motions in their unions mandating delegates to vote against the review, and to get themselves delegated if they can. We will demand that unions that have not yet had their elections hold a cross-campus ballot to elect delegates. We need just over a third of the vote to reject the constitutional changes.
For activists at universities where getting delegated or passing motions will be difficult (because of right-wing or inactive students’ unions, for example), resisting the review will involve educating people on your campus about what it means for NUS and organising from the ground-up to exert pressure — for instance by holding open meetings, collecting signatures on the ENS-launched statement, circulating information among campaigning societies, writing articles for student newspapers and websites, and holding demonstrations and actions to mobilise activists and put pressure on your union executive.
Although the focus of the NUS democracy campaign is on persuading delegates and student union officers of the immediate need to vote against the proposals, a real campaign to defend and extend NUS’s democratic structures must draw in ordinary students not already involved in their (often moribund) students’ unions. We shouldn’t miss this opportunity to communicate to a wider layer of people the need for a democratic, fighting union that actually wins for students, and we mustn’t mirror the tactics of NUS’s rightwing by ignoring student activists on the ground.
What you can do:
• Sign the statement in opposition to the Governance Review changes, the Extraordinary Conference and for a democratic, campaigning NUS — see www.free-education.org.uk/?p=397
• Get delegated to the Extraordinary Conference and to next year’s annual conference by running in your SU elections, or demanding your SU holds elections for the Extraordinary Conference if it doesn’t plan to
• Putting a motion to your SU to oppose the Review — see the ENS website for model motions
• Holding a meeting on your campus — get in touch for a speaker
• Circulating the ENS statement as a petition among activists, campaigning groups to raise awareness of the changes
For help or more information get in touch with Sofie Buckland,
Although ENS welcomes the launch of a united campaign against the Governance Review, we have some concerns about the behaviour of the SWP comrades and others at the launch meeting. Despite spending much of the day talking about the need for a broad campaign (as a defence of their position that the campaign should have no positive proposals for NUS democracy), the SWP-led majority voted down the nominations of Communist Students and Socialist Students comrades to the steering committee in a shockingly sectarian manoeuvre. (Their leadership also opposed the election of ENS supporter Daniel Randall, but many SWP members broke ranks and voted for him anyway, so he got on.)
The justification from Rob Owen, the SWP member on the NUS Executive, that such groups represent nothing in NUS, is demonstrably false in the case of Socialist Students. In any case, it is proved spurious by the SWP’s support for two members of the tiny, Stalinist Student Broad Left group being elected to the committee. SBL only weakly oppose the review, failed to vote against the entire document on the NUS executive, and in the case of NUS Black Students’ Officer Ruqayyah Collector, who was a member of the review board, failed to raise the alarm while it was being put together.
Do the SWP think them worth having on board because they too support the position of a purely defensive campaign, and because they will be a reliable ally against ENS, if not against the NUS right-wing? And wasn’t the exclusion of socialist opponents motivated purely by sectarian factional vitriol?
Despite repeated attempts by ENS to meet with Rob Owen to discuss a democratic structure for the open meeting (which he had agreed at the ENS gathering on 21 October), Rob cancelled the planned meeting and blocked any discussion until two and half days before 4 November, when he sent out an agenda and proposed slate to ENS convenor Sofie Buckland and the Young Green’s Aled Dilwyn Fisher.
The agenda had no ENS speaker in the planning session (later changed at the last minute after we protested) and no process for submitting motions, counter proposals or alternative nominations for the committee.
This lead to a farce towards the end of the meeting, with the SWP chair Alys Elica Zaerin claiming the ENS proposal to adopt our statement was counterposed to, rather than an addition to the SWP’s (bland but mostly acceptable) motion on the activity of the campaign, and that people couldn’t vote for both. After twenty minutes ridiculous wrangling over the order of voting and which proposals constituted amendments, the SWP successfully defeated both our amendments — for the steering committee to draft a motion agreeable to all rather than accepting the outdated and politically lacking one from “Respect”, and for the ENS statement to be political basis for the campaign. Of course, it is not unreasonable for the majority of meeting to vote for their own views; it is their procedural methods that we object to.
Perhaps worst of all was the process of elections for the committee, in which additions to Rob’s slate of ten had to gain a majority of the whole room to get elected — which is how the SWP were easily able to exclude Communist Students and Socialist Students, especially after five extra SWP members turned up right at the end of meeting purely in order to vote.
Meanwhile ENS and other comrades who very politely asked SBL member Ruqayyah Collector to confirm her political affiliation when standing for the committee were accused of witch-hunting (!); we hope this isn’t an indication that the campaign will be closed to political honesty and debate.
ENS welcomes the launch of the campaign, and will continue to work within it, pushing positive demands as well as opposing the review. We raise these criticisms in the spirit of political openness, not as a sectarian attack, and we hope SWP comrades will respond. Meanwhile we argued for and won open steering meetings, where anyone can attend, speak and put proposals (though only the elected committee will vote), and hope that currents on the NUS left who were excluded from the committee will attend these meetings and continue to work within the campaign.