The National Union of Student (NUS) Trans Students’ Conference, on 30-31 January in Manchester, unanimously passed the Student Left Network motion of no confidence in NUS President Shakira Martin. Earlier in January, an NUS UK board meeting had voted to scrap the trans students’ campaign, budget, officer and committee.
The motion condemned the NUS leadership’s “deeply undemocratic” handling of NUS’s financial deficit. It called for NUS to open the books and to call an extraordinary conference of delegates elected on cross-campus ballots from affiliated student unions to give members, not an unelected trustee board, the final say. The motion also demanded no cuts be made to NUS democracy or campaigns and resolved to campaign for a “radical, campaigning National Union of Students that is much more democratic and representative, with real control in the hands of its elected representatives and student members.”
Both the Student Left Network and Workers’ Liberty were active at the conference. The Student Left Network spoke to delegates about the upcoming Student Left Network conference, 2-3 March in Sheffield, and produced a well-received bulletin with articles about no platform and free speech, NUS democracy, and materialism versus identity as a focus for the women’s and trans liberation movements.
The conference also passed a motion submitted by Workers’ Liberty students resolving to campaign alongside the labour movement for better provision for trans healthcare in a fully funded, publicly and democratically owned and run NHS.
Another motion we submitted argued against the dominant view on the student left that transphobic feminists should be “no-platformed”, making the case that protest, discussion and debate are more effective than bureaucratic methods such as bans at rooting out reactionary ideas within the movement. An amendment to the motion argued that transphobic feminists should be denied a platform because they often use “fascist tactics” such as “doxxing, allying with the religious right, and stirring up the demonisation of trans people on the street.” The amendment passed, although around forty per cent of delegates abstained. We argued that while tactics of leaking personal information about trans students should be condemned and dealt with by existing well-being policies to ensure the safety of students, this does not represent the core threat that fascism poses to the labour movement and minority groups: that is, an immediate, physical threat to their continued existence and ability to organise. Transphobic feminists are simply not building movements on the streets.
Unfortunately, transphobic attitudes are widespread, not marginal, in society. Only through democratic rather than bureaucratic techniques can we hope to make a lasting impact on the values and ideas present in the wider movement and society as a whole. It is crucial that the left champion the right to free speech. This, by necessity, includes fighting for free speech for those who hold ideas we do not agree with. Although we lost the vote this time, the large number of abstentions shows that opinions on the student left are starting to shift slowly in our favour on “no-platforming” as a tactic and on freedom of speech.
Workers’ Liberty held a fringe meeting entitled “Bolsonaro, trans liberation and class struggle in Brazil”. Fifteen people came (the total at the conference was 50 or 60), and interesting discussions were had. The Student Left Network and Workers’ Liberty interventions had a positive effect on the conference as a whole: normally, all motions pass unanimously and there is little political debate or contention. Similar interventions should be organised into as many upcoming NUS Conferences as possible (Women’s, LGBT+, Disabled, Black Students, plus National Conference in April).
NUS National Conference is 9-11 April in Glasgow, and the deadline for motions is 28 February. Workers’ Liberty students have already submitted motions to on solidarity with Brazil, campaigning against Brexit, for free movement and migrants’ rights, and for radical social and democratic changes in the EU, actively supporting workers’ struggles and campaigning to bring outsourced workers in-house. The Student Left Network will be submitting motions of no confidence in Shakira Martin and the NUS Trustee Board, plus others on positive demands NUS democracy and other political issues and campaigns. Student Left Network candidates Justine Canady and Ross Taylor are running for President and Vice President Higher Education respectively, with more candidates to be announced.