The student activist coalition National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts held its national conference at Birmingham Guild of Students on 8-9 December – its fifth since it was founded in February 2010.
About 120 student activists took part – by no means small considering the time of year and the sectarian in-fighting which took place at January’s conference in Liverpool. A big majority of those present were independent left students, in addition to groups from Workers’ Liberty, the Socialist Party, the SWP and Socialist Action. That the latter two groups had again come with a sectarian agenda was clear from the outset.
This time, however, their disruption failed. The conference was extremely democratic and constructive, with lots of time for motions, good-natured debate and useful, positive discussion and planning in the workshops. Workshop topics included FE and schools organisation, international students, what's happening in HE, organising at work, the lessons of the Quebec struggle, abortion rights, student union democracy and campaigning on the NHS.
The conference elected a committee of national committee of 14 people (9 independents, 1 from SA’s front “Student Broad Left”, 4 Workers’ Liberty) and autonomous caucuses – Women’s, LGBTQ, Black Power, Disabled, International Students – elected reps and people to sit on the NC (all independents, except the Women’s Campaign which elected a committee that will decide its NC rep).
Most significant, though, was agreement, by an overwhelming vote (with only SWP and Socialist Action trying to block it), to develop the structures of the campaign by agreeing a formal constitution with individual membership and an affiliation system for anti-cuts groups and student unions, as well as a charter of political demands. For an organisation that has been held back by lack of structure, this is a genuine step forward. The NCAFC should now not only be stronger, but more dynamic and responsive during periods of heightened struggle in the coming years.
There was much debate at the conference about the federal model of organisation used by the radical student federation ASSE which led the recent student uprising in Québec, and how – in the absence of the long-established departmental associations which form the base of ASSE – something similar might be accomplished here. The clause in NCAFC’s new constitution facilitating for emergency conferences of delegates from local activist groups reflected these lessons.
It was also decided to call another conference within six months to discuss the setting up of something along the lines of a “Fighting Federation of Student Unions”, ie an alternative SU federation organising and operating independently of NUS. Whether NCAFC should operate within NUS was a contested point – we generally believe it should. (More on this here.)
A sizeable number of independents, reacting to the record of the SWP, as well their own scepticism about the possibilities of working in NUS, voted against the SWP proposal to work towards a united left challenge at the 2013 NUS conference. Workers’ Liberty’s Rosie Huzzard spoke in favour of the proposal, and we voted for it alongside a majority of independents. In contrast, the conference overwhelmingly voted down attempts to say that left unity should include “Student Broad Left”.
The conference passed a motion on developing the NCAFC which argued that, instead of waiting next “big bang”, during the relative lull in student struggle we must develop our organisation, education and campaigns. Policies to extend the campaign’s focus towards previously neglected areas such as the NHS, student debt, housing and organising student workers were adopted, as well as the proposal to facilitate a speaker tour with a striking Wal-Mart or fast-food worker from the US.
There was debate on “bigger” political issues too. A Royal Holloway Labour Club motion to demand trade unions fight for free education, including in the Labour Party, passed but was predictably controversial. After several critical socialist contributions, Socialist Action’s motion presenting Venezuela as a model for free education was rejected with only four votes in favour. There was a lively debate on how to express our opposition to war and militarism. The conference also passed an emergency resolution in solidarity with Tamil students in Jaffna suffering repression from the Sri Lankan state.
The NCAFC is the only forum on the student left where activists with different views can debate these kind of issues while organising together for a serious struggle. NCAFC is now far stronger and better equipped for the coming battles. Those who have been involved in its development should be proud of what has been set up – and should continue to develop it, organise within it and draw new activists in.