(Hattie Craig and Beth Redmond speak at an NCAFC fringe meeting at NUS conference)
Many on the student left, including us, have written about leftish shifts in the National Union of Students before. What happened at this year’s NUS conference (in Liverpool, 21-23 April), though still limited and contradictory, was of a different order. It comes about five years after the student movement revived from a long lull, four and a bit years years after the great student upsurge of winter 2010-11, and immediately after a wave of important struggles.
Victories for the left
The broadly right-wing Labour bloc which has dominated NUS for decades lost four of the six elections for the full-time President and Vice President positions to candidates on their left. Nothing like this has happened for a very long time. The occasional leftish candidate has won a single position now and then - often then moving to the right - but nothing approaching this. Labour Students lost both the elections they were standing in by a mile. In the two elections the left lost, it did well. The new National Executive Council (made up of a wide range of full and part-time officers elected at this conference and from autonomous liberation campaigns, regions, etc) will almost certainly have a clear left-leaning majority.
In general, the conference voted left on policy too (and the left got quite a lot of motions and amendments submitted). Support for free education, funded by taxing the rich, was passed by a relatively small margin in 2014, against the leadership’s resistance. This time token resistance did not prevent it winning with more like 80 percent of the vote.
In the debate on the general election, conference repeatedly amended the leadership’s bland policy document to advocate a program of direct action and alliance with trade unions and the Labour left to win a government serving the majority and “bold and inspiring policies” – including reversal of cuts, taxing the rich, public ownership and control of the banks, an end to anti-migrant policies and freedom of movement. (As you may have guessed, this policy was written and promoted by us and others in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.)
Limits and contradictions
It would be possible to write a long article detailing all the other left-wing policies delegates voted for. This was clearly a much more radical NUS conference than for many, many years. So how and why limited and contradictory?
Firstly, the right still won two full-time positions, including the central organising roles of President (Megan Dunn beat Workers’ Liberty member Beth Redmond, who with just under 30 percent got the highest percentage of any left presidential candidate since 2006 and of any explicitly hard left socialist candidate since 2003) and VP Union Development (Richard Brooks beat the left candidate originally considered one of the most likely to win, Abdi-Aziz Suleiman). Secondly, the left candidates elected are a mixed bag. New VP Welfare Shelly Asquith, currently President of UAL, is an NCAFC member and has a record as a class-struggle socialist; the others, while all in a broad sense left-wing, seem in different respects less clear in their views and their record.
Thirdly, there were some defeats for the left on policy. On the first day of the conference, delegates defeated the leadership’s support for means-testing student grants; but on the second day, they defeated the left’s call for a living, universal grant. The left, including NCAFC, did not do enough to prepare and win this argument; an additional factor was that the most prominent left-wingers outside NCAFC sat the debate out, presumably because they didn’t want to alienate any potential voters and/or because they weren’t paying political attention. The same sort of thing happened, even after the elections, with the debate on completely banning zero hours contracts. This is not good.
The zero hours debate was telling: the conference is much smaller than it used to be (not much more than 750 voting delegates) and a big chunk, maybe a majority, of delegates are student union sabbatical officers, many of whom use zero hours contracts in their own unions. Those kind of attitudes are part of why the right won the VP Union Development position and are very significant in NUS more generally. Hence delegates' opposition to a boycott of the National Student Survey, a sort of neo-liberal ranking tool.
Political trends in the student movement
What has produced and shaped the left shift in NUS? In the period of brutal “austerity”, and the relatively strong phase of student activism since 2010, particularly after the powerful student demonstration in November and wave of actions and occupations this year, leftish views and attitudes have gradually worked their way through the structures and networks of the student movement and into NUS.
At the four NUS conferences that took place between the student revolt of 2010-11 and this year, there were more limited signs of this shift, but it seemed like counter-trends towards greater bureaucratisation would win out - particularly because many of the self-described left-wingers elected to various positions (eg the NUS Women's Officer) before this year have been politically weak, eg in backing the right-wing leadership in withdrawing support from the November 2014 demo. But now, with the emergence in NUS of a layer of sabbs and experienced activists who would have been first year undergraduates or sixth formers in winter 2010, and the push of this year's struggles, the left trend has triumphed. But for the most part this is a broad, poorly defined, contradictory leftism.
Many of those who have risen in NUS since 2010 are genuinely left-wing; some are people disillusioned after the 2010-11 wave retreated, now posing left but little more than liberal careerists; with all sorts in between. Hence the NUS "left" going all over the place about the betrayal of the demo. Still, the trend is definitely to the left.
The political environment of NUS
The old, basically Blairite right wing of NUS, which dominated it for so long, has declined organisationally, run out of ideas, lost political confidence - and is now in crisis. At the same time, the clearly delineated left factions which used to have a presence in NUS to one degree or another, for good or ill, have mostly disappeared or declined massively - partly, we suspect, because of the low levels of labour movement struggle hurting the left in general and partly because of the left (eg the SWP) shooting itself in the foot.
The predominant mood and tendency in NUS now can be approximately defined as “soft left” – a spectrum or number of spectrums running from the left fringes of the old leadership (even the new right-wing President, Megan Dunn, was an NCAFC member a few years ago) all the way into the periphery of the hard left.
The one, partial exception to factions declining is the NCAFC. Run by some very dedicated and impressive unaffiliated activists, NCAFC was the only left organisation to publish a bulletin, hold caucuses, etc, at the conference, and to stand in the full-time officer elections. It put forward the bulk of left-wing policy and provided many of the left's big ideas. (Workers’ Liberty members took part in and shaped the NCAFC intervention, pushed our own distinctive ideas and sold quite a bit of our literature, including the magazine we had produced specially.) Nonetheless, much of the radicalisation at this conference bypassed all organised factions, including NCAFC. (Thus, for instance, the ex-SWP RS21 group may well win a position on NUS executive - but because of its alliances, not because it had a substantial number of delegates.)
It was symptomatic that in the one clear showdown at the conference between hard and soft left, the election for VP Higher Education, Sorana Vieru, a soft leftist associated with the identity politics wing of NUS feminism and supported by the majority of the BSC, defeated both Labour Student’s Poppy Wilkinson and NCAFCer Hattie Craig, a militant grassroots activist and socialist who is popular and widely respected.
Noticeable in this changed political environment are the Greens and, in a more definite way, the NUS Liberation Campaigns, particularly the Black Students’ Campaign. The BSC, which was previously controlled by the Stalinist Socialist Action group but seems to have now pushed them to the side and is broadly left-wing, focused on what might be described as a sort of third worldist version of anti-imperialism, has burgeoned. It has a strong base in Further Education as well as universities; Shakira Martin, president of Lewisham and Southwark College, easily beat Labour Student Amy Smith to win VP Further Education. The BSC's political spectrum runs from soft to hard left; it played an important role in the left victories at the conference.
Within the broad leftish political matrix, within particular organisations, within networks and cliques, and within individuals, many confused and contradictory ideas and practices co-exist. (In addition on some issues the bulk of the left, soft and hard, is in our view wrong, eg boycotts of Israel as the way to help the Palestinians.) One of the problems is that student union and NUS people who actually disagree with each other on many things to do not express these disagreements very openly, or do very much about them. There are a lot of friendship-based cliques and a lot of backslapping. Thus person X supported the national demo despite the NUS leadership withdrawing support; person Y went along with the NUS leadership. But X and Y are political friends, part of the same milieu, so they try to ignore this difference and anyone pointing it out draws angry denunciation. Such things are all too common.
The way forward
The radical left should attempt to draw out the contradictions by making clear proposals and arguing forthrightly about ideas, by being politically sharp but non-sectarian. We should seek to further marginalise the right while drawing out hard left tendencies in the soft left and weakening its right wing – while of course building our own forces, in NUS, but primarily on campuses.
These issues were highlighted in a fairly big meeting at the end of the conference, initiated by NCAFC but bringing together most of the broad left, which discussed the question of a national demonstration to launch a wave of action in the autumn. The conference had not found time to discuss the motion advocating this! (As well as being small, the conference is now very short, not that much more than two days.) The meeting discussed how to push for NUS itself to organise the demonstration, without sacrificing strength and clarity of political message and without neglecting independent activist organisation on the ground. (For more on the call for a demo, etc, see here.)
NCAFC, Workers’ Liberty and RS21 advocated a dual approach, using the left’s new position in NUS while building grassroots pressure on not only the right-wing NUS officers but also, in a somewhat different form, on the leftie ones too. In fact, the leading NUS officers present at the meeting, Shelly Asquith and outgoing NUS Scotland President Gordon Maloney, also an NCAFCer, seemed to very much agree. However Socialist Action/"Student Broad Left" – who now they have lost control of the Black Students’ Campaign are weak, but through the Student Assembly Against Austerity maintain a certain presence in NUS – advocated essentially that activists become a supporting cast for the “new leadership”. They obviously hope - and they may be right - that the election of left-wing officers will give them new influence and a new lease of life.
The approach advocated by NCAFC is vital. Even with the trend to the left and the victories at this conference, NUS remains a massive, in some ways quite undemocratic, heavily bureaucratised and politically Blairite machine, which it would be hard for the left to get control over even if clearer left-wingers had won all the elections. The right will fight back; the bureaucracy will help it; so will its base in SU officers around the country. It seems there may be attempts to further limit NUS democracy, so the left and activists cannot use it. The left officers will come under pressure not to be too bold; it is not impossible that sections of the soft left will go over to the right. There is a struggle ahead, hardly begun, to transform NUS but also its constituent student unions. Electing left-wing individuals is not enough: that is surely the lesson of what has happened in various trade unions, eg the NUT.
The key thing is to build up student organisation and action at the grassroots and raise the level of political debate among wide layers of student activists, while of course using every possible lever and foothold in the official structures – of which there should now be substantially more – and trying to push things open further. For that many on the left have something to contribute, but the NCAFC and Workers’ Liberty's role in it will be vital. After NUS conference, some celebration is in order, but the slogan of the day should be: organise.
• The election results for the part-time "Block of 15" positions on the NUS National Executive, in which Beth Redmond, two other NCAFCers, Callum Cant and Hannah Webb, and a number of other left candidates are standing, will be out on Thursday 30 April.