The National Union of Student (NUS) Conference, 9-11 April in Glasgow, overwhelmingly voted through the biggest ever cuts to its democracy with the vocal support of the newly elected “left” leadership.
The reforms gut student control and entrench a right-wing vision of NUS as little more than a toothless lobby group.
But the Student Left Network produced a daily bulletin (picture is of it being given out!) and held regular left caucuses to campaign against the reforms and discuss the next steps in building a national, campaigning student movement and transforming NUS.
Left-wing motions were passed on stopping Brexit and fighting for free movement, working with the labour movement to campaign for a £10 minimum wage and against zero hour contracts and outsourcing, organising student workers and actively supporting workers in struggle.
If the dominant figures of the soft left had joined the Student Left Network in campaigning and speaking against the reforms, instead of rallying behind them, it seems certain the changes would have failed to get the two-thirds majority required to pass.
The outgoing leadership engineered the conference to ensure the reforms passed with little opposition. Attendees at the delegates’ briefing were told it was crucial they voted for the motion if they wanted NUS to survive. For the first time ever, elections took place on the first afternoon before any motions could be debated.
The normally publicly available livestream of conference was hidden behind a log-in wall. No official fringe meetings were allowed to take place. This situation was made worse by the soft left leadership’s failure to build opposition to the reforms in student unions prior to the conference.
Most positive amendments from the soft left passed, such as retaining elections for delegates to National Conference and keeping liberation campaigns, officers and committees, but the amendment to keep the National Executive (NEC) fell in favour of setting up an apolitical “Scrutiny Council” instead.
In a caucus organised by the soft left “Save NUS Democracy” campaign, some argued they would vote for the motion only if all pro-democracy and pro-liberation amendments passed, for fear that NUS management would implement the reforms unamended if the motion fell.
Others if the amendments passed, those who cared about the “most marginalised students” had a duty to vote for the right-wing reforms which strip NUS of its ability to fight and hands student control over to unelected officials.
Student Left Network campaigners argued for votes for the positive amendments and against the reform motion even if those amendments passed. We called an indicative vote in the caucus and narrowly won.
The newly elected “left” leadership and those leading the ‘Save NUS Democracy’ campaign voted for the reforms and cheered when they passed, despite losing the amendment to retain the NEC, which will be scrapped from 2020.
None of their speeches raised any opposition to the undemocratic way the changes were drawn up (by an unelected and unaccountable “Turnaround Board” made up of two right-wing officers and NUS and student union management, without the input or even knowledge of most students).
President-elect Zamzam Ibrahim gave a glowing speech to sum up on the motion, despite pledging to build a “fighting NUS”. Liam McCabe, recently re-elected NUS Scotland President on a left-wing ticket, said the democracy-gutting reforms promised a “better future for this movement”.
A significant number of this year’s 700 delegates were broadly left-wing. Soft left candidates beat the right to win four out of five officer positions. Student Left Network candidate and Workers’ Liberty supporter Justine Canady won eighty first preferences in the Presidential elections.
The soft left have shown that whilst they talk of radical change, their leadership is politically impotent. We cannot count on NUS to lead the kind of national campaigns we need against marketisation, campus cuts and attacks on student living, working and studying conditions. Equally, we should not disaffiliate from NUS while no alternative currently exists.
Student unions, elected officers and left-wing students who want to keep fighting for a campaigning student movement need to link up to discuss the way forward and make plans for the next term.
We should aim to build a federation of fighting students’ unions to campaign against the country, organise demonstrations, and continue the work that a campaigning NUS should be doing.
We need a network that both looks back towards NUS with the hope of reclaiming and transforming it and points outwards to take the political space NUS has abandoned.
SLN members Justine Canady and Hamzah Sheikh stood for the NEC. Results are yet to be announced.