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By Daniel Randall, NUS Trustee Board
(originally published, and viewable in full, at www.workersliberty.org/story/2010/04/19/nusconference2010. Some criticism of the SWP has been removed from this version.)
Despite a background of impressive grassroots struggles against cuts and fees, NUS conference 2010 (Newcastle, April 13-15) saw the Blairite leadership of the national union entrench itself and push further down the road of bureaucratisation, depoliticisation and capitulation to the government. Even by the low standards of recent years, it was a bad conference for the left and those who want a campaigning student movement – at a time when students need one more than ever.
Prepare yourself to be appalled repeatedly.
The new, anti-democratic constitution which removes power from the National Executive Committee (now called National Executive Council), subordinates it to a Trustee Board with non-student ‘external’ members and disperses much of the decision-making power of conference to one union, one delegate ‘zone conferences’ has been consolidated.
Using its new powers, the ‘Democratic Procedures Committee’ slashed delegate entitlements for HE student unions dramatically (in many cases, by half to two thirds), with the result that only 670 people voted in the election for national president. Ten years ago the figure was more like 1,300; two years ago it was more than 1,000. According to NUS president Wes Streeting, 44 percent of this year’s delegates were student union sabbatical officers, and many more must have been sabbaticals-elect. It is increasingly difficult for rank-and-file students to make it to the conference, with predictable consequences for diversity and for the left.
There were very few left delegates at the conference – certainly no more than 70 in organised left factions. Streeting’s heir apparent Aaron Porter was elected on the first round with 65 percent of the vote; his closest, leftish but not radical left, opponent Bell Ribeiro-Addy got just over 25 percent. All the other left or ‘left’ candidates for full-time positions did worse; we don’t know yet if any left-wingers were elected to the part-time section of the NEC.
When delegates voted to reverse the cuts in delegation sizes, the chair unconstitutionally called a second vote and the decision was dutifully reversed.
The ‘Collaborations Agenda’
For many years the proportion of bland management speak and apolitical waffle in the motions debated at conference has grown. This year, with fewer unions than ever submitting text, substantive motions were few and far between, and the leadership had hidden its right-wing barbs in a sea of bureaucratic cotton wool.
Conference voted overwhelmingly for the anodyne-sounding goal of “progressing the Collaborations Agenda”. What this means is the merger of part of the national union’s structure with its commercial services organisation NUSSL and, bizarrely, AMSU – the ‘union’ of top managers in student unions! What will result is a commercial behemoth with a tiny, shrivelled campaigning arm.
Cuts and fees
On education funding, the conference voted down the left’s proposals for free education and endorsed the leadership’s support for a graduate tax. It opposed the call for occupations and direct action. That is not new. What was surprising when we first saw it was the text saying that cuts must be “carefully though through” and not “affect the student experience”. One might have expected the leadership to talk tough on cuts as cover for plans to capitulate; apparently even this was too much to ask.
After years of refusing to organise a national demonstration on education funding, this year the leadership proposed one – but made sure all attempts to clarify and sharpen up the details (when, where, saying what) were defeated. It also defeated proposals to demonstrate outside the conference of whichever party wins the general election.
Some of the arguments used against the left were truly astonishing. When left FE delegates proposed NUS campaign for a living grant of at least £150 a week, leadership supporters claimed that this would mean giving that amount to someone studying a one evening a week computer course; that the left opposes widening participation, since the amendment in question did not use these words; and that since the Education Maintenance Allowance is currently much less (£30), the demand for £150 is “offensive” (no, we can’t figure that one out either).
Delegates did pass a left-proposed call for solidarity with industrial action by UCU and other education workers. Pro-trade union demagogy is fashionable among the NUS leadership; Wes Streeting even commented in his leaving speech that he stands solidly with “my comrades in the BA dispute”. Such declarations may prove useful for us in campaigning, but how seriously they are taken by those who make them is shown by their complete failure to back UCU in recent anti-cuts disputes, symbolised by Streeting’s written comment that students need industrial action “like a hole in the head”, and by the scab-herding of Jak Codd, NEC member and Leeds University Union communications officer who ran a ‘campaign’ for his members to tell their lecturers not to strike, until he was forced to retreat by grassroots student outrage.
But there was worse to come: towards the end of conference, Streeting bombastically whipped up delegates into re-electing as Trustees not only David Fletcher, the former Sheffield Uni registrar who used the courts against student Gaza occupiers, but Kate Davies – the CEO of Notting Hill Housing who has cut her workers’ pay and conditions so viciously that they have voted 95 percent to strike. Streeting praised Davies for knowing “how to make tough choices”.
Black Students’ Officer censured
On the morning of the last day, with only two hundred people in the hall, conference voted to censure Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who as Black Students’ Officer protested when Durham Union Society (a posh debating club) invited BNP MEP Andrew Brons and one of the BNP’s local councillors to speak. (It almost censured LGBT Open Place Officer Daf Adley, but a few more delegates had made it into the hall by then.) The furore had resulted in Durham SU disaffiliating from NUS; the leadership want Durham’s tens of thousands in affiliation fees, so they backed the censures, despite their formal support for “no platform for fascists”. Thus they provided the BNP with a propaganda coup in the run-up to the general election and a green light to intervene on campuses.
In addition, there was much general evidence of depoliticisation and bureaucratisation. In elections for student members of the Trustee Board candidates repeatedly argued that it was right for finances and organisation to be taken out of “your” hands so NUS can concentrate on ‘campaigning’. How long before campaigning becomes a ‘reserved matter’ too?
Obviously, the circumstances were not such as to facilitate a strong left-wing challenge to the leadership. However, the activist left compounded the situation by poor organisation and political choices:
* For reasons explained it was harder than previously to get left delegates to the conference, but it is undoubtedly the case that more effort could have been made. In addition to bureaucratic constraints, disillusionment with NUS, discouraging people from standing, has probably played a role. Moreover, there was very little left-wing text on the agenda. This is a criticism of all left-wing factions and organisations.
* Some members of the SWP also displayed a tendency to either present the conference as going fairly well for the left, or interpret every defeat as evidence that a powerful majority in the student movement has been bureaucratically silenced. It is true that on many issues rank-and-file students are to the left of the NUS leadership, and that due to the bureaucratic reforms grassroots anti-cuts and anti-fees struggles were not really represented at the conference. But the failure to recognise that the left represents a minority, particularly but not only within the official structures student unions and NUS, is simply otherworldly.
Given all this, was it still worth attending the conference, and is it worthwhile intervening in the structures of NUS more generally?
* It is still possible, even now, to meet large-ish numbers of new activists at the conference. The NCAFC got details from about 40 new people and, jointly with Newcastle Free Education Network, held a fringe meeting which attracted 35. Many are keen to get involved in the campaign. (In addition, the NUS Liberation Campaigns, which are generally more left-wing than NUS conference, still involve relatively large numbers of activists.)
* The conference is still a useful opportunity to not only gather information and assess the general shape and state of the student movement, but to marshal and rally the forces of the student left and grassroots campaigns. Standing in elections for NUS conference can play an important role in creating a sense of national momentum – or could if it was done better, more unitedly and on a better political basis. It is necessary for the different organisations of the student activist left to discuss the construction of a united left slate which is not a last-minute lash up between NUS hacks but a tool for campaigning throughout the year. We need to recognise that the left is a minority and campaign to become the majority.
* The great majority of student unions are still affiliated to NUS, and it looks like this will remain the case. There is no move by left-wing unions to disaffiliate.
* Given the radical, and still developing, shut down of NUS structures and degeneration of NUS political culture, however, it obviously cannot be business as usual. We cannot just keep turning up and plugging away. Coordination of activists and of left-wing student unions outside the NUS structure will become more of an issue as NUS’s bureaucratisation deepens. We need to discuss and debate further what this means in practice.