NUS conference 2010: NUS sinks further

This report does not necessarily reflect the views of NCAFC. If you would like us to publish alternative views on NUS conference, or just let us know what you think, drop us an email at

By Daniel Randall, NUS Trustee Board
(originally published, and viewable in full, at 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).

Student-worker solidarity
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.


6 responses to “NUS conference 2010: NUS sinks further

  1. good report and analysis, thanks.

  2. One thing to bear in mind about the solidarity with UCU & other unions that I didn’t click on until after I’d returned: the motion passed by NUS supports industrial action by the trade unions in defence of jobs and education.

    This wording was almost certainly proposed in the knowledge that upcoming UCU national action will be over pensions.

  3. Mark received 79 first preferences by the way.

    In terms of criticising left factions for bad organisation surely that prize goes to ENS? SWP, Black Students’ Cttee and LGBT Cttee all had text in more than one zone. I think it was you who missed the deadline?

    And we had the best organised united left slate I have known in my five years in NUS with joint publicity and materials and fringe.

    Despite delegate cuts that was the best left presidential result for at least two years and VUD and VPHE results also held on last year when you take into account chaging FOSIS support.

    We were able to do this by entering into a united front with the reformist left of NUS.

    I don’t understand how the AWL ca get all excited about re electing John McDonnell but accuse Daf and Bell of being leftish liberals?

    They both support free education and oppose all, cuts support and pro activly impliment no platform, mobilise people for anti EDL demos support non commercial, politicised LGBT Prides etc

    Ok they used that quote from stiglitz. I supported the attempt to take parts on that. But the argument around that represents a radical demand that profit and wage labour are inherently illegitimate. That’s an anti capitalist and revolutionary position. Do you think there’s no space btween being a revolutionary and a soft leftish liberal? If there’s not, then what’s the point of a united front?

    And one other thing. Why is it ok for ENS to ally itself with the young greens? Why are they any better than Daf and Bell?

  4. 1) ENS had text in more than one zone too. This is just mud-slinging.
    2) John McDonnell is a working-class politician; yes, he’s a reformist but he is explicitly an anti-capitalist and a socialist and believes in working-class struggle. The same cannot be said for Daf or Bell. I’m not saying they’re not part of the left at all or that an alliance of some kind with them/people politically similar to them is ruled out, but why would you bend over backwards to make an alliance with those elements when you could have allied instead with other socialists who actually represent and are involved in the cutting-edge “industrial” (so to speak) issues that’re going on in the student movement?
    3) The votes were very poor, Hanif – there’s no point trying to dress this up. The SWP’s triumphalism (one of your comrades said that he “couldn’t believe how well the left was doing” at the conference) isn’t going to get us anywhere.
    4) ENS is not, and has never been, “allied” with the Young Greens. Individual Young Greens have been involved with ENS but these individuals were anti-capitalists who agreed with ENS’s anti-capitalist politics. Their involvement did not compel ENS into any political contortions.
    5) Just for the sake of clarity, I wrote this report for the AWL website so it shouldn’t be taken as representative of the views of either NCAFC or ENS.

  5. The SWP are telling us exactly the same thing about Bell as they did about Pav Akhtar in 2006. Now Pav works for the Unison bureaucracy and is a Blairite councillor voting for cuts and attacks on workers in Lambeth.

    The year before last, Hanif, you wrote a devastating critique of Ruqayyah Collector, Bell etc (ie the ex-Student Broad Left group), describing them as a “corrupt cabal”.
    Assed Baig described them as having a “very poor record of standing up for left-wing politics”. When did you change your minds?

    As for McDonnell, a comparison with Bell et al’s hero Ken Livingstone is illuminating.

    Both are ‘reformists’. But Livingstone sacked McDonnell for opposing his sell out as leader of the GLC! Today, McDonnell supports every strike whereas as London mayor Livingstone broke strikes and supported Gordon Brown against McDonnell for Labour leader.

    Arguing that we need to scrap fees because Britain needs a skilled workforce to “compete in the global economy” is not a ‘reformist’ position. It is a purely liberal and even right-wing one. You don’t have to be a revolutionary to put forward the idea that we should demand what workers and students need, not what is good for capitalism – but you do have to stand for class struggle.

    Interesting that when SUs where the SWP is strong passed the motion, they kept that phrase in. Thus you helped Bell, Daf etc systematically miseducate student activists.

  6. ‘If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organizations for the sake of fostering sectarian factions, it is no less so passively to tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (”progressive”) bureaucratic cliques.’ –Trotsky

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