|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 219 June 2018
What future for the NUS?
Theresa May’s gamble of calling an early general election last summer backfired spectacularly. Students and young people mobilised in their thousands, responding to Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto, which included his promise to scrap university tuition fees. With the Tories still not fully recovered from their near fatal blow, the possibilities are there for a new student movement which could play its part in kicking them out of government.
The National Union of Students (NUS) conference met in Glasgow, 27-29 March, against this political backdrop. Many would have been left stunned, however, by the lack of discussion and debate over the three days. Hundreds of motions had been submitted, including from Socialist Students, on the fight for free education, building support for the University and College Union (UCU) strikers, and the struggle for abortion rights in Northern Ireland.
Only a tiny fraction were taken and voted on. The rest were either not discussed or automatically remitted to the national executive committee (NEC) for consideration at a later date. Students unacquainted with the NUS will be outraged that time was not allowed for discussions on the most important questions in the current political context, including organising a national student demonstration or solidarity with UCU strikers.
At no point in the numerous speeches made by the NUS president and other leaders was there any recognition of the massive opportunities that have developed since the general election. Those looking for the next steps to building a mass student movement to help topple May’s weak government left yet another national student conference empty handed. The fact that the NUS has remained unshaken by the 2017 youthquake poses an important question: can the NUS be used as an effective tool to fight for free education and to help get rid of the Tory government?
The bureaucratic conference procedures were introduced by an NUS leadership firmly on the right. In 2009, a ‘governance review’ was introduced which significantly reduced the size of the conference and the length of time it lasts. These new rules were deliberately designed to consolidate the gradual transformation of the NUS from a student equivalent of a trade union – actively involving and mobilising its membership – into an organisation run like a charity, lobbying government officials without the involvement of its rank and file.
Years of failing to lead students in struggle, as well as the increasingly small and closed nature of annual conference, has left many students totally alienated from the NUS. This is also linked to the erosion of democracy within student unions on university campuses, which make up the NUS as a whole. They once acted as democratic political bodies locally, where students could meet to discuss policy and submit motions. Today, they play an almost opposite role, perceived as being purely administrative bodies.
Groups such as Labour Students, which is still dominated by Blairites, successfully use this lack of engagement to their advantage in local delegate elections for the annual conference. This allows them to maintain their influence at national level by returning right-wing and bureaucratic leaderships to the NUS.
As the frustration continues to grow, some students might draw the conclusion, understandably, that the NUS has passed the point of no return. Moreover, that the only strategy to win a fighting student leadership would be to abandon the NUS altogether and build a new national union capable of leading struggles and mobilising students.
Indeed, the numerous and repeated failings mean that, as students face up to the Tory government’s attacks, they will be forced into struggle without the ‘official’ call to action by the leadership. At a time when the Tory government is as weak as it has ever been, to argue that students must firstly transform the NUS into a fighting union before launching mass struggle would be a fatal mistake.
Given the shameful track record of the NUS leaders, it is possible that they get left behind during the development of a mass struggle, with students getting organised outside the formal structures of the NUS. This is what happened during the recent UCU strikes, when students organised marvellous solidarity action with their lecturers and teaching staff despite a shameful lack of support from the NUS.
At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that, under the weight of events, mass student struggles would find an expression through the channels of the NUS. A student movement that took to the streets to kick out the Tories could act as a tool to rapidly dislodge the right-wing leadership, and allow a radical student movement to be reflected in NUS structures.
This was the case in 2010. Only a year after the governance review, the stale NUS tops were forced to call a national demonstration, and 50,000 students poured into the streets of London. This shook the bureaucracy and opened up possibilities to replace the old leadership. While the exact course events take remains to be seen, it would be wrong to call prematurely for a complete and total break from the NUS at this stage.
Small rumblings of what a future movement through the NUS could look like arrived on the Wednesday afternoon of this year’s conference. After the right-wing bureaucracy decided to filibuster the discussion on abortion rights in Northern Ireland, around 150 delegates spontaneously occupied the stage to express their outrage.
The right wing and, shockingly, even some left groups, sought to disparage the protest by saying that their actions were selfish and meant that other important motions, such as the KCL cleaners’ dispute, did not have time to be heard. This is completely untrue. The blame lies with the right-wing leadership which deliberately filibusters and blocks discussion on a routine basis. The protest, although it may not yet represent the readiness of wider layers of students to transform the NUS, is a sign that the leadership is increasingly unable to keep control of the situation.
Any struggle to reclaim the NUS as an organisation committed to leading struggles must be linked to the fight against the Blairite right wing of the Labour Party organised in the NUS, mainly through the Labour Students organisation. One of the main figures linked with the introduction of the governance review was the then NUS president, Wes Streeting. He is now the Blairite Labour MP for Ilford North and one of the key opponents of Jeremy Corbyn within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Although there were some successes for the left in this year’s NEC elections, the most prominent positions are still mainly controlled by those cut from the same cloth as Streeting. Shakira Martin, the Blairite president elected at last year’s conference, was re-elected with 352 votes (50.9%). This reflects the failure of groups like Momentum to channel the enthusiasm among young people for Corbyn’s policies into an organised force within the NUS.
Yet the fight to transform the NUS has to go further than struggling to replace a handful of elected officials. It also has to be linked to a fundamental shake up and democratisation of NUS structures. This struggle must begin on the university campuses – as well as in the relevant schools and colleges – to fight for politicised and democratised student unions.
This would mean campaigning for student unions that call regular general meetings, widely advertised and open to all students, to discuss how best to fight the problems they face in today’s neoliberal higher education system: for affordable housing, for example, and against job cuts, outsourcing and spiralling fees. Successful campaigns to transform even a small handful of student unions along fighting and democratic lines would provide the basis for a renewed battle to transform the NUS from the ground up.
Socialist Students will be campaigning on campuses for the minority of student unions prepared to fight to convene their own national conference of action. This should be open to all left-wing student unions, campaigners and student activist groups that want to get organised against cut-backs, tuition fees and much more. It would be a huge step towards seeing the NUS transformed into a fighting, democratic force which can take on the Tories and fight for free education.