NUS Conference 2013: NUS leadership cedes to austerity & racist scapegoating

Photo by Dan Higgins
NUS Conference 2013

By Jennifer Nash

The annual national conference of the National Union of Students (NUS) last week resolved to stand on the sidelines while the Tories’ attacks on education go unchallenged. It threw out all proposals to fight the attacks on students and elected a new NUS leadership that endorsed this programme of selling students out.

A coalition of right wing Labour Students, the self-styled ‘Organised Independents’ and Tories successfully united to stop NUS fighting austerity and the Tories’ attacks on education. The student left – primarily led by activists from the Student Broad Left – put up a good fight, but the united right wing coalition managed to stop any measures to defend students from getting agreed by the conference.

In concrete terms, the NUS leadership succeeded in defeating a series of proposals on opposing the Tory attacks on education. It rejected a motion that the student movement fight to bring back EMA – a grant which helped hundreds of thousands of the poorest young people in society get through further education. It put forward no proposals to organise any activities to oppose cuts, fees or privatisation over the coming year and rejected those that were put forward. It successfully opposed the call for free education at all levels, instead passing a policy that calls for students to each pay tens of thousands of pounds to go to university through a graduate tax.

Labour Students play the role of blocking the student movement from mounting a serious fight against austerity because they accept the Blairite/Labour right/Progress view, which is to accept the Tory cuts and argue that a Labour government should continue the same policies. They are attempting to create a student movement that will apply no countervailing pressure, to that of the Labour right, on the Miliband leadership of Labour.

Therefore the NUS leadership’s strategy for the 2015 general election is straightforward: keep a lid on student anger against cuts and prevent the student movement from lifting a finger to defend students.

That right-wing Labour Students are prepared to align with Tory students to achieve this goal is perfectly rational from their point of view. Outgoing Labour NUS President Liam Burns even signed nominations papers for a Tory student to get elected onto the NUS NEC.

This cuddling up to the Tories and capitulating to their austerity policies is a betrayal of the interests of students.

The NUS leadership also made a determined effort to get anti-racism off the agenda of the conference entirely, for the first time in over a decade. One in five of NUS’ 7 million members are Black students, and their welfare is significantly threatened by the rising climate of racism in society.

David Cameron is whipping up racist scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims and Black communities to distract from the failure of the Tory government’s austerity policies. As those suffering from the cuts are encouraged to scapegoat immigrants and ‘welfare scroungers’, the real culprits – the casino bankers in the City and their Tory chums – are let off the hook.

Instead of challenging this head on, the NUS leadership moved the NUS Black Students’ Campaign’s motion against racism and fascism from 20th on the conference agenda to 99th in an effort to stop this important discussion from taking place.

Aaron Kiely, the NUS Black Students’ Officer, challenged the order paper to get anti-racism discussed and twice he was defeated, with the Labour Students-led NUS leadership opposing him on both occasions. On a third attempt, in the dying minutes of conference, a Black student succeeded in getting anti-racism discussed, and the motion to reaffirm existing policy eventually passed unanimously.

It is unsurprisingly that the right-wing leadership of NUS wanted to avoid this discussion. Knowing the price they would pay for voting down the NUS Black Students’ Campaign proposals on combating racism, they attempted to avoid the discussion by forcing the issue off the agenda.

In the elections, the right-wing Labour Students-backed candidates won the Presidency and all the full time positions.

However, whilst the left did not win any positions, it did make some advances in the elections. For example in the Vice President Further Education election the left achieved the highest vote, in the first round, it has won in more than five years, securing 43 per cent of the vote compared to 35 per cent last year. In the Vice President Union Development election this year the left got 37 per cent of the vote, compared with 30 per cent last year.

There is a growing polarisation in the student movement between those who want to fight the government’s austerity and racist scapegoating and those that want to cede to it. Currently the political currents that want to accept Tory cuts are firmly in the driving seat of the NUS, but the left opposition continues to grow and advance.