This year’s NUS Conference (21-23 April) for the first time in decades saw the left win the majority of the NUS leadership positions, a majority of the NUS Executive and strengthened support for the policy of free education. The following article, by Aaron Kiely (NUS NEC) and Fiona Edwards (Student Broad Left Secretary), reporting on the Conference was originally published by Student Broad Left.
NUS National Conference 2015 saw massive victories for the left, with delegates electing the most left wing leadership team for more than three decades. This is a turning point for the student movement, marking what will hopefully be the start of a new era, with an NUS that plays a leading role in the fightback against austerity, racism, climate change and war. There is a real opportunity, for the first time in more than a generation, to realign the student movement with the labour movement and all progressive campaigns after decades of students being isolated from these struggles.
The prize for the left – leading a movement of 7 million students to fight for a better education system, a better society and a better world – is huge. So we shouldn’t expect those on the right wing of NUS, who have run the organisation for decades, to accept this change in leadership without a fight. Left unity is crucial to entrench this victory and set NUS onto a new path.
NUS: for free education, for a free Palestine and against racism
This year’s NUS National Conference was dominated by left wing politics both on and off the debating floor of the Conference.
Last year the left won a landmark shift in NUS’ policy on education funding – ending 20 years of support for students paying tens of thousands of pounds for higher education through tuition fees or a ‘graduate tax’. A new a policy for free education was voted through instead with around 55% support.
Over the past year the Student Assembly Against Austerity, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and the Young Greens have organized a big movement for free education including a 10,000 strong national demo. This new movement, inspired by Germany’s decision to scrap tuition fees last year, has received huge attention in the media and has won huge support for free education on campuses across the country. As a result at this year’s NUS National Conference the policy for free education was passed with a 90% majority – and it was left to the outgoing NUS President to lead a tiny minority in voting against free education.
The crucial question of whether or not NUS should organise a national demonstration for free education and against student poverty was not debated at the Conference due to deliberate time wasting by the outgoing right wing leadership of NUS. If the motion had been discussed it would have passed overwhelmingly. Four of the new NUS Vice Presidents (out of a leadership team of six) signed Shakira Martin and Sahaya James’ statement in support of NUS organising a demo in advance of the Conference, alongside over 150 prominent national and local student activists. Now the decision to call a national demo will be made by either the NUS National Executive or the NUS Full Time Officer team – and the left has a majority on both of these decision making bodies. A massive NUS national demo for free education and against student poverty in the autumn term is on the cards.
The importance of students taking on the rising tide of racism was another central theme of Conference. Motions on fighting institutional racism in education, as well as combating Islamophobia, attacks on immigration and anti-Semitism were passed almost unanimously. Big anti-racist fringe meetings took place at the Conference organised by FOSIS & the NUS Black Students’ Campaign and another one by Stand Up To Racism – the organisation which mobilized 15,000 people onto the streets in March for UN Anti-Racism Day.
Whilst the issue of Palestine was not discussed in the motions debate due to lack of time, hundreds of delegates wore ‘Free Palestine’ badges and Palestinian student from Gaza, Malaka Mohammed received a very warm response from delegates when she made her Block of 15 election speech. NUS’ policy in support of Palestine will be discussed at the next NUS National Executive meeting, where it is likely to pass with a significant majority.
The left breakthrough and win majority of NUS leadership
The left scored a massive electoral advance at the Conference – now holding 4 out of 6 of the Vice President and President leadership positions. Last year the left won 1 of these positions, so a 400% increase in one year is a stunning achievement.
The fact that 21% of the Conference was Black – the culmination of more than a decade and a half of the NUS Black Students’ Campaign fighting to increase Black representation in the student movement – and also that over 50% of the Conference was women thanks to the introduction of gender balancing measures this year, had a huge impact on making this Conference representative, diverse and progressive.
All of the left candidates won their elections on a platform of a fighting NUS that takes on austerity and racism and that champions free education and liberation. These victories take place against a backdrop of a youth and student radicalization in society – from the biggest pro Palestine demonstrations in British history last Summer to the new movements for free education, #BlackLivesMatter as well as a significant growth in the Fossil Free campaign, there has been an upturn in struggle over the past few months.
Shakira Martin, newly elected NUS Vice President Further Education, led the left at Conference. From rallying the left in advance of the Conference on the question of NUS organising a national demo for free education and against student poverty to making the main speech for free education in the debate, she set out what the key dividing lines in NUS were and defeated the outgoing NUS leadership on these key issues. Shakira’s speech was incredible – and very left wing, rallying the whole conference for free education, for strong FE representation, against education cuts, racism, war and climate change. Shakira’s left wing leadership unquestionably boosted support for all of the other left candidates.
As a result Shakira won the NUS VP FE position with a huge mandate of 64% – defeating both Labour Students and an independent left leaning candidate that stood.
The left also won NUS Vice President Higher Education, with Sorana Vieru getting 51% of the vote. Labour Students received 30% and Hattie Craig from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (also a left wing candidate) got 17%. With Sorana’s new left wing, pro free education, fighting leadership, there is a real opportunity to transform the debate about education funding, after years of NUS capitulating to tuition fees and a graduate tax.
Shelly Asquith, leading campaigner for free education, affordable housing and liberation, won NUS Vice President Welfare with 58% of the vote. This provides a huge opportunity for an NUS that seriously tackles the cost of living crisis and the disgusting wave of racism, as politicians seek scapegoats for their failing economic policies.
Piers Telemacque received a huge mandate, getting re-elected with 71% of the vote. Piers blazed a trail last year, winning NUS Vice President Society and Citizenship against the odds. Over the past year Piers has fought for free education, well funded youth services and against racism in the face of huge pressures from within NUS. Now that Piers is surrounded by allies instead of opponents on the NUS leadership team we can expect even more from him this year.
Unfortunately the right wing maintained the positions of NUS President and NUS Vice President Union Development. In the case of VP UD, the left’s candidate Abdi-aziz Suleiman ran a brilliant campaign, with ideas that would have helped to transform NUS. Abdi got 42% of the vote.
In the Presidential election the right wing candidate won with 60% of the vote. Unfortunately the left did not put forward a strong candidate for this position. If the left had of put forward a uniting candidate, with a record of opposing war and racism, as well as supporting free education, the left could have taken NUS President this year. Instead Beth Redmond from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and the Alliance for Workers Liberty stood, gaining 29% of the vote. But 11% of the Conference voted to Re-Open Nominations because of the Alliance for Workers Liberty’s involvement in orchestrating a huge witch-hunt of Black students on the NUS NEC this year, claiming that their opposition to the bombing of Iraq meant they supported ISIS terrorism – a smear that hit the headlines from The Sun to The Daily Mail. Alongside this the Alliance for Workers Liberty have also supported the Islamophobic cartoons printed by Charlie Hebdo earlier this year – another reason why so many Black and anti-racist delegates voted for RON.
In the elections of the NUS National Executive (Block of 15) the left also made significant strides forward. This year the left won 10 out of 15 places – up from the 7 places we won last year (2014), which was up from the 4 places we won in 2013. One place was won by Student Broad Left and the Young Greens, four places were won by FOSIS, two by NCAFC, one by an NUS Women’s Committee member, one by an independent left Sabbatical Officer and one anti-war activist from the RS21 current.
The Block of 15 results clearly show the plurality of the student left, making the need for unity essential if we are to maximize our impact.
The NUS now has the most left wing leadership it has had for 30 years – and it is crucial that left wing student activists get behind our new Vice Presidents Shakira, Sorana, Shelly and Piers to translate these electoral victories into action to defend students and fight for change.
Defending NUS democracy – stop the right wing fightback
The right wing leadership that have run NUS for more than three decades are not going to accept a radical new leadership without a fight. We already know that one part of their fight back is going to take the form of a ‘governance review’.
Now that the right wing forces in NUS have lost a control of the NUS National Executive and the NUS National Conference, we will suddenly hear talk of how these bodies are ‘inaccessible’ and ‘undemocratic’ and proposals will be put forward to diminish the influence of them. This is simply a cynical attempt to destroy and undermine spaces where the left now hold a majority (after years and year of the right wing dominating). Any governance review which takes place when the left doesn’t hold the crucial positions of President and Union Development, will be used to attack democracy and push back the advance of the left.
Having a governance review now would be a distraction from the fightback we need to launch to reverse the attacks on education, it will be hugely costly and it will only serve the interests of the right wing forces in NUS that are pursuing this.
It is true that the NUS structures need reform to increase democracy and participation, but we do not need a governance review to achieve this, and certainly not a governance review organized by the right wing of NUS.
Building a fighting student movement
After decades of internal struggle, NUS finally has a leadership fit for purpose. Now the hard work begins: the left must work together to transform NUS into a national union that fights austerity and the racist scapegoating that accompanies it.
This is not going to be an easy task. For some sections of NUS many years have passed since the last time they even produce a poster or a leaflet, never mind led a campaign demanding anything of the government.
The role for student activists building campaigns and movements on a campus level has never been more crucial. The newly elected left wing Vice Presidents of NUS need a huge movement behind them if we are going to have a chance of winning anything. That means building vibrant local Student Assembly Against Austerity and anti-cuts groups, thriving campus Liberation Campaigns, bringing together coalitions to root out racism, dynamic grassroots movements for Palestine and against climate change, as well as the left getting together to win the leadership of every single Students’ Union in the country.
We are now just one week away from the General Election and our chance to throw out this disgusting Tory-led government. Whatever the outcome of the Election, we need to build a powerful, vibrant and progressive student movement that makes our demands clear.
The next step is to build a massive student presence on the People’s Assembly Against Austerity national END AUSTERITY NOW demonstration on Saturday 20 June. Let’s use this as a springboard for a new wave of student action to demand a better world free from austerity, racism, climate change and war.
Join the Student Broad Left – a national network of left wing student activists. We stand for a fighting NUS – against cuts, racism, imperialism and war.
This article originally appeared here at Student Broad Left.