The following article by Fiona Edwards and Aaron Kiely, reporting on the recent left advance in the National Union of Students, was originally published by Student Broad Left.
Last week’s NUS National Conference was historic. Malia Boauttia was elected NUS President – the first Black woman and the first Muslim to win this position in NUS’ 94 year history. It was also the first time since 1969 that an incumbent President lost their re-election.
Not only is this a huge breakthrough for Black representation in the student movement, this represents a massive breakthrough for the left. Malia was elected on a platform of supporting free education, fighting the cuts, championing liberation and equality, fighting all forms of racism, opposing war and tackling climate change.
Alongside Malia, the Conference voted for a majority left NUS Vice President team – with Shakira Martin, Shelly Asquith and Sorana Vieru all winning their re-elections. Overall, the left have a slim majority on the new NUS National Executive which will take office from July.
This breakthrough takes place against a backdrop of unprecedented and intensifying attacks on students and education from the Tory government. Students are radicalising against austerity and want an NUS leadership that fights back and defends them – it is this reality which has propelled Malia to win the NUS Presidency.
Over the past week hundreds of news articles have been published in Britain and across the world attacking Malia with disgusting smears and falsehoods, accusing her of being anti-Semitic and an ISIS sympathiser. Alongside this, at a few campuses, campaigns to disaffiliate Students’ Unions from NUS have been launched.
The immediate priority for all left and progressive forces in the student movement is to defend NUS’ newly democratically elected President Malia Bouattia against the smears and lies being reported in the media, to defend NUS democracy and fight off any attempts of Students’ Unions to break away from NUS.
It is also crucial for students to rally behind the new left NUS leadership in building a movement that opposes the massive attacks that the Tories have launched on education and students.
NUS: united for free education – no to cuts
The Tories have stepped up their attacks on students over the past year as Malia clearly pointed out in her recent article in The Sunday Times:
“Education in the UK is in crisis. Courses are being scrapped, staff made redundant, area reviews for English colleges will see further education face alarmingly deep cuts.
“Tuition fee increases are back on the agenda, while the maintenance grants that so many of us rely on have been cut off. Student nurses are being asked to pay for the luxury of working tirelessly within the wards of our NHS. A generation of students is being forced out of education.
“This government’s green paper [on Higher Education] is about to change the face of higher education indefinitely, and the very existence of our students’ unions is under threat.”
This year’s NUS National Conference voted by a massive landslide to organise a huge campaign against all of these education cuts.
No delegate even got up to speak against the ‘Save Our Futures – Stop Cutting Education’ motion put forward by NUS Vice President Shakira Martin – and only a handful of students voted against it. The overwhelming majority of Conference endorsed the plan to take on the government’s attacks with a national demonstration this autumn, days and weeks of action, mass lobbying of MPs and creative, peaceful direct action.
NUS also reaffirmed its support for free education, remarkably with near unanimous support – even greater than the 90% of Conference that voted for it last year. It was only two years ago, in 2014, that NUS voted for the first time in 20 years to support free education and scrapped its policy of supporting students paying tens of thousands of pounds for higher education through tuition fees or a graduate tax.
Uniting against racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism
Rising racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are a threat to the welfare of millions of students.
This year’s NUS National Conference reaffirmed its commitment to prioritising the fight against all forms of racism. This included proposals to tackle the government’s ‘Prevent’ agenda which demonises huge sections of the Muslim student population as well as commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day nationally and on campuses.
The left win NUS President and maintain a majority of the NUS NEC
Last year’s NUS National Conference (2015) represented a turning point for the student movement – with the left gaining a majority of the full-time Vice President positions and on the NUS National Executive for the first time in decades.
This year saw the left win the NUS Presidency and maintain its majority on the NUS National Executive.
Overall the left has won 4 out of 6 of the positions on the NUS President and Vice President leadership team – which is the same number as last year, only this year the left won the Presidency instead of Vice President Society & Citizenship.
In the elections for the NUS National Executive (Block of 15) the left lost some ground compared to last year. This year the left won 8 out of 15 places (compared to 10 places in 2015 and 7 places in 2014).
All of the left candidates won their elections on a platform of building a fighting NUS that takes on austerity and racism and that champions free education and liberation.
Malia Bouattia won in the first round with 51% of the vote, defeating the incumbent Megan Dunn by 6%. It is the second time in NUS history that an incumbent Presidential candidate lost their re-election and is a remarkable achievement.
Shakira Martin was re-elected as NUS Vice President Further Education with 93% of the vote, with no candidate standing against her. Shakira’s election speech rallied the Conference against the government’s savage cuts on further education and made clear her support for NUS organising a national demo against all the attacks facing education as well as continuing campaigning for free education, against racism, climate change and war.
The left candidate for NUS Vice President Welfare, Shelly Asquith, was also re-elected with 53% of the vote – standing on a platform of fighting cuts to welfare services, tackling spiraling rents and opposing the racist Prevent agenda.
Sorana Veiru, who stood on a platform of campaigning for free education, liberation and equality was also re-elected with 54% of the vote.
Unfortunately the left lost the positions of Vice President Union Development, with the right wing getting 54%, and also Vice President Society & Citizenship where the right received 44% of the vote.
Whilst the left maintained 4 out of 6 leadership positions this year, and gained the most powerful position in NUS which is that of President, it’s important to note that the average vote for the left at this year’s Conference has fallen.
Taking the median average, last year the left candidates won 61% of the Conference – this year that average fell to 52%.
Since the last NUS National Conference, however, the left in British politics has surged and students have played a big part in the growing radicalisation against austerity. The past year has seen a growth of the left on campuses and a strengthening of movements against cuts and racism nationally. This was reflected in the votes on policy at the Conference, where delegates voted overwhelmingly to the left.
The fact that the right wing in NUS is re-positioning itself and performing a tactical retreat on the question of austerity, by for example deciding to not oppose the left on big policy questions at this year’s Conference such as free education and whether NUS organises a national demo, has allowed them to attract some support from the large section of students that want an NUS that fights the cuts. The reality is, however, that only the left in NUS wants to lead a genuine mass movement to defend education and end austerity – and ways must be found to put this forward more sharply in the future.
Defending Malia and NUS democracy
This year’s NUS National Conference represents a massive turning point for the student movement and a chance for the left to lead a movement of 7 million students to fight for a better education system, a better society and a better world. This is a huge opportunity.
The fight to defend this left advance has already begun.
This has to start by defending the new President, Malia, against the disgusting smears she is facing.
As Malia has clearly stated, “there is no place for anti-Semitism in the student movement, or in society” and NUS has a very strong record of fighting against it.
It is very worrying that Malia’s opposition to Zionist politics is being conflated with anti-semitism. As Malia says:
“I want to be clear, again, that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is in no way me taking issue with being Jewish. In fact, Zionist politics are held by people from a variety of different backgrounds and faiths. For me it has been, and will always be, a political argument, not one of faith or ethnic identity. Zionism, religion and ethnicity must not be seen as one and the same.”
The other smear against Malia is that she is an ISIS sympathiser. Again, on this Malia has made clear:
“On the claims that I refused to condemn Isis: two years ago I delayed a National Executive Council motion condemning Isis – but that was because of its wording, not because of its intent. Its language appeared to condemn all Muslims, not just the terror group. Once it was worded correctly I proposed and wholly supported the motion.
“Yet newspaper reports this week still depict me as a young Muslim who supports Isis. This is simply not true.”
At a number of campuses, campaigns to disaffiliate Students’ Unions from NUS have begun in an attempt to undermine the new left leadership of NUS. Defeating these attempts is not just a question of defending Malia and defending NUS democracy – it’s a question of defending the student movement itself.
Many more challenges will emerge in the coming days, weeks and months. Having a left wing leadership of the student movement – on a line of fighting cuts, racism, war and climate change – will not be acceptable to the right wing both within the student movement and wider society, and already a huge struggle is taking place to undermine this victory.
Building a fighting student movement
The Tories are intensifying their attacks on students and education. We are facing massive cuts to further education colleges, threats to increase tuition fees yet again and ongoing attacks on students’ living standards.
There is cause for hope. We are less than a year into this Tory government and the cracks are already starting to show – they are weak, divided and out of touch. Jeremy Corbyn is showing inspiring leadership in the fight against austerity and demonstrating that the Tories can be defeated – whether that’s on making them back down on their draconian tax credit cuts or forcing a U-turn on cuts to vital support for disabled people.
The student movement can also defeat the Tories and their attacks on education. It requires a more progressive NUS than we have seen for the past few decades – an NUS which is prepared to build a strong, vibrant mass movement. That is the leadership NUS National Conference voted for last week – and that is why we are seeing such an enormous campaign attacking the new NUS President.
Alongside defending Malia, defending NUS democracy and countering the attacks facing the student movement, the student left also needs to rapidly get back onto the issues which have driven it forward to win the leadership of NUS: fighting for free education, against cuts, student debt and the cost of living crisis.
That means taking forward the plan NUS National Conference endorsed last week on fighting cuts – particularly joining forces with education trade unions to organise a national demonstration against all attacks on education.
The above article was originally published here by Student Broad Left.