NUS 2017 – left suffers avoidable defeat

The following article by Fiona Edwards, on the left’s defeat this year in the National Union of Students, was initially published here by Student Broad Left.

In April 2017 the left wing of the National Union of Students (NUS) lost the Presidency, having held the post for one year. Malia Bouattia was defeated in her bid for re-election and the NUS right wing have retaken the top officer position in NUS, alongside a majority on the leadership team.

It is vital for the left in the student movement to analyse accurately the reasons for this defeat and draw the lessons, as otherwise mistakes will be repeated and the left will fail to take advantage of the advances of the left in society as a whole reflected in the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party and its advance at the General Election.

The first step is to understand that this defeat for the left was entirely unnecessary; student politics has not shifted rightwards this past year, nor was the NUS National Conference dominated by the right wing. Left wing motions for free education, against cuts and austerity, against racism and the Islamophobic Prevent agenda, among other issues, were passed with large majorities. Therefore the conclusion must be drawn that the left failed to unite the broad layers of students who support free education and oppose austerity, racism and war behind their candidates in the election. Radicalised students were confused and divided at the Conference and did not rally behind the incumbent left leadership.

The austerity offensive in Britain since 2010 has particularly focused on young people, including students. Student living standards have declined, with allowances and grants being cut, fees and the cost of living spiralling, and student debt rapidly on the rise. That is why students have particularly radicalised to the left and, alongside other young people, were a huge component of Corbyn’s support within the Labour Party and Labour’s electoral advance at the June General Election.

Students in particular were mobilised in the General Election by Corbyn’s manifesto presenting a broad agenda of progressive reforms which offered an alternative to Tory austerity. It opposed attacks on education and living standards and, among other things, it proposed to end austerity; create jobs; introducing a living wage; tackle the housing crisis; defend public services including the NHS and education; scrap tuition fees; and bring back EMA and maintenance grants.

Labour’s campaign was an object lesson on how to mobilise students to vote for the left. Young people at the election voted Labour Party in their droves. Turnout amongst 18 to 24 year olds is reported by Ipsos MORI as having risen from 38% in 2015 to 54% in June 2017, with 62% of them voting Labour. Across the country big turnouts of students played a critical role in Labour’s advance.

“Scrap tuition fees” is a better slogan than “Boycott the NSS”

This pattern however was not repeated within NUS itself. Rather than promote a broad progressive platform, like Labour’s manifesto, the left leadership of NUS spent its year in office pursuing their own narrow agenda, that did not effectively take up the concerns of the majority of students.

The main NUS campaign and slogan over the past year was “Boycott the NSS.” This stands for “Boycott the National Student Survey.” It is an obscure campaign that few outside of NUS, and many inside NUS, were even aware of. Its aim was to persuade final year university students not to fill in an official email survey rating their student experience. The purported purpose of this was to deny the government some of the data it uses to create a league table, which informs which universities can increase tuition fees. This campaign had little purchase, with many students who were aware of the campaign not understanding why they were being asked to “Boycott the NSS”. If the same campaign had been conducted under a better slogan, such as “Scrap tuition fees”, it would have been more widely understood.

However, even if it had been better presented, prioritising persuading students not to fill out a survey is hardly a substitute for a proper campaign against fees and cuts. And such a campaign is necessary. But a campaign for the scrapping of tuition fees needs to be sufficiently broad that it not only mobilises students but also aims to win wider public support for this policy. The NUS leadership could have run such a campaign against tuition fees and education cuts, in particularly favourable circumstances where it could have linked up with the anti-austerity policies of the Corbyn current in Labour and been reinforced by its manifesto commitments to abolish fees during the General Election and restore cuts to maintenance grants.

Such a campaign, based on organising big events – with Corbyn speaking, for example, or Angela Rayner, the popular and high profile Shadow Education Secretary – could have put pressure on the government. But there was no such campaign. Nor was there any serious campaign to defend further education – where 4.5 million of NUS’ 7 million members study – or to bring back the EMA.

Such broad based campaigns in defence of students in both higher and further education are needed as further and higher education have faced such huge attack for seven years. Such campaigns would have helped rally left wing students behind the NUS leadership and enthused student activists to re-elect it.

Dividing the Black Students Campaign

However, the failings of the NUS leadership went further than the absence of a campaign in defence of student living standards. The defeated left leadership also oversaw the development of deep divisions within the NUS Black Students’ Campaign (BSC). The BSC represents the 20% of students (1 million) who are of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage and it has been the bastion of the left for the past two decades – and was crucial to the election of Malia Bouattia herself in 2016. The BSC has been in the leadership of the fight within NUS against austerity, racism and war, helping to propel forward the left in the NUS on a broad progressive agenda.

The NUS Black Students’ Campaign has spent over 20 years building up representation for its membership at all levels of the student movement. An indicator of its success is that at recent NUS National Conferences students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage make up around 30% of voting delegates.

The Campaign led the successful battles that secured key NUS policy advances to the left in recent years, including winning NUS support for: free education; justice for Palestine; fighting racism and the Islamophobic Prevent agenda; tackling climate change; and opposing cuts and austerity.

However, in order to conduct these campaigns in NUS, the BSC had to first place the issue of its own unity – the unity of all those of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage – at the top of its agenda. Maintaining that unity had to be constantly fought for over the years, against continual attempts to sow division; to elevate differences between students of varying heritage above their common interest in opposing the racism they all suffer in British society. Achieving this meant the BSC had to be genuinely inclusive and actively campaign against the wide range of experiences of racism, from Islamophobia to the ways racism impacts on people of African and Caribbean heritage.

However the current that took the leadership of the BSC in 2014, and of NUS as a whole in 2016, only to be defeated this year (2017), effectively abandoned this approach. While it did give occasional rhetorical support for Black Unity, in practice students of African and Caribbean heritage, including on the left, were excluded from the running of the BSC. In elections in other parts of NUS it often supported white candidates against left students of African and Caribbean heritage.

As a result the BSC,  this previous bastion of the left, became politically divided and the NUS right was able to build up its support by cynically presenting itself as the champion of students of African and Caribbean heritage. At NUS’ April 2017 Conference, instead of students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage essentially largely voting as a single bloc for the left at NUS National Conference as they had done in previous years, this 30% of the vote split between the left and the right.

Thus, whereas in 2016 Bouattia had received 51% of the vote, in 2017 that fell to 38%. The 13% loss of support between 2016 and 2017 was overwhelmingly composed of students of African and Caribbean heritage who backed the candidate of the right wing factions in NUS, Shakira Martin. Martin, a Black student of African-Caribbean heritage, who had been elected on a left platform as a vice president in 2016, but was then supported by the right in standing against Bouattia this year. Part of the reason for this being successful was the exclusion of African-Caribbean students from the leadership of the BSC and from support by the left leadership of NUS; the right was able to latch on to this exclusion of African-Caribbean students to promote Martin as a candidate that could attract a section of the left’s previous support.

Abandoning the politics of unity in the BSC thus delivered a huge blow to the left. In the NUS National Presidential elections the impact was clear. It opened up the political space for a candidate of African-Caribbean heritage to run against Bouattia and the right wing inevitably exploited this division.

Palestine solidarity opportunities missed

Over the past 10 years huge strides forward have been made in transforming NUS’ policy to support the Palestinians’ right to education, to end the illegal occupation of the West Bank and the brutal siege on Gaza. All of these advances in NUS’ policy were achieved by putting forward a pro-Palestine framework.

Within this framework it should have been possible for an NUS left leadership to organise activities such as student solidarity delegation to visit Palestine with assistance from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, organise actions on campuses for UN Palestine Solidarity Day and campaign for scholarships for Palestinian students.

But instead of developing such pro-Palestine initiatives the Bouattia leadership made the principal framework of their work on Palestine opposition to Israel and Zionism. Unity for justice for the Palestinians can be built among those with many different views on Israel and Zionism; but making opposition to Israel the focus reduces the reach of such campaigns to those with specific views on Israel. As a result, although the leadership made propaganda to itself and its supporters, little was done to further extend support for Palestine amongst students.

Deepening this error, the NUS’s left leadership also took the decision to end the convention that the NUS Anti-Racism/Anti-Fascism Campaign (ARAF) is co-convened by the NUS Black Students’ Officer and a Jewish NUS NEC member selected by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). It is true that UJS has a very clear pro-Israel policy, which dominates its concerns, but it is nonetheless the main representative body of Jewish students in NUS and has a long record of involvement in NUS’ and other campaigns against fascism. Excluding the UJS from the ARAF Campaign does nothing to aid the fight against fascism and further reduced the potential unity around the NUS left leadership.

The NUS left needs a Corbynite agenda

In the aftermath of April’s NUS National Conference some have suggested the left’s defeat was due to the Conference being right wing. This was not the case.

The 2017 NUS Conference remained on the left. It voted strongly for free education; against cuts; austerity and attacks on education; to oppose racism and the Islamophobic Prevent agenda; against a hard Brexit and for the UK to remain a member of the Single Market; and against Donald Trump’s reactionary agenda. It was, like 2016, in its majority a left wing Conference.

Also in the Block of 15 NUS National Executive – elections run on the basis of proportional representation – the left won a majority of 8 places out of the 15 available.

But the problems of the leadership’s approach were reflected in the fact that support for the incumbent left leadership of NUS did not hold up in the individual officer elections, where the left’s share of the vote declined on 2016. The left’s average median vote share for the 6 officer post elections was 45.8%. This compares to 52% in 2016 and 61% in 2015. As a result the right wing factions in NUS won 5 out of 6 of the NUS leadership team, including National President.

If the left had spent the previous year campaigning on the concerns of the majority of students and promoting a broad progressive agenda, it could have easily emerged from the Conference with 4 out of 6 leadership positions. As well as the NEC places the left won, it could have won the Vice Presidents of Further Education, Society and Citizenship and Welfare, which were all lost by narrow margins – 3 votes in the case of Further Education. If, in addition, it had maintained the unity of all students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage, it might have retained the presidency as well.

It is unclear at present what opportunities the left will have to regain this lost ground next year as the outgoing NUS leadership have, ill advisedly, supported a ‘review’ of the NUS’ structures. The outcome of this review will be decided at an Extraordinary Conference in the autumn, but it is widely expected that reforms will be introduced that will aid the right wing. The review’s initial proposals undermine NUS democracy and propose changes to the rules that abolish the NUS National Executive and make it harder in future for the left to win back the Presidency.

Clearly, outside of NUS, students are having a transformative impact on national politics. NUS’s 7 million students are at the core of the most radical left wing development in British politics. Corbynista politics is dominant amongst students. The enthusiasm for this left agenda boosted the votes for Labour and deprived the Tories of a majority government. On university and college campuses the radicalisation of students and young people against austerity, racism and war also continues to grow.

A Corbynista type leadership, that fights for the interests of students and stands up to the Tory government, is clearly needed in NUS nationally. Fighting for that is the only way that the left can overcome its defeat this year and once more advance.