Impressions from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts National Conference
Robert Hayes reports back on the 2013 NCAFC National Conference which was held at the University of Birmingham from on November 23rd-24th
The National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts (NCAFC) is a federation of students, education workers, and campus campaigns, founded by far left student groups and allies in 2010. It organises radical direct action against tuition fees, education cuts and wider cuts to public services. The federation is best known for its organisation of the demonstration against the government’s policy on higher education, in 2011. Since then it has actively supported occupations and demonstrations across the country, such as the Sussex occupation earlier this year against the outsourcing of staff directly employed by the university, and fighting for influence inside the National Union of Students (NUS) where it currently has four seats on the 25-strong National Executive Committee. Politically the group is quite broad, and was designed as such: its membership is made up of far left student groups, Labour Party members, feminists, liberals, independents, anti-fascists, and Scottish nationalists. In early 2013 NCAFC formalised its membership structures, meaning that it is possible to join the organisation for just £1 per year (this writer felt there was no choice but to join what is debatably the only significant force the student movement in Britain has today). We in the Communist Students decided that it would be best to treat the recent conference as an opportunity to test the water and get a taster of the political debates unfolding within the organisation, in particular, and the student movement more generally.
Fewer than one hundred people attended the conference. Those who did attend were undoubtedly buoyed by the fact BirminghamUniversity, the venue of our conference, was under occupation. This was in reaction to the management’s recent decision to scale back the increasingly unprofitable nursing course along with the national government’s recent announcement to sell off the student loan book. There was a hasty opening plenary session, with speeches from NUS NEC member Rosie Huzzard of the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Holly Lewenstein from Occupy Sussex. These consisted of back-patting, stating the organisation’s future aims (most noticeably setting up tenants’ unions), and making a demands wish-list. It was resolved that we would try to gain entrance to the occupation. In hindsight, marching across the university’s campus in one big group, in the broad daylight was probably not the most effective manner in which to go about sneaking into the occupation and thus the university’s security staff was well placed to deny us entry. Failing to join the occupiers, we decided to hold a miniature demonstration outside the university’s clock tower which sounded a lot more impressive than it actually was due to the acoustics of the clock tower and the semi-circle guild building magnifying our otherwise downbeat chants. After trotting out the pre-prepared slogans of “if Eastwood [the vice chancellor] earns a grand a day [Eastwood earns £420,000 per year] tell us why we have to pay” and “we want diversity in our universities, let them through the door, the rich and the poor” (my emphasis). We returned back to the chaplaincy and got stuck into the workshops. The most notable session I attended was entitled “How to support workers’ struggles on campus.” However, due to the main speaker not showing up the session was essentially a talking shop where individuals traded stories about the struggles they had been in. It was stressed that “sitting in a room and talking about theory” was ineffectual and that “action was more important than theory” in achieving change in society. Frustratingly, this undialectical and nonsensical separation of theory from practice is becoming increasingly popular in the student movement.
One can only assume that the advocacy of unthinking movementist, hyperactive approach to politics advocated by some comrades is due to them being previously burnt by, what they see as “ideologically pure” sects. To be fair to them: the sectarian mentality of the far left today is enough to make anyone hit their head against a brick wall out of exasperation. In light of this it is actually quite logical for comrades to want to keep theoretical discussions to a minimum, as they are of the opinion that discussions will cause division and division will inevitably cause splits (something they are trying to overcome not emulate). The answer is therefore self-evident; keep discussion to a minimum and action to a maximum. “Action is more important than discussion”. Yet all this “action” is carried out on the basis of some pre-existing theory of some sort, whether this is conscious or not. And the fact remains that simply relying on action will not do away with the problems faced by the small and fragmented groups that pass for the far left in modern Britain today. It is in the very nature of student ‘broad left’ fronts and campaigns that the need for revolutionary politics to re-orientate our forces is hardly discussed at all. .
Motions and plans
Thus the motions discussed at conference mainly revolved around NCAFC’s activity in the next year. Some constitutional amendments were proposed and a new national committee was also elected. It is fair to say NCAFC has a very busy year ahead of itself! The organisation has committed itself to a myriad of actions such as, “organising a day of action against ATOS”, setting up a “secure way that people can leak documents about universities”, as well as “approaching Greek students, including SYRIZA, and other socialist and anarchist groups to help organise a cross Europe conference in Greece.” This is said to “show solidarity with the struggles of the Greek working class against austerity” and “contribute to establishing a European wide workers’ response to the crisis, and fascist organisations”. In order to achieve this it is going to “organise a fundraiser for strike funds, legal costs, electricity reconnection, demonstration protection, and other important workers’ funds in Greece” and “bring a Greek left student activist over to the UK on a speaking tour”.
Members voted in favour of a motion mandating NCAFC members to “publicly challenge the Socialist Party about the Steve Hedley case in any forum or capacity that we work with them”. Steve Hedley, a prominent member of the Railway and Maritime Transport Union (RMT) and Socialist Party of England and Wales member (SPEW), was accused of domestic abuse earlier in the year. At the time of the accusation Hedley resigned from SPEW until his name was cleared, and in the end the case of domestic abuse was not proven. UCL Defend Education, the mover of the motion, were not satisfied with the way the RMT carried out the investigation (something which SPEW has absolutely no influence over), and argued that SPEW were too quick to re-embrace Steve, who has since spoken at a SPEW public forum. It goes without saying that comrades should challenge the bureaucratic centralist culture of groups such as the SWP, SPEW and, of course, the AWL. Yet we need to tackle cause of the problem: the anti-democratic nature of the current far left as a whole. Moreover, we must also seek to empower members of these groups with arguments around the need for democracy, encouraging them to fight bad methods within their groups, not simply “expose” all members of a particular organisation on the basis that one or a few of their members are alleged to have done. We need rational politics, argument and persuasion. As can be seen by recent anarchist attacks on Socialist Workers Party stalls, there is a real danger of an irrationalist backlash. Hannah Webb, for example, proposed an amendment to the motion calling for NCAFC not to “organise events with the Socialist Party or the Socialist Students” until they removed their “we will continue to work with Steve” statement from their website and “to continue to not organise with the miserable remains of the SWP or the SWSS groups (excluding the opposition)”. Presumably the SWP and SPEW are sexist, misogynistic, rape-denial organisations, as opposed to typically bureaucratic left organisations whose intolerant internal regimes throw up some awful phenomena in the name of defending that apparatus. Thankfully this terrible amendment was voted down on the grounds that to completely break with another organisation due to the actions of an individual in that organisation was ridiculous whilst the phrase “excluding the opposition” is intolerably vague.
Conference also passed a motion positively encouraging the new National Committee to “move towards running a candidate, or facilitating a candidacy, in the Sheffield Hallam constituency [The seat of Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg for the next General Election on the basis of free education and socialist politics”. Given the spectacular betrayal of their student voters by voting to raise tuition fees to £9,000 per year, NCAFC may be able to extract some political capital and national coverage by standing against Nick in 2015. It is important to remember, however, that the motion merely asks the National Committee to “move towards running a candidate.” It does not demand the NC to make concrete preparations to actually stand and given the fact the motion passed with a majority of one it is unlikely NCAFC will run a candidate against Clegg come 2015.
Space for communist ideas
NCAFC is certainly smaller in numbers than in the last couple of years. Moreover, most of the far left student groups, following some bitter factional fights, were not represented at all. However, especially with the recent wave of student protests against state intervention on campuses, it is important that this finds expression in organisation on campuses as much as possible.
Whilst NCAFC is no different from the far left’s ‘broad united fronts’ that populate the student left, it has been able to continue to exist and offer some organisational framework. Rather worryingly given its size, it also seems to be the largest, functioning left-wing activist group in the student movement. There is certainly a space for us to argue for what is needed: not broad ‘anti-capitalism’ and frontism, but a student movement that is based on, and inspired by, the politics of Marxism. That means a clear understanding on the nature of the capitalist state that is cracking down on our campuses, as well as a bold and principled alternative to that state. CS must intervene in NCAFC, and other similar organisations, thrown up in the coming period in a bid to do just that. Readers can find out more about the campaign at anticuts.com