NUS: Left in the basement
Communist Students were stirring things up at this year’s conference of the National Union of Students
Members and supporters of Communist Students made a stand for principled Marxist politics at the 2014 conference of the National Union of Students, where CS member Robert Hayes was standing for the ‘block of 15’ individually elected members of the executive.
The setting of this year’s conference was appropriate for an organisation increasingly dominated by bureaucracy and corporate favouritism. A hyper-modern conference centre – with PC access helpfully provided by EON – perched on the edge of Liverpool’s windswept Kings Dock. Delegates hoping for somewhere to grab a cheap lunch must have been disappointed: overpriced chains and the Tate Modern were all that lay in close proximity. But at least your artistic hunger could be satisfied.
Conference itself was on the top floor of the building; awkward political and campaign stalls had been relegated to the basement, and it would have been quite possible to attend conference without even realising they were there. The escalator descending to the basement was tucked away, with no indication there was anything worth visiting in the nether regions. Indeed, hardly anyone – other than those running, or more accurately guarding, the stalls – was descending to have a peek. CS and the National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts (dominated by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) were the only left groups to have stalls inside the venue, and had been placed right at the end of an L-shaped corridor around an overpriced coffee stand.
To add insult to injury, we were charged 200 smackers for the privilege of weighing down a table with our materials. Not content with prostituting itself to various corporate advertisers, the NUS bureaucracy is milking campaigners for all they are worth. The Socialist Workers Party stall was outside the venue, and had rather unfortunately been cordoned off behind metal fencing. This gave rise to a few arch comments about the situation mirroring the political ostracism of the SWP by some elements of the left in the NUS. Also unfortunately, this conference saw another attack on an SWP stall by politically degenerate anarchists (see below).
Members – and some rather more creaky supporters – of Communist Students made the best of a bad situation by flyering delegates as they entered and exited the venue. Our smart leaflet contained the manifesto of CSer Robert Hayes, who stood for the block of 15 on openly Marxist politics.1This was picked up by most delegates other than confirmed rightists, though fewer people stopped for a chat than in previous years. Rob did not win a seat (full results will be available on the NUS website shortly), but did give an excellent speech to conference, and certainly showed what a principled Marxist approach to student politics looks like.2Many of NCAFC’s candidates did not even declare their affiliation in their election statements, when even Labour Students and the Young Greens managed to do so. The perspective of a mass student movement based on the politics of Marxism may not immediately gain a large following, but poses a far more realistic strategy for radical change in the NUS and wider society than that of getting a few left union officers elected into an increasingly desiccated student’s union.
That said, NUS is hardly immune from broader changes in the political climate, and particularly in the Labour Party. Conference did vote in favour of nationalising the banks, and to fight for free education – the latter for the first time in 10 years. And, the need for political openness notwithstanding, it is good that NCAFC’s Daniel Cooper was elected to the block of 15. The National Organisation of Labour Students, which usually dominates NUS politics with little effort, did not put in a good showing, gaining only three places on the block – the same number as the Young Greens. Their candidate for NUS president, Toni Pearce, did win overwhelmingly, with 454 votes. The Socialist Action/Broad Left candidate, Aaron Kiely, won the support of 150 delegates, and Dan Cooper received a respectable 90 votes. Finally a UK Independence Party candidate, Jack Duffin, received a real drubbing with a miserly 18 votes.
Fringe meetings organised by the SWP and the Marxist Student Federation (Socialist Appeal’s youth group) clashed with each other (for more on the SWP’s session on Ukip, see below). The MSF fringe, on ‘The capitalist crisis and education’, was poorly attended as a result, though it did not seem like the comrades had publicised it all that much either – we only discovered it was taking place a few minutes beforehand. The speaker, from Sheffield University, gave a rousing speech on the effects and causes of capitalist crises. In terms of a strategy for getting to socialism, however, the Appeal comrades were all about nationalisation by a left Labour government. In fairness, they do seem to be starting to take democratic demands more seriously, as in their motion to last year’s conference of the Labour Representation Committee arguing for abolishing the House of Lords. The political honesty, and emphasis on study and discussion of Marxism, are also promising aspects of MSF.
Student politics is prone to swift ups and downs, as particular issues kick off struggle and involve new people, only for those activists to leave education. Despite the ongoing crisis of capitalism, the far left is not growing in popularity. Not all that surprising, considering that many left groups feature bureaucratic-centralist regimes which alienate young people, and the lack of an inspirational strategy for overcoming this inhuman system.
Communist Students is, of course, swimming in the same small pond as the other left groups. But we did receive interest from a few delegates – if you were one of them, expect us to be in touch soon! Or if you missed us at conference, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Read the manifesto here: http://communiststudents.org.uk/?p=10111.
2. Rob’s speech is available on the CS website:http://communiststudents.org.uk/?p=10273.