Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/200/8457
NUS Left must build campaigning opposition
AT THE National Union of Students (NUS) annual conference last week, New Labour and their allies retained their grip on the leadership. However, the next year will probably prove New Labour's dominant position in the student movement very fragile.
The Left slate, United for Education, Free and Equal, won the position of Vice President - Further Education, on the national executive (NEC). However, they failed to win other full-time positions. This continued the trend of falling votes for Left candidates over the last three years.
Owain James, New Labour's favoured candidate, was re-elected with over 600 votes to 360 for Left-slate candidate Helen Aspell.
The NEC election results certainly don't reflect students' feelings in universities and colleges, where there's tremendous anger at New Labour's policies.
Unfortunately a section of conference delegates are far removed from the everyday realities of life for most students. New Labour relies on this layer of students union bureaucrats to support them and their policies at conference.
Often these bureaucrats place big obstacles in the way of ordinary students and socialist or free education activists who want to be conference delegates.
However, the Left groups that have controlled the Left slate in the NEC elections, mainly the Socialist Workers Party and Campaign for Free Education, must consider how the Left challenge to New Labour in NUS is organised.
Socialist Party members believe that the setback for the Left at conference shows the need to launch a permanent campaign aimed at winning the leadership of NUS. A broad campaign including the Left groups active in the student movement could more effectively mobilise students against New Labour.
Rather than just present students with a temporary electoral alliance at conference, it would be a fighting alternative all year round that campaigns on the ground against the government's attacks.
Such a campaign could attract rapidly increasing support. A recession will have a dramatic effect on students' outlook. Students will see the hard reality of what thousands of pounds of debt and a diminishing job market means.
A recession, alongside further attacks, possibly increased tuition fees, will bring many more students into collision with New Labour. Students fighting New Labour in government won't tolerate that same party's mis-leadership in NUS indefinitely.
A broad campaign amongst the Left in NUS, organised democratically, could help direct the movement along lines capable of unseating New Labour.
The potential for such an opposition was shown by the interest ordinary students showed in the Socialist Party and Socialist Students.
In part this was due to our conference delegates' impact, including excellent speeches by Zena Awad and Paul Hunt, Save Free Education candidates for the part-time executive, calling for a fighting NUS prepared to build a strategy of mass non-payment of tuition fees.
Socialist Party members also put the case for a fighting socialist alternative to New Labour in NUS and in society as a whole.
In The Socialist 6 April 2001: