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National Union of Students conference
Build A Campaigning NUS
THE 21ST century has seen a new generation of students become radicalised. First in the anti-capitalist movement and then on a far larger scale, in the anti-war movement, it has been young people - predominately school, college and university students - who have taken to the streets.
These movements have shaken governments. Yet, here in Britain, the one organisation that almost every student activist belongs to, the National Union of Students (NUS), has remained relatively unchanged by student radicalisation.
Last month, massive public opposition to student top-up fees forced an unprecedented number of Labour MPs to vote against the government, yet the NUS leadership did nothing to tap the potential for a movement against fees.
The result was a few hundred students lobbying parliament, when the possibility existed for a demonstration of at least tens of thousands, which might well have changed the course of the parliamentary vote.
When a demo was proposed on the NUS executive, the right-wing leadership opposed it claiming that "the debate will be won on the floor of the House of Commons, not on the streets of London".
This is not surprising given that NUS is led by Blairite Labour students, who see the NUS as a springboard for their careers as Labour politicians - like Charles Clarke and Jack Straw before them. The task for socialists is to defeat the careerists and transform the NUS into a democratic, campaigning organisation that fights in the interests of students.
The majority of student political and campaigning activity, including that organised by Socialist Students, currently takes place entirely outside the formal structures of NUS. The national leadership of NUS, and in many cases the local leadership, are utterly hopeless, so it doesn't occur to many students wanting to fight against tuition fees, low pay or the occupation of Iraq, that NUS is an organisation they should go to for help.
Socialist Students understands this and is opposed to students relying solely on the official NUS structures to organise a fightback on any issue. On the contrary, we have a long record of organising campaigns on campuses.
However, one strand of our campaigning work is fighting to transform the NUS. After all, NUS organises five million students, and, if it was led by genuine campaigners not careerist bureaucrats, would be an enormously powerful force - particularly if it were to link up with workers in the education sector.
Shift to the left?
IN THE wake of the biggest anti-war movement in history, last year's NUS conference did shift to the left. The right to free education, abandoned by the NUS in 1996, was reinstated as policy. And the Labour Students President of NUS, Mandy Telford, came the closest an incumbent has ever come to losing the Presidency, clinging on by only three votes.
It remains to be seen whether the candidate who came closest to unseating her, Kat Fletcher of the Campaign for Free Education, will be able to beat this year's New Labour candidate - Rami Okasha. Last year Kat Fletcher headed up a single left list. This year, there are two left candidates for President - Tom Whittaker of the Socialist Workers' Student Society (SWSS) and Kat Fletcher.
This is a reflection of the nature of the left in NUS. Socialist Students has consistently argued that the left in NUS needs to call, and build for, a democratic conference - open to all students who want to fight for free education - to discuss the strategy to win free education, including the strategy to transform NUS.
Unfortunately, this has never been done. Instead the left's coordination has remained at the level of closed, unrepresentative meetings, to haggle about who will stand for which position at this year's conference.
A genuine, democratic student left would need, in order to be effective, to do far more than organise for NUS conference. It would have to demonstrate in practise what is possible to the tens of thousands of students who have already been radicalised, and to the many more who would be inspired by seeing a serious struggle for free education.
Only then will it be possible to convince students to join a serious fight to transform NUS. Wherever we organise Socialist Students is beginning to do just that.
At the same time as arguing the case for socialism to students, we have organised strike action against the war, and demonstrations and occupations against top up fees, privatisation and low pay. Join us.
Socialist Students campaign for a free and fully funded education system. We oppose tuition fees and top-up fees and campaign for the restoration of a living grant.
Socialist Students believes that education should be run in the interests of society as a whole, not for the profit of a few. We fight for a democratic socialist society to replace capitalism.
Join Socialist Students, write to PO Box 858, London E11 1YG.
020 8558 7947 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In The Socialist 27 March 2004:
Marxist analysis: history
International socialist news and analysis