Blog post @ Volume 3, published 24 November 2012
I was flabbergasted at reading Counterfire’s article about this week’s student demonstration. There were all kinds of levels of wrong with Katherine Connelly’s analysis. From her depiction of the Left’s response to the NUS’ slogans and route, to her drip conclusions of what the student movement should be doing, I found myself continuously hoping that this activist has either been force-fed some lines to reproduce as an article, or simply been in student politics for too little time to know better.
Don’t get me wrong, I am pretty sure there are a whole lot of other people out there (within and outside of Counterfire remits) that would come up with similar reformist nonsense as “Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself” and
“On the day of the demo a group of left wing students tried to persuade, and then physically force, people not to follow the official route but to stay in front of parliament. This led to a split of around one thousand.”
But those kind of apologisms, I would suggest, are exactly what is getting in the way of a truly radical, grassroots student movement. It is this fetishism with the NUS as the representative structure of the student body that needs to be addressed, and that indeed has once been almost eradicated amongst the left-wing of the student movement (if you were around in 2010/2011 you know it, too). It is a shame to see it back in full force, particularly at this stage, when it seems that we still don’t have a lot going on for ourselves as revolutionaries when it comes to our appeal to the – judging by the audience’s positive reactions to Owen Jones in BBC Question Time a few days ago – clearly angry masses.
And before I go on, let me make a personal comment on the NUS and my own involvement with in a time not so far ago.
This is the “Mea Culpa” moment in which I dare to say in public forum that running for a position within the NUS was, politically and possibly in general, the main thing I regret having done in my life. By this I don’t mean to criticize the comrades who run with me on that slate, nor to slander the many great left-wing activists who have through time done the same as I did last year. However, putting myself forward to be elected for such a highly bureaucratic, often corrupt, and definitely unrepresentative organisation was totally contradicting my personal politics. To the extend that, the organisation on which my political credentials were premised in the run for the place of NUS’ VP Union Development – the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts – was initiated in a conference, that I opened with the line:
“The NUS serves as a tool for the Government (…) we are here to fight back, and we are willing to do so as well.”
So, why did I do it, you are probably asking. It was a mix of pride and naivety, added to a little bit of peer pressure and the then-recent disappointment of seeing the student movement collapse. It was most of all my own weakness and ill-judgement, and, whilst I still believe that the political arguments I had on why I was a better candidate than others (both prior and during Conference) were principled and factually correct, I can now admit that it was with a sigh of relief that I received the news of my defeat. I am sure some will probably read this and denounce me as a hypocrite. I believe I was not, rather that I temporarily wanted to believe that the National Union of Students was a useful tool to save our educational system, but I will bear such accusations as a cross for my mistake. Good revolutionaries face their errors and so will I.
But enough about me and back to the response to Counterfire’s article.
The misguided analysis
Connelly argues that the actions of “some left groups” were divisive and gave the impression that the Left is “eating itself up”. Whilst I don’t have an issue with criticisms to throwing eggs and satsumas at Liam Burns, president of the NUS, I am appalled that anyone on the Left would rather have us all march down to far-far-away rally-land (in this case Kennington, where, since the Chartists, no political symbolism can be seen) than face the police and its barriers, which are literally as well as metaphorically blocking students from “threaten[ing] the main enemy in Whitehall”.
I am particularly amused with the irony behind a member of Counterfire suggesting “[the] student movement must turn its back on sectarian infighting” when I have not, in a long time, seen any CF students being active in NCAFC meetings or events, save for Stef Newton, who has in the meantime joined the SWP.
And most of all, I am just, like, nuked, by this person’s idea that
“Anyone who was around will recall that it was the NUS-called march in 2010 that kicked off the mass opposition to fees in the first place, and that this was the biggest student demo in years.”
OMFG! Do not get me on a rant here woman! Not only was the NUS-called march of the 10 November 2010 only meaningful because of a certain “incident” at the Millbank Tower – which NUS structures (not just then president, Aaron Porter) quickly rushed to condemn – but also the mass opposition to fees that indeed ensued would have never truly kicked off were it not for the fact that the NCAFC and other student organisations had ingeniously thought of calling for national walk-outs for a few days after the NUS demo.
It is not just that “the national NUS is not providing adequate leadership for students”, the NUS is not providing any leadership at all! If we set NUS liberation groups aside for a moment (and even those have their fair share of improvement needed, as far as I am aware), the NUS has done pretty much zilch for students in Britain. It is a lobbying tool as tokenistic as the Leveson inquiry, and it shows only what needs not be done, rather than the opposite.
It is true that the NUS system can “reach out and mobilise an array of students from institutions that don’t have a left to speak of, with leaders that don’t consider themselves even left wing”, as my dear comrade Luke Cooper put it. But, the truth is that a good 90% of those students and those sabbatical officers will never, ever, come to a left-called demonstration, even in times of greatest anger. They are liberal parasites that come into demonstrations as some sort of filler provided by the NUS, which make us think that by following said NUS we, the Left, can recruit/mobilise/radicalise the rugby team from York University and the debating society at Aberystwyth*.
‘Smashing the NUS’
Look, you cannot fight fire with fire, so the idea that you will alienate already alienated students by pelting the NUS is rather farfetched. It is true that some sabbatical officers out there have been doing some sterling work (Maev McDaid, Michael Chessum, James McCash, to name but a few), but these are more often than not the ones that are, particularly now, proposing a break with the all-mighty NUS. If anything, these are the times we need to turn to all those students who have been involved in some, perhaps peripheral, perhaps soft, left-wing politics – of the more Marxist and of the more anarchist type – and who have never given a toss about the NUS, and engage with them in building an organisation that does defend free, comprehensive, public education. I am of the opinion that this is both a larger and a far more useful group than the one shepherd by the NUS into busses to London every 24 months or so.
I don’t think we should altogether ignore the NUS and leave it be, far away in lala-land, shunning its demonstrations and assaulting anyone who might ever speak its name. In fact, I would even go to the point of arguing that any comrade who wishes to go to the annual NUS conference should go and have a ball (they can be entertaining things, those conferences, as long as you are not on stage and/or genuinely want to be there). IMHO it’s all bound the the age-old axiom: With them when possible, without them if necessary. If the NUS calls for a demo, we will be there, Free Education feeder et al. If they don’t then we must.
So what is the alternative
Listen, of course we cannot just merely call for a random annual march as some kind of two-fingers to the government, “here you have it mister PM, we still don’t agree with £9k fees”. I wish the NCAFC or any other left-wing student network would have the strength to do so and, presto, here’s the revolution! No, we need to keep building from the base, from the grassroots, probably focusing on local issues primarily, joining forces at national level and so on.
Is there an organisation out there that can substitute the NUS?
Alas, I would personally have to say, no.
As one of the co-founders of the NCAFC I have put a lot of my hopes in it, and in some respects it has been very successful in what it set itself to do. However, I feel that what the NCAFC has recently been aiming to become is – what Michael Chessum often called “the unfortunately acronym-ed ANUS” – the Alternative NUS. Now, as highlighted in this article, I don’t think that the NUS and its structures are a healthy model to follow. I also don’t think that the NCAFC is fully an ANUS just yet (pun intended), but it often dangerously sits on the verge of turning into one. Hence, albeit leaving the proviso that I have not been working with the NCAFC as I once have and might thus be missing out on some vital information about internal political disputes and reforms that would refute the later claim, I do not believe the NCAFC is what we need.
I got involved with the project of a National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts because, as the ad hoc leader of an anti-cuts group at my university, I wanted to see a national network of student activists, that would share their skills and learn from each other’s experiences in the local groups. I still want to see that happening, without it turning into some centralised, bureaucratised body. I want to see a network of people that is democratic and open to, nay buttressed by, the opinions of all students set on fighting the privatisation and commodification of our education.
No leadership structures would be necessary, aside from a possible editorial team for the website, which would be elected at conference and always recallable. It would comply to a set of principles (e.g.: anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, etc) set by national conference also. Each local group (e.g.: SOAS Anti-cuts) would have its own autonomy and would be linked to the “wider body” as far as equally complying to the mentioned set of principles. The remit and politics of these principles, or constitution, should be proposed by and voted in national conference, whilst hopefully previously discusses locally and even maybe regionally. Yes, you know it, imagine student soviet of sorts. We did it so well during the absolutely amazing London Student Assemblies, why can we not do it now, across the country?
I believe we can and we should start now to build such a network. And, rejoice!, I don’t think I am wrong in saying that many of the basis of this project are already there, awaiting our action.
Connelly is right when she writes that we need to “organise rallies and meetings in the colleges” and “a broad, united movement that is linked to the millions of others who are suffering from this government’s policies”. But neither are possible if we still give gravitas to an institution that condemns and sometimes even supports the sanctioning of these very actions!
Accusing the protectors of the status quo (and throwing them a satsuma) is not a crime, suggesting we stop naming and shaming them is, at least, a honeytrap. Radical actions taken by the Book Block are not discouraging students – schlepping your wet feet all the way to Kennington Park under reformist, totally insidious slogans, now that I am 101% sure is!
Dear comrade from Counterfire who I do not know, you want to build an united, non-sectarian student Left? Great! So do I! Just don’t come shouting out that staying near Parliament, confronting the police, and calling for a general strike is “disastrous” – makes you sound like a scab and a conformist, which I am sure you are not.
Please forget the NUS and let us make the revolution!
* My sincere apologies to any lefties that might be at either of these societies. These were examples used merely for literary purposes.