Reinvigorating the Student Movement
Last Saturday the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) held a ‘reinvigoration conference’ at Birmingham university to debate its future direction and the need for an elected steering committee. For those who don’t know already the NCAFC was founded almost two years ago, but probably came to most people’s attention during the student protests towards the end of last year. Along with the Education Activist Network (EAN), NCAFC was instrumental in calling the demonstrations the NUS was unwilling or incapable of properly organising and though fees seem to be about to increase dramatically in England, those protests, occupations and resistance were almost certainly influential in ensuring every party, bar the Tories, went into the Scottish Parliament election in May pledging not to re-introduce fees.
Over the next year, and further ahead, we are going to see the imposition of those fees, strike action from the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), departments cutting courses, firing staff and closing entirely across the country, and attempts to fully privatise our education. A united and strong left campaign that brings together all those who believe education is a public good is going to be absolutely essential. It was heartening, therefore, to see a wide variety of political groups at conference: the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), Workers’ Power, Student Broad Left (SBL), Counterfire, Green Parties (both Scottish and England and Welsh), Socialist Party (SP), Labour Representation Committee (LRC), People & Planet, anarchists and other independent socialists. There was a reasonable geographical spread too, with all the devolved nations represented. It was a little disappointing, however, to see no Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) members there. One of the most pleasing aspects of our movement over the last six months has been the lack of sectarianism, and I hope that whether or not the SWP choose to get involved with NCAFC — and I hope they do — we can continue to work together against our real enemies. We’re never going to agree on everything, but we’re all anti-cuts, pro-public services, and want to build a more democratic, more sustainable and more equitable economy.
Until now the NCAFC has been organised by open meetings with no formal leadership or committee and,due to those meeting happening there, been dominated extensively by activists from London and the South East. Those of us in Scotland, for example, have had no real opportunity to influence the direction of the ostensibly national campaign. Some at conference thought this should basically continue, meetings should move around the country, but remain open to anyone who wanted to attend. Others thought an elected national committee would be more representative and democratic. I side with that latter camp. Open meetings are great if anyone really can attend, but there’s more needed for that than just a right. Transporting people all over the country on a regular basis would cost hundreds of pounds, money that could be better spent actually fighting cuts and building a national demonstration than organising our own internal meetings.
The proposal we adopted for an elected national committee elected by STV and with guaranteed gender balance (at least 5 of the 14 nationally elected block must be self-defining female), plus self-organised regional committees and liberation caucuses, ensures a degree of continuity while also allowing a spread of geographical representation and preventing any one faction from dominating the campaign.
The election itself was, however, somewhat less than ideal. By the time we had agreed a structure people had almost to leave. That left us with just half an hour for nominations, hustings and voting. We also didn’t have software to hand for STV and had to resort to an online calculator with a very poor interface which took a long time to enter the data (this is why you never admit to knowing how electoral systems work).
Fortunately, five women were elected normally, so there was no need to use the gender balancing mechanism and, though still far from proportional, we have some geographic diversity with 7 London, 1 Edinburgh, 1 Aberdeen, 1 Liverpool, 1 Northern Ireland and 3 Birmingham activists elected. Unfortunately Workers’ Power, disagreeing with the process by which the conference was called and the committee agreed, boycotted the election; despite that, however, we have AWL, SBL, Green and self-defined libertarian communists on the committee, so no faction should be too dominant. Bizarrely, NUS NEC member and NCAFC founder Michael Chessum didn’t make it onto the committee, but hopefully he can still get a place through the London regional committee.
Going forward, regional conferences and liberation caucuses will have to be set up. There is already a London committee and a women’s causus. There is also the Northern Ireland Student Assembly (NISA) and we’re in the process of forming the Scottish Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. It remains to be seen how those two regional bodies will formally relate to NCAFC, but I hope that whether they also affiliate to EAN, or any other UK wide body, they can work with NCAFC.
The constitution was approved by a relatively small conference of people (around 90) and can undoubtedly be improved. There should be another conference in the Autumn, prior to any national demonstration, to evaluate our structures and make improvements. New elections should be held then and regularly thereafter, maybe 3-4 times per year.
On June 30th we will see the biggest coordinated strike action in this country in years. It’s a opportunity for us to connect the struggle of workers with that of the student movement and NCAFC will be working to build solidarity action and support over the next few weeks. We need to work with school students to support the NUT action and walkouts from pupils.
We agreed to protests at party conferences this Autumn, including Labour. There was unanimous (I think) support for demonstrating at governing party conferences (including the SNP and Welsh Labour) and most activists were in favour of a demonstration at the UK Labour conference too. Despite the membership of some very good people and their connection to the labour movement, Labour are passing on cuts on councils across the country and support cuts nationally. They cannot be absolved of their complicity. There will, though, be no single line or message for Labour conference, some will want to lobby them to oppose cuts, some to protest the whole system; it is best not to try to force a single message, we need to campaign together where we agree and accept we will have differences in our preferred tactics.
There will be a national demonstration in Autumn. We need to try to persuade NUS to support that demonstration, but we will take the lead and move forward with or without their support. When that happens we need to broaden our message, against all cuts and in solidarity with the broader trade union movement; we can’t just fight the same battle as last year, but neither should we accept that the fight over fees is lost. La lutte continue.
Finally, we need to organise for NUS conference next year. We need delegates elected across the country and need to make a much better job at reaching out and including FE. We need to decide whether to target specific positions on the NEC and if so which ones. I think it’s better to focus on winning one or two sabbs than spreading ourselves too thin. We may not be able to realistically challenge for president. Liam will be hard, if not impossible, to beat mid-term, but if we can win at least one VP position we will be in a much better position to build for the year after.