Open letter: Grave concerns over NCAFC 4 June conference

This is a discussion piece by a number of NCAFC activists on the June 4th Conference in Birmingham. As such, it does not necessarily represent the views of the NCAFC. Alternative views are available in the comments below it.

 

We have grave concerns about the recent Ncafc conference – both how it was organised and the outcome of the conference, which imposed a new set of structures that undermine the unity and inclusivity of the national organisation.

 

The conference was called with less than four week’s notice and was not brought as a proposal to the existing open-steering structure but simply presented as something that was ‘happening’.

Initially it was defined as an ‘activist meet-up’, but the conference effectively over-turned the decisions of two previous larger conferences, which had agreed to work with an open-steering group structure and use the e-group to discuss ideas and plan action.

Part of Ncafc’s strength in the student movement is that it united a broad range of forces from the student left. But this conference was the initiative of only one group, Workers’ Liberty students, who did not discuss their plans with other groups and activists in the organisation before going ahead and organising it.

For example, AWL activists were at a London Ncafc meeting with thirty other activists two days before they announced the conference and remarkably they did not even raise it as a proposal to that meeting.

The conference came when many students still had exams, directly clashed with the Cairo conference which a number of activists attended, and was the smallest Ncafc had ever organised – with around 70 people in attendance and around 20 of these being Workers’ Liberty members.

The vote to establish a structure was 42 in favour and 15 against – this is not a strong democratic mandate for a new leadership given that previous conferences had around 90 people (January 2010) and over 200 (February 2009) at the organisation’s foundation.

The steering committee structure only represents 9 universities, which is very few given the dozens of uni anti-cuts groups nationally. And under the new constitution, though anti-cuts groups can send representatives to the new leadership meetings those activists would not be able to vote – de facto cutting them out of Ncafc’s decision making. Predictably, about a third of the new leadership are members of Workers’ Liberty.

At the conference itself alterations to amendments were not even allowed to be taken from the floor – which not only polarised the debate and made attempts to achieve a consensus impossible, but reproduced the undemocratic practice of an NUS conference. Similarly, amendments were not allowed to be put forward in light of a discussion – but only if they had been formally submitted prior to the lunch break.

This is not in the spirit of how Ncafc has organised in the past.

Far from uniting a broad range of forces, the steering committee set up is exclusive and a step backwards from the broad and united student movement that Ncafc has been at the forefront of trying to develop through initiatives like the Student and Education Assemblies.

The skewed attendance that flowed from how the conference was organised (short notice, etc) meant that even key activists were not elected to the new leadership.

We are in favour of bringing new people into the movement, but many activists who had done a lot of work for Ncafc were not able to attend the conference and participate in a debate and decision that considerably changed the direction of the organisation.

The meeting was not only undemocratic but also a missed opportunity.

It could have drawn up action points relating to the strikes on 30 June or developed a plan of action for the autumn, but it did neither. Instead it focused on a divisive argument over structures – with an inevitably divisive outcome, which has badly undermined Ncafc’s claim to be a broad, inclusive and united student campaigning organisation.

Ncafc achieved a lot in the student movement – far from being a London-centric clique as Workers’ Liberty claimed, it played a leading role in developing hundreds-strong student assemblies to organise action democratically. This sectarian manoeuvre undermines our good record.

While only some of us were present at the conference, as activists in the movement we all share grave concerns about what its outcome means for the future unity of the student left.

Signed –

Patrizia Kokot, LSE

Ashok Kumar, LSESU Education Officer

Luke Cooper, University of Sussex

Simon Hardy, spokeperson NCAFC

Joana Pinto, Press Officer, NCAFC

Sean Rillo Raczka, Chair Birkbeck Student Union, Vice-President Elect University of London Union

Comments

  1. Letter from Claire Locke, London Met SU

    Writing a letter about a conference that I never attended is rather strange, but considering the circumstances I feel it is necessary particularly as I was elected to the national steering committee without standing for election.

    To my knowledge the process of which the conference was called caused controversy amongst the political parties within the NCAFC. After reading an extensive email chain it was clear that there where differing opinions on, not only the process of which the conference was called, but the actual aims of the conference.

    London Met sent four delegates to the Birmingham conference. I was approached about standing for a position on the steering committee and responded by saying I would consider it. I decided it would be better for one of the London Met delegates to stand rather than myself as we have a new wave of activists from the recent occupation who would do a fantastic job at representing students on the national steering committee.

    On Monday 6th June I received congratulations for being elected via Facebook from one of my comrades in Wales. Obviously I was in complete shock at being elected and began investigating how this came about. I called Ed Maltby as he is my main contact in the NCAFC. Ed told me that I was nominated by Jade Baker and he had not been in the room whilst this had happened. As I was clearly in shock Ed enquired if this was a problem, as it was Jade who had nominated me I did not have a problem because I respect Jade as a fellow activist. Ed gave me Jades phone number and said I should phone Jade if I wanted more information, this I did not do as Jade sent me a message later that day.

    Bizarre as these circumstances were, I accepted the outcome of the conference, however, I did have reservations about why some of the key activists such as Joanna Pinto, Michael Chessum, Simon Hardy, et al were not elected onto the committee. Not having theses activists on the committee seemed counter productive given their role in organising the mass student demonstrations. In fact I would go as far as to say that these activists have more right to sit on the committee than myself elected or otherwise.

    After reading the statements circulated today (8th June) it has become clear why certain people did not even stand for election. I am not a member of any political party, I find this utter sectarian bullshit extremely damaging to the wider student movement (and very off-putting for non-aligned activists like myself). One of the things the NCAFC has done extremely well over the past year is to unite students from all over the country to build a historic movement and fight our united cause. Every member of the NCAFC should be very proud.

    I have deep concerns over what is going on here in terms of process, outcome and future implications. I feel that had the process of which the NCAFC uses to call a meeting or conference been respected I would not be writing this letter and you would not be sitting there reading it. The outcome I feel was not representative of the NCAFC as all students did not feel able to stand for election because of controversy over legitimacy. The future implications of not respecting democratic processes and thus causing controversy over legitimacy could a) cause NCAFC to split or cease to exist b) put off future activists from ‘reinvigorating’ NCAFC, and/or c) cause existing activists to lose confidence in a well respected, successful organisation.

    There is a fourth potential outcome: that the NCAFC ‘reinvigoration’ conference steering committee members now recognise that this is a serious mistake, and that it has potentially split the movement, I therefore urge them to make a genuine attempt at rectifying this error. These divisive tactical manoeuvres must end: and it’s not too late to rebuild trust.

    I very much hope those steering committee members will see this letter in the positive way it is intended and that there can be a constructive outcome .

    I am therefore standing down from the steering committee: unless and until the NCAFC addresses the concerns above, I cannot sit on a such a body where I question my own legitimacy to be there.

    Claire Locke, London Met Students’ Union President Elect

  2. James McAsh says:

    I am very new to the internal workings of NCAFC and have to say that my first impression of the organisation is pretty terrible. This fight is absolutely ridiculous: the time and energy that we’re wasting on it could be much better spent elsewhere and from it should be. I am an activist from Edinburgh, where neither of the two factions has any presence, and cannot believe that such a petty fight could threaten the organisation in such a profound way. I am by no means saying that there is no substance to the dispute; there are clearly some significant issues here which we need to address. As far as I can see there are three problems:

    1) There is controversy over whether the structure of the national committee is democratic, and whether an open steering committee would be preferable. Further to this there are suggestions that the AWL rigged the conference to maximise their power.

    I am fully in favour of having an elected national committee. In Edinburgh our anti-cuts groups operates as a fully open and non-hierarchical group. This has some problems but overall is very effective. This works because we are all based in Edinburgh and many of us study on the same campus. For most of us it costs nothing to attend the meetings and travel-time is negligible so this isn’t much of a barrier either. However, neither of these apply to NCAFC.

    Were we to have an open steering committee with sovereign authority our committee meetings would probably be bigger but they certainly wouldn’t be more representative. There would be a huge bias in favour of where the meeting was held (like there was a Birmingham bias on Saturday) and groups from further away would only be able to send people if they were able to afford it. This would create a further bias in favour of organisations which have more money (my anti-cuts group has no money whatsoever, but I presume that groups like AWL and WP might).

    The original proposal for a national committee (from AWL I think) allowed individual affiliated organisations to send delegates too. I thought that this would create the same problems as an open steering committee would so I took it to my local group and we proposed the amendment to make affiliated organisations non-voting members. To counterbalance this, we proposed that regional groups can self-organise and send a voting member to the committee.

    We also had concerns that the committee would be overrun by the AWL so we proposed the amendment to state that elections should be conducted under STV. This effectively ensures that no one faction can get a majority of the committee and should therefore guarantee a diverse committee. The elected National Committee is indeed representative. It’s a shame that there is no one from WP on it but I am fairly certain that if they had stood some people (particularly females) they would have won a few seats.

    I stand by the amendments that I, with the Edinburgh group, submitted to the conference. And for what it’s worth, when I initially suggested them to an AWL member I was told that they were ‘unworkable’. This was hardly an AWL coup. If anything it was an Edinburgh-led coup.

    2) There are some highly proficient and key members of NCAFC who were not elected to the NC.

    This is a problem but not unworkable. Firstly, I can see no reason why these people cannot continue to be active members of the organisation without being a voting member on the NC. I would be very disappointed if none of them come to the NC meetings as I for sure would appreciate having people around who have greater experience of the campaign. Furthermore, positions such as ‘treasurer’ and ‘webmaster’ are appointed by the committee. I would prefer that some of these positions are filled with the most competent people, regardless of whether they are on the NC.

    Second, the structures proposed allow for 3 different routes to the NC. The first is the 14 elected through the national conference. This seems to be the only one that anyone has focused on. The second is through regional conferences: at least one more London comrade will presumably be elected onto the committee this way. The third is the liberation campaigns, I don’t know to what extent that these exist currently but they are another route to the NC and an important reminder of the need to broaden the campaign.

    Third, there will be another national conference in autumn. If people are unhappy about some of the people on the NC then come October/November you can elect different people. The organisation will still exist and the fight will still be on-going. Four months isn’t a very long time.

    3) The calling of the conference was problematic.

    The conference should not have been on the same day as the Cairo conference, and should have been organised much longer in advance. I wasn’t involved in the conference’s organisation so have no idea why this happened. Next conference will be organised well in advance by a much more diverse group of people than the last, and it will hopefully be much bigger and more representative than any before. However, I don’t think it needs be approved by the London group first (nor indeed the Scottish group).

  3. From Ed Bauer, Birmingham Uni VP Education-elect and new committee member

    We should give some recognition that the conference was not perfect, the conference should have had more in attendance, and it should have been called with more warning.

    This new committee which I sit on, should not be long lived… it can work over the summer to carry on NCAFCs role while students are away… the committee shouldn’t forget this is only the start of building a truly democratic and truly national movement. I believe, the committees most immediate goal in should be with the rest of NCAFC and local anti cuts groups to build a massive conference next term called well in advance with elections well advertised. I believe strongly that the current committee should not sit for all next year or even all next term. Organizing another conference is already on the agenda for the committee’s first meeting this Tuesday.

    So watch this space! this next conference will be done well. Because, whatever has gone before and whatever the beef between these Trotskyite groups we now have a NCAFC committee elected largely of independents, that seeks a strong democratic national movement to take on the government.

    I don’t think the two main allegations however being levelled about the conference stand up to much.

    Some of the allegations are directed against AWL activists who are accused of acting in bad faith. I believe they have acted in good faith. I don’t think the conference was called by the AWL to take power for a few reasons. For one, why would the AWL chose Birmingham if they wanted to take power? I explained to the NCAFC activists who called me to see if Birmingham could host the conference that Birmingham groups was fiercely anti trotskyist, didn’t have, didn’t want structures and with the exception of me and two other Birmingham activists, they voted against the structures. The AWL membership in west midlands amounts to Zero, if AWL wanted to pack out NCAFC meetings and take it over then Birmingham would be the worse choice for this.

    The fact is that for the AWL, Birmingham was not a good choice for them. This can be seen manifested in the elections. For example there was clearly a massive bias towards the local group, myself and the other Birmingham candidates taking a full quarter of the vote.
    See http://www.facebook.com/notes/james-mcash/ncafc-national-committee-election-results/10150210121313426

    This is not democratic although, ironically this is what worker powers are arguing for, repeated open national assemblies to decide policy. Nice in theory but, practically impossible, as no one can afford the time and money to travel across the country repeatedly. If NCAFC were to run like this every meeting would find itself with a bias towards the richest students and whichever local group is the host the assembly.

    I believe the AWL activist who organised the conference acted in good faith; the arguments for a committee are compelling and strong. I don’t believe they were after power because, they held it in a city in which they had no activists and that had the best access for activists across the country.

    I don’t think there is problem with NCAFC currently because, if the AWL were in fact trying to “Hijack” NCAFC in these elections then they failed to do so. The AWL “Hijack”, real or imaginary clearly didn’t work, they didn’t get a majority on the committee, so if this was a “Hijack” it was piss poorly planned.

    As of the second problem of the committee members, I’m upset as well that some really key activists didn’t get elected… but, I’m pleased new faces are appearing and stepping forward. Additionally, the regional structures should hopefully soon ensure that key people find committee places.

    At least this incident shows there is healthy fear of the movement being hijacked the left seems well aware of these risks and is determined to avoid it. If it did ever happen to NCAFC clearly it would destroy the organization as the majority of activists would immediately leave it.

    Best

    Edd

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