This is a report written by a member of the NCAFC, Daniel Lemberger Cooper, who also sits on the National Executive of the National Union of Students (NUS NEC).
It does not reflect the views of NCAFC. We would encourage contributions and reports on the points raised as well as for future NEC goings-on.
Dear reader, this is a rather lengthy report, but I would urge you to stick with it. The areas I will cover are:
- NUS vis a vis the free education demonstration, taking place on the 19th November.
- Accountability of NUS Full Time Officers (FTOs)
- Motions debated at NUS NEC.
As was the case with the first NUS NEC meeting of the year, the most recent, and second council of the 2014/15 year was coloured by debates about international politics, chiefly in the Middle East.
Free education demonstration, 19th November
There was cause for celebration: the meeting ratified NUS’s backing of the NCAFC and other assorted organisations 19th November demonstration for free education (see here). This is very positive. This was made possible by National Conference’s policy on education funding turning – for the first time since 1996 (apart from a brief interlude in 2003-5 when the policy was ignored and not acted on) – to free education, funded by taxing the wealthy in society.
It was also made possible by the solid work of left-wingers on the NEC taking the time to organise together and convince others of the arguments for the demonstration. More of this should continue.
The NUS leadership, including Toni Pearce, Raechel Mattey, Piers Telemacque and Megan Dunn, offered their support for the demonstration early on. The reasons for the NUS leadership gifting their support seem mixed: firstly, a recognition that policy has passed, and must be adhered to; a more welcoming attitude than previous FTOs towards political action in the lead up to the general election in 2015. It must be noted that Labour students made a “non-serious” (as was described to me by a Labour students NEC member) effort to challenge the demonstration motion.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the demonstration now commands the support of every part of the NUS structures, including each of the Nation’s Presidents – from USI, Scotland and Wales.
The challenge now will be turning this momentum into activists and students on campuses come November.
Accountability of NUS Full Time Officers’
NEC meetings begin with accountability sessions for the Full Time Officers (FTOs). In turn, each of the FTOs presents a report on their activity from the last meeting. I think a few points are worth discussion.
At NUS national conference this year, policy was passed to support the TUC ‘Britain Need’s a Pay Rise’ demonstration on the 18th October. In response to a question I posed about what exactly the union has been doing to organise and prepare for this, the National President, Toni Pearce stated that member unions will be invited to attend, and a “student-bloc” would be formed on the demonstration itself. We should make sure NUS FTOs take this up with energy.
We put questions to the FTOs about the much criticised ‘Lead and Change’ training programme. ‘Lead and Change’ is a residential training event for sabbatical officers during the summer months. It is NUS’s foremost opportunity to inculcate their way of doing things, aiming to “develop a deep understanding of community organising, power and strategy for change whilst having opportunities to put skills into practice through discussions, simulated activities and planning.” This year the running of the school was outsourced to ‘Movement for Change’, a Blairite front, funded by the tax-dodging Lord Sainsbury. James Elliott, a national committee member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) has written more. It was admitted that the decision to invite MFC was a mistake, and then it would not be done again.
Megan Dunn, Vice President Higher Education, commented on the Labour Party’s new pamphlet on higher education, ‘Robbins Rebooted’ which can be read here. She argued that the proposals, particularly around the introduction of business, were of some concern. Cumulatively, Dunn believes that the proposals amounted to little concretely. Dunn said she would be seeking a meeting with Liam Byrne, the author of the report (and former Manchester SU General Secretary) to put pressure on him for more.
Two motions debated at NUS NEC
The meeting then turned to motions submitted by NEC members. Unfortunately this part of the meeting was no feast of reason. There are two motions I want to focus on: Iraqi solidarity and Israel/Palestine. I urge you to read the motions before continuing.
The “Iraqi solidarity” motion had been worked on with Roza Salih, a Strathclyde university student of Kurdish descent (she submitted an almost identical motion to the Scottish equivalent of the executive, the Scottish Executive Council, which I will post later, which, incidentally, did pass! One must ask Scottish executive members why vote for a motion in Scotland, but not in England?!).
The motion was opposed by Malia Bouattia, the NUS Black Students’ Officer, for astonishing and bewildering reasons. Bouattia argued that the motion was “Islamophobic” and “pro USA intervention” – (see Aaron Kiely, a fellow NUS NEC member’s, tweet during the meeting as reflective of the position). The motion then fell as large numbers of NEC members either abstained or voted against (including the bulk of the political Left on NEC). I think this says a lot about the current state of the student movement.
(I must also put on record that after only a single round of speeches, Toni Pearce moved the debate on. This was wrong: there was no opportunity to respond to Bouattia’s allegations. I had my hand up to speak in response, but was not called.)
Let us look at Bouattia’s arguments: is the motion anti-Muslim or pro US intervention?
The motion was partly written by a Kurdish student activist, and presented by the International students’ officer, Shreya Paudel. I have looked again and again at the contents of the motion, yet I cannot track any Islamophobia or racism.
The US occupation, and its aftermath, has been an utter disaster for the people of Iraq. Resulting governments, led by Nouri Al-Maliki, have been authoritarian and carried out virulent Shia sectarianism. A civil war in the mid 2000s killed 34,000 civilians. Today there are 1.6 million refugees.
The dynamics in 2014 are complex. ISIS, who have grown out of Al-Qaeda, have seized huge swathes of the country; there is a new, shaky, shia-sectarian government; and a Kurdish regional government, whose self determination I believe we should support.
The ultra-Islamist group ISIS is a threat to all the people of Iraq. It is repressing and persecuting minorities, including Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and Sunni Muslim Arabs. On the 29th June it declared a “caliphate” (a religious dictatorship). It has carried out rape and other forms of sexual violence are being used as weapons against women in IS-occupied areas.
These developments have been exacerbated and driven by US policy deliberately fostering sectarianism.
The situation is desperate.
In this situation, it is fundamental that the political Left, trade union and student organisations, like NUS, show our solidarity with the Iraqi people, in particular the hard-pressed student, workers and women’s organisations, and those fighting for democracy and equality.
It is unclear whether Western forces (which congregated in Paris the day before the NEC meeting, on the 15th of September, to announce a “game plan” to defeat ISIS) will send boots onto the ground in Iraq. We know already that French aircrafts have begun reconnaissance flights over Iraq; and that US aid has assisted the Kurds and Yazidis. However it is unlikely they will want a re-run of a war that even they believe to have been a colossal failure. It may be more likely that the USA assists established forces from afar to defeat ISIS.
However, the motion cannot be clearer in saying that such forces cannot be relied upon to deliver democratic change in Iraq: “no confidence or trust in the US military intervention.” If one were to believe it is not sufficiently clear or that the motion is not worded strongly enough, fine: make an amendment to the motion; or seek to take parts to remove or strengthen a particular aspect. Instead, the whole motion – which calls for solidarity with oppressed forces in Iraq – was argued as wrong. This is a grave shame!
It is also true – and Left-wingers should think this over – that the Kurds and Yazidi’s thus far would not have been able to survive if it had not been for aid from the Americans. Calling simply for an end to this intervention is the same as calling for the defeat of the Peshmerga forces by ISIS. The policy is based on a negative criteria – opposing the US and UK – instead of positive critera – solidarity with the oppressed.
Perhaps this is what Bouattia meant when saying that the motion is pro-intervention? Such a suggestion is arrived at only when one’s “analysis” becomes an issue of principle: that even within limited parameters, that to suggest that imperialism is not the only problem is somehow to “support” imperialism. This is the basis of “Stalinist” politics on international questions: that one considers forces that oppose the US as either progressive or, at worst, not the real issue -no matter how barbaric and reactionary and fascistic that force is. This is not a useful or effective way of looking at the world.
Two interrelated issues struck me about this debate.
Firstly, there is a stranglehold of “identity politics” on the student movement. This is an issue which needs to be discussed in more depth, but essentially the idea is widespread that if a Liberation Officer opposes something, it must be bad. Of course this idea is not applied consistently (and could not possibly be) – eg the majority of the NEC has not accepted current and former Black Students’ Officers’ defence of Julian Assange or the SWP. But I think it was a factor here, perhaps because people see or claim to see debate on the Middle East as something that the BSO should somehow have veto power over, regardless of the issues and the arguments made.
Combined with this, there seems to be a low level of political education and even engagement and interest in the NEC. Some appear not to research issues, work out what they think, engage and take ideas forward. Instead, some are not very interested and vote on basis of who they want to ally with on NEC. In other words, many people who voted against didn’t to care about is happening in Iraq.
Another motion I believe deserves some discussion was on solidarity with an organisation, Workers’ Advice Centre/WAC-Ma’an, that organises Jewish and Arab workers in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This was voted down by both the Left and Right on NEC, for different reasons.
At the last NEC policy was passed favouring Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions policy (BDS) – which I voted against. Policy was also passed favouring a two states settlement for the region, which I proposed.
For the Right on NEC (the “Right” on NEC are not Conservative party members but are certainly on the “Right” of debates on the NEC), the possibility of giving a tiny sum of our national union’s money to anyone – whether that is a student attacked by the police on a demonstration, or striking college workers, is unthinkable. We must challenge this! According to NUS estimates at national conference, there is a cumulative £4 million expenditure for 2014/15. Offering our resources to those that share our morals is important and potentially highly useful.
Unfortunately, this argument was also pursued by the Left-winger opposing the motion. Left-wingers: this is not something we should be in the business of doing. If left-wingers disagree with a motion, they should argue it on those grounds, not on the basis the right-wing argument that NUS “doesn’t have enough money”.
WAC Maan was established in the 1990s. It is one of the rays of hope in a bleak situation in Israel/Palestine. It’s an independent, grassroots trade union centre which organises in sectors and industries often neglected by the mainstream trade unions.
It shows that organisation and politics that unite Jewish and Arab workers on the basis of internationalism, anti-racism, opposition to the occupation, and basic class solidarity, are possible.
Currently WAC Maan are set to enforce the first collective agreement against bosses in the West Bank, in the industrial zone of Mishor Adumim, at the Zafarty Garage. This is precedent setting. It is also important as it is forcing the courts to look at how Israeli employers manipulate entry permits as a way of getting rid of militants.
If workers across the occupied territories were organised, they would be able to exert considerable influence over the Israeli government, and over the future of the occupied territories.
To conclude: there are clearly disagreements amongst the NEC, and political Left, about international politics. I hope we can continue to have those discussions openly and frankly. I would certainly encourage those on the NEC to write down their opinions on the subject, particularly if they disagree.
I will continue to write reports of NUS NEC activities, and can be contacted on: [email protected]