The NUS leadership is selling out on free education

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By Andy Warren, NCAFC member in a personal capacity 

It takes a special kind of bureaucrat to abuse your power to undermine a political aim you avowedly support but apparently wouldn’t piss on if it was on fire. Luckily, that’s exactly what we have in our esteemed leader Shakira Martin and the cowardly and pathetic model of politics she represents.

A motion put forward to NUS’s National Executive Council, which argues for NUS support for NCAFC’s free education now demo, has been ruled out of order by Martin on the grounds that an entirely different motion was not heard or remitted to the NEC by NUS conference. Unwilling to actually argue against supporting a free education demo, Martin has decided that it’s much simpler to not give a toss about democracy, debate, or free education. Scared of losing an argument, or having to take an actual position on it, which risks exposing the contradictions of being an apolitical leader of a political organisation? Just don’t let the debate happen.

Apparently, the solution to a motion you don’t like isn’t arguing against it. It isn’t a raising tactical question about whether we should undertake x or y action. Heaven forbid it be taking a political stance against its demands, especially if it’s a demand like free education, which commands such support in the NUS that right (including Martin) made no attempt whatsoever to oppose at conference. You don’t even allow it to pass but do nothing about it, a path well trodden by NUS throughout the ages. Nope, you should just illegitimately and undemocratically declare it out of order. It’s impressive the Martin feels able to do this against the weight of precedent, where the identical motions not heard at conference – unlike this one, which is wholly different – are frequently resubmitted to the NEC. This isn’t even the blatant misuse of a convoluted rule; literally nothing in the playbook of being an NUS hack, a demobiliser of activism or a sucker for bureaucratic solutions to your political irritations underwrites Martin’s decision – just the cowardice that leads someone to think that if you think you’re going to lose a political argument, better not risk it. I was at the conference which elected Martin – somehow I missed the bumper stickers saying “fuck politics, rule it out of order”.

Let’s be clear about this. When the leadership of a union undermines a struggle that their membership is waging within their sector against the government, they are scabbing. If the leaders of a trade union purposefully undermined their workers’ fight for better pay and conditions, we would call that leadership scabs. Although I regularly wish it wasn’t the case, the NUS is our union. Education is our sector and the fight for free education – at its sharpest since 2010 – is our fight. NUS conference reaffirmed its commitment to campaign for free education at our latest conference. Martin’s disingenuous manoeuvrings are undermining that campaign. The only possible conclusion is that Shakira Martin is a scab.  

If this reads like an attack on Martin herself – her politics, her principles, her leadership – you’re only half right. A coward who pays lip service to free education but nothing more, an individual who undermines the opportunities students win for themselves through years of campaigning, an apolitical bureaucrat who tries to suck the radicalism and militancy out of the student movement – this description could apply to any number of NUS presidents our movement has endured over the years. It is far from unique to want to sell out your membership. A union which scabs by undermining the struggle of its members at the precise moment where a huge advance is possible is as old as unionism itself. The politics Martin represents is much bigger than her – the cowardice and complacency of that politics, and its spectacular willingness to buckle under pressure, is the real problem.

But this does not absolve Martin of responsibility. She chairs the NEC; she ruled the demo motion out of order. She must own it or retract it.

This kind of behaviour is always disgusting, but at a time when a huge opening for a radical, democratic free education system has been created through years of struggle by grassroots activists, leading to the wildly successful adoption of free education policy by Labour, it’s a cut above your average right-wing union bureaucrat. It’s about squandering the biggest opportunity that we’ve had for free education since fees were introduced nearly 20 years ago.

It’s time for Martin and every other NEC member who proclaims their desire for free education on NUS conference floor to get elected but actively stands in the way of the fight for it to make up their minds. Shit or get off the pot.

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