Stand Up for Staff Pensions! UCU Votes to Strike for USS

By Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep. See here for a model motion supporting the UCU campaign to propose to your SU!


On 22 January 2018, the University and College Union (UCU) voted to back industrial action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pensions scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. The balloting took place between 27 November 2017 and 19 January 2018. Based on a turnout of over 58% of UCU members eligible to vote, 88% backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. Consequently, as many as 61 universities could see industrial action this Spring.

The dispute itself has arisen because UUK, the employers’ consortium, wants to switch the USS from a ‘defined benefits scheme’ to a ‘defined contributions scheme’. Put simply, this means that final pensions will depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions. This in turn means the effective end of guaranteed pension benefits. According to independent modelling of the proposals, a typical lecturer is set to lose as much as £200,000 in retirement.

The significance of the ballot results should not be understated. They boldly show that tens of thousands of workers in one of the largest national unions are willing to go on strike, more than meeting the Draconian threshold of 50% voter turnout for a valid ballot result under the current legislative regime. Already, universities might face escalating strikes over 14 days, beginning with a two-day walkout starting on 22 February, if the USS dispute is not resolved. In the words of Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, ‘Universities will be hit with levels of strike action not seen before on UK campuses if a deal cannot be done over the future of USS pensions. Members have made it quite clear they are prepared to take action to defend their pensions and the universities need to work with us to avoid widespread disruption.’

We in NCAFC support UCU in their dispute. However much industrial action affects students in the short-term, students are the primary beneficiaries of education and should stand with the workers responsible for keeping our academic institutions running. Moreover, PhD students and early career academics stand to lose the most from the proposed USS changes because they have built up the least on the current pensions scheme.

We also cannot ignore how these threats to the material conditions of workers on campus form part of the wider, harrowing picture of an increasingly marketized and commodified education sector. Therefore, we encourage activists to submit tailored versions of our model motion to their Students Unions. We call on students not to attend lectures and seminars, or use services still in operation, during any strike days. We urge as many as possible to stand with staff on picket lines. Let that rallying cry of the student and labour movements ring out across our campuses: ‘Students and workers unite and fight!’

Model Motion to Back UCU Industrial Action in Pensions Dispute

UCU poster reading "YOUR PENSION. AXED. Fight back against a brutal attack on your pension"

UCU trade union members have just voted to take industrial action against major attacks on staff pensions, affecting 61 universities (listed here). Please check out and share the article here to find out more about it, and pass this model motion in your student union as part of the solidarity campaign!

Motion to Back UCU Industrial Action in Pensions Dispute

[X] Students’ Union notes:

  1. In the period 27 Nov 2017 to 19 Jan 2018, the University and College Union (UCU) balloted on industrial action in Spring, in response to damaging proposals from employers to the USS pension scheme. 1
  2. Nationally, 88% of UCU members who voted backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. The turnout was over 58%2.
  3. The USS proposals will end guaranteed pension benefits, making final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions. They risk the futures of academic staff, effectively destroying the pensions scheme.
  4. The USS pension scheme’s own analysis shows that the employers could muster the funds to avoid this and keep guarantees on pension payouts.
  5. UCU have consistently supported student campaigns and actions.3
  6. NUS Conference has previously voted that our default position as students should be to back industrial action by education workers, because we understand that working conditions and teaching quality are so closely tied, and because we understand that the alliance of solidarity between students and education workers is vital to our own campaigns.
  7. NUS have resolved to support the industrial action.

[X] Students’ Union believes:

  1. Student-worker solidarity should be central to everything we do.
  2. Although industrial action is likely to affect students in the short-term, fighting for pensions means fighting for the long-term health of a profession of which students are primary beneficiaries.
  3. Threats to staff working conditions are part of a wider picture of cuts to education funding and marketisation.
  4. The attacks on different pension schemes are used to play staff against one another – one scheme is undermined, then members of another are told that they must accept attacks on their own scheme on the grounds that it is unfairly better than the first.
  5. These attacks will be most damaging to workers at the beginning of their careers, including our members such as PhD students looking to begin research careers, which could have a devastating impact in years to come. Furthermore, we all have a long-term interest in halting and reversing the erosion of pensions across the labour market.

[X] Students’ Union resolves:

  1. To give full and public support to UCU on any industrial action that follows the ballot result.
  2. To lobby the University to oppose the changes to USS.
  3. To encourage students to show solidarity by not attending lectures and seminars, or using services still in operation, on the strike day(s).
  4. To encourage students to join staff picket lines.
  5. To engage in an educational campaign for our students explaining why the strike is happening and why we should all show solidarity. Staff working conditions are our learning conditions.



NUS: unite the left to fight the right

Logo of the National Union of Students

At January’s National Committee meeting we agreed to run NCAFC candidates for President and Vice President Higher Education, and push for left unity in NUS to transform it into a union that actually takes the fight to the government. We are calling for the rest of the NUS left to unite with us around a joint platform, focussing on the activism students and workers are doing on the ground, democratising NUS and the kind of big demands we need to shake up society. The joint statement will be discussed and agreed with left NEC members tomorrow – this is our contribution to that meeting.

A United Left for Free and Liberated Education

Students face an ever more neoliberal university system and an FE sector being virtually destroyed – an alarming mental health crisis – soaring rents – a future of debt and precarious jobs – and a world all around us being wrecked by capitalism. Huge numbers are inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and increasingly supportive of left-wing politics.

NUS could be playing a tremendous role in mobilising, organising and politically engaging many thousands to take on the Tories and transform society. Instead it has been absent or even hostile while activists organise locally and nationally through demonstrations, direct action and rent strikes. Instead of allying with trade unionists and an insurgent Labour it has collaborated with Vince Cable and even the government through the Office for Students. NUS needs top-to-bottom transformation so it is a union for struggle, not a union for careerists. NUS should be standing up for a different vision: for a free and liberated education.

  • Free education, living grants for all, funded by taxing the rich and won through direct action and demonstrations.
  • There is no free education without a liberated education: fight the rise of racism and fascism, support trans rights on campus, stop and don’t collaborate with PREVENT, fight for funding for proper mental health provision. Cops off campus. Defend the right for political organisation and action on campuses.
  • For a fighting NUS and student movement; campaign using occupations, direct action and strikes; activists as organisers, not bureaucrats
  • Launch an urgent campaign to save Further Education and reverse all funding cuts.
  • Cap on rent in student halls (£100pw in London, £80pw outside), and organising a wave of rent strikes.
  • For a 5:1 maximum pay ratio in universities and colleges, with a VC pay cap of £100,000, reverse widespread marketisation. Maintain and step up the NSS boycott.
  • Support workers’ struggles in education and beyond, work with Labour and trade unions to win £10ph minimum wage and banning zero hour contracts. Run a campaign to organise student workers, from postgrad lecturers and nursing students to fast food. Actively support workers in struggle, including practical solidarity, particularly young workers like the McDonald’s and Picturehouse strikers.
  • Solidarity with all struggles against oppression and exploitation, in Britain and across the world. Support Palestinian liberation, vocal solidarity with migrants and support free movement. Opposition to war and militarism. Mobilise to fight climate change. Scrap Trident and spend the money on decent, useful jobs.
  • A democratic NUS: reverse attacks on Liberation campaigns, and end to cliques and bullying, ensure policy is actually carried out, and make conferences/debates longer and more accessible.

Student Feminist Conference 2018

Student Feminist Conference - Hosted by NCAFC Women & Non-Binary -- Feb 17-18 -- London

Register online here

NCAFC Women and Non-Binary Caucus will be hosting a student feminist conference on 17-18 February at UCL Institute of Education in London. This conference is open to any interested self-defining women and non-binary people.

The conference is free of charge and, if you register your requirements on the form, free accommodation and childcare will be available too.

Women have never enjoyed equality, whether this be in our universities, workplaces, or even our own homes. Today, conservative and neoliberal policies continue to oppress women in every aspect of our lives- from tighter immigration controls to cuts to healthcare services.

But, feminists have always organised to push the systems that oppress women closer to an end. From sisters in Argentina building a movement against sexual violence to Picturehouse cinema workers striking for better pay and maternity leave; from trans activists protesting discrepancies in healthcare to migrant women fighting for free movement and the closure of detention centres.

There will be workshops, debates and plenaries on various feminist topics from around the world. We will be having a strategy planning meeting the day after on 18 February; if you want to come to the strategy planning you can join NCAFC for £1 at the conference.

Join us to celebrate and learn from feminist struggles in the student movement and beyond!

About NCAFC Women and Non-Binary caucus

Register online here

Trans Liberation and the Student Movement

Tal Moskowitz, 8, below, a transgender child, holds a sign as his parents Faigy Gelbstein, left, and Naomi Moskowitz, upper right, of Long Island, hold separate signs during a rally in support of transgender youth at the Stonewall National Monument, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in New York. They were among demonstrators The crowd gathered Thursday night in front of the Stonewall Inn. The family were speaking out against President Donald Trump's decision to roll back a federal rule saying public schools had to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender identity. The rule had already been blocked from enforcement, but transgender advocates view the Trump administration action as a step back for transgender rights.

This is the text of an introduction by NCAFC activist Luke Dukinfield for a session at NCAFC’s recent Winter Conference

The intention of this session is to begin to open up a conversation about trans politics within NCAFC. This fairly vague starting point, of course, might deprive the aim of focus: however, marking out the ground that needs to be covered and mapping out its contours might provide us some sense of direction, especially as the data on transphobia in education is so threadbare. Indeed, the broad materiality of trans life is still disacknowleged – we lack even some of the most fundamental legal rights and protections, are habitually subject to state and gendered violence, are besieged by the most vicious forms of media hostility and fearmongering, comprise the majority of the victims of LGBTQI+ homelessness, and suffer disproportionately high rates of ill mental health and suicide.

The pervasiveness, gravity and brutality of the discrimination encountered by trans people in every sector of society lends this conversation urgency, with a fraught political landscape of austerity, neo-liberal dispossession, a resurging far-right, and Brexit heralding an entrenchment in discriminatory practices that deny us access to public spaces and resources. With the recent (progressive) proposed updates to the Gender Recognition Act – the process by which a person can officially change the gender on their birth certificate and thus have their gender honoured for all legal purposes – the vitriolic scrutiny, derision and hatred waged against trans lives has escalated. This reactionary backlash has been reminiscent of the moral panic around Section 28 – which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by schools and local authorities – wherein the most virulent tropes casting trans people as abusers, interlopers and enemies-within have been ruthlessly invoked.

As such, for all the discussion of a trans ‘tipping point’ in 2014 – indicating a positive shift in the landscape of media and cultural representation for trans people – we recognise how fragile these shifts can be, and indeed that they must be consistently defended and underpinned by a material restructuring of the power relations in society. We must of course celebrate where gains have been won, and the affective impact for many (especially young) trans people of positive representation cannot be emphasised enough – however these gains have not coalesced into a coherent social movement on the ground. Again, this is not to underplay the advances within LGBTQI+ movements around trans politics, and the important campaigning undertaken by various groups such as No Pride in Prisons or Action For Trans Health – but this has not borne the scale, collectivity or strategic scope of historical liberation movements. It is important to note that particularly the LGBTQI+ liberation movement was indeed initiated and sustained by many trans people of colour, and the fact that the rights and freedoms of trans people are still lagging so far behind the rest of our community attests to the contours of marginality and neglect that are replicated from society across our movements, the wresting of their political trajectory by the trends of neo-liberalism and so-called ‘respectability politics’, and the disqualification of narratives of trans history and struggle.

This, I think, is in evidence, too, across the student movement. Though in many ways we have incorporated trans and queer politics more effectively than many mainstream left institutions – perhaps due to our unique proximity to radical enquiry and spaces of (relative) cultural and political independence – we have not been immune to the aforementioned trends and indeed specific tensions are posed by both the dynamics of ‘student politics’ and the academy as an institution. Sometimes we are complacent around the political landscape of trans politics, taking as given that trans liberation is implicitly embedded in our movement’s praxis, whilst foregoing an understanding of how insidiously transphobia can infiltrate our spaces, and indeed sometimes eliding the more difficult question of what happens outside those spaces.

It’s perhaps beyond my scope here to precisely delineate the current character of trans politics within all the varied institutions, groups and societies that loosely comprise the ‘student movement’ – though I would invite discussion on that topic – but it appears to me that trans politics within universities have been largely confined to and undertaken by Pride and Feminist societies (or supportive social networks and micro-communities). Each of these communities have their own unique tensions, of course – with, for example, the former sometimes overshadowed be the overarching depoliticization, pacification and commercialisation of the legacy of Pride, and the latter often still beset by hangovers of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) ideology. One can critique these specific tensions, alongside the sublimation into the plane of the purely discursive and cultural that societies, especially as institutions bonded to defanged SUs, often entail – whilst also reckoning with the fact that this sublimation is not simply a product of but a response to dominant political trends, an indispensable seeking out of community, affirmation and sanctuary from the debilitating rituals of everyday bigotry, and also a response to the failures of a dominant left that has long neglected trans oppression and trans struggle.

The spectre of ‘identity politics’ is invoked to characterise some of the modes of political conduct within liberation societies – and, to be completely frank, I do not think these critiques without merit, especially as universities as spaces lend themselves towards a politics of ideological purification and secessionism rather than one of solidarity and struggle – however we should be wary of how this claim is cynically deployed to denigrate the very notion of liberation politics in and of itself, and how this charge has been levelled historically by the left and right to delegitimize marginalized struggles. Part of our efforts towards trans liberation in education must surely be thus rooting ourselves in these communities and uniting the affective significance of alternative cultural spaces with the collective empowerment of an orientation towards active political organization.

This kind of intervention has been raised frequently within NCAFC’s own LGBTQI+ caucus – though, it seems, executed with limited success. Indeed, discussions around trans politics have been fairly absent within our spaces, though the incorporation of non-binary people within the previously women’s caucus has brought interesting ideas around trans politics into the fold of the organization. Despite this, the conversation is underdeveloped – it’s why we are all here, in this largely unprecedented session dedicated solely to trans liberation, and similarly why activists have engaged in a trans liberation intervention in the motions debate happening tomorrow. Again, I think we must be generous in our critique (but critical nonetheless) – the women and non-binary occupation of Senate House in 2015, for example, provided active and empowering welcome to trans people within the kinds of women’s spaces that have traditionally excluded us. My organizing with this caucus has been predominantly affirming and sometimes frustrating, frequented by both interesting conversations and pressing interventions around gendered oppression within education coupled with a neglect of some of the basic necessities of trans inclusion within these spaces such as the preparation of gender neutral toilets.

The politics of militancy, solidarity and pluralism historically embodied by NCAFC drew me into its spaces, with the inspiring activism undertaken by the women and non-binary caucus testament to this, but the still underlying questions of trans liberation and its role within the vision and struggle for free education went, and continue to go, largely unanswered. To this end we have actually fallen behind some institutions within the student movement in the context of trans politics. Not only must we reaffirm the commitment within our caucuses to trans liberation, we must also ensure these debates do not solely occur within caucuses, but herald more long-term cultural shifts within our organization, recognizing the fact that – not least because our rights in society are so threadbare and a movement to assert them lacking – there is an institutional foregoing of trans politics that must be redressed. The development of this conversation, here, must be sensitive and diligent – grappling with the vulnerability and exclusion trans people often feel within left institutions that have traditionally forsaken us, addressing the complex questions of the most effective formats for trans organizing, and balancing the impulse for bottom-up autonomous organizing with collective institutional responsibility over the fate of trans politics, etc.

This conversation must also be expressed through a specific analysis of the dynamics of transphobia within education. The analysis offered here will focus on Higher Education, as that is the environment to which my experiences are relevant – though examining and tackling institutional transphobia within primary and secondary education is even more crucial a task, because this kind of discrimination within such formative years can be even more fatal. Theory borne out of our other caucuses can be useful in orienting and grounding ourselves here – the women and non-binary caucus has always asserted that free education is a gendered demand, for example, because marketization entrenches draconian, degrading and precarious work practices wherein disproportionately male Vice Chancellors and management luxuriate in obscene salaries at the expense of maltreated, low-paid, and outsourced female migrant cleaners. The LGBTQI+ caucus has asserted that the degradation of financial support consequent to a marketized model of education, such as the cuts to maintenance grants, disproportionately affect queer students who are often estranged from unaccepting family, and that living grants for all – a lynchpin of our vision for free education – would benefit us the most.

We can directly extrapolate these two examples to trans students: due to disproportionate levels of financial hardship we are often compelled to take on work as we study, almost uniformly in increasingly casualized service sector jobs. The systematic dismantling of employment protections combines with overt employment discrimination and the insidious material marginalization of feminized, affective labour to create a hostile and brutal set of work relations for trans people. As universities are compelled to act more and more like businesses, with all else subordinated to the profit motive, the axes of social division through which capital thrives to discipline and dispossess labour embed themselves within the educational landscape. The gutting of financial support affects trans students especially acutely, with many of us severed from family resources due to deep-seated transphobia. This, coupled with astronomical rises in rent and living costs ushered in by privatisation, increasingly prices poor and vulnerable trans people out of Higher Education.

The logic of the market surrenders the public good, such that gender studies departments are luxuries to be cut, health and support services that trans people disproportionately rely on are severely overburdened and underfunded, gender neutral facilities are superfluous, and specialist gendered training for support staff is an unaffordable expense. Education-as-commodity does not serve the ends of personal transformation or collective empowerment to challenge injustice in society, but rather that of processing indebted consumers and compliant graduates into market relations. Hence space to explore ourselves and form communal subjectivities becomes more and more limited in the neo-liberal university, with spaces for collective association and support infrastructure for trans students more and more sparse, trade unions decimated, and alienation, atomization and disempowerment fracturing our institutions.

The spectre of police becomes evermore present as our universities resort to force to aggressively root out dissent and defend their reputations, impacting marginalized people historically subject to state hostility – especially trans people of colour – most acutely. Our campuses thus become ever more securitized, with bureaucracy, monitoring and registering practices proliferating and entailing constant fear of misgendering and deadnaming for trans students. Mental health issues widely afflict university populations due to the academic and financial strains and pressures of education as a frantic competition, disproportionately affecting trans students already subject to widespread prejudice. All the while, TERF ideology and curricular erasure of trans histories and struggle continue to fray academia, culturally disqualifying us as participants in and bearers of knowledge. Bullying, harassment and abuse are widespread, with 1 in 3 trans students reporting to be the subject of this violence, a transphobic enmity deepened by the rise of alt-right and ‘lad’ culture on campuses.

Despite the very material dispossessions encountered by trans people within education and society at large, the dominant narratives about trans lives are frequently infatuated with questioning our reality and validity. This is especially relevant to how transphobia is constituted through Higher Education: trans, especially non-binary, identity is ridiculed as a delusional novelty, coddled by elitist academic spaces detached from the rest of society. HE has thus become an arena of scrutiny and contention around trans politics, with this set of politics scapegoated for an ostensible fostering of entitlement and narcissism (the entitlement of wanting secure work or self-affirmation, seemingly). Thus, dominant narratives have promoted some of the most pernicious historical tropes deployed against the LGBTQI+ community by both left and right, through the prism of Higher Education, to deride, trivialize and undermine trans politics as a set of frivolous sideshows, bourgeois affectations and cultural pretensions. HE thus forms one aspect of a backdrop justifying cultural belittlement.

Whilst we should reject the reactionary terms of this debate entirely, forming a materialist narrative of trans liberation in education that refutes the idea that universities are havens of trans rights, careful not to collapse leftist critiques of liberal identity politics into trans politics as a whole, we must also reckon with the social stratification our universities prop up in society – gentrification, work casualization, reproduction of capitalist cultural hegemony – and assert that we demand the complete transformation of society, not simply universities as sites of cultural refuge from its worst excesses. To this end the student movement must unite with the labour movement, with renters’ unions, with campaigns against prison, police and state violence, with campaigns for the decriminalization of sex work, to intervene in the multifaceted material injustices wracking trans life, armed with the recognition that class struggle is and should be a demand for trans liberation.

So, by way of conclusion, some pressing questions that underpin the conversation for me are: how does transphobia manifest internally within the student movement and how can that be tackled? How does transphobia manifest on an external basis, systematically within our institutions and in society at large, and how can we address that? And, finally, what are some demands for trans liberation in education, how should we construct and wage struggles against transphobia, and what are the pitfalls in the existing structures of the student movement to this end? I hope, with more sessions like these, we can begin to answer these questions and many more – with the understanding that not only is the free education struggle incomplete without trans liberation, it is also weaker without it. This task is urgent, and we must rise to it – we can rise to it.

Strike for USS! UCU Now Balloting to Strike over Staff Pensions


by Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

Over the past couple of weeks, the University and College Union (UCU), the national trade union for academic staff, has been sending out industrial action ballot papers. This is over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pensions scheme for staff in what are mainly ‘pre-92’ universities: that is, institutions that had university status before the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. In short, the proposed changes would leave staff pensions at the mercy of the pension fund’s gambles on the stock market and we should fight them at every turn. That is why I welcome NUS’ backing of the dispute after a motion submitted by NCAFC activists was voted through their National Executive Committee.

Currently, the USS is what is known as a ‘defined benefits scheme’. In other words, one’s annual pension is linked to salary and service. More specifically, each year of contributions guarantees a defined retirement income to each member. The employers’ consortium, UUK, wants to turn this into a ‘defined contributions scheme’. Under such a scheme, the contributions of individuals and their employers build up as personal investments, which are cashed in on retirement. This move effectively scraps guaranteed pension incomes in favour of a retirement income based on how each individual worker’s ‘investments’ perform on the stock market.

Whilst it is evident from even the USS’ own research that most employers could indeed pay more to protect existing pension benefits, they have chosen not to do so. With USS’ tens of thousands of active contributors, the choice to de-invest in pensions is nothing short of a slap to the face for university staff. Those most affected by the changes will be early career academics, since they have built up the least on the current pension scheme. In an industrial sector already rife with casual employment contracts, this additional insecurity will only make education workers in the beginning stages of their careers even more victimised by the gig economy. Shifting financial risk onto individual workers aids the marketization of education by making such practices as outsourcing and privatisation easier. It could also see talent drawn away from the education sector and towards jobs that struggling workers perceive as more secure.

We in NCAFC support the UCU in their dispute. We can pass motions in our Students’ Unions to back the campaign and any resulting industrial action, including marking boycotts. We can call on activists in Defend Education groups, anti-casualisation campaigns, Labour Clubs, and other bodies on campus to spread word of the ballot and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with academic staff on picket lines if a strike materialises. The ballot closes on 19 January 2018 and, under our repressive trade union laws, we need a turnout of at least 50% for a valid result. Every round of leafletting, every burst of social media promotion, and every conversation with current or potential union members about the dispute could make all the difference. For the sake of our teachers, researchers and other university workers, spread the word to every corner of your campus! Vote yes to strike action! Vote yes to action short of a strike!

Opinion: Understanding Left-Wing Anti-Semitism

NCAFC member Ben Towse writes on anti-semitism within the left. If you would like to write a response or give a different perspective to publish on NCAFC’s blog, please get in touch.

A person at the Occupy Wall Street protests holds a placard reading "Google: Zionists control Wall St"Anti-semitic conspiracy theory politics at Occupy Wall Street

In recent weeks, the student movement has been full of expressions of concern about the display of a Nazi swastika banner by a student at the University of the Arts London. I’ve found this conversation bemusing and rather frustrating, because from the perspective of battling antisemitism, this incident was pretty near the bottom of my priority list. It’s an easy thing to condemn. Undeniably it was an inappropriate and unpleasant act of insensitivity. But there’s no indication that it was done out of any actual anti-Semitic sentiment or politics. There’s nothing darker here than a fool who thought that being edgy is a substitute for being clever – and sadly we have many more pressing things to tackle than an offensively tasteless art student.

The primary threat in the West is clearly various breeds of the far-right, from the US “alt-right” rallies that openly display swastikas and assert allegiance to Hitler, to the rise of Hungary’s anti-Semitic fascist Jobbik party, to killings by violent far-right Islamists such as the attack on a Kosher supermarket in Paris and the shootings at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Here in the UK, we’ve seen a record high in anti-Semitic attacks since the Brexit vote stirred up and emboldened all sorts of bigots.

There is much to be said about that threat. But for this article, I want to focus on another insidious problem: left-wing anti-Semitism. There is a particular type of anti-Semitism specific to the left, not just a reflection of anti-Semitism in wider society but a distinct beast. We encounter this anti-Semitism in all sorts of parts of the left. Most of its modern adherents nowdays understand themselves to be anti-racists and hold no personal animosity toward Jews. Nevertheless they adhere to political ideas that, when examined properly, rest on a logic that treats Jews differently, that particularises Jews. And of course, some creep from there into full-on racist hostility.

The “socialism of fools”

The classic form – anti-semitic anti-capitalism, what the 19th century German left dubbed “the socialism of fools” – is ancient. From stereotypes of Jews as all well-off, powerful loan sharks, bankers and capitalists, all the way up to the belief that capitalism is a global Jewish plot, these tendencies continue today. Conspiratorial nonsense about Jewish financiers and the Rothschilds riddled movements like Occupy. In 2012 Ken Livingstone said his election campaign didn’t need to consider Jewish voters, because being wealthy, they wouldn’t vote for him anyway. Hugo Chavez, an idol for too many lefties, once proclaimed that the Jews have been thieving wealth and causing poverty and injustice worldwide ever since killing Jesus. Jackie Walker infamously repeated the lie – originally fabricated by the Nation of Islam movement – that Jews were a leading force in the Atlantic slave trade.


But the major form of left anti-Semitism we now encounter relates to Israel and Zionism. Of course, Jews are not identical with Israel and conflation of the two is anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, some common approaches to Israel and Zionism rest on double standards that need to be unpicked.

First we need to pin down what Zionism is. Before 1948, it meant the movement to establish a Jewish state, but given that Israel now exists it is perhaps best understood as a sentiment of nationalism or communal feeling for or identification with Israel. On that basis I am an anti-Zionist. Beyond opposing the colonial, militaristic and racist policies of the current Israeli government, as an internationalist socialist I want to oppose and break down all patriotisms and sentiments of identification with nations.

But socialists also have to think carefully about why people, especially oppressed groups, hold national sentiments, and to examine the nuances. Too many act as if Zionism is homogeneous, as if there is no difference between the bloodthirsty, genocidal Israeli hard right, the Israeli-born liberal or lefty who considers it their home and nation but wants freedom for Palestine too, and the Jewish New Yorker who has never lived in Israel but feels some affinity to it.

The reality is that the big majority of Jews worldwide are now Zionists in some sense. 93% of British Jews consider Israel to form some part of their identity and 90% want it to continue existing. And yet, 71% – i.e. the vast majority of these people who are Zionists – support a free, independent Palestine alongside Israel, and 75% oppose the West Bank settlements. When Zionism is treated as tantamount to fascism, when you hear socialists say things like “I don’t hate Jews, I just think that all Zionists are scum” or casually spit the far-right’s coded epithets like “zio”, the left is damning the majority of Jews as if they were part of a singular political force so bad that it should be treated like the far right.

This is not to say that, based simply on identity, widespread Jewish affinity for Zionism means that leftists should support Zionism. We shouldn’t. It’s a call to approach it with the same nuance we should approach the national sentiment of any historically persecuted group.

For most Zionist Jews around the world, attachment to Israel is a response to a long and continuing history of persecution, marginalisation and pogroms that found its peak in the Holocaust. It arises not from a will to oppress, but from fear, seeking refuge in what was called the “life-raft state”. There is rightly a socialist critique of this as the wrong response to that experience, but it can’t be treated as beyond sympathy or understanding, and the left cannot treat Zionist Jews as untouchable until they make an absolute break with this whole set of sentiments.

This is why the nonsense spouted by the likes of Ken Livingstone and Moshe Machover about collaboration between Nazism and Zionism is so wrong-headed and offensive. In 1933, some Zionist leaders (opposed by others) brokered a deal with the Nazis to let Jews escape Germany for Palestine. To draw similarities between Zionism and Nazism, between some violently oppressed people who became convinced that safety could only lie in leaving that society to build their own, and the oppressors from whom they accepted a chance to escape before things got worse, is senseless and inhumane.

Double standards on Israel

Key double standards are found in how some activists approach present-day Israel. The left must fight the Israeli state’s brutal policies and support liberation for the Palestinians. But problems arise when Israel is portrayed as uniquely evil, and when standards and approaches are applied to it but not similar countries. Sadly, neither Israel’s murderous policies, nor the immensity of suffering they’ve caused, are anywhere near unique in the world. There is nothing wrong with campaigning on particular injustices – nobody can do everything and “whataboutery” helps nothing – but analysis, arguments and tactics need to be consistent and justifiable.

First, if you advocate the democratic right to national self-determination as a principle, you cannot deny it to the Israeli Jewish population who at this point undeniably constitute a national community – many of whom are second, third or fourth generation. To occupying, colonising countries, our demand is “withdraw to your borders, to your home, and let this other nation determine its own future”. There are too many supposed progressives whose aspiration for Israel/Palestine is effectively to reverse the situation – to force on Israeli Jews the choice of either being driven out of their homes and birthplaces or living under a hostile, alien state that does not represent them.

Second, socialists cannot deny or ignore class and other divisions within Israeli society. Every society is divided, with a ruling capitalist class counterposed to a working class and internal oppressed groups. Even where ruling classes win their subjects’ backing for racist wars, we recognise the intrinsic potential of the working class to be a progressive force and appeal to them to turn against their rulers. But some socialists treat Israel as some sort of exception, and Israeli Jews as a singular unit. They sat we cannot work with Jewish Israelis, even if they are fighting for Palestinian freedom, even if they are jailed for refusing to serve in the military, and we cannot reach out to workers struggles and others in Israel until they completely repudiate any trace of Zionism and Israel’s existence.

For instance, left-wingers on NUS NEC rejected proposals for solidarity with WAC-Ma’an, a cross-border Jewish-Arab trade union that organises workers exploited by settlement businesses and explicitly campaigns against the occupation, just because it does not reject the existence of Israel. This position isn’t just logically anti-Semitic in the way it particularises Israel, it also prioritises hostility to Israel’s existence over material support for the Palestinians.

Imperialism and conspiracy

Third, is how many leftists understand the relationship between Israel and its allies among Western imperial powers like the US and UK, in conspiratorial terms that often evoke classic anti-semitic tropes about global Jewish power. Israel is presented as having an absurd level of control over the policies of these global powers, usually via powerful and vastly wealthy “Zionist lobbies”.

We need a sober, materialist understanding of imperialism. Imperialist ruling classes, all ruling classes, serve themselves first, and make alliances not, broadly, because they have somehow covertly been subverted, but because it serves their material strategic interests. No other state is commonly discussed in these terms. UK ruling class support for Turkey as it occupies, represses and murders the Kurds is not blamed primarily on shady Turkish nationalist capitalists controlling the media or manipulating politicians – instead, we understand that this is first and foremost a case of self-interested cooperation between imperialist states.

Periodically, the British left will go into conspiracy theory paroxysms when it emerges that some Israeli diplomat or pro-Israel propagandist has been doing some lobbying or manoeuvring. We saw this in NUS this year when an al-Jazeera documentary “revealed” that a right-wing NUS officer was organising with other right-wingers to prepare an election campaign, that Jewish student groups receive donations from the Israeli embassy, and that an embassy official helped organise pro-Israel campaigning. Any idea that this isn’t standard activity for any country’s embassy needs a dose of anti-capitalist scepticism about how diplomacy between states works today. Lobbying and manoeuvring like this is hardly a rarity, but it is at most a nudge on policy achieved by allying with some particular section of another country’s ruling class  – the overwhelming factor determining the policy of a powerful state like the UK remains self-interest. To believe otherwise is to descend into the rabbit-hole of understanding the world through the lens of conspiracy theory, rather than materialism.


These political double standards are problems in themselves, and they need to be unpicked and resolved. Another effect, though, is that they can spill over, first into an unserious attitude to tackling anti-Semitism.

Far too much of the student movement only pays lip service to opposing anti-Semitism. When concerns are raised, they are often not taken seriously. Leftists who in other cases would argue that judgements about prejudice and oppression must be the sole domain of members of the marginalised group in question (an identitarian, anti-political position that I’d actually disagree with) have a habit of abandoning this principle when Jewish people express concern, discomfort or offence at something. This includes appearing very relaxed or even defensive of open racists – from leftists making excuses for aggressively anti-Semitic parties and governments (such as Hamas and the Iranian government) to applauding bigots (for instance, UCL Friends of Palestine Society recently gave a very warm welcome to Azzam Tamimi, an academic who tells Jews born in Israel that “justice” would mean them being sent “back to Germany”). And of course, it can in some cases shade further, into conscious, racist suspicion or outright hostility to Jewish people.

What do we need to do

To sum up, left-wing anti-semitism isn’t just a matter of out-and-out personal hostility to Jews, nor is it only a matter of personal Jew-haters cleverly masking their racism in a disguise of anti-Zionism – though both of those exist and are real problems. What’s more widespread, and what can only be tackled by the left being more nuanced, thoughtful and self-reflective, is a set of ideas that are often held by sincere anti-racists, but which when taken apart rest on double standards, on logic that treats Jews, and Jewish national sentiments, differently from other ethnic groups. We need to open these issues up, discuss them, and develop a better set of politics on imperialism, capitalism, oppression and liberation.

17 Dec: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

17th of December is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. NCAFC Women and Non-Binary sends our solidarity to sex workers across the world fighting against violence and criminalization. We recognize that many students now are going into sex work due to financial pressures and austerity. Within our own unis, many sex workers are threatened with disciplinary action or even expulsion. We call on student activists to fight against these unjust rules, campaign for SUs to provide student sex workers with information and support, and support full decriminalization of sex work.

Furthermore, in order to show solidarity on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, we are calling on student activists and feminist groups to take action on and around this day. You can hold a film screening (list of possible films below), go to the protest in London on the 18th, or pledge to pass the model motion at your union’s general meeting or council.

18 Dec protest info

12-2pm 18 Dec
New Palace Yard (near Parliament), Westminster
Facebook event

Model motion

Motion passed by University of Plymouth Students’ Union: “Standing up for student sex workers”

Films & videos

Neko Weyogerere (Around half hour episodes)

Rewind: Daughters of the Brothel (25:18)

Paris is Burning (1:11:00)

Tangerine (1:28:00)

How Police Profile and Shame Sex Workers (4:14)

Shutting Down BS With Sex Workers (5:21)

The Red Umbrella Diaries (1:38:00)

Sex Work in New Zealand (13:13)

The Laws That Sex Workers Really Want (17:50)

National Committee Election Results

ncafc small logo

After the elections at this weekend’s Winter Conference, we can announce that our members have elected the following National Committee. They’ll serve until Summer Conference, since the conference also voted to move our main annual elections from winter to summer. More detailed reports from conference, including the decisions made, coming soon!

Open places

  • Ana Oppenheim
  • Andrew Peak
  • Chris Townsend
  • Declan Burns
  • George Bunn
  • Hansika Jethnani
  • Helena Navarrete Plana
  • Rida Vaquas
  • Rory Hughes
  • Sahaya James
  • Stuart McMillan
  • Tam Wilson
  • Tom Zagoria
  • Zoe Salanitro

Liberation caucuses

  • BAME rep: Sara Khan
  • Disabled rep: Edward Williamson
  • LGBT+ rep: Jess Bradley & Rob Noon (job-share)
  • Women & Non-Binary rep: Justine Canady & Maisie Sanders (job-share)


  • FE & Schools rep: Hasan Patel
  • Postgrads & Education Workers rep: Mark Crawford & Dan Davison (job-share)
  • International Students rep: Robert Liow


  • London: Monty Shield & Andy Warren (job-share)
  • South East: Alex Stuart
  • Midlands: [To be elected at regional meeting]
  • South West: Tyrone Falls
  • North: Charlie Porter & David Bullock
  • Scotland: [To be elected at NCAFC Scotland Conference 2018]

Opinion: Back the NSS Boycott 2018!

to do boycottBy Dan Davison, NCAFC & UCU activist

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is yet another perverse step in the marketization of education. It attempts to create an artificial state of competition between institutions by ranking them according to such metrics as graduate earnings, graduate employment, and – of course – the National Student Survey (NSS). The first ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, and ‘Bronze’ rankings under these metrics were awarded just this year. Whilst these naturally were met with celebration by many a Vice-Chancellor and plastered proudly across many a University website, let’s not pretend that those rankings actually mean anything. Let’s not pretend that we can measure the quality of teaching a student receives from a combination of (1) whether they have a high-paying job after they graduate, and (2) the responses provided on a statistically suspect survey, subject to all the unconscious biases inherent in such a means of gauging opinion. Let’s not pretend that chasing metrics in the name of customer satisfaction is an acceptable substitute for systematically improving the material conditions of workers and students on campus.

The fight against the TEF and the wider Higher Education reforms must resume in earnest. We have already seen their first devastating effects in the mass cuts to jobs at such universities as Manchester and Southampton. This is why I welcome the calls to continue and build upon the NSS Boycott. The boycott is one of the few means through which the National Union of Students (NUS) can bring leverage to the bargaining table. By effectively sabotaging one of the metrics upon which the TEF is built, we show how flimsy and void of truth those metrics really are. We in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) have long argued that the NUS should behave like a true union: one that fights boldly for the collective interests of its members without caving into class-collaborationism. Right now, the boycott is the closest thing we have to an NUS industrial action. It presents a rare opportunity to link a national strategy against the marketization of education with rank-and-file activism.

Last year, we made our first dent. As a result of the boycott, we made the NSS results unusable in at least 12 different institutions by dropping the survey response rates below 50%. Already the government is trying to outmanoeuvre us by giving the NSS results less weighting in the TEF’s metrics, yet that very move shows us how little is needed to shake the foundations of their framework. Put simply, if the 26 students’ unions who organised boycotts last year were able to throw a spanner in the works, imagine how many gears we could grind to a halt if we pushed the campaign even further! When the NUS National Conference passed its policy to boycott the NSS in 2016, it was to be until the TEF is abolished and the Higher Education reforms are withdrawn. Those demands remain every bit as vital now as they were then. Until they are met, the boycott must continue and we in NCAFC should proudly spearhead it into 2018. Across the country, our activists should be organising to pass motions in students’ unions and promote the boycott at the grassroots level.

I appreciate that the road before us is uncertain. We have seen the ascent of the right within the NUS. We have seen how little we can rely on the NUS leadership to back street-level activism. We have seen reactionary students’ unions breaking rank to ‘boycott the boycott’ in the name of localism and cosying up to senior management. Yet if we, as the standard-bearers of the left in the student movement, cannot lead by example, then who can? To those who fear that all the scabs and right-wingers obstructing us at every stage will surely secure our defeat, have we not always done what we do ‘though cowards flinch and traitors sneer’? Yes, it will be a tough fight. But by building bonds of solidarity with the countless students, education workers, and others who recognise the TEF as yet another shameless attempt to bend a public good into the warped shape of a market system, we can spread word of our cause to even further corners and form an effective force in our own right. Let these words ring into the New Year, even louder and clearer than before: ‘Boycott the NSS!’