Why Left-Wing Students Should Run to Be NUS Delegates

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by Natalia Cassidy

Many on the student left, that is; students active and engaged in Left-Wing politics at their university or college – are sceptical of involvement in the NUS (National Union of Students). This attitude does not come from nowhere: the NUS has for many years been dominated by careerist bureaucrats, often giving a lot of lip service to the left, but who must be judged on their record. A record which shows a near universal failure to effectively challenge issues such as the privatisation taking place within Further/Higher Education, or the living conditions of its student members.

The NUS and campus activism

The NUS has, especially in recent years, taken a muted role in student activism. This has led many principled student activists doing excellent work on their campuses for the wellbeing of students and workers alike, to become disillusioned with the potential benefits that NUS support might bring their way. This is perhaps an unsurprising attitude given how alien the concept of a genuinely left-wing, campaigning NUS is to many students today. However, the NUS is a national body, with hundreds of University and College Students Unions as members: this gives it unparalleled potential as an apparatus to link up struggles across campuses. One only has to look at the waves that were caused in the wave of occupations that occurred nationwide in 2017-18 (in the UK and in France) to see that student activism’s impact is far more capable of having the voices of students’ heard when that voice is united rather than atomised. Had the NUS at the time supported this activism, materially and organisationally, this voice could have only been stronger still.

The NUS left as we find it today

Where has the left found itself in all this? The current dominant left strain within NUS is; in a number of ways, deficient. It offers no way forward to any substantial transformation of the way that NUS is run or operates. Without any significant democratic structures in the way in which the left is organised, there is no way for students to hold a Left-Wing group of elected full time officers (FTOs) to account. The NUS cannot and will not be transformed into a genuinely combative force for its students through the election of bureaucrats that sit slightly further to the left. The more critical Left – largely composed of NCAFC (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) activists have, particularly in recent years, struggled to put forward a clear and convincing alternative for the NUS, particularly given the nature of rhetoric at NUS events being to the left of those espousing it.
None of this is inevitable, a Left in the NUS can be drawn out and can distinguish itself from the right and ‘soft-left’, only through robustly democratic internal operation & a platform and programme drawn up around political lines rather than around personalized “more activist than thou” lines.

The NUS and the wider Left-Wing movement

The history of the left in government should leave us under no illusions that the mere election of left wing governments is, in and of itself, insufficient as a means of transforming society. The experiences of the governments of Callaghan Britain, Mitterrand in France and Lula in Brazil demonstrate that without a wider movement to hold them to account and push them to the left, Left-Wing governments find themselves either incapable of enacting the progressive changes they make promises to enact, or they find themselves actively engaged in the business of doing the right’s work for them (see especially Syriza in Greece).

In the event of a Corbyn led Labour government, the challenges would be no less, perhaps even greater. Capital is well equipped to defend itself from attacks from the left, particularly when these attacks are parliamentary. Where does this leave us and what does any of this have to do with the NUS? It leaves us with the urgent need to build a movement capable of pulling Labour leftwards, a task important in opposition that becomes all the more important in the event of a Labour government. The NUS has the potential, if transformed from the ground up through democratisation and a concerted effort on the part of the left, to act as a counterweight. A movement that, through action and campaigns, can support the student and wider labour movement in periods of progressive struggle. One can only imagine how the early 2018 UCU (University and College Union) strike action might have resulted had the groundswell of activism on campuses been robustly supported by the NUS.

Engaging in NUS democracy

The starting point of transforming NUS is to engage in its existing democratic structures. This means left-wing activists running as delegates through their Students’ Unions has to be the starting point. It is only through a swell of activists running as delegates that the left can have any hope of transforming the NUS. The careerist-bureaucratic milieu that dominate NUS understand that this is the basis of controlling NUS and are the kinds of students that consistently run as delegates to national conference. Only a large left-wing delegate base has a chance of electing a left-wing, transformative slate of activists that will support struggle on campus and in the wider labour movement.