Report of the Progressive Students Conference
How students can unite to oppose the most reactionary government in years was discussed at the Progressive Students Conference held on 23 October. Over 100 students – from more than 30 colleges and universities across the country – gathered at the event organized by the Student Broad Left and National Black Students Alliance.
Central to the day was how students can organize to challenge the cuts consensus and the unprecedented attack on public services and education announced by the coalition government. Speakers underlined how the real goal of the Tories was not to get the economy growing again but to pursue an ideological goal of slashing public services and making the poorest pay for the economic crisis whilst protecting the wealthiest in society.
In a Q+A with Ken Livingstone, he pointed out that: “The policies being pursued by the government at the moment are not only unfair, but they have never worked. All through history, countries have got out of debt by continuing to spend, paying back debt slowly and not abandoning social programmes. We should be investing to re-invigorate the economy.”
Emily Thornberry MP slammed the Spending Review as a punitive attack on women and the poorer sections of society who will be disproportionately affected by the cuts. 65% of public sector workers are women, leading NUS Women’s Officer Olivia Bailey to describe the coalition government’s policy to cut hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs as “ideologically anti-women… these are unprecedented attacks not seen for generations.”
Michael Burke, from Socialist Economic Bulletin, focused on shattering the myth peddled by the coalition government that the deficit is the source of the current crisis and so we need cuts. “The deficit is the symptom of the economic crisis, not its cause. The collapse of investment by the private sector accounts for 70% of the economic fall during the recession. This fall in investment has led taxation revenues to collapse.” He emphasized the need for the government to get investment up to get growth back on track.
As Christine Blower, General Secretary of National Union of Teachers stressed: “We need a massive broad-ranging progressive alliance to challenge the myth that there are no alternatives.” She added one alternative “is to make the banks pay” by raising corporation tax to be in line with elsewhere.
As part of the coalition’s attack, students face a massive fee hike. The conference looked at what a serious, progressive alternative to Lord Browne’s plans to create a free market in higher education would be. Terry Hoad, President-Elect of the UCU rejected all attempts to increase the burden on students – instead he made the case for fees to be scrapped and replaced with a Business Education Tax, stating “we should be investing in education.” As he made clear this would be good for society and good for the economy.
Fiona Edwards presented the findings of the Free Education Campaign’s briefing which used government figures to show that “for every pound invested in higher education, the economy expands by £2.60.” She pointed out that Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz has called on governments to invest in education to “stimulate the economy and create jobs in the short run and promote growth and debt reduction in the long run.”
Alongside a clear economic alternative, the speakers called for maximum unity and vigorous campaigning as vital for defeating the government’s attacks on students and the wider population. Mark Bergfeld from the NUS encouraged everyone to attend the ‘Fund Our Future’ national demonstration in London on 10th November ahead of the likely vote on higher fees. Peter Mannion former President of the Union of Students in Ireland provided inspiration when he explained his own experience of leading a fight to defeat higher fees: “There have been two attempts to reintroduce tuition fees in Ireland since 1997. They have both been defeated.”
Speaking out against racism
A key theme at the conference was the need to challenge racism. NUS representative Joshi Sachdeo opened the ‘One Society, Many Cultures’ session, by stressing the vital importance of progressives standing up to those who want to whip up racism and division by scapegoating Muslims, immigrants, asylum seekers and others.
The rise of fascist political parties against the backdrop of cuts was discussed. Sabby Dhalu from Unite Against Fascism warned that “the BNP are now the most successful fascist party in British history, securing a record 1 million votes at the last General Election. This success has given rise to the English Defence League which has terrorized the Muslim community with their violent protests.” Martin Smith from Love Music Hate Racism stressed the importance of mobilizing in our thousands against racism and Islamophobia on the national UAF demonstration in London of the 6th November.
Doreen Lawrence OBE, the mother of Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in a racist attack in 1993, underlined the violent conclusions that the racist climate in society leads to. Doreen’s campaigning has brought about a fundamental change in UK law relating to police misconduct and racially motivated murder. She explained, however, that these advances are under threat by the Tories who refused to implement the changes recommended by the Lawrence Inquiry when they were last in power.
Sara Halimah from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies provided insights into how the climate of Islamophobia is affecting Muslim students: “Muslims are being physically attacked on campuses… headscarves are being pulled off Muslim women… and verbal abuse and insults are very common.” Edie Friedman from the Jewish Council for Racial Equality stressed that the soaring racism sweeping across Europe affected all communities and that there needed to be “unity among all persecuted people.”
Taking on the Tory Bigotry
In the afternoon, Daf Adley highlighted the hypocrisy of the coalition who have tried to hijack the word “progressive.” This is particularly true, he continued, of the Liberal Democrats who have justified entering the coalition by saying that the Tories would be launching more vicious attacks were they not there to soften the blows. The speakers in this session were unequivocal that the “modern” conservatives that David Cameron tries to present barely concealed the reality and that bigotry was thriving within the Tories as it always has.
“All we have seen is selling out”, said Vicki Baars, NUS LGBT Officer, who explained how the Lib Dems u-turn to support higher fees will massively impact upon LGBT students estranged from their parents because of their sexuality and without sufficient financial support for university as a result. Compass Youth’s Caroline Alabi added that the cuts were “a backward step for young women nationwide” and encouraged everyone to take inspiration from the French and demonstrate in our millions against the cuts. Pav Akhtar from Black Pride criticised the government’s plans to cut police numbers which would compromise the safety of LGBT people in a context of rising homophobic hate crime.
Fighting injustice everywhere
As well as centrally looking at how we can fight for progressive solutions in Britain, the conference was also an opportunity to discuss how we can support justice, equality and peace across the world.
Encouraging students to get involved in Progressive Students activities, Salma Yaqoob said: “Young people have increasingly been at the heart of the global movements for peace, justice and equality. I’ve been inspired to see hundreds of thousands of students march on the streets demanding peace and justice for the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Our government’s twisted priorities that lead Britain to spend billions of pounds waging war whilst the budgets for our schools, universities and vital services are cut must be challenged.”
Betty Hunter from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign spoke about the urgency of students in Britain supporting the Palestinians fighting for justice: “Palestine is THE issue for the young generation – there are injustices all over the world, but this one is akin to Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.”
The conference was moved to hear from Jews for Justice for Palestinians speaker Glyn Secker, who recently attempted to break the siege on Gaza alongside other Jewish pro-Palestine activists, including a Holocaust survivor. Unfortunately Israel intercepted the boat before it managed to reach Gaza with the humanitarian aid. Israel’s siege on Gaza brutally denies the Palestinians access to basic supplies and their freedom of movement leading the United Nations to describe the situation as equivalent to trapping 1.5 million people in “an open air prison.”
Lindsey German from the Stop the War Coalition spoke about how the war on Afghanistan is a waste of lives and a waste of money and called on us to build for the national demo against the war on the 20th November on our campuses. The demo is being co-organised with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the British Muslim Initiative. Daniel Blaney from CND looked at how the government’s wrong spending priorities lead Britain to spend £2bn a year maintaining Trident nuclear weapons designed to kill millions, the same amount it would cost to abolish tuition fees.
Inspirational alternatives were also debated. Cat Goss, who had recently retuned from studying in Venezuela spoke about the progress that has been made since Chavez came to power, showing there is an alternative: “There are 230,000 students nationwide, all receiving a free education despite Venezuela being a third world country.” Francisco Dominguez of the Venezuela and Cuba Solidarity Campaign added: “Latin America was in a horrific state ten years ago and before. Neo-liberalism had been imposed with a vengeance, everything was privatised and unemployment was used as a weapon. Now Latin America is making massive advances and showing that there is an alternative.”
The final session of the day summed up a key theme of the conference. As Kate Hudson, General Secretary of CND pointed out, “There is always an alternative.” She added that it was crucial to “form alliances with all forces in society that are opposed to what the government is doing.”
General Secretary of the CWU, Billy Hayes said, “From attacks on state pensions, by raising the retirement age, to increasing the cost of education to students by tens of thousands, it is clear on many levels that the government are determined that those least responsible for the crisis are made to foot the bill for it.” He went on to say that as this crisis has been caused by a dramatic fall in investment our argument must be “investment not cuts.”
Adrian Ramsay, Deputy Leader of the Greens discussed how the answers to the economic and environmental crises go together, “we should maximize jobs not cut services. To create the economy we want for the future we need to invest in green and other industries that will restructure our economy away from financial speculation.” He opened his remarks with a message of support and best wishes for the Progressive Students Conference from the National Convention of Young Greens.
Kanja Sesay, NUS Black Students’ Officer concluded the day with a rallying call:
“Standing up for our education is not just standing up for our own futures. It is standing up for the future of British society, social justice and equality – and for the future of Britain’s economy based on high skills, prosperity and growth. They have their reactionary coalition. We have our own progressive coalition now.
We need to take our progressive politics – for investment in free education and public services, not cuts – for fighting tooth and nail against all forms of racism, bigotry and oppression – for supporting peace, equality and justice across the global – onto our campuses and into NUS. We are building a progressive student coalition – and you should get involved!”
Key Next Steps
Throughout the day speakers called on students to join a whole host of progressive events coming up over the next term. Please see the details below.
- Sat, 6th No to racism, fascism & Islamophobia. UAF/LMHR National Demo, London
- Wed, 10th Fund our Future: Stop Education Cuts, NUS/UCU National Demo
- Sat, 20th Afghanistan: Time to Go – Stop the War, CND, BMI National Demo
- Wed, 24th Student Broad Left meeting, London – email email@example.com
- 27th & 28th NUS Black Students’ Winter Conference, London
- Throughout NUS LGBT Activist Training Days, nationwide
The conference was organized by the Student Broad Left (SBL) and National Black Students Alliance (NBSA). If you need any support building campaigns on campus please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on twitter: @broadleft. Visit our website for articles, news and events: www.studentbroadleft.org.uk.