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Defending the NUS left leadership – we’ve defeated the disaffiliations campaigns, the next threat is a right wing governance review

By Fiona Edwards and Aaron Kiely, Student Broad Left 

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Aaron and Fiona
The new left wing leadership of NUS took office at the start of this month – marking a new era for the student movement.

Following the left victories at NUS National Conference in April, the left now occupies the position of NUS President and has a majority on the NUS National Executive. This new leadership stands for a new kind of politics to that which has dominated NUS for the past few decades, standing for: free education and fighting against the attacks on students, as well as campaigning against austerity, racism, discrimination, climate change and war.

This represents a massive breakthrough and an opportunity for the left to lead students in a movement that takes on the Tories to defend education.

But since the historic left breakthroughs at the NUS National Conference in April, the right wing both inside and outside of NUS have sought to undermine and attack this new left wing leadership. Hundreds of articles have been published smearing and attacking the new NUS President, Malia Bouattia, whilst Conservative University Associations have led campaigns at a number of campuses for Students’ Unions to disaffiliate from NUS.

The next challenge for the left will be come from within NUS itself. Right wing officers within NUS are prioritising a governance review which has two aims. Firstly provide a distraction from the real priorities over the year ahead – which is clearly leading the fight against tuition fees and education cuts. Secondly to change the NUS Constitution to make NUS less democratic and less representative with the goal of pushing back the advance of the left wing in NUS. The right wing want to push out the new left NUS leadership which stands up for the issues students care about – free education, opposing austerity and stopping the attacks on living standards.

The left pushes back the right wing NUS disaffiliation offensive: huge mandate for a fighting NUS

In total there have been 14 referendums and 1 student general meeting on NUS affiliation since NUS National Conference in April.

11 Students’ Unions have voted to remain part of the NUS, with 4 opting for disaffiliation.

At the Students’ Unions which decided to disaffiliate, the decisive factor was the fact that NUS representatives were banned from campaigning on the ground, talking to students and were therefore not given a fair opportunity to both make the positive case for remaining part of the national union and also to respond to the massive smear campaign against the new NUS President.

Where representatives of NUS were allowed to campaign and challenge the attacks and smears against Malia we succeeded in defending NUS every single time.

As for the 11 Students’ Unions that voted to remain affiliated to the NUS, it was the need to get behind NUS’ campaign to stop tuition fees increasing again and to stop the massive education cuts coming in this year which proved decisive. Students were also motivated to vote because of NUS’ important work in defending international students, campaigning for liberation and against discrimination, as well as the massive discounts that come with NUS affiliation for both students and Students’ Unions.

The left victory in defeating the overwhelming majority of the disaffiliation campaigns reflects a strong mandate for a fighting NUS.

Whilst there are more disaffiliation referendums coming up in the autumn term – and the whole of NUS must mobilise to defeat these – the disaffiliation campaigns have lost momentum on a national level.

The question is now: where next after the disaffiliation campaigns?

In a year that the Tory government wants to increase tuition fees, is the priority for NUS an internal review of its democratic structures or is it to fight student debt rising again?

A less democratic, less representative NUS: the right wing’s ‘governance review’

Now that the left are in the process of taking over NUS – a process which has spanned the past 5 years and involved winning elections, changing NUS policy on a range of issues including support for free education, to actively fight cuts, to support freedom and justice for Palestine and to fight racism as a top priority for the student movement – the right wing are seeking to shift the goal posts through changing the NUS Constitution in order to prevent the left from winning in the future.

When the right wing dominated NUS elections and won their policy for students to pay tens of thousands of pounds to go to university by a landslide they had no issue with the democratic structures of NUS. Now that the left are winning, the structures of NUS are no longer “fit for purpose.”

The goal for the right wing is straightforward: to make NUS un-democratic and un-representative of students.

The exact form in which this will take is unclear. Proposals to remove powers of democratic bodies of the NUS such as its National Executive Council, attacking the Liberation Campaigns whose success has underpinned the advance of the left within NUS (particularly the NUS Black Students’ Campaign) as well as undermining NUS National Conference are all likely to be on the table.

The last time there was a major governance review within NUS, the Liberation Campaigns were removed from the highest decision making body of the organisation with the creation of the Trustee Board, the political diversity of the NUS Block of 15 was diminished – with the number of left wingers falling from 3 to 1 in one year -, and the size of NUS National Conference was dramatically reduced.

Reforming NUS: we need a democratic, active, fighting, campaigning NUS

Of course there is room for improvement – and there is a lot of work that the left in NUS has to do to transform NUS into an active, campaigning movement that delivers change for students. A right wing leadership of NUS has held back the student movement for decades and big changes are needed to get the fight for free education and against education cuts on the front foot. The right wing does not represent nor fight for the interests of students.

Do these changes require a major governance review of NUS’ structures? No – every year the constitution can be amended at the NUS National Conference. So the changes that are required, such as dramatically increasing the number of NUS delegates for National Conference so each of NUS’ Constituent Members can send more representatives, can just be sorted out by submitting motions to the next NUS National Conference.

The real changes NUS needs is to be more active, lead more campaigns and to provide more opportunities for students to get involved. These changes do not require a governance review but clear political leadership. That will involve NUS organising national demonstrations – such as the one NUS is organising on Saturday 12 November alongside the University College Union (UCU) -, national days and weeks of action, training days, big training events and summits to train students on campaigning on important issues such as affordable housing and against course closures, alongside more support for the Liberation Campaigns and so on.

A huge struggle to defend the new left leadership of the student movement is underway. Having a serious approach to defeating the right wing attacks and attempts to undermine and overthrow this left wing leadership is absolutely crucial. So to is the work of transforming NUS into a fighting national union which unites students against the huge attacks we are facing – the most central of which are the threat of higher tuition fees, massive cuts to colleges and universities, the huge rise in racism, xenophobia and hate crime we are witnessing, as well as the enormous threats to both university funds and the status of EU international students that come with Britain leaving the EU.

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