Last week, 650 students descended on Gateshead armed only with delegate passes, voting cards and policy documents. It could be a week to celebrate and affirm participative union democracy - unfortunately, it was the annual conference of the National Union of Students.
The NUS is an institution long described as being heavily out of touch with the student movement - in 2009, when universities across the country were occupying in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, national president Wes Streeting was to be found taking an all-expenses paid holiday to Israel, conducting meetings where he assured top government ministers that the actions of 40+ British universities were wildly unrepresentative.
In 2011, however, the NUS surpassed itself. At the end of an academic year which has seen the largest student revolts in British history, and potentially the largest anti-cuts demonstration too, my national union consistently failed to support this movement and commit to its growth.
Motions to support demands for a state-funded maintenance grant for university students, co-ordinated strike action and FE student walkouts were either voted down or amended to such a degree that they became toothless, flaccid murmurs as opposed to mandates for a fighting campaign. For example, a motion demanding that the NUS leadership call another national demonstration was resoundingly rejected - despite the success of the 10th of November ‘Fund Our Future’ march which saw 50,000 students take to the streets and sparked a huge student revolt.
And it is crucial to remember that this success rested on the demonstration being called by a national union; no other force at the time could mobilise such a broad array of students. Sadly, instead of celebrating its successes, the NUS leadership took every step possible to distance themselves from the emerging movement - students were labelled ‘despicable’ and ‘idiotic’, and political and financial support was denied them. Although Porter openly admitted he made serious tactical mistakes, the opportunity to set them right by committing to mobilising students again on a serious level was rejected in favour of localism - on fighting cuts campus by campus with no national co-ordination.
Of course, serious attempts to challenge the NUS leadership were made on an electoral level as well. Before the conference, anti-cuts and anti-war delegates from across the country had come together to form an election slate, to put forward committed activists for every full-time position in the NUS. Predictably, at a small and unrepresentative conference where sabbatical officers can attend as unelected delegates and the organisations with the most resources can mobilise the largest amount of delegates, the slate made little headway - although votes for the slate were noticeably larger than the previous year, and Counterfire member Sean Rillo Rackza received the highest result of all the slate candidates, with 193 votes in the Vice-President welfare election. The final results, however, showed a stubborn victory for the political centrists, with every elected sabbatical formally backed by either Labour Students or the Organised Independents - the two largest factions within the NUS.
However, the 2011 conference marked a definite turning point in a few small ways - most noticeably in the election of the national president. The left slate, headed up by Mark Bergfeld as presidential candidate, played a decisive role in ensuring that the conference elected a president whose manifesto praised the work of the anti-cuts movement and promised a second national demonstration - Liam Burns. Nearly all of Bergfeld’s second-preference votes were transferred to Burns, meaning the centre-left President was dependent on the support of consistent anti-cuts, anti-war delegates - support Burns will hopefully find difficult to forget in the coming year.
And, as in previous years, much of the best politics was to be found away from conference floor. On the first day of Conference, staff at the local FE college were on strike over redundancies and cuts - and given that the college in question churns out annual profits passing the £1million mark, their anger seems more justified than ever. Groups of delegates swarmed to the picket line to bring solidarity and coffee, and Counterfire members Clare Solomon and Sean Rillo Rackza spoke to assembled delegates and strikers.
And in the conference hall itself, a packed-out fringe meeting on imperialism saw 70 delegates discussing the wars in Libya, Gaza and Afghanistan and posing for a ‘hands off Libya’ photoshoot, and many other events centred on anti-fascism and strategies for resisting the cuts. At a highly anticipated evening fringe meeting, ULU President Clare Solomon took on outgoing NUS President Aaron Porter in a debate around the nature and necessity of direct action; pushing for mass protest and diverse, creative forms of civil disobedience, Solomon was on form against a defensive Porter. Of course, some rather less salubrious events were on offer, including a session called ‘Meet the Zionists’ which promised to put a different spin on what it means to be a Zionist today. This consisted of a string of speakers cynically conflating Judaism with Zionism in an attempt to draw parallels between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and make it harder for campaigners to confront Zionist ideas.
But the importance of the conference should not be overplayed. Whilst in a properly functioning union it would set a firm mandate for action over the next year, when the union is broken and toothless then activists on the ground must take the challenge upon themselves, organising resistance to the cuts across the country and consistently pushing on their national leadership to support them. Liam Burns has relied on the support of activists to get where he is now - let’s ensure he doesn’t forget that support in the year ahead.