All change at the NUS as its presidency is won by a black female activist. Liam McCafferty reports
The National Union of Students (NUS) witnessed a historic moment in its 94 year history, as it elected Malia Bouattia as the first black woman and the first Muslim to lead the organisation as its national president.
This represents a pivotal moment for the fortunes of the left within NUS and for the student movement more broadly. Malia won her election as an openly anti-austerity, anti-war, and anti-islamophobia candidate – pledging to revitalise the student movement and put a fighting, transformative NUS at its core. The fact that it came at the expense of an incumbent president – for the first time in 37 years – made it all the more significant.
The BBC report that covered the result however is sadly a sign of things to come. Instead of focusing on the significance of a progressive, Muslim woman elected to lead an organisation of over 7 million students, it instead chose to focus on repeating slurs that have directed at Malia during her time as Black Students’ Officer.
These include the accusation that she has refused to condemn ISIS – something that was heavily reported by the right-wing press. What actually happened is that she spoke against a resolution that included wording that appear to hold Muslims responsible for the actions of fundamentalists. She then subsequently proposed a newly-worded resolution that condemned ISIS, which the article conveniently fails to mention.
The article also follows on from series of allegations of anti-Semitism that were in made the run up to the conference, questioning her long-held support for the Palestinians. It didn’t however include any reference to Malia’s statement on the allegations, where she unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism and made it clear that it nothing to do with her criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause.
All of this suggests that the establishment media will do whatever it takes to undermine a Muslim woman in a position of power, and symptomatic of the islamophobia that is rife in the corridors of power and our wider society.
It is also a particular blow to the Blairites that have traditionally dominated NUS. It was best summed up by the characteristically undignified response of former president and current MP, Wes Streeting, who stated that NUS is ‘lost’ before urging ‘moderate students’ to organise and reclaim it.
For people like Streeting, the NUS has long ceased to be anything more than a magical gateway to a safe seat in the labour heartlands. They may have managed to hang on with two of the Vice-President positions, but their crisis is far from over. As we saw in the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, students and young people are crying reflection of that. The Blairites, in contrast, are ideologically redundant and have no answers for the challenges our students face.
This then is an opportunity to reawaken the student movement. For many students, the prospect of stable, well-paid employment after graduation is almost a pipe dream. A whole new generation will be chopped from access to Higher Education due to cuts to maintenance grants and the NHS bursaries. The Teaching Excellence Framework will link fees to performance, meaning that top institutions will be able to charge extortionate fees that will push out poorer students. Students are at the cutting edge of neoliberal policies of the government. Ours is the lost generation.
As we saw in the 2010 student protests, when students are mobilised, they have enormous potential. By electing our most left-wing leader in decades, we can now start to realise that potential. Back in 2010 we didn’t have the full backing of NUS, and we suffered for it.
That is why we need to support and provide solidarity to Malia through the inevitable media backlash. We have won a chance to reshape our national union and reinvigorate the student movement to mount a serious challenge to the government’s offensive. Today is a huge victory, but the real work of building a strong, cohesive and effective student movement begins now.