Socialist Students delegates at NUS Women’s Conference 2015
Last week, three members of Leeds Socialist Students attended NUS Women’s Conference 2015. This year’s NUS conferences are taking place at a critical time for the student movement, less than two months before the general election, with growing anger from students and workers about the continuing cuts and privatisation no matter who is elected on May 7th. There has been a wave of recent demonstrations and occupations demanding free education, following on from the 10,000-strong demonstration last November.
Mary Finch, Leeds Uni Socialist Students
These issues were discussed at conference, with a motion proposed and overwhelmingly passed to support and campaign for free education and living grants for all students, as well as supporting a democratically run education system! The conference also overwhelmingly supported a motion to fight for affordable housing and the mass building of social housing, alongside giving support to existing housing campaigns. A Socialist Students member was able to speak in favour of a motion calling for the NUS Women’s Campaign to train women students in organising themselves and other students in struggle, instead of preparing them for positions of political and corporate leadership.
But these motions formed conference’s only concrete plans for action. The rest of the conference centred around the language and behaviour of individuals, and how best to make the Campaign and the wider movement a ‘safe space’, one that is completely free of oppression.
These discussions are important – challenging transphobia, sexuality-based oppression (homophobia, biphobia and so on), sexism, racism, and ableism are necessary tasks not just for the NUS, but for the student movement as a whole. But they should be happening alongside, not instead of, effective and concrete campaigning. Some left organisations, including the leadership of the NUS Women’s Campaign, argue that we need to create a perfect ‘safe space’ within our organisations, free of oppression in any form, before we can begin to build an equally perfect and safe student movement.
But creating a perfect safe space is impossible when we still live under a system that actively creates and perpetuates oppression. Most of the delegates to the conference were university students in their early twenties – that’s twenty years of being surrounded by misogyny, ableism, racism and a multitude of other oppressions that will inevitably infect our thought, behaviour, and our politics. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t challenge them in ourselves and others. Socialist Students has a proud record of fighting all forms of oppression – for example, we launched the Rape is No Joke campaign to tackle misogyny in comedy and wider society.
Social conventions mean that, consciously or unconsciously, individuals will use what is deemed to be oppressive language or behaviour. The role of the NUS, and the wider student and workers’ movement, is not to bully these individuals out of the movement, but to patiently explain why it’s problematic. They should also be consistently linking this to concrete campaign work against their material causes. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the attitude of the leadership of the NUS Women’s Campaign.
Furthermore, this policing of people’s language and behaviour is almost always undemocratic. Individuals act as arbiters based on their personal feelings, instead of organisations reaching collective decisions on what standards of behaviour are expected in advance. Whether or not an individual is being oppressive is decided by whoever happens to call them out, meaning that there are no clear standards for conforming to ‘safe space’ policy, and no clear criteria for being a good ‘ally’. Most often, it’s those who are in positions of leadership, or in cliques with the leadership, who wield the most authority to dictate what is and is not oppressive.
It reinforces even further the undemocratic nature of the NUS and the Women’s Campaign, where students feel unable to call their leadership to account without genuine hostility and intimidation. It reached the point at conference where the NUS Wales women’s officer spoke in favour of a secret ballot for conference motions, because so many delegates had told her they felt unable to criticise the leadership without being labelled bigots.
We cannot ultimately overcome oppression, in the structural or the individual sense, by merely looking inwards and examining ourselves. Even if we could create a perfect safe space, emulating our ideal society, it wouldn’t constitute a fundamental challenge to the source of oppression – capitalism. Capitalism is a system that perpetuates oppression because it benefits from it. Dividing working-class people on the basis of gender, race, and so on undermines our unity against the common enemy: the super-rich exploiters and their politicians.
That fundamental challenge will come from concrete campaigning, beginning with whatever concessions we can win under capitalism. Improving conditions for all ordinary people, which includes reducing the attacks made on various oppressed groups, strengthens our movement. The question is: do we do this by excluding the ‘imperfect’, or by appealing to ordinary students and workers and organising real action? It’s clear that the NUS leadership, both nationally and in the Women’s Campaign, favours the former. The composite resolution on free education only included mandates for concrete activity because students at University College London had raised it in their motion’s text. The motion proposed by the NUS Women’s Committee resolved only to ‘oppose’ tuition fees and a graduate tax.
The fact that the NUS chose to spend its resources on a four-star hotel with a jacuzzi, sauna and pool further suggests that its priorities are far from investing in struggle. One delegate commented how ironic it was that after finishing lengthy discussions on women’s rights, black women working most likely for below the living wage would come in to clear away our lunch plates.
The last five years of the austerity coalition, and the lack of action from the NUS, has shown that it’s down to grassroots student organisations, like Socialist Students, to rebuild the struggle. In Yorkshire, Socialist Students organised a regional demonstration for free education that attracted around 150 students and young people. We’re looking to organise further action in Yorkshire and nationwide.
Even if it refuses to lead, the NUS remains the biggest national student organisation in Britain, with a platform to speak to seven million students up and down the country. In 2010, the student demonstrations they called attracted 50,000 people. Socialist Students places no faith in the current NUS leadership. But we recognise the NUS still has a mass platform and huge resources that, under mass pressure, can be put to the service of the student movement.
We have a significant presence at national conference, with a sizeable number of delegates each year and Socialist Students candidates either already sitting on, or standing to be elected to, the NUS NEC. There are huge potential benefits from the liberation conferences as well, which Socialist Students should be taking full advantage of.
We’re active on over fifty campuses nationwide. Our politics attract and inspire students. If our members stood more widely in delegate elections for NUS conferences, we could have a far broader, more confident, and more successful engagement with them. More delegates will allow us to better cut across the bullying tactics of NUS leaders who would rather look for reasons to exclude activists than call any sort of real action. We can better put forward our ideas to build the student movement and guide it to success. As always, where the NUS or students’ unions are insensitive to pressure from below, we must be ready to call our own actions.
In a time when the fightback is becoming ever more important, but no mass organisations are willing to play the role of leaders, Socialist Students has to step up!