Organising to Walkout Against the Trump Agenda

Leeds Socialist Student's Dump Trump banner on a recent demo - photo Iain Dalton

Leeds Socialist Student’s Dump Trump banner on a recent demo – photo Iain Dalton

On the 15 th of February, Leeds Socialist Students members organized a meeting to discuss a possible walkout action across schools and universities if Donald Trump was to be granted a state visit to the UK.

Jack Niddrie, Leeds Beckett Socialist Students

The meeting met a good response with some new students from Leeds University attending as well as a younger student from Harrogate. The wide variety of age groups encouraged us to start planning for leafleting and collecting walkout pledges starting immediately next week during a local anti-Trump demonstration.

The interest in Trumps politics needs linking this to similar policies closer to home such as the crises within the NHS and  the plight of refugees in Calais.

A general walkout by students and young people, like the student protests in 2010, was decided as the best way to easily organize and engage people with a physical protest.

The state visit, put on the agenda by a popular online petition, is to be debated in parliament on the February 20th at which point it will become clear when the state visit will take place. When we do know, socialists up and down the country can start to plan action for a mass walkout.

Fantastic start to the year for Socialist Students in Leeds

Below we print some reports from Freshers Fayres at the main two universities in Leeds and a report of a demonstration Socialist Students members were involed in organising in solidarity with the abortion rights movements in Ireland and Poland.

Leeds University

Socialist Students stall at Leeds Uni frehsers fayre - photo Iain Dalton

Socialist Students stall at Leeds Uni frehsers fayre – photo Iain Dalton

Students at Leeds University showed great enthusiasm for socialist ideas this year as over 250 students signed up to our mailing list. Our focus on issues such as the junior doctor strikes and tuition fee rises set us apart from other left societies, as well as our strong history in taking action alongside discussion.

Our first meeting was on what socialism is. The word has become more widely used in recent years. We had an interesting discussion about the practicalities of implementing socialism as well as questions about Socialist Students itself. The new academic year sees multiple hardships for students including the scrapping of maintenance grants, high rents and increasing tuition fees. In the face of these, more and more students have shown a willingness to fight back as they do not want to see a future where they are buried under unpayable debt – a fact reflected in the number of sign ups we received. With a national demonstration being called by the National Union of Students (finally) against tuition fees on 19 November, there is hope that student politics will become a force to be reckoned with once more and Socialist Students will be at the forefront of that.

Maddy Steeds

Leeds Beckett – Wide-ranging discussions

Socialist Students at Leeds Beckett freshers fayre - photo Iain Dalton

Socialist Students at Leeds Beckett freshers fayre – photo Iain Dalton

We attended both the Headingley and City Campus freshers fairs and had a good level of interest. We were asked a lot of questions. Some students just wanted a basic definition of socialism, some wanted to talk about current political topics such as Corbyn or the US elections, and others were already active and just wanted to sign straight up.

There was definitely a lot of interest around Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leadership election, and issues such as tuition fees.

I spoke to a number of students who had developed an interest in politics after seeing Jeremy Corbyn on TV and social media.

Jenny Skinner, Leeds Beckett Socialist Students

Solidarity demo with Irish abortion fight

Solidarity protest with abortion rights movements in Ireland and Poland - photo Iain Dalton

Solidarity protest with abortion rights movements in Ireland and Poland – photo Iain Dalton

Socialists in Leeds called on the Irish government to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution at a city centre solidarity protest on 27 September.

The amendment bans abortions and is the focus of a campaign by Rosa (for Reproductive rights against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity) a campaigning group set up by Socialist Party members in Ireland.

Protest organiser Amy Cousens spoke about the injustice of this sexist policy, giving examples of women who had suffered greatly as a result. Maddy Steeds, equality and diversity officer at Leeds Beckett student union and Tannis Belsham-Wray, a Socialist Party member, also made speeches about the need to fight for the abolition of the 8th Amendment. They explained how cuts to social and welfare budgets are further punishing women.

Iain Dalton, West Yorkshire organiser for the Socialist Party, concluded the protest with a speech further emphasising the links between oppression in society and austerity which is perpetuating inequality. He went on to discuss recent attempts by the Irish government to introduce water charges as an example of the wealthy few forcing the poorer majority to pay for the their mistakes through crippling austerity measures.

Yorkshire socialists stand with Rosa and Irish women to repeal the 8th Amendment and allow women to take back control of their reproductive rights.

Heidi Scarce, Leeds Uni Socialist Students

We Need Fighting Students Unions

Amy at the front of the Leeds for Free Education demo - March 2015

Amy at the front of the Leeds for Free Education demo – March 2015

This article was originally published on the Beckett Online and can be viewed at http://bemedia.org.uk/uncategorized/high-rent-high-fees-student-debt-and-poverty-issues-students-union-leaders-need-to-address/

‘So what does the student’s union do again?’ – A question being asked far too often by students. Despite the good intentions of most officers and staff, students unions nationally are falling short for students.

Amy Cousens, Leeds Beckett Socialist Students President & Leeds Beckett SU Women’s Officer

For many students, unions have become bars and the NUS has become a discount card. Something has happened with students unions. Gone are the days when meetings had to be held in car parks to accommodate student numbers.

A disconnect from political militancy has occurred to the point where even good campaigns put out from individual, politically good, officers still fail to reach a wide range of students and a cycle of apathy occurs. Unions fear over sending out political messages because they presume lack of student response and students lack to respond because student unions are not mobilising efficiently.

Whilst having nicer bar spaces and free ketchup are not bad things, they are not the big issues effecting students. With soaring rent prices, crippling debt, the cutting of bursaries and maintenance grants, worsening living standards, high sexual harassment, institutional racism, and the list could go on, there are by far bigger issues that should be higher up on the agendas of student union officers.

More and more these issues take a back seat on manifesto’s and campaigning points. Solid political strategies to tackle said issues are secondary or even none existent and instead club nights and pictures of rainbows are at the forefront. Whilst I’m not opposed to a nice rainbow, when the average student rent takes up 95% of a student’s loan, issues that are really affecting students need to be at the forefront of priorities.

With a conservative government forecast for the next five years, a strong student movement is needed now more than ever. Student politics needs to step out of the box of ‘student politics’. Student movements can be the driving force behind huge societal change. It was students who linked up with workers unions in Germany and won free education. It was students who marched on Tiananmen Square. It is students at University College London who are facing the London housing crisis head on and demanding affordable accommodation through rent striking.

Students are the next generation of workers in a society where there needs to be a massive struggle to defend and fight for our public services, decent wages, affordable housing etc. Why are we selling future workers short by not trying to mobilise our students to lobby, campaign, rent strike, whatever it takes to fight and win things that should be a right and not a privilege.

When the government triples tuition fees and cuts maintenance grants but gives tax breaks to the richest 5% of the population, there needs to be a serious fight put up by both students and workers.

Yet student union activism is still not, on the majority, engaging students into these movements. Granted when students have had nothing but bad news from politics, getting wide scale interest is hard. However, students unions in particular can and do have a driving force of influence, not to mention the resources, to enable such a mass movement.

Our union struggles to fill coaches to free education demos but getting the coach in the first place is only half the battle. Full time officers especially have the ability to go out to halls, to lectures, to student cafe areas to build for movements and campaigns. Where students do not agree or seem to care, the political knowledge needs to be there to have that discussion about why we need free education etc. If those conversations are not happening how do we expect to fill our coaches, our meetings, our campaign stalls or our pickets?

Whilst there are many time constraints and pressures put onto officers, especially officers in voluntary roles, the priorities need to be with the issues that are the ones most effecting students, even if those students are not aware of the political connections of those problems and accept them as part of life.

Whilst I realise that I am generalising and that there are many student union officers in the country who are being bold and militantly leading student struggles, mobilising is still not on a mass scale basis. Students unions have huge potential to be at the forefront of the student movement and leading on these issues.

It should not be a debate as to whether or not we send coaches to anti-austerity demos and free education demos and holding meetings on such topics. Funding cuts and austerity measures are squeezing people out of higher education and racking up debt for those in it. Our students unions should be bold and militant enough to address these issues if we are going to put up a real fight for ours and future students education.

Corbyn comes to Leeds Uni

A big number of people in the Great Hall at Leeds Uni awaiting Corbyn's arrival

A big number of people in the Great Hall at Leeds Uni awaiting Corbyn’s arrival

Several hundred students crammed into the Great Hall at Leeds Uni on Thursday 29th October to hear newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speak.

Iain Dalton, Yorkshire Socialist Students Organiser

Rather than any of the inspiring demands he raised during his election campaign, of free education, of a £10 an hour minimum wage or others – Labour Students asked him to speak on the more mundane topic of voter registration. This reflects the ‘moderate’ & electoralist composition of Labour Students who nationally backed Liz Kendall  and seemed not the most sympathetic to Corbyn whilst discussing in the queues  outside.

Whilst the right to vote and other democratic rights are important – what you do with those rights and encouraging people to actively take up issues themselves are even more so. This Corbyn understood far more than those who invited him to speak, and indeed he made this the focus of his speech.

Corbyn began with addressing with focus of the meeting – the redrawing of parliamentary electoral boundaries which at present would be done missing a million or so voters, mainly in Labour seats in inner city areas. He contrasted this with the government’s plans to create more Tory peers, making the unelected House of Lords have significantly more members than the elected House of Commons.

But he quickly moved on to point out that whilst winning a majority Labour government was important to him, how they frame the debate in the here and now was vital too. He pointed to some of the U-turns Labour under him had recently forced the government into, such as regarding the bid to run Saudi Arabian prisons, as well as the reversal by the House of Lords over the government’s plans to cut working tax credit.

His central message was that campaigning works, and if we are to change anything it has to be on that basis. Campaigning on things now has the potential to force the government to retreat and can prepare the basis for a subsequent government taking more radical action in the future.

Yet also evident in his speech was some of the pressure of the right of his own party that Corbyn is coming under. For example, during his speech he featured the national  student demonstration taking place on 4th November, saying he supported it campaigning against cuts to grants and urging people to attend. However, at no point did he mention that it had been called as a ‘Free Education’ demo.

Corbyn’s election has been welcomed by Socialist Students as putting socialist ideas back into the mainstream and offering hope for an alternative to many. However, one of the key tasks for socialists is to go out a build support on the ground for some of the ideas like Free Education, as Socialist Students have done in Leeds with a successful demonstration last weekend. This will both aid Corbyn in his fight against the right of his own party, but also help prepare the way for a wider acceptance of socialist ideas in society.

Leeds For Free Education holds its second march against cuts, privatisation, and tuition fees!

Leeds for Free Education demo marches past Leeds University

Leeds for Free Education demo marches past Leeds University

100 Leeds students and activists stopped traffic in Leeds city centre on Saturday as we marched for free education.

Amy Cousens, Leeds Beckett Socialist Students President and Leeds Beckett Student’s Union women’s rep.

The beginning rally was kicked off by speakers from GMB trade union, the Green Party, who pledged to support Leeds For Free Education, and a passionate speech from Lily Green, a sixth-form student and Socialist Students national steering committee member.

The attention from the public was fantastic, mostly claps, cheers and showing support. We encountered opposition from two homeless people who were angry that we were not fighting for homes and better pay, but our members discussed with them, and explained that this was not the case. Leeds For Free Education is a campaign fighting tuition fees, but also against the cuts, for fair housing and for fair pay. We stand in solidarity with workers, the unemployed and the homeless.

Students pose for a photo in solidarity with South African students who after 10 days of protests have forced their government to drop an increase in tuition fees

Students pose for a photo in solidarity with South African students who after 10 days of protests have forced their government to drop an increase in tuition fees

To end the march, Sarah Gilborn VP Welfare from Leeds Beckett Student’s Union spoke on how student union leaders and the NUS need to contribute to the fightback, rather than selling it out. Maddy Steeds, press officer of Leeds For Free Education, gave a fitting round up speech. Maddy made clear that the fight does not end with our demonstration, and that alongside fighting Prevent, we will be campaigning for NUS-led student strikes to rebuild the student movement.

The end rally of the demo in City Square

The end rally of the demo in City Square

“Remember when we had a room with five chairs, and it was one chair too many?” But that wasn’t the case after the demo! The room in the West Riding pub was packed out in a meeting with 33 attendees, and lots of contributions on how we practically go forward with the fightback.

See coverage on ITV – http://www.itv.com/news/calendar/update/2015-10-24/students-take-to-streets-to-protest-over-scrapping-of-maintenance-grants/

Leeds Uni & the Capital of Culture Bid

Students often wonder what their tuition fees – now £9000 a year, and even higher for international students – are spent on by their university. It’s recently emerged that the University of Leeds has spent £75,000 of them on a bid to make Leeds the ‘Capital of Culture’ in 2023.

Mary Finch, Leeds Uni Socialist Students

If that sounds like a meaningless and ridiculous way to spend money, it’s because it is. Both the bid and hosting the Capital of Culture itself seems to be a series of extraordinarily expensive ‘cultural’ events – the estimated cost is £14 million. The council justifies this by claiming that ‘the economic benefit is set to reach the hundreds of millions’. The businesses sponsoring and contributing to the event will no doubt profit, but it’s a different story for the thousands of low-paid, zero-hour contracts workers they employ, or the rest of the working class community of Leeds. Big business has maintained incredibly high profits since the economic crisis, but workers have seen none of it – the level of poverty worldwide is continually rising.

More importantly, considering Leeds University’s huge contribution, what will be the benefit for students? And couldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere? This isn’t the first instance of economic incompetence on the part of university management; in early 2014, when lecturers and support staff were on strike for a pay rise, they were offered only a 1% pay rise because the university couldn’t afford any more. At the same time, however, the vice-chancellor awarded himself a very generous £36,000 pay rise!

It’s not just workers that are suffering from the greed of university management and the government that funds them. Young people are being either seriously discouraged or outright forced out of education for a myriad of reasons. Studies have shown the drastically increasing mental health problems among students, but counselling services are too underfunded and overstretched to cope. A recent poll showed that, after Osborne’s decision to scrap maintenance grants and replace them with loans, 51% of students would have to ‘seriously consider’ whether or not they can afford to go to university. 19% – almost a fifth – said they definitely couldn’t afford to go. Even those students who have been lucky enough to enjoy maintenance grants lived in chronic poverty, left on average £265 short every month, forced to take on part time jobs or ask their parents for money in order to cover living costs.

Education at all levels, particularly in universities, is being turned into a business system designed to churn out private profits, with university management completely complicit. Socialist Students demands, and has consistently campaigned for, an end to all cuts to education and restoration of funding, as well as kicking out big business. Students need to link with education workers and fight for a democratically run education system.

Furthermore, the student and workers movement has to take up the issue of funding for the arts and ensure that as an industry, it doesn’t have to rely on big business backers while talented working class people are forced out. Rather than draining the already limited resources of university education, we should be taking the money of the 1% – through progressive taxation and nationalisation – and use it for the benefit of people, not private profits.

Leeds Socialist Students at NUS Women’s Conference 2015

Socialist Students delegates at NUS Women's Conference 2015

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!