The failure of the NUS leadership to build student protests has led to calls from some activists to break up the NUS and create alternative structures – a mistake argues James Meadway

NUS banner

The NUS’ miserable demonstration on 21 November has understandably produced sharp criticism.

The dismal attendance, at a time when students face not only the first year of £9,000 fees, but worsening employment prospects on graduation, can be blamed very largely on the incompetence of the NUS leadership.

From the anodyne slogan to the singularly poor choice of route, the demonstration was ill-planned and poorly-conceived throughout. It took place just weeks after over 150,000, including many thousands of students, demonstrated against austerity in central London.

To NUS’ incompetence must be added the bizarre behaviour of a small number of the student left, who, having attempted to kettle fellow students earlier on the march, heckled trade unionists at the rally and then invaded the stage, forcing it to close. Quite how any of this would overcome the NUS’ failings on the day is unclear. More likely this will lead, disastrously, to deepening the divide between a left-wing minority and the majority of students.

Surveying the wreckage of that sodden debacle, some activists have raised the call to break up the NUS and create alternative structures – perhaps based on the existing anti-cuts campaigns. In practical terms, this would involve individual colleges and institutions voting to disaffiliate from the national union. As much as NUS causes all of us a kind of permanent headache, this would be a political error.

Doing Thatcher’s work

Universities already outside the NUS include those citadels of revolution at St Andrews – Prince William’s alma mater – and Imperial College London.

Ahead of a reaffiliation campaign, Imperial College Union’s then-President said she looked forward to seeing “an apolitical group of universities where there will be a mutual agreement between people on services, without pressure to go out and demonstrate or do the kind of thing that gets us into trouble with the national press.” Hardly a radical alternative structure.

Disaffiliation is historically a demand of the right. It should be no surprise that the right want to break up unions. They are opposed to any form of collective representation for students – and for workers – however ineffectual.

Margaret Thatcher wanted to smash unions because they were a barrier to profit and the triumph of the free market. It is precisely for those reasons that the left and the working class movement fought to defend trade unions from attack.

Her student followers, organised at the time in the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS), followed suit, promoting disaffiliation as a means to undermine the “closed shop” of the “Marxist” NUS. By the mid-1980s, FCS activists had helped win disaffiliation campaigns at Kings College London and Reading, and at 5 of 8 Scottish Universities. The Tory students would raise a toast, annually, to “the destruction of the NUS before the next General Election”.

There should be no doubt at all that Thatcher’s heirs would welcome exactly the same outcome.

A disaster for the left

It would be a disaster for the left to adopt the same slogans inside the union movement.

Unison, for example, has a right-wing leadership that led last year’s sell-out of the pensions dispute. Parts of its full-time bureaucracy have enacted internal witch-hunts against activists – often colluding with management to do so. Unison has acted repeatedly as a prop for New Labour inside the union movement, against those pushing for more determined action.

Yet no union member would call for its dissolution. No-one on the left would demand Unison is “smashed”. Unison members are better off with Unison membership than without. Even if the protection is limited and the demands minimal, any worker is better off with some collective representation than without, whether it is in facing a grievance procedure or in setting a pay claim.

However feeble a defence the unions provide, it is better to have a battered shield than no shield at all. Removing even that minimal protection leaves workers open to whatever abuses the bosses wish to push for. Likewise for students.

The claim is made that disaffiliation from the national union would promote more radical, alternative structures. But the one does not follow from the other.

Unions are different to political organizations. They are there to represent, ideally, the whole of a workplace – or, for the NUS, the whole student body. They tend, as a result, to be less militant than activists, but because they seek to organise everyone they are an essential link from activists to wider layers.

Very occasionally, attempts are made to establish unions on political lines. The Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) was, by the mid-1980s, a byword for scabbing. The left inside the union pushed for the formation of a separate, left-led breakaway union after EETPU members broke the strike against News International at Wapping.

The left-wing EPIU was duly set up in 1989. But the result of the split was only to reinforce the right inside the EETPU, leaving the left isolated from most workers. The EPIU took 4,000 members. The EETPU held onto 300,000. The EPIU soon faded from sight, leaving the EETPU as a semi-permanent right-wing bloc inside the union movement.

It’s possible to imagine a situation in which – as in Quebec – genuinely mass protests create the capacity to organise different, more effective structures. But that movement would have to be built first, on the scale of Quebec, and we are as yet a long way from it.

Better to have an ineffective shield than no shield at all. And throwing away the shield you have will not magic a new one into existence. Disaffiliation from the NUS cannot and should not be supported by those on the left.

Creating real alternatives

The NUS flunked last week’s demonstration. Compared to the mass mobilisations of late 2010, it was a damp, sorry affair. There was no repeat of the invasion of the Tories’ Millbank HQ.

Yet it was the NUS that made Millbank possible. Some 50,000 attended that November 10th demonstration after weeks of campaigning for it by both the NUS nationally and local activists. Support for the demonstration by the NUS made it easier to argue for local student union support – vital especially for those institutions outside of London, where transport must be booked and paid for. It was pressure from below that forced the NUS to act. This, in turn, made mobilisation easier.

Student anger on the day ran far ahead of the feeble NUS leadership’s expectations. Aaron Porter, NUS President at the time, did all he could to subsequently distance himself from Millbank – and the protests that followed, from occupations to further mass demonstrations.

But without the NUS there to carry the initial argument, there would not have been the mass protests that opened the way for more radical action. No NUS, no Millbank.

The conditions of 2010 cannot be wished back into existence. The vote in Parliament was passed. £9,000 fees have now been introduced. The left reinforced this setback at the time by attempting to pose itself directly against the NUS leadership, promoting an alternative demonstration to the NUS’ official January protest. The movement was split and weakened as a result. It has not recovered.

The more the left chooses to isolate itself from the NUS, the more it – in practice – isolates itself from the majority of students. If the NUS is abandoned by the left, it will face no internal pressure to act. Its leadership will take the great majority of students, and lead them even further away from activity. It will become more of barrier for radicals attempting to reach the mass of students, not less. The student right will have won by default.

It is critical that the left does not isolate itself still further from the student body. There is anger amongst students, as there should be. But a general mood will not be turned into real activity by raising increasingly radical slogans. It will only happen through the hard slog of winning support amongst students for mass campaigns, convincing them of the left’s case – on fees, privatisation, and the need for radical actions like occupation. The NUS can be put under pressure, as it was in 2010, and it has been more recently over Gaza – condemning Israel’s siege in an important breakthrough that would not have happened without the left.

Disaffiliation from NUS will only hinder the process of mobilising students. A disaffiliated college will find it harder, not easier, to reach students elsewhere since the obvious pressure points through the NUS will have been removed. And the left within that college will be exposed to whatever management chooses to line up for them.

The left must look outwards. First, to the enormous numbers of students currently not involved in the movement against cuts and privatisation. They must be won. Second, to the ranks of those outside of the colleges now moving into opposition to austerity. We need a broad, united movement that can engage with the millions on the receiving end of the Coalition’s cuts.

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