Socialist Worker

Is the NUS still worth fighting for?

Mark Bergfeld of the NUS national executive (pc) says it is possible to bring the fighting spirit into the union

Issue No. 2240

There is a debate raging on the left about whether the National Union of Students (NUS) can ever be representative of the student movement.

The news that NUS president Aaron Porter will not stand for

re-election shows that it is not completely cut off from the mood on campuses.

Porter condemned the students who occupied the Tory headquarters at Millbank. He even had a memo sent to student union officers instructing them to give up the fight over tuition fees. Porter himself has characterised his behaviour as “spineless dithering”.

But the movement continued regardless.

The NUS called the initial protest of 50,000 students last November—mobilising far more than the activist left alone could have.

It lay the foundations for the militant action and movement that followed.

It is this movement that led to his downfall.

Now many students who led walkouts and occupations are asking: is the NUS worth fighting for?

The rot certainly runs much deeper than Porter. NUS conference can be demoralising for activists.

It is more like a trade fair than the assemblies and occupation meetings where much of last term’s action was planned.

Since delegation sizes were cut two years ago, most places are taken up by current or aspiring full-time student union officers rather than campaigners.

But even though it often feels like NUS exists in its own little bubble, what happens at the grassroots can have an influence in the union—and vice versa.

The first time I spoke at conference about the need for a national demonstration it was dismissed as “unrealistic”.

But the next year, faced with the first sparks of resistance, NUS agreed to call a demonstration.

More than 50,000 students marched in London on 10 November, more than any education protest for a generation.

Pressure from below means even the most conservative leaderships can be forced into action.

We can ratchet up that pressure to use the union’s resources for the fightback.

This year I will be standing against Aaron Porter’s would-be successors for NUS president.

I hope that my campaign can help bring the spirit of the movement onto conference floor—instead of the stale platitudes of career politicians whose every instinct is to sell out.

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Tue 22 Feb 2011, 17:52 GMT
Issue No. 2240
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