UNIVERSITIES, colleges and schools have seen a powerful anti-war movement over recent months. Thousands of students have demonstrated against war, occupied their universities, walked out and attended anti-war rallies and debates.
In many colleges the protests and the political atmosphere are bigger than anything seen since the 1960s. Every opinion poll shows massive opposition to war among young people. Yet this spirit was poorly reflected in the National Union of Students (NUS) conference last week.
While student radicalism has grown in recent years, the 'official' student movement of student unions and the NUS has become increasingly bureaucratic. The movement suffered some of the most significant defeats in the late 1990s, when New Labour was able to introduce fees and scrap the grant while the NUS, led by Labour Students, remained absolutely passive.
Even before New Labour came to power, student unions were being pressured by the government to abstain from taking any political stand, for example through laws restricting what student unions could use funds for. This has had a number of consequences.
Student activists tend not to look to student union meetings as a place to take political issues. Student unions have responded to this by scrapping union general meetings open to all students in all but a handful of universities, and replacing them with far less open 'union councils' which few students relate to.
The NUS itself has become even less representative. Elections for delegates to its conferences are badly advertised, poorly contested and often do not happen at all. Most universities do not send their full entitlement of delegates, and most further education colleges send none. As disillusionment with New Labour has grown, the main beneficiaries have been so called 'organised independents' to the right of Labour, who won four of the six full time NUS executive positions at this year's conference.
There was also a very vocal Tory presence at the conference and over 100 delegates from the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), a hardline pro-Israeli organisation.
A number of anti-war activists did attend conference. Most were deeply shocked by the lack of democracy and the unprincipled deals struck in elections at the conference.
The leadership of NUS was forced to support a stop the war demonstration in Blackpool, which 200 delegates attended. They were also forced to allow an emergency debate on the war. Unfortunately, although a motion against war was eventually proposed, it was considerably to the right of the motions passed in most student unions. The NUS motion accepted the slogan 'No to war, no to Saddam'.
The right also managed to avoid discussion of affiliation to the Stop the War Coalition. Around 200 delegates consistently voted for a clear anti-war position, reflecting the number of genuine anti-war activists who attended the conference.
The presence of these delegates meant that Tom Whittaker, a Stop the War Coalition activist and Socialist Worker Student Society member from the LSE in London, was elected to one of the part time NUS executive positions, along with other anti-war candidates.
There were also moves at the conference by the pro-Israeli UJS group, which through its various electoral deals has managed to prevent any real discussion of Palestine in recent years, to attack those on the left. They organised a fringe meeting attended by Shimon Peres, the proud architect of Israel's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programme.
Mandy Telford, Labour Party member and president of NUS, also spoke at the meeting. Security at the event meant that armed police were posted outside the conference, and Arab and Asian delegates were harassed and searched. On the final day of conference, when over 300 delegates had left, the pro-Israel clique stooped even lower.
They narrowly managed to get a motion of censure passed against Helen Salmon, a leading figure in the Stop the War Coalition and an outgoing NUS executive member. The people behind this move support Israel's murderous policies towards Palestinians.
Disgracefully they accused Helen of being 'racist' because she clapped pro-Palestinian speakers and 'turned her head to one side' as a pro-Israeli speaker approached the rostrum! This was a shameful attack on one of the most committed anti-racist campaigners ever to sit on the NUS executive.
When the motion was passed over 200 delegates stormed out of the conference in disgust. The conference passed policy on education funding, rejecting top-up fees and calling for non-means-tested grants for all.
However, with a passive and right wing leadership it is unlikely that the NUS will lead any struggle unless put under enormous pressure from below. The task for the left over the next year is very clear. It is to continue building a mass movement against war and to strengthen the organisation of ordinary students.
We also have to argue that the movement needs to intervene in student unions - calling emergency general meetings, contesting elections and writing for student papers - and in the national union itself. The NUS needs to become a force which matches up to the radicalism of its members.