Malia Bouattia lost her campaign to be re-elected as National Union of Students (NUS) president yesterday, Wednesday. NUS conference delegates voted for winner Shakira Martin by 402 votes to 272. A Tory-backed candidate won just 35 votes.
The defeat of Malia Bouattia, the first black woman president of NUS, is a setback for the left. Her uncompromising support for Palestinian rights and stand against racism and Islamophobia led to slurs that she was antisemitic.
There were even wholly unfounded claims that she backed Isis.
Since becoming NUS last year, she has organised campaigns against hate crime and the Islamophobic “Prevent” agenda. Under her leadership, NUS also organised a national demonstration for education with the UCU lecturers’ union.
She has also encouraged students to mobilise against Donald Trump’s proposed state visit.
But Malia Bouattia often found herself constrained by the NUS apparatus.
Shakira Martin was supported by groups including Labour Students, who are on the right within the NUS.
The same press that savaged Malia Bouattia has now turned on Shakira Martin.
The right wing Daily Telegraph newspaper denouncing her as a “former drug dealer who did not go to university”.
NUS conference also voted to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
The move comes as there have been attempts at several universities to silence debate on Palestine and thwart the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
Right wingers will paint the conference as a rejection of the left—but the picture is more complex.
Speech after speech at the conference repeated the need to challenge austerity and racism.
Motions were passed to defend free movement and calling for “sanctuary campuses”. These would offer protection to migrants and refugees, refuse to cooperate with government attempts to collect data on migrants, and oppose attempts to deport students.
The last 12 months underlines the potential for anti-austerity, anti-racist and pro-Palestinian policies to win wide support among students.
But it is not enough to win elections—building activity among students in the colleges and universities is crucial.
Attacks on students—from Tory cuts to Islamophobia and Prevent—can be pushed back by a strengthening of campaigns on the ground.
Stand Up To Racism will be very important.
The conference was a setback, but it does not mean the right wing have won.