The bickering, backstabbing and pseudo-intellectual debate of student socialism.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Solidarity for........

I wanted to write a long piece about Marxism and Faith Schools after this debate in Socialist Teacher but events closer to home have taken over. The last few weeks have demonstrated to me the near total bankruptcy of elements of the Student movement and it can’t go unmentioned. The state of the NUS and Student Unions should have been a clue but its ability to be so damaging is a new one to me.

The background is the AUT and Natfhe strike for a pay increase as lecturers have seen their pay decrease 20% in real terms. It started with a one day strike was widely supported but the action short of strike (a marking boycott) seems to have brought the right on to the streets. Leading the charge is Essex university SU which you can only assume (as it is joined by Bristol & Nottingham) is either Tory or indistinguishable from them. They have managed to gather together 20 unions (or sabbaticals) to sign a letter to the national press and the AUT condemning the action and claiming to speak for the majority of students. It has been covered in the Guardian but most notably in the Independent’s “Students used as pawns” article and used as proof that the NUS support was nothing more then posing lefties - UCEA and the government must be laughing all the way to the bank. A response was quickly gathered together by 30 Union’s lead by Kat Stark (Warwick SU) supporting the AUT and defending unity and a properly funded education system. But as with all delayed reactions it was predictably given anywhere near as much publicity and the damage had been done.

The danger has not been so much in the shift in student opinion of which there is very little evidence but in the reaction of the rest of student officialdom. Ordinary students are for the most part still very open to arguments about why we should support the action but Unions are completely alien to the concept of taking a lead. The NUS which has by and large taken a good position of solidarity (but not active solidarity) has started to cave in with the slightest bit of pressure from the right. Its leadership, so divorced from any social base, has already (one week after standing firm) condemned the AUT for refusing to set exams. This is so clearly an attempt to appease the anti-NUS right it’s laughable. Even bits of the “left” like the AWL front “Education Not for Sale” are talking of a “ground swell of anti-AUT feeling” buying into what is little more then rightwing hot air and spin. The problem as always in these cases is the inability of the Student Unions to carry and argument within the student population by reacting too late and tailing whatever seems the most uncontroversial option.

My own Union has organised an event with the AUT but has been handicapped by infighting and the distance to the exam period. The AUT action here is simply not biting as the Universities sympathetic attitude to the AUT’s demands has removed the sting from some of its less active members and meant many students haven’t really noticed the action. What will happen at the thing itself is a matter of speculation but I suspect the right will mobilize better then the left as they are the ones with an impetus to change our policy. As a side note the political fall out (from elections) within the Union has reached such a point where it is difficult for the organisation to carry out all its functions. Our Student Council (with a fragile attendance at best this late in the year) is being boycotted by sections who will lose their seats and can’t function. This means constitutional changes will go unscrutinised and the officers can do what ever the hell they like. With one thing and another it is becoming an unpleasant place to work and I’m looking forwards to either the new exec or sorting out our problems like grown ups. Sadly the former option looks like it will come first.

Hopefully the next blog can poke its head out of the Student Bubble.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Roll on may 4th

“It was beautiful” bizarrely used to describe NUS conference at the Opposite of Apathy but perfect for a weekend spent in the People’s Republic of East London. On Saturday about 20 SWSSlettes descended on the Respect campaign in Tower Hamlets and Newham. The idea was to get a feel of how RESPECT can feel when it is really rooted in the local community and it worked. In Tower Hamlets particularly the mood has swung away from Labour to what can be a real alternative.

Canvassing the estates the responses towards what RESPECT had done were consistently positive with Labour’s main Issues of crime and ASBO’s looking like a dead weight around their necks. People who have seen youth facilities gradually disappear might have welcomed a respite from youths hanging around and given ASBO’s a chance aren’t so keen on them when they start to know children who have been served with them or similar schemes. Even those who haven’t experienced the injustice of them 1st hand were more open to RESPECT’s position of increased community facilities. It was a new experience to be in as a socialist where we’d been given half a chance and started to really show people we can make a difference. What also came through was the marked increase in support amongst the white working class in the area. The materials put out by Respect over housing and poverty really cut the false racial divide and the rewards of challenging Labour’s agenda and building our base in the area are starting to pay off. It would be foolish to deny our main base isn’t in the Bengali community but if we could win control and show that “our administration is different from a newLabour/Tory/Liberal administration” we could really start to take off to paraphrase a famous councilor. We should stand to win a large group on both councils, talk of winning out right is premature but we are clearly on our way.

But the overwhelming theme is clearly the implosion of New Labour. It could not be worse for Tower Hamlets Labour group to have the cash for coronets scandal just as they are mired in their own sleaze up to the neck. Labour’s credibility as an organisation for council tenants or working people has simply disappeared and their vote is in melt down. Everywhere we canvassed it was the first time a party had bothered since us in the General Election (and we were the only people they’d seen in between.) Labour’s vote maybe in meltdown across the country because of its attacks on pensions, schools and Iraq but East London will be the only place it will benefit the left. I challenge anyone on the left to attack that when Margaret Hodge so stupidly inflames the possibility of labour’s failure benefiting the Nazi’s.

This really is the final thing I want to cover because despite its obvious opportunism it contains in it a seed of truth. The failure of Social Democracy really has left some of its traditional support vulnerable to the BNP. Even in Bethnal Green where it is being undercut by the left you can sometimes sense it. Older Labour voters who have worked for 50 years to retire in dignity left with no one to repair their council house and no one to hold accountable. You can recognise it from outside houses, where no maintenance has been done for years because of poverty and old age and on the doorstep. With the turn to the politics of management politicians and local councils have retreated from ordinary people. Political parties don’t come round, tenants Associations collapsed and community organisations have disappeared leaving people with little more then a sense of betrayal. Saying these people are all going to vote BNP is dangerous and stupid but not as worrying as senior Labour movement figures ignoring the problem.