The NUS conference has been much reflected on by the left as a great victory. It was my first conference, so I don’t feel able to make grand proclamations with confidence – but from what I saw, the left (in all its various strands) ran riot over the rubble of the Blairite right. In the wake of this shift in power, I agree with some Facebook post mortems that we will see the emergence of two distinct elements of the left, and a division between the ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ left.
The insider left will want to work entirely inside the union, abandon our external and throw our weight behind supporting the new left leadership. They will argue to push the NUS to the front of our movement, and have them lead the charge against austerity.
On the other hand, the outsider left will want to continue our campaigning outside the union as we have done before – but now using the NUS to amplify our struggles, provide us with resources and access to infrastructures. The difference is, this outsider left will never agree with subsuming itself into the centralised bureaucracy.
For WFFE, this means we can now look to interact with the NUS in fundamentally different ways to before. We should have an internal discussion about which route we want to take, although I suspect we broadly agree with the outsider approach more than the insider approach.
Personally, I think we should begin by placing much greater demands on the union and the leadership. We should tell them to support us in our fight against TeachHigher, we should get them to provide us with resources for mobilising around the Warwick 3 trial, we should begin to build our influence by using all the resources they can make available to us. This is a new situation for campus-based organisations. For the first time, we can ask for help from our national union with no small optimism that we might get it.
This might be the start of a transition towards a militant union. I say might, because I think there is still a sizeable degree of risk that we will not get anywhere, and I’m certainly convinced that a new leadership does not entirely reshape the ‘deep state’ of the permanent staff within the NUS (of whom we were not allowed to talk at conference, but that is another story). It is grass roots campaigning which laid the foundations for this shift left in the bureaucracy, and If we want to begin to transform the NUS into a fighting union (a process which will doubtless take more than one good conference, and which might in fact never be possible) we will need to keep mobilising on our campus and in our community. That autonomous, external pressure is what will allow the people working within the NUS to make ground.