In 2011, I stood for NUS President. Here’s an interview with Shift Magazine which sadly no longer exists. I re-publish it here as it shows to what extent movement activists from different political traditions engaged in fraternal and lively debates at the time of the student movement.
You are standing for President of the National Union of Students in the forthcoming NUS executive elections. Where do you think the outgoing president, Aaron Porter, has failed?
Porter’s presidency has been marked with opportunistic twists and turns all throughout but there is also some credit to him for sticking to policy passed at National Conference ‘10 to call a national demonstration in the first term of autumn. Many NUS presidents would have never stuck to it and deemed it as impossible to mobilize students for a demonstration. When the Union though threw all of its resources behind the national demonstration we did indeed mobilize more than 50 000 students.
But it was his condemnation of the occupation of Millbank Tower that discredited him with many students, activists and the wider movement. More than 5000 people layed siege on Millbank and Porter called them a small group of violent thugs is shameful. In the aftermath when students were being witch-hunted by the Daily Hate Mail and the Telegraph he didn’t defend students. And when houses were being raided at dawn students felt helpless and let down by their own national Union. A lot of the trials are coming up at this moment and we must seriously question what NUS is doing to make sure that its members won’t end up in jail.
I had flagged up the first day of walk-outs on November 24 with many members of the National Executive Committee and tried to ensure NUS’s full support for the day long before November 10. At first people seemed very excited about it, but Millbank changed everything and Porter wrote an e-mail to several NUS lists discouraging students from participating in an action which later on boosted more than 130 000 students in the streets up and down the country.
Then quickly, Porter had to re-align himself with the movement and gave NUS support to November 30, the second day of walk-out. Then on December 9, he counter posed a glowstick vigil to the national mobilization which was being driven through the occupations and networks such as the Education Activist Network and NCAFC. We were not mourning the death of higher education on that day, we were fighting in the streets for our livelihoods and that of generations to come. But if you read the internal memos that NUS have been circulating to its members you know what political ideas informed their tactics.
Elections in NUS are nearing and Porter is adamant to attack me for being a socialist and fighting for a world beyond tuition fees, job cuts and imperialist wars. This just shows how out of touch he is. Many students will just find these attacks ludicrous especially at this historical moment in time when Egypt, Tunisia and Libyia are in revolutionary upheaval.
You are spokesperson for the Education Activist Network, a Socialist Workers Party member, but are standing for a united left slate. What arrangements have been made for the slate? Which organisations are included and are any obvious ones left out?
All of the activists have been in the heart of the struggle against fees and cuts, all of our candidates are part of the movement fighting against injustice, oppression and exploitation.
I, myself, have been someone who has been building the students’ movement for a number of years now. When I intended to stand for NUS President I approached a number of activists who have been central to the movement against fees and cuts, some of which are tied to the NCAFC, and some of which are part of the NUS Liberation campaigns.
At such a crucial time it would have sent the wrong signals of standing against each other in NUS elections and thus I made a concerted effort to build unity amongst activists.
Many of our readers will already wonder ‘Why interview a candidate from the SWP?’ Many have seen the student movement emerge as largely leaderless, rejecting formal representation through the NUS but also through traditional left-wing organisations, and seen this as its strength. Where is the relevance now for a socialist organisation like yours?
It is quite interesting and healthy that the discussions regarding organisation and leadership are happening at this moment in time and that a magazine like yours chooses to interview me. It shows how both sides of the argument have learned from the preceding movements such as the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement at the beginning of the century.
Many people who would have shied away from each other in the past have been working closely together. However, I do not believe that the movement was leaderless. Sadly, the argument has been warped. Many FE students that I know made the walk-outs happen in their colleges. Without them standing up in their classrooms and convincing students to walk out, they simply would not have happened. Many of these young people are members of the SWP.
I don’t need to be defensive about my role or the SWP’s role in the movement. Many activists who have been central in the movement will know the role that our student groups have played in the wake of Millbank, in the occupations and for December 9. The role that our lecturers have played within the UCU is more than noteworthy. As it stands the UCU is the only national Union calling for a national strike. Our members have been at the heart arguing both for the broadest possible movement as well as a radical movement to break the ConDem Coalition.
The Socialist Workers’ Party stands in the tradition of socialism from below fighting for a revolution. As we speak this kind of revolutionary process is unfolding across the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf. Revolution is not some kind of formulae. It is the festival of the oppressed, when millions of people step onto the stage of history and take matters into their own hands, and start organising their own lives. The muck of ages is done away with as people transform in struggling alongside each other. So in Egypt we can see how women were carrying broken up stones in their hijabs so that their young daughters could defend the square. We also have seen how Copts were protecting Muslims during prayer.
Yet as beautiful as this process is sharp questions were being posed every day, similar questions which the students’ movement faced in the months of November and December. How do we advance the struggle? How do we defend the square, or as in our case the occupation? In those kinds of discussion we know from experience that people will hold different points of views on strategy and tactics. Socialist organisation becomes key.
Aaron Porter has condemned the actions by students at Millbank in November 2010 as ‘violence by a tiny minority’. Can you imagine a scenario where you would also refuse your support for student actions against education cuts? What campaign strategies would you advocate? Will you continue to organise national demonstrations for free education?
I have been arguing for national demonstrations at NUS conference since 2007. We definitely need to see another national demonstration to defend post-16 education from the ConDem attacks. But that national demonstration ought to be a launch pad for a prolonged students’ and lecturers’ strike.
On March 24, lecturers will be striking and I have been arguing that we ‘shut down’ education on that day. Standing shoulder to shoulder with our lecturers on strike can reinvigorate the movement and build a momentum leading up to the TUC demonstration on March 26.
In the wake of Millbank, I initiated a statement which ‘celebrated’ the occupation. I actively spoke out against those people condemning the violence and built for the walk-outs. I don’t believe we can draw a line between a good and a bad protester. We need to judge our tactics by the objective circumstances we face. And in our case, we have a government which won’t listen to lobbying or letter-writing. We will need mass action on the streets, occupations on our campuses and barricades at our schools.
We need to build the broadest possible movement against the cuts but we never can shy away from taking the kind of action that is required. It wasn’t us who created these conditions, it was the Tories and we will need to fight them tooth and nail so that ordinary people will not be made to pay for capitalism’s crisis.
Realistically, what are your chances, and what if you don’t get in?
For years now, delegate entitlements have been dwindling. That means that a lot of ordinary students will not be attending annual conference. Labour Students and a faction called Organised Independents which Porter is part of have been controlling the union machine for a number of years now.
The chances of me winning are very slim indeed. However, we are fighting like we’ll win. As Bertolt Brecht said: ‘if you fight you can win, if you don’t you’ve already lost.’ The same applies to our struggle against fees and cuts. We need to continue the fight and I will continue no matter what, whether I win or lose. The struggle continues.