Thoughts on agenda for NCAFC Reinvigoration Conference

It is great that this conference has been organised, and I agree with much of the sentiment of the statement. However, I have a few reservations, and since I will be unable to attend the conference I will write them out here. Below these reservations I will then give a few examples of things I think should be added to the agenda.

All my reservations can basically be summarised as follows: all of the aims laid out in the bullet points, beyond the first, are simply abstract statements of a political position. I understand that this may be partly because the authors of the statement don’t wish to pre-empt the conversation, but I also think that the function of this agenda in places is simply to distinguish NCAFC from the NUS. I.e., it functions as a semi-articulated means of constituting ourselves as the “militant-wing” of the student movement. I don’t think this is enough. We can dare to go beyond this. And we need to if we are to build a strong and inclusive movement rather than devolving into ultra-radical narcissism. Let us first take each of these points in turn to show what I mean:

* Militant action, including direct action and occupations, to defeat the cuts, locally and nationally.

This means nothing except: “We, the NCAFC, support direct action”. It is not a plan, beyond the implicit plan to defend those who undertake direct action. In other words, it is an attempt by NCAFC to distinguish itself from the NUS.

* Solidarity with workers in struggle as a top priority. Organise for concrete student-worker unity at every level from the campus up.

Again, this solidarity means very little, except as a sketch of a political position. Which workers? What form can solidarity take, here?

* Transform our student unions and NUS through democratisation and mass involvement, organise action independently where necessary.

This is interesting, because it only really describes the situation as it is: groups try to engage the NUS, then give up and organise independently (e.g. as NCAFC and all the local groups who compose it, or work alongside it). We already organise independently, in small groups: now, how do we construct a collective strategy to transform the NUS? If we can’t answer this question, all we’re doing here is asserting our position on the NUS, i.e. that it is undemocratic, bureaucratic, etc.

* International solidarity with students’ and workers’ struggles – across Europe, across North Africa and the Middle East, across the world.

This means almost nothing at all except, at best, attempts to create scholarships for Middle Eastern students, and at worst the sort of nonsensical analogies that appeared in the SWP rag around February/March time. In other words, this is just a statement of a position regarding these revolutions.

* Consistent support for liberation: opposition to all forms of
oppression, support for student liberation campaigns and campaigning informed by awareness that the cuts will hit the oppressed hardest.

Again, this means very little, except: “We’re pro-liberation”.


As I say, I realise that the openness and ambiguities are, in part, about creating space for discussion, within the framework of broad statements of our general position. But, unless we can transform these vague positions into real concrete strategy, the conference will be a waste of time.

So, here are a few attempts at concrete suggestions:

1) National and regional communication and coordination:
“The NCAFC currently lacks democratic structures through which local groups and activists can coordinate and build an accountable national movement. It has become increasingly difficult for people outside a small circle in London to get involved.”

Ok, I like this very much. The questions for discussion: a) Where and why would it be useful for us to have greater communication and coordination? b) How do we set up ways of doing these things?

2) Engagement with the NUS:

With regards the NUS we seem currently to be in a double bind: we can’t work with them, and we can’t work without them. They still carry a lot of weight with the student body, and they have a lot of resources. Questions for discussion: a) So, do we need to engage with the NUS? b) Should we attempt more seriously to use its own structures, e.g. organising and running a left slate capable of taking over union positions at local and national levels? c) Is this last possible, and why did it fail last time? d) Or, do we attempt to seriously build NCAFC into an alternative to the NUS, as far as building a movement, organising and campaigning? d) Is this last possible, and how do we begin? e) What other groups and bodies can NCAFC engage with, and how and for what purpose?

3) Teaching Assistants and Precarious Workers:

There are constant calls for worker-student solidarity. But, many students are workers! At most universities a lot of the teaching is undertaken by heavily exploited PhD students. These students are precariously employed, poorly paid, and subject to many pressures and injustices in their work places. They are also badly organised and underrepresented. Not only that, but there are many ‘Research Associates’ and ‘Teaching Fellows’ who are likewise exploited. That is to say, people who are fully qualified to be lecturers, and in fact do the job of a lecturer, but are nevertheless subject to temporary and part-time contracts, worse pay and bad working conditions. It’s obvious that exploitation of precarious labour is partly a strategy to plug gaps created by cuts to teaching budgets. So, what do we do about it? Can we and should we play a part in organising these precarious workers, and protesting against their exploitation?

4) UCU and NUT strikes:

A wave of strikes are planned for the end of June, including strikes by UCU and the NUT. Yet, many students will be heading home around this time.  a) What can we do locally and nationally to increase the effectiveness of these strikes and to support lecturers? b) How can we use this as an opportunity to engage and forge connections with UCU and other unions? c) Does this link in with other objectives, e.g. organising TAs and building NCAFC into a national body capable of building and organising the movement?

5) Women within the movement and feminism:

We call ourselves leftwing, and support ‘liberation’ in the Middle East, but what of liberation closer to home? In many cases, being ‘on the left’ is used by men within the movement to insulate themselves from self-critique with regard to their treatment of women – both within the movement and without. Many women within the movement have encountered problems with regard to patriarchal behaviour by their “comrades”. This ranges from the general sense of women feeling alienated from the group, or from certain actions (e.g. some so-called “militant” actions), to women being threatened directly by people within groups; from women feeling they have to take a back seat in debates dominated by male-egos, to the fact that women are underrepresented in unions and other bodies. a) What problems are women within the movement encountering from within the movement? b) What can be done about this? c) Should there be a separate women’s organisation within the organisation? d) Cuts hit women hardest; does the movement need to engage and critique the problems of gender inequality more thoroughly? e) Women’s inequality is also be an issue where bodies like the ego-dominated NUS are weak to attacks – e.g. thinking about election time… And so on.

6) Creating a counter-culture:

Some groups have found that it is really difficult to build a local movement. Partly this is because there is no real indigenous left culture on their campuses. Or, where this does exist, it is dominated, e.g. by young Labour Party clubs, Greens, etc. a) Any strategies for building local movements? b) Where NUS sponsored protest over fees and cuts has slowed, how can a group try to create a constituency sympathetic to anti-fees and anti-cuts action? c) Can we co-ordinate ‘nationally’ to deal with these ‘local’ problems, i.e. the building of the local movements which actually constitute the national movement?

These are just a few ideas developing from the groups I work with at Lancaster University, where we have several very small groups working as best they can and encountering a lot of problems along the way. I hope they are useful, and wish I could attend the conference to hear people’s thoughts on these problems and others that they’ve encountered. Hopefully others will be there from Lancaster.

Any thoughts, please contact me via this site.


~ by Wit on May 18, 2011.

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