NUS: students discuss unity

August 11, 1999

The National Union of Students (NUS) was formed in 1987. From its inception, it has been dominated by members of the Labor Party, particularly members of the National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS). How the left should approach NUS has been the topic of controversy within the student movement for many years.

Left Alliance (LA) was formed in 1987 by members of the Communist Party, Resistance, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), the Young Socialist League and independent activists. One of the earliest debates within LA was over its approach to NUS.

Resistance and the DSP opposed the formation of NUS because it was a bureaucratic organisation, dominated by the ALP, which sought to curtail the vibrant free education campaign. Resistance and DSP activists left LA in December 1988 over the issue of participation in NUS.

In 1993, a new left group in NUS, the Non-Aligned Left (NAL), was formed by activists involved in a feminist caucus (set up by LA) and environmental activists mainly from NSW and Victoria.

In 1996, Resistance decided to become involved in NUS. Resistance changed its perspective because students were looking to NUS to launch campaigns. The activist movements, which had existed outside NUS's structures, had weakened or collapsed.

Resistance identified one of the main problems confronting the left within NUS as its division into separate factions (LA and NAL) and that it was not unified around challenging the Labor leadership of NUS. This meant NUS remained hostage to the political direction of Labor and the left was unable to transform NUS into an organisation that could fight for students' rights.

The left has further splintered this year. A new group called Love and Rage split from LA in NSW. NAL has also split. In Melbourne, on July 21, representatives from LA, NAL, Love and Rage, Resistance, the International Socialist Organisation and independent activists regrouped to form the National Broad Left (NBL).

Zanny Begg spoke to several activists from the NBL.

Question: There has been a fracturing of some of the left groupings in NUS. Why is this?

Genevieve Derwent, NUS national women's officer, LA, Melbourne: An organisation like LA exists when there is a need for it. When there isn't a need, the natural course is for it to fall apart. I am not going to go into the thousand of personal and political differences which have existed inside the organisation over the last few years, and which have played a part in it falling apart, but I think when the left is strong, an organisation like LA will be strong.

Natasha Verco, NUS NSW environment co-officer, former member of NAL, Sydney: NAL drew environmentalists and people who didn't identify as socialists into NUS, which was really positive. But there were many problems with the way both NAL and LA organised and the way that they related to each other.

I think the disintegration of NAL and LA is a positive thing for the left because now there is a greater opportunity for us to work together. We can let go of old divisiveness and bitterness and move towards combined involvement. I left NAL because I wanted to be involved in a group that was formed along political lines, was activist-based, was not bureaucratic and believed in collective action for social change.

Nick Harrigon, NUS NSW education officer, Love and Rage, Sydney: LA was a schizophrenic organisation. Most of its members saw it as a serious revolutionary organisation, while the reality was that it was a network of student office-bearers.

Love and Rage split because LA failed. The institutional pressures of heavy involvement in student organisations meant that its members had little time and energy to develop the potential for a revolutionary organisation.

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from the demise of LA. One is that we have to move beyond a "red bureaucracy". LA did not try to be a mass organisation. It did not take seriously the project of clearly articulating a vision for what student organisations should be.

Question: What should be changed about how the left intervenes in NUS?

Derwent: The left was too caught up in just trying to get enough NUS delegates so that we could have an office-bearer in the national office and spots on national committees. These things are important and I don't think that we should stop doing that, but we should put more energy into working out how to build a stronger left activist culture on campus and how that can flow back up the structures of NUS rather then just focusing on getting more people into the structures and thinking that will enough.

Kate Carr, National Broad Left national convener, DSP, Sydney: Traditionally, the various factions of the left have operated separately. This has meant they have worked against each other to secure votes for office-bearer and committee positions. These divisions have ensured that the dominance of the ALP has never been seriously challenged.

Establishing unity within the left is the fundamental shift that is needed. This was proposed by Resistance over the last few years but was rejected by both NAL and LA. This year has brought the virtual collapse of both these groups. The demand for a new national grouping has been raised by numerous independent activists.

Question: What is the significance of the formation of the National Broad Left?

Derwent: It means a broader section of the left will be working together. I hope that it means we can move beyond the sectarian and factional self-interest that has dominated the left. I am very positive about the NBL. Obviously, there are differences within the NBL but I am hopeful that everyone is coming to it with a desire to find common ground and a recognition that we need to respect differences and find ways to work together.

Matilda Alexander, women's co-officer, Griffith University, NBL convener for Queensland: There needs to be less factionalism in NUS. You could say we are fighting fire with fire by setting up a new faction to destroy factionalism, but the existing factions are exclusive and promote the dominant groups in NUS.

NUS politics is very inaccessible to new people, and the NBL will help to involve them. For some people, it may be a platform for them to specify a particular faction they want to belong to. For a lot of people it will enable them to say: I want to be a left activist and have some weight behind me without joining a faction.

Verco: I think the NBL is an excellent development. The commitment of the left groups operating within NUS to form the NBL shows that the left has matured, both in its approach to NUS and between groups.

Carr: Until now, the left has failed to formulate a vision for the role and structure of NUS that differs from the ALP. Consequently, NUS has remained a bureaucratic and inaccessible body which is controlled by committees, instead of a fighting union directed by activist collectives.

The NBL will allow the left to debate if and how office-bearer positions can be used to make gains for activist campaigns. It will be a forum within which independent activists can participate. Its formation heralds the beginning of a new era for the left within NUS in which the interests of the left as a whole are prioritised over factional gain.

Harrigon: I am skeptical about the NBL. Unless it overcomes a lot of the problems that NAL and LA suffered from and develops a political basis for its intervention into NUS, and unless it breaks from the simplistic factionalism which was the bane of the old left, the NBL will be just another bureaucratic manoeuvre to try to bring together a group of people to elect left office-bearers.

Most people see the failure of past projects of the left as a lack of unity. This misses the point. We need to develop considered politics around what we think is necessary for student organisation in the next period.

Question: How should the NBL relate to Labor students, particularly NOLS?

Derwent: I don't think NOLS should be in the NBL. Most NOLS members wouldn't want to be in the NBL anyway — there are reasons why people join the ALP and not the non-Labor left. But in the spectrum of student politics, NOLS is the next left faction, so I think it is important that we communicate with them.

Alexander: You are either with the system or against it, and on an ideological level NOLS are part of the system, so I don't think they should be included. It is more important to be pro-feminist, anti-capitalist and fight for queer rights and environmentalism. If you are in NOLS, you can't be a revolutionary and be any of these things in a meaningful sense.

Verco: Activists within NOLS who have a clear priority of activism should be able to involve themselves in the NBL. But there are very few of them, and inviting the entire NOLS into the NBL would be a damaging thing.

Harrigon: Our relationship with NOLS has to be a political one. We don't want the bureaucratic exclusion of the Labor left by moving motions which stipulate the NBL is a "revolutionary organisation" or does not believe in "parliamentary democracy". The approach to NOLS should be this: the NBL lays down what it thinks is necessary for the next period, and anyone who believes in this is welcome to be part of it.

Carr: NOLS are not part of the left and do not act in the interests of the left. The left should prioritise the establishment of a democratic, activist-controlled NUS which can spark and resource militant campaigns. NOLS does not share this aim.

The NBL needs to engage with NOLS, but what is crucial for NBL to succeed, where other left factions have failed, is the establishment of a clear political distinction between the two groups.

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