Student union elections and the left


Comment by Sean Healy

During the next two months, elections to many university student unions will be held around the country, elections that the activist student left will be heavily involved in.

There has been little discussion about what the left's aims should be in these elections and what sort of campaigns it should run. One of the key questions is whether we should be running openly left-wing political election campaigns or whether we should simply run on "lowest common denominator" policies — downplay our politics and restrict election material to banal and "moderate" generalities.

For some, the main issue is winning office at any cost, rather than seeing the elections and the left's intervention in student unions as part of the broader task of educating, politicising and organising students.

As a result, some left-wing student activists plot their election campaigns based on tactics that have traditionally been the preserve of the right: deals to ensure candidates run unopposed, "dummy tickets", intricate preference swaps and double-dealing. This style of "campaigning", which is becoming all too common on the left, does not take up real issues and does not convince anyone of anything.

This type of election "campaign" betrays a lack of confidence in convincing students of left politics. It implies that the average student cannot be convinced using rational argument and that they need to be tricked into voting for the left.

Even if it was the case that the general student body rejected left-wing ideas and was not interested in actively protecting their rights, the left's task would still be to patiently rebuild political understanding and activism, even if it meant losing an election in the short term.

However, it is not the case. The left has managed to involve large numbers of students in the fight against fees and cuts (and on other issues). There is a solid base of support for left-wing activism among students. By running apolitical election campaigns, all we do is keep the left's support base passive and ensure that students don't get involved. We confirm students' suspicions that all student politicians are cynical.

What's really needed is for the left to openly campaign on its political platform and educate students with it. That platform can be broad: opposition to federal government policy on education, certainly, but also opposition to racism, a commitment to women's rights and the environment, and a commitment to student unions which are participatory and empowering. There is enough anger amongst students, who are affected by government cutbacks and policies, for there to be large-scale support for such a platform.

As well as having a broad platform, the left needs to put together tickets which are broad and inclusive. United activist tickets and greater levels of co-operation between left groups would go a long way towards overcoming the fragmentation and the sectarianism of the campus left — and it would send a positive message to students that we are prepared to work together.

Given the scale of the Coalition's attacks on students and young people, and the total bankruptcy of the Labor "opposition", both inside and outside parliament, there is definitely a need for such a united, common effort by the activist left. Such an effort could tap the discontent and anger among students far better than each left group and organisation running separately and in different directions.

This attitude of open discussion and co-operation amongst the left should carry into the National Union of Students. Elections for NUS delegate positions are scheduled soon. Here it's even more crucial given the success of both organised Labor factions in exploiting divisions between left activists to maintain control over NUS for most of the last decade.

Resistance believes that this can be a very successful year for the student left as a whole — but only provided that it is clear on the need to junk sectarianism, work together honestly and focus on politicising and organising students who are open to our ideas.
[Sean Healy is national coordinator of the socialist youth organisation, Resistance.]