The election of Malia Bouattia as President of the National Union of Students was a stunning victory for the left. Matt Collins interviews Sai Englert a member of Malia’s campaign team, a NUS national executive member and a long-time stalwart of the student left on the politics of the student movement, and the new opportunities for the left in the union.
The election of Malia Bouattia as President of the National Union of Students (NUS) and the election of a number of other left-wingers to full-time officer positions has been astounding for the left in the Union. Can you explain how this victory happened in a NUS that has been a bastion of the centre-right, electorally at least, for decades?
I think there’s a number of processes that have happened at the same time, the first being a long term redevelopment of the student left that started in around 2009: the occupations of universities in solidarity with Gaza, followed by local action against the cuts and the first rationalisation of the fees regime. That then led to the national student movement in 2010, and since then there’s been all kinds of different economic and political movements around particular questions. These have included campaigns against job losses and cuts to courses on campuses, and more broadly, against police violence, racism, and interventions in Syria, and in solidarity with Palestine. These are all questions around which a student left has been built on campuses up and down the UK. The student left has grappled very well with the importance of fighting oppression which the established left has engaged with less successfully. You can see the effects of anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobia movements very clearly in the NUS. The left within the union has been developing alongside these anti-oppression movements, and this has meant that, for some years now, the left in the NUS has grown and grown, mainly around the liberation campaigns.
This, I believe, points to some of the crucial political questions that the left has to face in light of Malia’s election. The Black Students’ Campaign is the obvious example. Malia has led a long fight, first in the Black Students’ Campaign, transforming it from a fairly bureaucratic campaign (although it was already by far the best campaign in the NUS) and turning it into an active, grassroots campaign with a focus on outreach. And you’ve now seen the same with the womens’, LGBT, and the Disabled Students’ Campaigns. These are the places the left first took power.
Then there’s an internal process in the Union, which is probably less interesting. When the right was first faced with defeat, they took a position of cutting out the bits of the Union that they’d lost control over. Their calculation was that they could ride out the storm, isolating from the wider Union the bits that they didn’t control, and at some point, take back power. But it was the right which isolated itself further and further and found itself, in the last couple of years, in total isolation. Now I don’t think that’s the main reason Malia won but it was certainly one of the things that made it structurally possible to win. I think the main reason she won is that she’s been at the centre of many of the anti-oppression movements and has fought incredibly hard. She has earned a huge amount of respect inside the Union and, perhaps more importantly, way beyond the NUS too.
There is celebration of Malia’s victory in all sorts of movements, certainly by the left, but also in other community-based campaigns against police violence, racism, Islamophobia and women’s oppression – in all sorts of progressive struggles. That outpouring of celebration around her victory points towards why she was able to generate the kind of excitement and energy inside her campaign that led to her victory.
In the past, the revolutionary socialist left has had a far higher profile, which has since collapsed. Do you think this has set back the left in the NUS?
Well it’s definitely not helped. I think there have been moments where it would have been very helpful to have an organised revolutionary left, or indeed an organised left of any kind, in both the campaigns at large and during specific battles inside the NUS. For example, now everyone will agree that the accusations that Malia supported ISIS were total nonsense, but when they were initially made, the Black Students’ Campaign was extremely isolated in trying to defend her. It would have been useful to have had a principled, organised left inside the union that could have taken that on. It’s a small example, but there are many like it.
I think what Malia’s victory shows us is that the left can take shape in a lot of different ways. Particular objective circumstances opened up possibilities and different forces filled them: the forces in this case were a broad alliance of the left, the socialist left, which is much weaker than it has been, and the liberationist left, i.e. the alliance of liberation campaigns, which is much stronger than it has been in the past. And actually I think it’s a fantastic alliance. Malia’s campaign looked that way too. It doesn’t look like what left wing movements have unfortunately looked like way too often. It’s very black, it was led by women and People of Colour, and it’s in alliance with lesbian, bisexual and gay activists and, particularly this year, trans campaigners. It’s much more working-class than the broad-left alliances of 7-8 years ago. This is a refreshing change for the left, who have often failed to attract people from a range of backgrounds.
Is there a parallel between Malia and Jeremy Corbyn’s situations? She’s swept to the head of a national organisation with a right-wing bureaucracy, and with right-wing local bureaucracies and political leaderships in student unions. Do you think she’ll be able to operate in that environment without being hamstrung or having to constantly look over her shoulder?
There are three answers to that. Firstly, I think it’s incorrect to think that she’s dealing with right-wing Sabbatical Officers in unions. The reality is that the majority of delegates to the conference that just elected her are Sabs. One of the strengths of the liberation campaigns has been their ability to win elections in unions. This is because of the work they do locally. They pursue a strategy much more effectively than anyone else on the left has done in the time that I’ve been around: they build seriously in localities and have a strategy for how that feeds back into the NUS. For example, under Malia’s leadership, there are now over 100 Black Sabs, and the largest number of black people on the National Executive Committee (NEC) in the Union’s history. Those Sabs and NEC members are also very progressive, very left-wing, very involved activists.
Secondly, it goes without saying that there will be confrontations between the structures of the National Union and the elected officers. That will undoubtedly continue and the correct response to that will be political. There won’t be some kind of structural solution to it. The question will be whether Malia’s election will trigger a reactivation of the left’s networks. Will she be able to do in the broader NUS what she accomplished in the Black Students Campaign and create local networks, involve activists, broaden out the base of the Union and deepen its roots locally? This would allow her to start to shift the wider political situation in universities across the country.
The third answer is that, alongside the election of Corbyn and the crisis within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Malia’s election highlights that we are in a very peculiar moment in history. We are coming out of the period in which the mass organisations of social democracy (trade unions, parties, students unions, etc.) had their membership defeated and pushed to the margins in the 80s and 90s. Their bureaucracies have become extremely powerful and strong and turned to the right, and now, what we’re seeing is a return of struggle. People are going back to the old mass organisations and finding them in the grip of an ossified and powerful bureaucracy. These new entries are generating political fights, and actually, there has been no example where one side has been decisively stronger than the other. The ossified structures are not strong enough to hold back the tide of struggle, but the tide of struggle has not been strong enough to sweep away the old bureaucracies.
I think what’s exciting about what we’re seeing in the NUS, which maybe isn’t as much the case in the Labour Party (and is part of the contradictory nature of student politics) is that it’s generally new elements, new forms of organisation, new politics. And that has strengths and weaknesses. I’m not trying to romanticise it, but it is different. What’s special about student politics is that the people change all the time, so it’s hard to build in the long term, but new ideas and fresh energy enter the movement continually. I think it’s a general tension that the wider left has to grapple with and try to understand
In the context of the referendum on the European Union (EU), and with no anti-racist organisation to put migrant solidarity front and centre, could the NUS play a role in helping to cohere a radical pole of attraction around questions of migrant solidarity?
Around the EU question, the debate inside the NUS has been no better than it has been in the wider left. The EU didn’t come up at all at conference, I don’t know what position Malia would take, and the referendum will occur before she takes office as president.
In general, the position people in the NUS have taken has been the same one we’ve seen in a number of left groups, which is an ‘in’ position which advances an imagined version of the EU that sees it, somehow, as a beautiful thing for migrants. Even though it is actually the structure which has built a fortress to murder people in the Mediterranean Sea on a daily basis, and lets people starve on its border. The EU, an organisation that actively interferes in the global south and creates ‘migrant crises’, is imagined as the defender of migrants. I think a lot of that stuff is fairly ridiculous. I’m not talking about everyone here, but in general that’s the kind of approach taken inside NUS. If I am not in a minority of one in my position on the EU, then I am one of a very small handful.
That said, I do think that people are taking very positive actions around defending international students. For example, a day of walkouts in November 2015 was organised by the International Students’ Campaign and backed by the Black Students’ Campaign. The broader left in the NUS was very involved. It was fantastic and probably the biggest action in solidarity with migrants since the huge demonstration supporting refugees last September. And it was led by international students themselves; Mustafa, the International Students Officer, did fantastic work around it. There has also been solidarity work with the people in Calais, taking goods and food to the Jungle, and people fighting in their universities for grants and scholarships for refugees. All of that stuff has been absolutely fantastic. These are real questions for international students; barely a week goes by these days without students being plucked out of their campuses and scheduled for deportation. So there’s a sense of fighting a series of rear-guard battles on that. There have been discussions already between people like Malia and the Black Students’ Campaign, the International Students’ Campaign and groups like Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary (a group campaigning to support migrants and for the closure of detention centres), to try and develop an effective strategy for local student unions in terms of what advice to give to international students in these situations. Which lawyers should you use? Which lawyers shouldn’t you use? What do you do if one of your students gets taken? What are the networks you can appeal to? Why is it better for people to have active campaigns rather than remaining silent? All these things have created good discussions and initiatives that we can start concretising now.
Do you think a new broad migrant rights and anti-racist movement or campaign can be built?
Definitely, and I think it will. We should expect that in the next six months something quite serious will come out of the NUS around migrants, which will at first be focused on international students, but will want to branch out to address things around detention centres, etc. I think that is very likely.
During her campaign, Malia faced accusations of antisemitism from the right in the NUS and in the media. What is your response to these accusations and how do you feel they impacted on her campaign?
I think Malia responded to the accusations very well. Of course people were very concerned when they were made. Malia immediately answered very openly, restated her complete commitment to fighting all forms of racism, including antisemitism, and made clear that she thinks opposing Zionism and opposing antisemitism are not contradictory but part and parcel of the same struggle for justice and equality.
Since then, however, I fear that something else has developed. In several reports, interviews, and statements, people have started making a very different argument. It is no longer the case that they are demanding clarifications from Malia; they are stating that Zionism and Judaism go hand in hand, and that Zionism needs to be recognised as Jewish national liberation. This is as ludicrous as it is dangerous. The idea that being Jewish goes hand in hand with supporting a colonial project in Palestine, with repeated massacres, human rights violations and ethnically-based laws etc. is outrageous. It is similarly far-fetched to describe this 68-year process in Israel as national liberation – Israel is a state that was born out of the expulsion of 700,000 indigenous people and the subsequent military rule of those left behind, which does not fit my definition of liberation. This is a dangerous game to play for short-term political gains.
We need to be saying at every opportunity that the conflation of Zionism and Judaism is unacceptable. Malia did just that in her response to the accusations and I salute her for it. I am very concerned that some commentators are trying to use this conflation to silence the growing movement of solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation.