Thursday, 22 March 2012

Socialist Student member 5 votes off winning Presidency of Brighton Student Union

Socialist, anti-cuts campaign - shows what can be done in other Universities and Colleges

The 2012 student union elections at Brighton University saw an unfortunately rare sight, a socialist standing for one of the full time sabbatical positions. A campaign that saw me receive over 570 votes, but fail to get elected by a margin of five votes, nevertheless holds important lessons for any socialists or anti cuts activists considering challenging for Student Union positions.

Frequently dominated by populist politics, joke candidates, and campaigns appealing to students desire to drink and have a good time at University; student union elections are too often the stomping ground of the apolitical and the right wing bureaucracy that dominate local student unions and large sections of the NUS.

However with education facing huge attacks from the Con-Dem government, not since the introduction of tuition fees by the Labour Government over a decade ago has there been a more important time to have fighting, democratic student unions and an NUS leadership that is willing to take on the government’s cut agenda with a clear strategy.

This is why as a member of Socialist Students and the Socialist Party I decided to contest the position of President at Brighton University. The last two years have seen massive movements of young people in Brighton as part of the national movement against cuts and higher fees. A wave of walkouts, mass demonstrations and occupations in late 2010 saw Socialist Students members in Brighton play a key role in organising them; and suggesting the way forward with a strategy that did not rely on MPs' changing their minds and voting down the tuition fee rise, but instead looked to the enormous potential power of the trade union movement in the wider battle against the cuts.

The NUS leadership, instead of supporting the action taken by hundreds of thousands of students instead pathetically capitulated, leaving the student movement leaderless and disorientated. However demonstrations during 2011, although not involving the mass layers of students as in 2010, still showed a willingness to fight remained amongst thousands of students. This was finally recognized, although far too reluctantly by the new NUS leadership in 2012 who called for a national walkout on March 14th.

It was in this context that I contested the Presidency at Brighton Students Union. Running an open and honest campaign, clearly identifying myself as against all the cuts and as a socialist, we talked to hundreds of students who despite the insistence of the incumbent leadership of the Students Union that there was no mood for a walkout, were at the very least clearly angry about £9,000 fees and the massive cuts being made to university budgets.

Even students who were not aware of the cuts being made; in itself a further indictment of the NUS and Student Unions who have failed to publicise the enormous attacks Universities are facing, were shocked to hear that as well as paying £9,000 students would have course cuts, service cuts and job losses to look forward to! “Why would they do that? That’s completely mad!” was the reaction from one such student when I explained the situation.

The issue of democracy, the dominance of unelected trustees and an absolute lack of democratic structures were highlighted by dozens of students across the five campuses at Brighton University who felt disconnected from the Union. My pledge to introduce regular democratic assemblies at each campus was well received by the majority of people spoken to and became a major feature of my campaign. It is clear this would have reinvigorated the union and allowed hundreds of students to actively involve themselves in the running of it, resulting in a more active and politicised student body as a whole.

Through a clear explanation of the attacks facing students, and the reasons Brighton needs a student union leadership capable of resisting them, we were able to cut across some of the apathy that exists amongst students regarding student union elections.

My main opposition in the election, a self-confessed “proud member of the Labour Party” who is “left, but not as left as Jack”! Instead focused on the issue of a student bar on campus, as well as trying his hand at red scare tactics. When confronted by Socialist Students members about how he hoped to get a bar without also mounting a serious campaign against all cuts, when University management will be looking to cut even the most basic services at Brighton in the near future, he had no answer.

When it came to results night, the nervousness of other candidates was clear, possibly due to a career path being on the line! However, although we were hopeful of me getting elected, we knew that either way we had made serious ground at Brighton. A fantastic campaign that involved Socialist Student members but also activists from the anti-cuts group was able to highlight the issues of fees, cuts and privatisation in the election. But we also raised the ideas of socialism, and an alternative type of society, which led us to meeting thirteen new people who were interested in getting involved with Socialist Students and the fight against the cuts.

The final result unfortunately saw me come second by five second preference votes. However receiving over 570 votes in a University that has a history of a de-politicised union and elections was a fantastic achievement. It was a vindication of my decision to stand not only as an anti-cuts candidate, but also as a clear socialist candidate and shows that these types of candidates can be successful currently, and in the near future. More than ever we need to win the battle of ideas around student union elections, and argue for fighting democratic bodies that will lead successful campaigns against the cuts. Socialist Students groups across the country will be at the forefront of this, and at Brighton we have put down the marker for future victories.

Video of Jack explaining why he stood in the election Please click here