Mark Bergfeld, the NUS and the “united left slate”

Shiftmag asked me to write a quick response to Mark Bergfeld’s interview about his candidacy for NUS President, the upcoming elections and the student movement as a whole.  My article was originally published here and another perspective here.

After Aaron Porters largely irrelevant reign as NUS President, it’s good that the left are putting up a credible candidate against the faceless Labour bureaucrats who are manoeuvring to succeed him.

As Mark says, the chances of him winning out in his bid for presidency is quite slim; since the 2008 governance review which reduced the delegate entitlements of students unions and the need for cross-campus ballots to elect them, the authority of the national conference has been largely eroded towards greater power for elected officials. Consequently the NUS has increasingly been controlled by Labour party members in its two factions; Labour Students and the ironically-named “Organised Independents”, which jointly dominate local student union politics, with ordinary students and anyone left-of-Labour largely being silenced in the national process.

Mark overplays the role of the SWP in organising the student movement during the protests, as you would expect from a party member, and sidelines the role played by occupations and anti-cuts groups across the country who organise more horizontally. However, the movement is far from leaderless, with traditional left groups like the SWP as well as occupations and anti-cuts groups taking collective leadership at demonstrations and actions, as well as putting in most of the leg-work in terms of organising.

Mark neatly dodges the question about the supposed “united left slate” and its leaving out of the Alliance for Workers Liberty and other groups in its discussions, the most glaring victim of this being AWL’s Jade Baker who, whilst more experienced and probably better suited to the role, was passed over for VP Union Development on the slate in favour of Workers Power candidate Joana Pinto, despite having registered interest in the role a while ago. This prioritisation of factional interests over what might be best for the student movement as a whole, as well as the way in which the slate was hashed out in backroom deals by a handful of leftist groups shows that even leftist interventions into the NUS are usually largely unaccountable to the wider movement.

Whilst the NUS is never going to be a progressive force, it is useful to have leaders in the NUS who pay more than lip-service to the anti-cuts agenda, and use their position and considerable budgets to forward the campaign. For this reason, we should critically support Mark in his bid for presidency.


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