James McAsh

Unless stated otherwise the views expressed in here are my own personal views, not of any organisation.

London Young Labour Conference 2014 Report

Note: this is, to my best knowledge, an accurate account of the conference. It is nonetheless a political account, based on my own political views. I’d be interested to hear the views of other attendees!

London Young Labour (LYL) Conference this weekend marked a serious step forward for socialist politics in Young Labour. The conference atmosphere was cheerful and good-spirited, despite plenty of disagreement, and the outgoing committee deserve credit for that. Strong left-wing policy came out of the motions debates and, although we do not yet know the ‘Block’ result, the new committee looks to be very promising. We also hosted a successful fringe meeting about the Labour Campaign for Free Education.

Sadly, the conference was marred by poor organisation of the motions process and an outrageous attempt to stifle London Young Labour democracy.

Here are my thoughts on the conference: two good things and two areas for improvement. Read more…

In Defence of Telling the Truth

This article was originally published on Slaney Street on 28th October 2014. It was removed a few hours later. I hope that it is put back up eventually but for the meantime I have put it here as a matter of record.

The 46-strong NUS National Executive Council (NEC) all support action in solidarity with Kurdistan, yet have voted to do nothing about it. A motion with the line “no confidence in US intervention” has been condemned as pro-intervention. Daniel Cooper, who was not so long ago hounded by the right-wing press, is now accused of being their stooge. It is difficult to make sense of it all.

The story

It all began in June when Daniel Cooper, member of NCAFC, AWL and the NUS NEC, wrote a motion condemning ISIS and expressing solidarity with the Kurds. It was submitted to the July NEC. Boycotting Israel dominated that meeting’s agenda, so the Kurdish motion was not heard. A new version was resubmitted, this time in collaboration with Roza Salih, the Kurdish Vice President of Strathclyde Students’ Association, to the September NEC. No amendments were submitted.

On the day of the meeting, the International Students Officer, Shreya Paudel, introduced the motion. The Black Students Officer, Malia Bouattia, opposed it on the grounds that it is Islamophobic and that it supports US military intervention. By this point it was too late for amendments but parts could still have been taken (where a member proposes that sections of the motion are deleted). However, no one did this and the motion was straightforwardly voted down.

So far, no public controversy. There are some gleeful NEC members celebrating on Twitter that they have defeated the motion, but the matter soon fades out of public view. The drama breaks into public view three weeks later when Cooper publishes a report of the meeting, including an account of the Kurdish motion debate. The right-wing press cover the story, condemning Bouattia and NUS for refusing to condemn ISIS. Twitter explodes and the far-right begin to attack Bouattia. Many in the student movement viciously blame Cooper. (I should be clear – the attacks on Bouattia are much more serious than the criticisms of Cooper).

There is now a lot of panic and confusion. From this it is important to draw out, and explain, the three important outcomes from the episode. The first is that Bouattia has been subject to racist and sexist attacks which are totally unacceptable. The second is that NUS NEC has not voted to support the Kurds. The third is that everyone is – for lack of a better phrase – being really mean to each other. Cooper bears almost no responsibility for any of this.

Attacks on Bouattia

First, the attacks on Bouattia. These are utterly unacceptable and it is right that they have been unequivocally condemned by all in the student movement. However, some have taken a further, completely unfair leap and blamed Cooper. I disagree.

Cooper’s report was subjective and never pretended otherwise. It was intended to be not only an account of the meeting, but a polemic against his political opponents. It is absolutely his right to do this, and more NEC members should be in the habit.

However, whatever you might think about his political views, the article was accurate in its portrayal of the facts. This is the critical factor, as it was on the basis of the facts – not his opinions – that the article was picked up. It is significant that Cooper’s more contentious assertions, for instance that Bouattia’s international politics are influenced by Stalinism, were completely ignored by the press.

In fact, the core narrative of the articles in the mainstream press is true: Bouattia spoke against a motion condemning ISIS on the grounds that it was Islamophobic. For the mainstream press, the story’s value was that it fit into the popular themes that ‘Muslims are dangerous’ and that ‘political correctness has gone mad’. The right-wing press distorted the actually-occurring event, which Cooper reported accurately, to further its own narrative, and the far right followed suit.

It is unreasonable to blame Cooper for the actions of the right-wing press, and then the far right. In another world, NUS might have released concise objective minutes shortly after the NEC meeting. If they had done so, with no political comment, it would have said that the motion was voted down, who spoke against it, and their key arguments. The result could have easily been the same. Would we have condemned the NEC minute-taker for doing their job?

(Some have argued that Cooper’s report should have mentioned that Bouattia intends to submit another motion to the next NEC. I do not think that this would have quelled the venom: the Daily Mail included the fact, which they must have found elsewhere, and it did nothing to temper their highly critical article.)

No solidarity with the Kurds

The second outcome of this episode is that NUS NEC has not resolved to do anything to support the Kurdish resistance. An outside observer might find this perplexing: everyone on the NEC claims to support the Kurds, two motions to that effect were submitted in July and September, but nonetheless nothing will happen until at least December. This is almost half a year after the motion was first submitted.

This inaction is the fault of the NEC-majority who did not support the motion. Even if we take their criticisms of the motion – that it is Islamophobic and pro-intervention – at face-value, they are still culpable. Faced with an apparently problematic motion they could have written their own, submitted an amendment (which could ‘delete all’), or taken parts on the day. Normally they would have over a week to read the motion and submit an amendment. In this particular case, thanks to it being submitted twice before being heard, they had over two months.

The lack of solidarity displayed so far by the NEC is 100% the responsibility of those who did not support the motion. This is not solely because they voted it down but because they did not support an alternative. At best they were negligent and irresponsible for not reading their emails properly for months. At worst, they chose to prioritise factional point-scoring over meaningful solidarity with oppressed people. In all probability it was a combination of the two.

A hostile environment

The third outcome, that people are being mean to one another, has three key causes. All reflect damaging trends in the student movement. The first is the dominance of the idea that if an oppressed individual identifies something as oppressive (i.e. a woman saying something is sexist) that should be immediately and unquestionably accepted. For many this idea is synonymous with ‘good liberation politics’. So much so the case that when Cooper disagrees with Bouattia’s diagnosis, people react as though this suggestion itself is Islamophobic.

This idea is as wrong as it is dangerous. The strongest argument against is the simple hypothetical scenario where two women disagree as to whether something is sexist. How does the man choose which woman to agree with if not by weighing up the arguments himself? For this episode, however, the scenario is not hypothetical: both the writer and key opponent of the motion – Roza Salih and Malia Bouattia – are Muslim-background women and they disagree as to whether it is Islamophobic. I suspect that this is the reason that Salih has largely been ignored in most discussion of the motion: her existence challenges one of the key arguments fuelling the attacks on Cooper.

The second cause of this hostile environment is the focus on good and bad people over strong and weak ideas. Before the motions were even submitted Bouattia had been labelled as basically good and Cooper as basically bad. Everything that either party has done has been understood through these two frames. The result is that instead of arguing that Resolves 5 (see motion below) has unintended consequences that could be damaging to Muslim students, it was seen as a hostile and intentional attack from Cooper on Muslims everywhere. This meant that denunciations took the place of constructive debate.

The third, and probably most unavoidable, cause is the feeling of powerlessness created by the episode. When the right-wing press decide to whip up anger towards a popular student officer, and the far right respond in even more vicious terms, the student movement can do little to prevent them. However, if instead we see this as a result of Cooper’s actions then the challenge seems less insurmountable: pressure can be put on to prevent him from doing this again. Sadly, these efforts are futile. The right-wing press and the far right will continue to exploit the truth for their own ends. Unfair attacks on Cooper will not prevent this and will only poison the atmosphere and weaken the movement.

In defence of telling the truth

The attacks on Bouattia are the sole responsibility of those doing the attacking. The majority of the NEC is responsible for the lack of solidarity with the Kurds. The responsibility for creating such a hostile environment is shared amongst many, but can be traced to the dominance of a set of damaging ideas about how to conduct disagreement.

I do not believe Cooper to be responsible for any of this. Specifically, I do not think that the content of either the motion or report is particularly relevant for understanding these three crucial outcomes. Cooper’s views on Stalinism, ISIS, Kurdistan, and ‘identity politics’ did not lead to right-wing attacks on Bouattia. Similarly, the content of Cooper and Salih’s motion did not prevent the rest of the NEC from doing anything to demonstrate solidarity with the Kurds.

Overall the deciding factor in all of this is truth. Whether or not you agree with everything in the motion or every line in the report, he has certainly been honest in his reporting, his opinions, and his actions. The NEC report was truthful: the account of the event is correct, and the opinions expressed are sincerely believed. The motion was genuinely motivated by a desire to support the Kurds.

The criticisms levied at Cooper, for the most part, amount to demands for deceit. He is being asked to censor his own opinions and not report on actually-occurring events. There may be short-term ‘tactical’ advantages to untruthful statements but ultimately the strategy is self-defeating.

This article was originally published on Slaney Street on 28th October 2014.

The Yes campaign is a campaign for Scottish nationalism

You would be forgiven for considering this obvious, but it is in fact deeply controversial. For many of its supporters a Yes vote bears no relation to nationalism; it is a vote for democracy, fairness, and progress. This is not deceit either. They are not trying to sell nationalism falsely. They believe that their progressive ideals can be best realised through Independence. They are socialists, progressives and radicals, not nationalists. Nonetheless, they have joined a nationalist campaign, justified primarily by implicitly nationalist arguments

The Yes campaign is the largest nationalist mobilisation in modern Scottish history and it is bolstered by every Yes supporter. The inability to recognise this prevents the progressive Yeses from seeing the danger ahead.

What is nationalism?

I should first be clear about what I mean by nationalism or, more importantly, what I do not mean. I do not believe that Yes voters are racist or that they are obsessed with flags or other national imagery, and I do not believe that they hate the English. Some in the Yes camp conform to these crude caricatures but they are a minority. A similarly ugly minority exists for the No campaign.

By ‘Scottish nationalism’ I mean the identification with Scotland as a nation and the belief that nationality – only one of the many ways in which human society can be divided and categorised – is the significant one for politics. (I should also state that for many Yes campaigners this conception of the nation is relatively inclusive: many are in favour of immigration and of immigrant rights.)

Nationalism makes a lot of sense, and is even progressive, when the nation in question suffers under colonialism or another form of national oppression. For nations where this is not the case nationalism serves to divide working people from their foreign counterparts, with whom their interests are aligned, and unite them with their own exploiters at home – the local rich.

Scotland is clearly not oppressed as a nation so Scottish nationalism must be understood as a negative force in society. It emphasises differences between Scots and the rest of the UK and masks the conflicts within Scotland. Sadly, the Yes campaign is a campaign for Scottish nationalism.

 

Nationalism in the Yes camp

The Yes campaign, including YesScotland and its various minor partners, is dominated by overt and implicit nationalism. Overt nationalism, the less common of the two, explicitly references Scotland’s destiny as a nation. One example is the claim that Scotland is oppressed by the United Kingdom and that independence is a form of national liberation. Another is that unionists, by denying Scotland its manifest destiny, are ‘traitors’. This form of nationalism is more common on the fringes of the Yes campaign but it does creep into the mainstream. Last Wednesday Salmond declared the referendum a fight between Team Scotland and Team Westminster in a rhetorical flourish that denied the national identity of over two million Scots.

Overt nationalism is ugly but not dominant. Implicit nationalism, by contrast, is the guiding force of the overwhelming majority of pro-Independence arguments. This makes it much more pernicious. Implicit nationalism is the idea that Scotland’s problems come from outside Scotland; that Scotland wants to be better and fairer but that it is held back by forces beyond its borders.

This is the thrust of the Yes campaign. It is recognisable in almost everything said by Yes supporters. Whether the goal is to defend the NHS or to create a more equal society, the union is always a key, or often the sole, barrier.

The inherent nationalism is clear when you remove the nation from the scenario. There are plenty of people across the UK fighting to defend the NHS. Scottish independence represents a scenario in which the Scottish establishment promises to defend the NHS for a minority of people in return for that minority breaking away from the rest. In a labour dispute this would be called ‘scabbing’. And as in a labour dispute the strategy is ultimately futile. Not only is the majority ‘sold out’ (the rest of the UK is then in a weaker position to defend the NHS) but the minority is ultimately weakened by the breaking of these bonds. In the long term, when the NHS is next under threat, the minority section may be unable to defend it alone.

By breaking ranks with the rest of the UK’s labour movement and uniting with the Scottish rich, the radical Yes campaigners sell out their comrades and their futures. Taking promises from the Scottish establishment at face value, they accept these concessions to the detriment of their unity and their strength.

This is implicit in even the most progressive Yes voters. The Radical Independence Campaign employs the slogan ‘Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours’. Even if we take this blind hope in the future of Scotland at face value it still leaves the English, Welsh and Northern Irish working class behind.

 

The referendum is not a choice between Scottish and British nationalism

The most common rebuttal to this accusation is that the referendum is a competition between British and Scottish nationalism. Recent polling showed that 53% of No voters put ‘Feelings about the UK’ as one of their top three motivations, with 41% of Yes voters including ‘Feelings about Scotland’ in theirs. It is certainly true that there are nationalists in the No campaign, and the official Better Together campaign does draw on nationalist imagery, but ultimately a No vote is a vote against a Scottish state, not a vote for Britain.

As an analogy, imagine that you had the peculiar belief that the UK and France should merge to create a British-French state. In no sense are you a British nationalist – your life goal is to dissolve the British state into the French. However you are certainly not a Scottish nationalist either. You want Scotland to join the rest of the UK in the French state and see Scottish independence as a huge step backwards for this. Consequently you will vote No. You refuse to support the creation of a Scottish state and do not see a No vote as protecting the British state. You vote No and continue your mission of French-British nationalism.

This example is clearly ridiculous. But you can replace French-British nationalism with any other cause that is neither pro-Scottish or pro-British and the result is the same. There certainly are British nationalists in the No camp but overall a No vote is not pro-nationalist. The same cannot be said for the other side, which unambiguously advocates the creation of a Scottish state. In other words, the Yes campaign is inherently nationalistic, the No campaign is ambiguous.

Even an argument which on its own terms is fairly internationalist becomes functionally pro-nationalist. For instance the International Socialist Group argues that independence would somehow signify an end to British imperialism, thus making the world a better place for people of oppressed nations everywhere. I have no faith in this argument but it is fair to say that it is not based on nationalism. Nonetheless, the function of the argument is still to push forward the creation of a new state based entirely on national borders. Consequently it contributes to nationalism.

 

Does it even matter? What’s in a name?

The purpose to identifying the nationalism inherent to the Yes campaign is not to throw slurs at its supporters. The majority of Yes campaigners have the noble goal of creating a fairer, more equal society. The great tragedy is that they now see nationalism as the best way to achieve it – although few would put it in those terms.

But recognising it as nationalism is crucial for understanding the risks ahead of us. If the referendum returns a Yes vote the fraught negotiations between Westminster and Holyrood will inevitably create further division between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Politicians on each side of the border will have every incentive to get the best possible deal for their constituents, at the expense of their now foreign neighbours.

Scotland will continue to face the perils of international capital and its problems will not disappear. But when the left fights for concessions from the Scottish establishment it will start from a weaker place. It will have lost large chunks of support from the rest of the UK’s labour movement – not due to animosity or hatred but because their priorities are no longer aligned. Moreover, it will be all too easy for the Scottish political elite to blame Westminster bullying during the negotiation period and after. This will continue to obscure the conflicts at home, inherent in all capitalist societies.

Ultimately nationalism always appears with promises of a better future. But history has repeatedly taught us that it is class unity that creates a fairer world.

 

This article was originally published on OpenDemocracy on 17th September 2014.

Model NUS Conference Motion: Affiliation Fees

NUS has policy to try to reduce students’ union affiliation fees every year. At the same time, many democratic events (including those which elect members to the National Executive Council) have fees attached to them. Even more have other hidden costs associated with them, like transport, food and accommodation.

 

I asked recently why this policy was in place. I was told that, when asked, students’ unions consistently ask for lower affiliation fees.

 

This makes sense: why would anyone ask to pay more?

 

But in all my time in the student movement NUS has never asked its constituent members whether they’d prefer a reduction in affiliation fees to a reduction in participation fees.

 

For me, it’s a clear choice. While no one wants to pay affiliation fees it is surely fairer that unions pay a fee for membership (which is proportionate to how big/rich the union is) and then once they are members access to democracy should be completely fair. It is simply outrageous that unions with more money can afford more influence in their union.

 

I have written a model motion which unions can submit to National Conference before the deadline this Wednesday. It’s only 150 so won’t eat too much into your 1400 word count.

 

Please get in touch if you have questions: james.mcash@nus.org.uk

 

Affiliation Fees Motion – NUS National Conference AGM

Conference Believes:
1. That students’ unions are facing financial pressures and that budgets are tight.
2. That costs associated with NUS membership and participation can make up a substantial part of SU budgets.
3. That NUS charges participation fees for a number of democratic events, including ones which elect members to the National Executive Council.
4. That NUS is pursuing a strategy of reducing affiliation fees.
5.That affiliation fees are lower for unions with less money.

Conference Further Believes:
1. That participation fees are to affiliation fees what hidden course costs are to tuition fees.
2. That no union should be prevented from participation in NUS Democracy for financial reasons.
3. That while affiliation fees are not ideal, they are more progressive than participation fees.

Conference Resolves:
1. That NUS will not cut affiliation fees in real terms until all participation fees for democratic events are abolished.

NEC Report – January 23rd

 

Below is a report on the happenings of the last NEC. I’ve made it as short as I could and have not included everything. Sorry it took so long!

 

—- Read more…

Let’s actually challenge Maurice Glasman’s views

This is a response to Toni Pearce and Dom Anderson’s blog: ‘Challenging Views‘.

Tomorrow NUS is hosting an event called ‘We Are The Change’. The organisers invited Maurice Glasman as a keynote speaker. A group of student officers complained.  It then seemed he had pulled out.  Now he is back in.

Maurice “zero immigration” Glasman should not be banned but neither should his views be endorsed. It is not a question of ‘no platforming’ him: he is no fascist. But that alone is not sufficient reason to invite him to deliver a keynote speech. Toni Pearce and Dom Anderson’s defence is confused and muddled.

It falls down on two counts. They assert that Glasman is not a fascist so should not be ‘no platformed’. But this misses the point. They argue that his views should be openly challenged and debated. This is true. But it is not happening. As a result, NUS is endorsing his views when we should be challenging them.

Read more…

Who actually runs NUS?

During my time on the NEC, I have made it clear that I feel that NUS needs to be more democratic and participatory. I have realised though that the centralisation of power in the NUS leadership is disempowering them in the organisation more widely. This is perhaps best shown by the peculiar fact that the NUS fulltime officers organise in a trade union. Read more…

Lessons from being banned at #nuszc2013

Right now students are under attack. Teaching budgets have been decimated in higher and further education. The loss of EMA and the rise of tuition fees is pricing working class people out of education. The higher education funding system will polarise universities in the coming years, allowing the richest to become richer still, while underfunded institutions are at risk of closing down.

 

I don’t need to remind anyone of the seriousness of this. These issues will not be resolved by NUS officers having meetings with government ministers in fancy hotels. The only way we can fight back for our education is the same way that pretty much everything good has been achieved: mass mobilisation. And this requires democracy. We can’t fight for our futures without allowing all those voices to be heard, ideas to be genuinely debated, and decisions taken democratically.

 

NUS is not currently in a position to do this. This has been strongly emphasised to me in the past few days.

Read more…

My speech to #nuszc2013

I am a current member of the Zone Committee. My job is to ensure this conference is successful, and to hold the VP to account.
I’ve been banned, up until now, from participating in this conference, making my job basically impossible.

Read more…

Democratic Mandate Denied: Accountability and Bureaucracy at #nuszc2013

I’m currently sitting in the Manchester Palace Hotel where NUS Union Development Zone Conference is held. I’m in the bar, a public area, because NUS are currently preventing me from getting into the sessions. There are literally people on the doors, just for me. And this is despite the fact that I am an elected committee member of the Union Development Zone.

Zone Conference is the main democratic body for the UD Zone. As a committee member it is not my right but my responsibility to be here. I am responsible for making sure the conference runs as it should. I am responsible for holding the VP to account. I should be accountable to the people at this conference. None of that is possible if I am not allowed to go in. It’s more problematic still that the person who I am supposed to hold accountable is the person banning me.

Read more…

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