Friday, 7 March 2008

Student Respect: "Be reasonable, demand the possible"

The role of Student Respect post Galloway has been an interesting topic of contention among many leftists: what would happen to the formation following its split at a national level we all mused. Prior to this split many of us witnessed long-standing comrades within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) ditching depleted Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) meetings for ‘vibrant’ joint Respect events, Comrades close to the political project of the Socialist Workers Party rebranded themselves as ‘Student Respect members’ within the pages of Socialist Worker and on campuses for the sake of the party’s latest turn.

With good reason too, as SWP Central Committee member John Rees noted in response to Galloway, the SWP has “sunk significant resources into creating Student Respect” [1], without a trace one might have added. The need to substantiate the rationale for such a move with the talk of ‘great gains ahead’ makes political sense in this context.

On that basis in September of 2007 John Rees provided the following suggestion:
(Student Respect) … has had significant electoral success in local colleges and at the NUS conference. Student Respect has reshaped the left in the colleges
We may ask what to make of reports of the recent gains of student Respect in campuses as wide ranging as Essex and Goldsmiths in reference to this quote.

A report in the 8th of March issue of Socialist Worker noted the election of what were billed as a 'left slate' of 7 candidates. Beyond the spin, the gains made at Goldsmiths were not those of the SWP, but instead the rather heterogeneous sounding 'left' [2]. Only two of those elected were actually Student Respect members: Campaigns and Communications Officer, Jennifer Jones and James Haywood, Campaigns Coordinator. Prior to the election Respect were listing only Jennifer Jones and Grace Lally as Respect Candidates under the optimistic sounding heading: “this month we can take Goldsmiths back” [3]. Returning to the Socialist Worker 'Reports Roundup' the conclusion drawn on the basis of this election, namely that “this vote shows that radical politics are winning a massive hearing among students” seems even less assured.

Candidates stood on platforms almost indistinguishable from those of non-slate candidates. There was no direct mention of the subordination of education to the needs of a market economy within the manifestos of the Student Respect comrades; Where mentions of cuts to services do exist, it is only on the basis of the suggested mis-management of a University that "treats our Union with complete contempt" and the need for a better managed Union. Variations of similar themes ran through-out the election manifestos of all contestants. Noting that the union should be a "campaigning force on behalf of all our members" retains very little purchase in a context in which both left and right have adopted similar rhetoric of accountability and democracy, if just for the sake of getting elected.

While the references were different, and i'm certain the intentions varied, both left and right broadly accommodated themselves to the bureaucratic and largely economistic character of left student politics.

The manifesto of Student Respect member Grace Lally noted the sorry state of student politics in reference to the fact that: "Goldsmiths used to be synonymous with radical student activism" [4]. Ironically the comrade has a point.

Were they to probe the issues 'of relevance to students' at a slightly deeper level they may come to the conclusion that reforms identified on the basis of the needs to render education more responsive to a market economy are not a new phenomenon. The 1960s Fouchet Reforms (named after the then Minister of Interior from 62 to 67) proposed to "install more difficult entrance exams, a more intense selection process, and a sort of “second-rate” degrees, which would be available after two years of study" [5]. Opposition to the Fouchet Reforms would form part of the radicalised student movements leading to May 1968. A movement that would influence the role played by students outside of France, popularizing the use of occupations of University buildings.

The comrade politics is all the more interesting in a context in which the slogans inspiring these "radical movements" find little echo among the existing left. We should have no illusions in documents produced during the period, the politics often expressed remained deeply flawed and partial. However, the willingness to engage with the the implications of Modern capitalism for education, beyond simply lamenting its manifesations, is athema to Student Respect's political project.



bob said...

The odious Jennifer Jones, one of the signatories of that letter, is standing in the GLA elections tomorrow. See here. She's standing against the long-standing Socialist Party local councillor, Chris Flood, see here.

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