Britain  •  Youth

Joana Pinto speaks to NUS conference: ‘together we can win’

22 April 2011

Joana Pinto stood for the Vice President Union Development position at this years NUS conference. Below is her speech, calling for a fighting students union

I am standing as VP-Union Development as the candidate of change.
I stand for a new student movement – one starting from the bottom up, from your local unions and grassroots campaigns, one opening up to new layers, one not encumbered by bureaucratic practice that has prevailed in the past.
I’m talking about a new NUS – one determined to build vibrant campaigns that achieve real gains for our movement. That means a NUS that no longer takes the line of least resistance.
That’s why you are confronted today with a very simple choice between two candidates and two very different perspectives. One is the candidate of continuity – who will continue upon the path the NUS has walked for over a decade, towards greater commercialisation, democracy in retreat, and cowardly conciliation in the face of the powers that be.
I on the other hand am the candidate of change: it’s not about turning back the clock to the past, but looking at the tasks we face today as a student movement.
These new realities – require new politics and a radical break with our existing practice. We face a government committed to the biggest programme of public sector cuts we have ever known, our universities face commercialisation, and students burdened with £9,000 fees.
Now more than ever – we need a leadership founded on principle.
The principle of free education, of public investment in social services, of clear and trenchant opposition to racism and all forms of injustice, of solidarity and civil rights.
These are not utopias. They are the starting point for our resistance.
The current NUS leadership failed the test of the biggest student movement we have seen for a generation. When tens of thousands of young people took to the streets, when they were met with appalling police violence, intimidation and scare-tactics – that’s when we needed a leadership that was prepared to stand firm on the basis of principle.
We didn’t get it. It was left to grassroots activists to plug the gap.
I worked tirelessly as the press officer for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts to build a movement from the bottom up, to give a voice to those on the streets when our official representatives were all too quick to beat a retreat. When I talk about change I mean it. I have a proven track record of organising a mass movement on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis – I will share that experience of organising with you and your student unions.
Many student unions have achieved fantastic things recent years. We have opened up to new forms of organising and campaigning. We have seen a resurgence in the general meeting – of packed halls, determining policy, of a new participatory culture.
Unions have built vibrant campaigns – against racism and the far right, for LGBT liberation, against war and imperialism, for the freedom of the Palestinian people, and most of all against the vicious programme of funding cuts to our departments and services. But we have achieved these things despite not because of the NUS leadership.
With a new, campaigning and fighting leadership we can generalise the best practice to all.
We can turn the clock back on the bureaucratisation of union structures that our national union has promoted as the way forward for years.
I believe passionately that bureaucratisation is never the answer – it can only breed passivity and inertia at a time when we need to draw thousands upon thousands of students back into an active relationship with our movement.
We will only do this, if we are a fighting movement.
I will lobby energetically against bureaucratic legislation that hinders your freedom to organise. I will oppose external trustees, because we will never achieve anything unless the student movement belongs to students. I will give you the national resources you need to build campaigns that can win – from opposing privatisation of student halls, to the liberation campaigns, to international solidarity, and fighting the vicious cuts and fees.
I will help you to make the mass student general meeting, not the exception but the norm once again in our movement.
There is a bigger picture here too. It’s not just about the people in here, it’s not even just about the millions of students out there. It’s about what kind of society we want to live in.
We are faced with a government determined to roll back every gain working people have made over generations. If we don’t fight now and fight together in our millions what we will lose is enormous.
The time could not be more crucial; the tasks could not be more great.
Strikes, occupations, and a huge social movement – can together stop these attacks, can force their retreat, and bring down this Tory government.
As a student movement we have helped build a wider resistance of working people – on 26 March half a million marched.
I’m convinced the demo would never have been as been as big if we had not as student already sent the message to millions of working people that resistance was possible.
That’s why the NUS conference this year is at a crossroads. It’s time to break with the whole culture of short-sighted compromise that has achieved zero concessions. It’s time to elect leaders who put themselves squarely on the front line. It’s time for NUS that supports strikes, launches occupations, walkouts and civil disobedience.
Together we are stronger – together we can win.

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