In my younger days, I was often of the view that if radicals succeeded in pissing off the centre left establishment, then it couldn't be so bad. Specifically in the case of the NUS, I do recall a sliver of hysteria greeting the election of Kat Fletcher to the NUS president's post in 2004. A position, in case we've forgotten, that has long been regarded the private property of wannabe Labour MPs in what passes for the students' movement. Well, the sky didn't fall in, Kat went on to become a Jez aide/handler, and after 2006 control returned to a succession of colourless and uninteresting mediocrities. And yes Wes, I include you in that number.
Malia is a different kettle of fish, so we are told. She has apparently denounced Birmingham University as a Zionist outpost, has claimed the media are under Zionist lock down, and she opposed a motion at a previous NUS gathering condemning ISIS. Small wonder the keepers of political hygiene are reaching for the disinfectant. Yet, when you look at matters more closely things are a little more complicated. On the matter of condemning ISIS, as this report from the AWL points out (no friend of Malia, incidentally), it appears the axis of her position hinged upon opposing the proposed bombing of targets in Syria. Because the motion contained a condemnation of ISIS it could be, and has been used to make it look like she's soft on them. This is an old trick governments pull all the time in the Commons. Tie something nice to the passage of controversial legislation, and you can pretend your opponents are opposed to free money, fluffy kittens, or whatever.
The Zionist stuff, I'd wager, is more a matter of sloppy language than anti-semitic intent. Coming on top of the panic gripping sections of the media after a few dodgy but marginal "anti-Zionists" were caught spouting racist views, there is undoubtedly a concerted effort to tar as many on the left and in Momentum with this brush as possible. As I and plenty of others have argued before, some sections of the left who identify strongly with anti-imperialist views don't help themselves when they court expressions that can easily be elided with the idiocies and conspiracies pedalled by the racist right. They open themselves to accusations of dog-whistling, for starters. It's worth noting that Malia denies any suggestion of racism, arguing, "It seems I have been misrepresented. I am extremely uncomfortable with insinuations of anti-Semitism ... I want to be clear that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish." She has also pledged to meet her critics face to face to talk through the issues they have with her. I'm inclined to take this on face value. If there was evidence of more than a couple of clumsy quotes in her record, then it would be time to think differently.
In the present febrile atmosphere, you can understand why this is getting a lot of attention. But again, there's a sense history is repeating itself. Recall how prominent members of the PLP got shirty and made lots of noise after Jeremy's election, in their indignation they didn't think about why they lost. And they still haven't given it any thought. Ditto with the NUS. As our AWL friends suggest, there has been a move to the left over a period of years within the organisation. It's not indicative of a groundswell of combative militant students seeking to transform their union into a fighting organisation, or of concerted entryism on the part of one or more micro revolutionary outfits - and in this sense it is the mirror image of the movement that put Jeremy atop the Labour Party.
How then to explain this victory? As readers may or may not know, the NUS elects on the basis of a conference delegate vote, who are in turn elected by local unions when the annual sab elections come up. And among this layer, there has certainly been some radicalisation. But the key dynamic isn't the awful policies of a government hell bent on making British HE the most expensive in the world (though these are important). I would, instead, suggest the occasional press attacks on this milieu has deepened their antipathy to establishment-friendly politics. You remember the opinion pieces and comment about student activists refusing to share platforms with, and their protests against people they deem to be transphobic, such as Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer, and the resulting howls of outrage as the media pack descended upon these frightful upstarts. There is a sense among this milieu that they're under attack, and the commentariat's obsession with PC students is being interpreted as an attempt to weaken student unions ahead of their resistance to the next round government assault. The question from their point of view is who best to face up to this challenge - a steady-as-she-goes grey blur as per the outgoing president, or someone running on a programme of resistance who's already received (and brushed off) hostile media scrutiny?