This is a guest post by Baaria13
*References to location of colleges, universities and names have been redacted so as to protect privacy and a backlash from the leadership*
I hope this blog can be a discussion of political perspectives and wider ideological questions on topics the CC would rather avoid debate on. However organisational matters are important too because it’s become increasingly clear that there were serious flaws in student strategy and general approach to young comrades in the recent period, it’s positive that a discussion is opening up but absent from that has been a reflection of the issues outside HE. Here I’ll be focusing specifically on FE, I’ll be reflecting what the problems of recent party strategy in the SWP have been, focusing largely on the failure to recognise FE as having different conditions to HE and therefore the absence of a separate plan to tackle that, the party’s dismissive attitude to FE is symbolised in the CC IB submission on student work that includes absolutely no mention of FE. This piece is based on my own experiences of organising at my college. Other FE comrades or activists may have had different experiences and different ideas to bring; I hope this piece can open up a discussion amongst all concerned with youth work.
The HE formula doesn’t work in FE.
Party strategy on FE included almost solely of ‘set up a group, have meetings’. The nature of HE is that students all live within a proximity of each other (either on campus or near enough) making holding a meeting much more practically convenient. Whereas FE students at larger colleges tend to come from far and wide, it’s not unusual that at big colleges only a tiny number of activists live near the centre of the town/college, all others are likely to come from outlying villages, neighbouring towns and estates that require two buses or more buses to reach. Therefore meaning holding a meeting outside school hours is virtually impossible and holding them in school hours is difficult as short lunch breaks are the only time available.
Furthermore, this is just trying to impose the HE formula without looking at the specific nature of FE. Namely that FE is shorter than university (a whole year less) meaning even if a successful branch is built, those at the heart of it have left college just as it gets off the ground, leaving less experienced first years (if there are any in said group) to take full lead. The biggest and most important SWSS groups today (including the ones that have been driven out) are lead by experienced comrades in those universities with high ideological levels and years in the party. The idea that running those groups be left to new recruits from the first year with a still developing level of politics is completely unrealistic, yet this is what was expected at FE.
No real Strategy for raising the political level specifically in FE
Universities are naturally more ideologically charged places and new recruits to SWSS are often familiar with much of our ideological positions and in a position to contribute from the off. Whereas in FE, those we’re seeking to reach out to are likely to be newly radicalised and coming to politics for the first time due to the age differentials. For example, at the local HE SWSS group, the recruits from freshers (that I know of) were two comrades that had long been involved in struggles and activism in their respective areas. Both were familiar with Marxism and social movements more generally. Whereas at my college, all the recruits were new to activism and had no grounding in Marxist theory.
This isn’t a problem so long as there’s a clear discussion about how we can raise the political level of new comrades that acknowledges the lower starting point in comparison to those in HE. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any acknowledgement of this issue by the leadership and it has meant the petering out of SWSS groups in FE.
A flawed strategy of how to reach out to FE i.e. placing the emphasis on branch
A decision was taken last year to scrap the role of a national FE organiser because of the difficulty of working separate to SWSS more generally, this was largely the right decision but the leaderships alternative has proved disastrous. The alternative was to place the burden of building in FE on local branches. This has been the wrong approach firstly, because branch comrades that work have little time in their day to reach out to FE students on top of their other political work. Secondly because even if they try then how can they relate to the experiences of 17 year olds? They can try but surely other young people would be better placed to do that? A senior comrade in my local branch thankfully ignored this stupid plan and instead encouraged me to introduce FE students to the local SWSS meetings at the local uni rather than branch meetings in town.
All in all, writing this critique of SWP strategy in FE would’ve been a lot easier had there been a strategy at all, the truth is that our ‘interventionist party’ has no plan whatsoever of how to intervene in FE beyond telling older branch comrades to give out leaflets emailed in party notes outside local colleges (ignoring of course that these people have jobs to go to, or that 17 year olds aren’t likely to jump with revolutionary fervour after being given a flyer by a 50 year old they’ve never met). For all the rhetoric about ‘punching above our weight’, the reality is that the leadership hasn’t bothered punching at all in FE presumably because they simply don’t care, that’s the main criticism of the SWP view of FE.