The student movement accross Britain continued on Wednesday 24th November, with thousands of students and school students demonstrating in cities and towns across the country. Following on from the 50,000 strong national demonstration in London on the 10th November, an equivalent number came out to protest against the cuts, but this time in dozens of separate events throughout Britain.
Pictures from the protest in Cambridge
Most notably, the latest events have brought a new layer of activists onto the scene, with thousands of school students joining a movement that had previous been focussed mainly around the struggles of university students. Yet again the students are at the forefront of the fight against the cuts. The latest protests will only have served to radicalise further layers of society, and will act as a catalyst for the labour movement.
Whilst the majority of the mainstream media chose to focus their coverage of the 10th November demo on demonising those who were at Millbank Tower (the Tory Party HQ), there have been many reports indicating that the student movement has gained the sympathy of a significantly wider layer of society, who oppose the cuts and are glad to see people fighting back. Polls conducted by some papers have shown that the majority of the public supported the student protests on 10th November (54% of Daily Star readers were in support of the actions at Millbank), whilst trade unions leaders, such as Bob Crow from the RMT, and political figures, such as John McDonnell MP, have called on the labour movement to follow the example of the students in struggling against the cuts.
Having initially started as a movement of the university students, the protests on the 24th November showed that the student movement now has expanded to encompass the school students, who walked out of schools en masse across the country to support the local demonstrations. Young people as young as ten years old were seen, and sixth form students – who will be the first affected by the planned rise in tuition fees and who are facing the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance – were out in large numbers. Far from dying down, therefore, the movement against the cuts is spreading, with each new demonstration serving to radicalise a new layer of youth. In is only a matter of time before this radicalisation of the youth spills over into the labour movement and the anger of workers finds an expression through the trade unions.
Unlike the national demonstration in London on the 10th November, the protests on the 24th November were not concentrated in a single location, but were spread throughout the country. Cities with large student populations such as Bristol, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Brighton, and Liverpool saw several thousand attending protests in each location, with over 10,000 more converging on central London. Occupations of lecture theatres and administrative buildings have taken place in at least a dozen universities, including University College London (UCL), Warwick University, and Oxford University, following on from occupations at Sussex University in Brighton, UWE in Bristol, SOAS in London, and several others over the last week. The demands of those occupying so far have been for the universities to oppose the cuts to education and the rise in tuition fees, and have extended to showing solidarity with workers, with demands such as no redundancies of university staff and a living wage for all for cleaners, caterers, and security staff. Some occupations have even posed the demand of opening up the books. Far from being limited to demands about education, these occupations are seeking to raise the issue of the wider cuts agenda. The following statement from the UCL occupation is a good example of this:
“We stand against fees and savage cuts to higher education and government attempts to force society to pay for a crisis it didn’t cause. Promises have been broken, the political process has failed and we have been left with no other option. We stand in solidarity with all those fighting these cuts nationally and internationally.”
In places such as Manchester and Cambridge, university and school students who attempted to occupy university buildings were met with police resistance, and were beaten back with batons. Having been overwhelmed by the numbers at the 10th November demo, police across the country have seen the anger of the students and have learnt their lesson. It is clear that, having been forced to act more peacefully following the brutality G20 demonstrations (which ended in the death of a member of the public at the hands of a policeman), the police have finished with any pretence of being the nice guys who wish to protect the safety of ordinary people. As Engels stated, in the final analysis, the state is armed bodies of men, with a monopoly on the use of violence, in protection of nothing other than private property. The government have clearly lost any qualms about using the police to suppress demonstrations, with Michael Gove, the education secretary, calling for “full force of the criminal law" to be applied to activists “smashing windows to make their point” (The Guardian, Wednesday 24th November 2010). However, much of the mainstream media is now openly emphasising that these demonstrations have been “largely peaceful despite the images” (ibid) and that the mood at the protests “reflects young people’s anger” (The Independent, Wednesday 24th November 2010).
Nowhere was heavy-handed treatment more visible than in London, where over 4,000 peaceful protestors were kettled by police on Whitehall for almost ten hours. Similarly, to the 10th November demonstration, the latest protest in London started with a carnival atmosphere as students from schools, colleges, and universities came together to continue the movement against the cuts. The police stated that their justification for the kettling of several thousand students was to “prevent further violence and vandalism”, with the case of a vandalised police van being given as an example. It is debatable, however, as to the legitimacy of such a claim, as the police van in question had been left isolated and unoccupied in the middle of the road, and was likely an open invitation by the police to tempt vandalism and thus provide a justification for kettling. In any case, the forceful containment of thousands of peaceful protestors in freeing conditions, including many young teenagers out on the first ever demonstration, cannot be justified. Far from reducing violence, such police tactics only serve to increase the tension of those on the protest, are often the cause – not the cure – of any aggressive behaviour from protestors. The treatment at the latest protest will give new young activists an education that no amount of money can pay for – an education in what the police are really for.
Despite being contained for such a long period, reports from those inside the kettle were that the festival mood of the protest remained throughout, with chanting, music, and good humour. This electric atmosphere – the combination of anger and excitement – was evident at all the demonstrations across the country, as thousands of youth entered onto the political arena and became energised and radicalised by the enormous presence at the protests.
The task now is to channel this energy. Like the steam from a boiler, the mood of the masses can be turned into useful work if it is directed in the appropriate way. However, the mood of the masses, like the energy in steam, can also dissipate quickly if it is not given a direction. There are only so many times that the masses will come out onto the streets before they become tired and stay at home. This direction of the movement necessitates a leadership with a clear perspective and strategy. In the case of students, this leadership should be coming from the National Union of Students (NUS). Immediately following the 10th November demo, Aaron Porter, the NUS president, attempted to distance himself from the actions at Millbank and played along with the mainstream media’s attempt to distract from the real focus of the march – the cuts. However, with other political figures coming out in support of the students, Porter has been forced to appeal for the student movement to widen out and link up with the labour movement. Mention of a graduate tax as an alternative has also been quietly dropped by the NUS.
The NUS leadership, however, lack any clear perspective or strategy. Porter’s only suggestion on where to go next is “to encourage voters to write to their MPs voicing their concerns” (The Guardian, Monday 22nd November 2010); but, as was seen in 2003 during the protests against the Iraq war, politicians can quite easily ignore demonstrations of millions, and have no qualms about dismissing letters from angry voters, especially when the other main political parties offer no viable alternative. In the case of higher education, the demand must be for free education, available to all, funded by the nationalisation of the banks and financial houses. This is the alternative that student unions, trade unions, and the Labour Party must be demanding and fighting for. The task for students now is to build mass campaigns on every campus, along with the local labour movement, to have these demands echoed throughout all the mass organisations of students and workers.
The occupations of university buildings in the recent period are a positive step for the student movement, and should be supported where they have taken place. However, in many cases these occupations have been called at short notice with little consultation of the wider population of students and workers in universities. We must point out the limitations of such small-scale, isolated occupations, which, like demonstrations, can be easily ignored by the university management. What is needed is a mass movement that blockades entire universities through a combination of staff going on strike and students occupying. Such a strategy must be built for through the student unions and trade unions in every university, and must be linked up with the labour movement in each area to fight the wider cuts to public services, jobs, wages, and pensions. The NUS should take a leading role in such a mass movement, and should link up with the TUC and call for a general strike.
The recent movements of the students will serve as a catalyst to the labour movement. Each new wave of demonstrations brings with it a new layer of activists and serves to inspire more people. Ultimately, however, it is only the working class, with the support of students, which has the power to transform society. Workers and students, armed with a socialist programme to nationalise the banks and industrial monopolies, together have the power to defeat the cuts, overthrow the government, and bring an end to the fetter on society that is capitalism.