The events of the past two months represent an important shift in the consciousness of British students. Having grown up knowing only economic boom, previously labelled as “apathetic” by the media, stood up and made their voices heard. Their message is simple and has found an echo across many layers of society: “We will not be forced to pay for a crisis we did not cause!” This wave of protests and occupations has swept even the most deeply entrenched prejudices of the last period from the political landscape, leaving many (both on the right and the left) trailing in its wake.
The student protests and occupations of the last few months have involved hundreds of thousands of youth across the country. The initial spark for the current movement was the national demonstration in London on the 10th November, called for by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU), which brought out an estimated 50,000 students. Local demonstrations on the 24th and 30th November, involved over 100,000 young people, importantly including a large, radical layer of students from schools and sixth-form colleges.
This first phase of the student movement culminated in a national demonstration on the 9th December – the day of the vote on the tuition fee proposals. The NUS leadership shamefully organised nothing more than a candle-lit vigil on the Embankment to protest on this important day of the vote. Thankfully students ignored the ‘leadership’ of the NUS, in whose ‘authority’ many students have lost all respect for, and joined a demonstration of an estimated 30,000 marching through London.
For those who attended and those who watched on the television, the 9th December demonstration will be remembered for the brutal display of police violence, as thousands of students were ‘kettled’ in Parliament Square for over eight hours in the freezing cold with no food, water, or access to toilets, and with the sporadic onslaught from police with batons and horse charges.
Cameron and company have lined up to denounce the “violent minority” who are responsible for “vandalism” at the student demonstrations; but the real violent minority are the police and the true vandal is the Coalition government, which is set on destroying public services, education and welfare. The blows of police truncheons have rapidly educated students as to the real nature of the state, which Engels described as “armed bodies of men in defence of private property.” In answer to the hypocritical chorus of the Coalition politicians and their loyal media, let us recall that none of the advances of the past was ever conceded by the ruling class – they had to be won through the militant struggle of workers and youth.
Political leaders have fallen over each other in their haste to denounce the attack by a few protestors on a car carrying Prince Charles and Camilla. The same politicians who constantly harp on about people “scrounging off social security” rush to defend these royal parasites who every year take millions of pounds from the British taxpayer in order to maintain their lavish lifestyle at the public expense.
Despite the many demonstrations and protests, and despite the rebellion of 21 Lib-Dems and six Tories, the proposal to increase fees to £9,000 per year passed by 323 to 302. This may disappoint some students who had hoped that, under sufficient pressure, the Lib-Dems would vote against the coalition’s “reform.” Many may have felt a bit let down but this does not represent a defeat. If nothing else, the passing of the tuition fees proposals have given the student movement a lesson that no amount of money could pay for – a lesson in the limitations of ‘democracy’ and the need to broaden the movement out beyond just students.
Movements are not a steady, linear process of ever increasing strength; all movements experience ebbs and flows and it is in this period that the most important work must be done. We must at this stage turn our focus to our own movement and institutions, in order to cement a solid foundation upon which to build a movement capable of toppling this government.
Events have proven once again that students represent a valuable barometer for the tensions percolating in society as a whole. The protests and occupations of November and December drew sympathy and support not only from fellow university and school students, but also from academic and non-academic staff, parents, trade unionists, politicians and even the media. It is in this mood of solidarity that we must build a wide base of support.
Solid links must be made between students and university staff. In the occupied universities, lecturers and support staff have played a tremendous role, bringing donations of food and messages of support. While fighting alongside workers on campus, students can also call upon their unions such as Unite and Unison to support action against cuts in conjunction with the NUS and UCU. This would be an important step towards the development of a campaign of resistance that covers all sectors, aiming to join with the TUC “National Demonstration Against the Cuts” on the 26th March and eventually posing a genuine threat to the government itself through a joint industrial action.
It is clear that the student movement has already acted as a catalyst to millions of workers, raising the idea of militant action against the coalition’s cuts agenda. This radicalism is finding an echo in the leadership of the trade unions. Len McCluskey, the newly elected General Secretary of Unite, stated in a press release that, “Britain's students have certainly put the trade union movement on the spot. Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach... The magnificent students' movement urgently needs to find a wider echo if the government is to be stopped... The response of trade unions will now be critical. While it is easy to dismiss ‘general strike now’ rhetoric from the usual quarters, we have to be preparing for battle. It is our responsibility not just to our members but to the wider society that we defend our welfare state and our industrial future against this unprecedented assault...Early in the new year the TUC will be holding a special meeting to discuss co-ordinated industrial action and to analyse the possibilities and opportunities for a broad strike movement...These are Con-Dem cuts, and this is a capitalist crisis.” We need to see these words turned into action.
University students who have been involved in occupations can play an important role in linking up with the trade unions in their areas by contacting local trade unionists from all sectors and going to speak at branch meetings about their experiences of occupation and protest. Reports of cases where this has already happened have indicated that there is a wide support amongst workers, especially from the public sector, who have been inspired by the student movement and who have a desire to see similar levels of activity from the wider labour movement.
It is also important that students from the universities link up with students from schools and colleges in their local area. The largest and most militant layer of students on the demonstrations of the 24th and 30th November were school students. This comes as no surprise, as it is they who will in reality face the proposed tuition fees and the cuts to EMA. The lessons learned by school students at the demonstrations and protests are more valuable than anything they could have learned at school and will not be forgotten. Some school students have even gone into occupation. The prospect of setting up a national school students’ union that would fight alongside the NUS is also very attractive, and has already been met with the approval of many students currently in Further Education.
Finally, it will be necessary in this period to look beyond our own borders in linking up with struggles going on in other countries. Greek students set a tremendous example when they marched to the British embassy in Athens carrying messages of solidarity. Let us not forget the inspiring effect that the huge student protests in France had on British students in September and October. Struggles are beginning to erupt globally. We must learn from and build upon each other’s victories and defeats in order to fight the cuts internationally.
In order for any movement to achieve all of its aims, it requires a determined leadership representing its best elements. At this point such a leadership does not exist. It must be remembered that this current wave of action, although inspiring, has come about after a prolonged period of stagnation and disillusionment in student politics (as well as in the wider labour movement). For the best expression of this, you need look no further than the NUS which has been justifiably distrusted by students for many years.
As Socialist Appeal has maintained, under sufficient pressure from below, the NUS is capable of a clear shift to the left. This shift has not yet occurred and will not happen overnight. Aaron Porter, the current President of the NUS, has vacillated over supporting the student protests. Porter previously admitted that he had been “spineless” and apologised for “dithering” over supporting protests and occupations. However, in many cases he has ended up (similarly to Ed Miliband) echoing the condemnation of “violence” that is heard from the Tories. There are already several examples of where Porter and the NUS have failed to offer the legal and financial support for occupations and protests that they initially promised.
The most dangerous thing now would be for students to walk away from the NUS in disgust. There is no doubt that the current NUS leadership does not represent the real interests of students. In periods of relative class peace the traditional organizations such as the unions, the Labour Party, and the NUS can seem less relevant to ordinary people, leading to a withdrawal of participation. In these times it is common that the union becomes less of a fighting organization and more a careerist breeding ground. This is what Aaron Porter would like the NUS to remain; he is a product of past periods when NUS presidents saw their role as providing clothing discounts and beer tokens in return for a cosy career in politics.
Many students are now calling for a “vote of no confidence” in Porter. On the back of these calls, a campaign for the transformation of the NUS into a democratic and fighting union can develop quickly, with the possibility of replacing Porter with a more representative left wing candidate.
On the other side of the coin, the self-proclaimed leaders of the “student left” have not been unaffected by the stagnation of the last period. In the wake of the 10th November demonstration, various groupings and front campaigns claimed responsibility for its success whilst attempting to place themselves at the head of the movement by way of organisational assemblies. But you cannot drive a car by sitting on the bonnet. These assemblies, while bringing together many experienced and talented activists, do not represent a kind of “alternative leadership” for students. After years of working in extremely unfavourable conditions, many of these activists lost faith in ordinary students and so prefer to huddle together for warmth, rather than engage with students at large.
Now the objective conditions have improved and with this change comes the possibility of getting involved at the heart of student politics. By leading the fight on campus and in the student unions, experienced activists could play a critical role in accelerating the developments that have already started. However, simply calling demonstrations through small front campaigns will not have nearly as much success, as the dwindling numbers on such demonstrations suggest.
In every student union across the country that has not already given its full support to the current wave of action, general meetings must be called in order to vote through motions in support of action both locally and nationally. Through these campaigns within the local student unions, the demand for a democratic and fighting NUS must be thrust into the fore, with a view to linking up with the wider labour movement, and the eventual overthrow of this coalition government and the capitalist system it represents.