Tens of thousands of British students took to the streets last week in protest against the Coalition Government’s plans to raise the legal cap on university tuition fees from £3,000 [$4,800] to £9,000 [$14,400] per annum. This is part of a whole package of austerity measures planned to attack the working class, Mark Harrison writes to MHI. He adapted this report on the beginnings of the student response from his original report to The Commune.
London protests Nov. 10
The NUS [National Union of Students] and police were completely unprepared for the 50,000 angry students who descended on Central London Nov. 10. The demonstration was completely chaotic: people were travelling in all directions, hand-made placards ranged from the uninspired “keep the cap,” to the “hilarious” (David Cameron engaging in anal sex with Nick Clegg), to the visionary “University for Everyone.” Finding the much-discussed “free education bloc”* was an impossibility, let along finding your own comrades.
Personally, direction was only given to the demonstration when a NUS steward said to me, “Don’t go off to the right, that’s Tory HQ; carry on forward for the NUS route.” It seems that great minds think alike, as most chose to ignore the mind- numbing speeches made by NUS and UCU [University and College Union, a teachers’ union] tops, and aimed for the headquarters of the traditional party of the bourgeoisie.
I had not realised that the demonstration was set to pass this building; if I had, it would have been common sense to expect the events that followed. The youth were riled up and seemed determined to occupy the roof of every bus stop en route. There may have been some semi-conspiratorial plotting but we would have seen the same scenes anyway. Anger at the cuts has been focused on the Conservative Party, so “Tory Scum” was the slogan of the day.
Some protesters were able to force their way right inside the Millbank building [Tory headquarters]. Eyewitnesses report absolute havoc, with students attempting to rip up everything whether it was nailed down or not. Windows were smashed at the higher reaches of the building, and graffiti sprayed around. Hundreds of students built a bonfire out of placards outside the building whilst protesters emerged on the roof. Some unfurled a Revolution banner [Revolutionary Internationalist Organization], one waved an AntiFa flag [a militant anti-fascist group], whilst another waved the traditional red and black flag. They were received with an enormous cheer, and responded by showering us with Elastoplasts [adhesive bandages], a fire extinguisher, and copies of Socialist Worker.
The police were finally able to gather enough numbers to stop people entering the building en masse, although students completely took over the reception area. A sound system started playing dub-step leading to a Reclaim the Streets carnival atmosphere. A second contingent of police was brought in to try and disperse the crowd, but they were actually driven away by the sheer weight of numbers and the amount of placards thrown at them.
There have been two predictable responses: some conservative quarters have made ridiculous protests against damage to private property (I do not need to point out to readers that the smashed glass will be fixed by the time this is written, although the damage from cuts to the welfare sector will be more widely felt and longer lasting). Secondly, Aaron Porter, Labour Party/NUS President/ keynote speaker at Monday’s Education Activist Network post-demonstration meeting, has stated that he wants everyone involved in yesterday’s actions to “be hung out to dry.” I have held this man in particular distain ever since I saw him condemn the 2009 university occupations against the Israeli attack on Gaza as “anti-Semitic” at that year’s NUS conference.
We should contrast Wednesday’s events with the traditional “Grand Old Duke of York” marches of the Stop The War movement. The Stop The War Coalition was a mass movement that failed due to its pacifist politics and dead-end strategy. The invasion of 30 Millbank has brought mass media attention to the demonstration as well as breeding confidence in students that there is strength in numbers.
Although these attacks on education are only going to be stopped by joint student-worker participation, looking at UCU, I do not see any strike action on the horizon.
Occupation at the University of Manchester
Wishing to maintain momentum, the sabbatical officers of the University of Manchester Students’ Union called an “emergency” meeting at 1 pm Nov. 11 which was attended by about 100 students. After 45 minutes discussion where there was talk of “breaking the coalition,” approximately 80 of us walked out over to the Samuel Alexander administrative building, with the aim of demanding that management “open the books.” Anyone who has taken part in such an “occupation” before will understand the confusion that takes place, although it was carried out democratically. Students took over the corridor housing the Finance Office and where a meeting of the Board of Governors was also taking place.
Once inside, security locked doors to the building so that no one could move inside or out. Supporters arrived outside, ranging from 15-50 throughout the day. One of the security guards who was acting as a mediator between the students and the Vice Chancellor relayed that we were allowed to send three “leaders” up to discuss with the Vice Chancellor. The students, as they all wanted to see their principal face to face, overwhelmingly rejected this. It was obvious that the board of governors would refuse to meet with us, although we were told that we would be given a written response ….
By around 5 pm, we were told that those in the Finance office had exited though an “auxiliary door,” and the long awaited response was handed to us. Unfortunately, I have to use the tired old phrase that it was not worth the paper it was printed on.
Nevertheless, we democratically decided to leave the building. This was a positive action called at such short notice, “not the end, only the beginning.” A “day of action” has been called for the 24th of this month; hopefully larger scale events will take place across the country.
Of course these actions should be supported, as they build confidence and bring more people into “the movement,” even if it is only on the shallow level of the spectacle of action. However, I believe the demand to “open the books” has historically been proven to be dangerous. If students win this demand, we could be faced with the choice of where we think the cuts should fall.
Finally, when engaging in occupations, we must be sure not to alienate university workers, who are our closest allies, and must make sure we remember that an occupation is a tactic and not an end in itself. We should be wary of Labour Party NUS leaders who want us to occupy Liberal Democrat MP’s offices and breed illusions in parliamentarianism.
* The “free education bloc” was organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, a student organisation highly influenced by the Trotskyist Workers’ Power and Alliance for Workers’ Liberty groups. It has little influence outside of London, although it seems to operate in a more democratic manner than the Socialist Workers Party-dominated Education Activists Network, i.e., people were allowed to submit motions at the NCAFC conference.