- Created: Thursday, 16 December 2010 10:46
- Written by Trevor Rayne and UCL student Rob Barrie
The students’ response to the ConDem government’s plans to increase university tuition fees and cut access to higher education has been fitting and inspiring. It has struck a chord with millions of people in Britain who also face attack from this government and are pleased to see that the fightback has begun. We can be sure that the occupation of the Conservative Party headquarters on Millbank will be looked back on as the day we said ‘enough’ and started to build our own future. TREVOR RAYNE and UCL student ROB BARRIE report.
On 10 November 2010, supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! were among over 50,000 students and education workers from colleges and universities from all over Britain in one of the biggest and most angry student protests in decades. The ruling class assault on higher education, with the tripling of tuition fees, fuelled the rage. This resulted in a much more radical and confident demonstration.
The march received support from the public, angry over austerity measures, with the honking of horns from passing cars, pedestrians clapping and a standing ovation from workers having lunch at a café on the route. Activists began the day by breaking police cordons which had forced the large march onto only half of the road, with cries of ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ and the police retreated. This set the tone for the rest of the day and the protests that followed in cities around the country on the 24 November National Day of Action.
When the 10 November demonstration reached the end of the official route, the students were not happy simply to listen to the NUS speakers and then to go home. Instead, over 3,000 students lay siege to the headquarters of the Conservative Party in Millbank. Bonfires were lit and effigies of Cameron and Clegg burnt. Protestors surged against the police lines protecting the ruling class enclave, windows were smashed, and over 400 students occupied the ground floor, over 50 reaching the roof. The message sent by the roof occupiers was clear, and representative of all the students encircling Millbank: we did not cause the capitalist crisis and we certainly are not going to pay for it!
They issued a statement, ‘We oppose all cuts and we stand in solidarity with public sector workers, and all poor, disabled, elderly and working people. We are occupying the roof in opposition to the marketisation of education pushed through by the coalition government, and the system they are pushing through of helping the rich and attacking the poor. We call for direct action to oppose these cuts – this is only the beginning of the resistance to the destruction of our education system and public services.’
The media, bourgeois politicians and union leaders immediately condemned the direct action of the students. Boris Johnson, Conservative Mayor of London, declared that students had ‘abused their right to protest’. Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) and Labour Party apparatchik, ‘absolutely condemned’ the occupation and called it ‘despicable’. UCU lecturers’ union General Secretary, Sally Hunt, said it was ‘the actions of a mindless and totally unrepresentative minority’ – this from an official paid £106,782 a year, while her members are facing redundancies and pay cuts. Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Ed Balls said the actions taken were ‘completely unacceptable’ and ‘perpetrated by a small minority of thugs’.
Since the student fightback the right-wing press, led by the Daily Telegraph and reactionary blogger Guido Fawkes, has initiated a witch hunt against the activists by publishing pictures and offering cash rewards to informants. In response the well- known police monitoring website, FIT Watch, blogged legal advice and tips for avoiding arrest. The police asked its hosting server, JustHost.com, to shut down the FIT Watch website due to ‘criminal activity’. The US-based web host complied and even blocked access to FIT Watch’s stored files. Other sites immediately re-hosted the material in defiance of police censorship. FIT Watch is up and running again.
In response to the occupation the police have launched Operation Malone to track down those responsible for ‘violence and vandalism’. This is reminiscent of Operation Carnaby launched after the Poll Tax protests in 1990. As we go to press the police have arrested 62 protestors, many from further education colleges. A defence campaign has been established, nov10.wordpress.com, with advice and support for suspects, and the Conservative Party headquarters occupiers have received declarations of solidarity from all over the world.
Building on the Millbank occupation a National Day of Action was launched on 24 November with occupations, marches and sit-ins across the country. The ‘despicable’ NUS President Porter attempted to stop student unions backing the National Day of Action, stating, ‘I am of the belief that the actions … could now be a risk to our wider objectives.’ By this he means a threat to his future career.
Disregarding Porter’s concerns, students organised and this time they were joined by teenage school pupils and even more further education students joined in. They mobilised over Facebook and Twitter; for a while mobile networks were unavailable: ‘busy’. They stormed out of schools to show their anger at a government intent on destroying their futures, and marched into city centres to join the protests.
We heard of clashes with police in Bristol and Liverpool, and in Whitehall, London, 35 protestors were arrested. Students occupied campuses in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff, Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Warwick, Essex, and in London at SOAS, University College, Royal Holloway, South Bank and Roehampton, and in Oxford at the Bodleian Library (apologies to any we have missed). The anger was there, the inventiveness, the humour, funny placards and creative actions such as occupying Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes’ constituency office or setting up a ‘University of Strategic Optimism’ in a branch of Lloyds Bank – and there were political lessons to be learned for the future.
What the students and pupils have shown is that real resistance to the ruling class attacks on our living standards can be built; they have introduced a temper that is needed if we are to have the momentum to organise and fight back. However, we face two enemies: one from without and one from within. Following the 24 November protests Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said, ‘We will be putting more assets in place...The game has changed.’ He expected ‘more disorder on our streets’. Some 800 police were deployed in Whitehall. They ‘kettled’ protestors behind police cordons for hours and police horses charged at them. The intention is to demoralise the demonstrators, to impose a sense of futility and weakness. In other cities protestors were filmed by the police; an attempt to intimidate and frighten. The courts will be used to try and impose exemplary sentences on those arrested to dissuade the rest of us.
The Labour Party leadership wants to replace tuition fees with a graduate tax. Closer to us and more able to do us harm are the British left and trade union officials who are the self-proclaimed leaders of the movement. For these people and their organisations they must head-off militancy, direct it into channels that they control and prevent an independent movement emerging that confronts capitalism and builds for socialism. They are the prospective source of demoralisation from within.
We witnessed their methods on the 24 November demonstrations. They abhor democracy and if they can control the megaphones they will, in order to exclude those on the left that they oppose and the majority of the protestors themselves. In Newcastle Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! supporters organised an ‘open megaphone’ rally so that any of the protestors who wanted to speak could do so. Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) members tried unsuccessfully to divert demonstrators, almost as soon as the protest had started, to a ‘teach-in’ – in a room which had been booked and agreed with the university in advance. At a planning meeting the following day SWP members were amongst those who argued against walk-outs by school students as part of the second national day of action on 30 November, proposing instead a two minute silence with candles, once school had finished for the day.
In Glasgow, the self-proclaimed leaders attempted to stop people from distributing leaflets and selling papers on the demonstration, and said that the SWP had agreed not to sell. A local SWP member led a demonstration around in circles inside a university building and then refused a democratic vote by the protestors to march through the city to the Art School where an occupation was in progress. In Manchester, the NUS stewards and SWP members proposed taking the demonstration away from the Town Hall to Castlefield Arena, an empty space in the middle of nowhere. They feared a confrontation with the police. A large section of demonstrators ignored these directions and forced their way through police lines, but once at the Town Hall were dispersed by SWP members, who told the demonstrators to take the struggle ‘back to our campuses’, ignoring the hundreds of school and further education college students present. Along with the police, they are policing the protests.
Like the Grand Old Duke of York, who had ten thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill and then took them back down again – anything to avoid a confrontation and everything to dishearten and demobilise young people who are coming into political action, probably for the first time. Ultimately, the self-proclaimed leaders and stewards of the protests act out of political conviction. They seek to compromise with capitalism and the state, to make it a little less harsh and a little more reformed, and to tie the demonstrators to the respectability of the Labour Party as an agent of change; demonstrable illusions.
The new movement must be democratic and it must begin to generate its own authentic leaders. We are confident that the student protests will initiate political debates among students and pupils not just about tuition fees and the Educational Maintenance Allowance, but about what kind of country we live in, about racism and immigration, about imperialism and international solidarity and the need for socialism – something new is being born.
‘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.’
Statement from UCL occupation
‘We have opened the occupied space for talks, entertainment and political discussion ... from film showings to visiting comedians, talks by lecturers and outside speakers on topics as diverse as Mumia abu-Jamal to the nature of education. We’ve been in active contact with a number of other student occupations – some of us joined the SOAS occupation in solidarity on the night they received an injunction, and we have been contacting other university occupations to build support. We are moving onwards to take more direct action in inventive ways, to build strength in our movement and to make our presence felt!’
FRFI 218 December 2010/January 2011