Can the student movement win?
If you’re reading this there’s a good chance you remember 10 November 2010. It was the day of the protest against increasing tuition fees, when tens of thousands of students marched through central London. The demo culminated in what Owen Holland called ‘the potlatch at Millbank’. It was on every front page. Few had thought it possible that the demonstration would be so big or so energetic.
There’s a good chance you also remember 9 December 2010. It was the day of the vote in parliament on lifting the cap on tuition fees. It was the second student demonstration to take place in London in the weeks following Millbank. Outside parliament, thousands protested and were met with catastrophic levels of police violence. Around a thousand students and others were kettled on Westminster Bridge, in sub-zero temperatures, well into the night. Alfie Meadows, a philosophy student at Middlesex University, was reportedly hit over the head by a police baton and underwent brain surgery to save his life.
A year and a half on, those memories have become only more bitter. The government won the debate in parliament and almost all of this September’s freshers will pay £9000 a year tuition fees, deferred through the student loan system. The reluctance of Aaron Porter, then president of the National Union of Students (NUS), to support our protests after Millbank cost him his second term in office. But his replacement, Liam Burns, is no different. NUS declined to call or properly support the demonstration which took place last November, which failed to reignite the student movement. Public funding for universities has been slashed and slashed again. All the while the state has embarked upon a programme of revenge against protesters, prosecuting innocent people for ‘violent disorder’ and other offences. Custodial sentences have been meted out. Alfie himself was charged with violent disorder, and now faces a second trial this October, after a jury failed to reach a verdict on his case last month.
Those who have since graduated are almost universally unemployed, underemployed or underpaid. Any hopes we might have had of transferring the skills learnt in the student movement to a wider campaign against the Tories’ austerity have had little chance of realisation. The prospect of mobilising a student movement to be reckoned with seems as impossible as it did before Millbank.
For all that the student movement has subsided, the underlying discontent remains, and has generalised far beyond students and far beyond a sense of betrayal at Nick Clegg breaking his pre-election promise on tuition fees. Disquiet at the coalition’s austerity programme is now shared by many people. This has contributed to a few spontaneous, futile moments of misorganised revolt like the riots. Even the recent one-day strikes fit into this category, glorious set pieces with no direction.
Given the defeats to the student movement, we desperately need wider struggles to gain traction. Such a scenario could provide us with the solidarity and momentum to recover. In some areas students built links with workers on their campuses and beyond. But these local initiatives could not succeed in isolation.
The position of the student movement today bears resemblance to that in 2010. On the downside, the government is again threatening damaging reforms to universities. Campuses are facing privatisation initiatives and more cuts. On the upside, last month’s NUS conference voted to call a national demonstration in the Autumn term, offering the possibility of mobilising large numbers once again. We can expect this to be heavily policed, like last November’s student demo. With a bigger turnout it will be difficult for the police to control the march quite as tightly as they did in 2011, but another Millbank is unlikely.
There are other reasons why this won’t be an exact repeat of 2010. On the day of the march this autumn Alfie Meadows is likely to be in the dock at Kingston Crown Court, facing charges of violent disorder for a second time. Many of those who consider joining the protests will have experienced the trauma of the violent policing two years ago, and its political corollary in the defeat of the movement’s political demands.
So what can we do — if anything — to ensure a better chance of success where we failed last time? There are some stock answers to this question which have always been on offer. The movement must unite with workers in trade unions. The movement must adopt more militant tactics. The movement must reach out to underrepresented constituencies. But even if any of these answers are correct, the forces promoting them have made little headway when it comes to disseminating their ideas more widely than their own limited spheres of direct influence.
The Anticapitalist Initiative could offer a space to discuss these crucial questions. The events of 2010 showed that students have an appetite for a broader, more radical politics than elections and lobbying MPs. Since then the spectacle of austerity has reinforced the point that to challenge university cuts and tuition fees is to challenge the logic of capitalism. The Financial Times ran a series of articles under the banner of ‘Capitalism in crisis’ earlier this year, and now electorates in France and Greece have voted in large numbers for parties which stood on anti-austerity manifestos. Such developments have begun to force the question of capitalism into mainstream discourse. Students can help provide the answers.