The demonstration, a joint demo by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Lecturers Union (UCU), marked a turning point for the class struggle in Britain, which will be seen by workers everywhere as the first expression of the anger and frustration developing within society as a whole. Not since the protests against the Iraq war have such numbers been seen in Britain, and even the famous student protests against the Vietnam War in Grosvenor Square in 1968 were only slightly larger.
Fees and cuts
In 1998 the New Labour government scrapped free education and grants. Despite an election promise not to, New Labour passed a law in 2004 to increase the cost of tuition fees in Higher Education (HE - university level education) from £1,250 to £3,290 per year. The law only narrowly passed in the House of Commons, with Tony Blair having to rely on support from the Tories in order to overcome a Labour backbench rebellion.
In light of the capitalist crisis the Browne Review recommended on October 12th this year that universities be allowed to charge unlimited fees for tuition, going significantly further than what had been expected. This reveals the depths of the crisis. Despite the new Tory-Liberal coalition government promises to take on board the recommendations of the Browne review, the government drew back from the brink for fear of the social and political consequences. In the end they announced plans to allow fees of up to £9,000 per year. Although students will not be required to pay any of this money upfront, the debt that they accumulate will be borrowed at interest – interest that will go straight to the banks!
In addition to the increasing fees, the coalition government announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) on October 20th that the teaching budget to universities would be cut by 40%. This raises the possibility of entire universities closing, along with course closures at most universities. Students, therefore, will not be the only ones affected by the cuts; the UCU estimates that over 22,000 jobs in universities are at risk, including both lecturers and support staff.
The picture is just as bleak in FE (Further Education - education for 16 to 18 year olds), with planned cuts of 25%. FE institutions educate and train more over-16 students than sixth forms and universities put together. They are clearly needed: some one million 16 to 24-year-olds are classified as "NEETS" – not in education, employment, or training. The education maintenance allowance (EMA), of up to £30 per week for poor families, is to be scrapped. Nationally 46% of FE students get the EMA; in poorer areas the figure is nearer to 80%.
These cuts, which form part of a generalised attack on public services, are tearing up the so-called consensus politics of the past two decades. The illusion that in Britain there existed a type of "meritocracy", no matter how imperfect, where your kids had the opportunity to reach the top with a bit of hard work, has been shattered. It is of no surprise, therefore, that bubbles of anger are beginning to float to the surface.
Until recently the movement against university cuts had been primarily led by university staff, who were facing the more immediate repercussions of the crisis, in the form of job losses, wage freezes, and attacks on pensions and conditions. As a result, the UCU has been out on strike a number of times over the past year, both in HE and FE institutions.
The NUS leadership, however, has not matched this level of militancy in the recent period, and even went as far as to abandon its official position on campaigning for free education at the 2008 national conference.
As details of the Browne Review and the CSR emerged over the last month, activity in universities began to accelerate. Student unions across the country, with the backing of the NUS, gave a great deal of support to the protest, and meetings about how to fight fees and cuts grew in size. Protests at individual universities, such as the 1000-strong march at Oxford University, gave an indication of the mood that was developing.
On the day of the march it was clear from the beginning that there was a change in the air. The roar of students marching in the distance could be heard at the starting point. A carnival atmosphere seemed to take hold of the march. It was clear to see, as more and more students arrived, and the scale of the turn-out became apparent, that the demonstration was becoming intoxicated with recognition of its own strength.
Since the financial crisis in 2008 many have watched what is being prepared in society with a sort of stunned silence. People have grumbled that there is no voice or movement for those who wish to fight the cuts. Yet the atmosphere among the students was electric. It was as if, after a period of feeling impotent and isolated, the students had found that they were not alone, that they were part of a bigger movement with a definite purpose.
A last minute surge of attendees from universities, along with the presence of many school students from London who had boycotted school for the day, pushed the numbers to over 50,000, according to estimates given by the NUS. Such numbers were truly staggering, and were an amazing sight to behold, with the vibrant student protest filling the streets of central London for over five hours. The number of 50,000 was all the more impressive considering that the protest was almost entirely made up of students, with some university staff, and that it was the middle of the week, thus requiring students to skip classes and not allowing other workers to show solidarity. So buoyant was the mood of the students that, as opposed to the typical stereotype of student lethargy, the march spilled out of its starting position and left before the scheduled time.
New layer of students politicised
It was clear that for the majority of the people on the demonstration, this was their first experience of a large scale protest. This is an extremely positive step for the student movement and for the class struggle in general. A mass movement of workers and youth will be needed to defeat the cuts, and a new generation of student activists is a necessary step towards such a movement.
The large number of new student activists was also reflected by the political slogans on display. In general, the majority of people were angry about the rising fees. This was especially the case for the large number of school students at the demonstration, who will be the first in the firing line when it comes to the proposed £9,000 per year fees. The majority of banners and chants were for “free education”, and not for the official NUS position of a "graduate tax" (in which a progressive tax is placed upon the income of graduates once in work). This shows that the new layers that were getting involved are far ahead of the NUS leadership.
There was an excellent turn-out from Scottish students, who are not immediately affected by the measures being introduced by the Tories, but clearly understand that they will not be able to escape the attacks that are coming.
Despite the leadership of the NUS, with its support of a graduate tax and with no clear strategy to defeat the cuts, the mood was excellent. In particular the school students, many who said they were encouraged to skip classes by their teachers, were grabbing bundles of Socialist Appeal leaflets and handing them out. Flyers were literally being torn out of the comrades’ hands. Again this shows the political nature of the demonstration and the need for a leadership with a clear strategy to fight the cuts.
History shows that the mood that develops among the student population is a reliable barometer for the mood in wider society. This was famously the case in France in May '68, where it was first the movement of the students that anticipated the magnificent movement of the French workers, who later carried out the 10 million-strong general strike which almost toppled capitalism in France.
Recent events in France have certainly been an inspiration for British workers and youth, and there is no mistaking the fact that British society has been influenced by the example of France.
This fact, in relation to the student demo, has been commented on by much of the bourgeois media - that the NUS and the UCU carried out a "French-style" demonstration. The Wall Street journal comments that perhaps Prime Minister David Cameron should be asking Sarkozy to loan them the notorious riot-busting CRS to tackle the students. When the British students are accused of "acting French", what is being acknowledged is that the students are becoming radicalised.
NUS leadership miscalculates
Before the day of the march Police estimates were for a turnout of 10,000. The estimate coming from the NUS was 30,000. Both clearly misjudged the mood that had been building up among the student population as over 50,000 students turned out.
This is an answer to those on the left who have tried on numerous occasions in the past period to play the very irresponsible game of demanding the creation of a “new, radical, democratic, fighting” national union of students. Essentially they have tried to split the NUS, claiming it only fit for beer tokens and clothing discounts. What they have not understood is that the NUS is the traditional organisation of the student movement in Britain. In the 1960s it moved radically to the left under the pressure of events. The present leadership of the NUS was shaped in a period of relative class peace, which was based on the boom. It is only an imperfect reflection of the consciousness of the movement below, which in turn is shaped by the hammer blow of events. In the coming period the NUS will be pushed much further to the left as the students try to shape it into an organisation that represents their interests.
Today, with over 80% of students having to work part-time to make ends meet, the student body as a whole has become proletarianised and is very definitely on the left. As the crisis has struck, this has been shown in practice: faced with increasing anger amongst students, the NUS leadership was forced, firstly, into organising a special “cuts conference” in June 2009, and then to announce a national demonstration jointly with the UCU.
Such announcements represented a qualitative change in the student movement, which has been confined to small-scale university occupations over issues such as Gaza in recent years.
As a traditional organisation of the students the reserves of support that the NUS has at its disposal cannot be underestimated, as Wednesday's mobilisation reveals.
The NUS leadership has been dominated by reformist careerists in the last decade. The last thing NUS president Aaron Porter wanted – who, unlike his New Labour predecessors, has had the misfortune of being “born in interesting times” – was this demonstration, which he was forced to call under pressure from below. The choice of a weekday for the demonstration was meant to keep the attendance low. The NUS leadership hoped that the protest could be used to quietly allow students to let off some steam, in much the same way as trade union leaders in Europe have used one-day general strikes to allow some pressure out of the labour movement. In reality the national demonstration of students was a success despite the leadership, and will only have served to raise the consciousness of the new layer of youth that has entered onto the arena of the class struggle. What shaped the mood was the widespread discontent which exists throughout British society, and has been concentrated in the "excluded generation" of under-25s who are fast realising what impact the cuts will have.
An attempt has been made by the media to play down the real meaning of this mass demonstration of students, by concentrating all their reports on what happened at the Millbank Tower, which hosts the Conservative Party headquarters. The windows of the building were smashed in, with a few dozen student occupiers reaching the roof. This attracted a much wider periphery of two or three thousand (or more), who stood outside the building directing chants against the Tories for several hours, until police reinforcements arrived to beat back the remaining protestors and evacuate the building. Although the attack on the Millbank Tower was clearly initiated by a minority of ultra-lefts, it was evident that large numbers of students looked on with sympathy. One student said: "this is what happens when those in power attack ordinary people".
In and of itself this action has solved nothing and is not a method that the labour movement would adopt. But one has to recognise that the severity of the government's attacks is provoking an extremely angry mood among students and the responsibility for such a situation should be placed where it belongs, on the shoulders of the Tories and the boss class they represent.
In his response to the media, Porter, unfortunately preferred to use his air-time to concentrate on condemning the occupiers of the Millbank Tower, accusing an “unrepresentative minority” of “ruining it for everyone” rather than directing his main fire at the Tories for the violence they are visiting on the British working class. Such outbursts of violence are nothing compared to what the Tories have in store for working people and youth in this country.
The capitalist press have jumped on this question. It is in itself a sensationalist news story that will sell a lot of papers. More importantly it distracts from the real question, which is, in the first place, "why are the students marching?" Cameron and fellow Tory, London Mayor Boris Johnson, have been quick to condemn the students. One student commented online that the they had gone from being portrayed as "lazy hippies to hooded yobs", and that while it is merely "hi-jinks" for the Bullingdon club (a notorious and exclusive Tory dining club at Oxford university) to smash up restaurants, when Tory HQ is attacked "things have gone too far". Cameron, who has been on a trade mission to China, explained to the Chinese press that British students were experiencing a tax-hike "so that foreign students can pay less (!)".
Had the anarchists gone tearing down Oxford St, smashing shop windows, it would have been seen as the usual crowd of ultra-lefts carrying out acts of vandalism. However, the Millbank incident will have been seen in a different light by many. This is because this was the headquarters of the party of the bankers and big business, the party that is destroying the very basis of a civilised existence for millions of workers.
Students have reported a sympathetic response from ordinary working class people. An example of this was reported by students of Worcester University, who on the way back from the demo stopped off at a service station, where a little old lady serving behind the check-out, on recognising the students from the news, reportedly remarked "…good on you lads, somebody has to show those Tories we will not be walked over."
The role of the police at the Millbank occupation presents an interesting question. Thatcher in the 1980s always took care to look after the police, raising their wages whilst they attacked the miners and printers. Today this is not the case and the police are suffering the same cuts. A couple of years ago 25,000 police marched through the streets of London in protest over their wages and conditions. This shows us the depth of the capitalist crisis, where the bourgeoisie are eating into their traditional reserves of support.
However, we have to distinguish ordinary police officers from Chiefs of Police. In the bourgeois press the next day the message to the police was clear. Under the guise of "sincere concerns" that the police had been cowed by the previous years' bad press at the G20, where a demonstrator – Ian Tomlinson – died after police brutality, the question was raised: "are the police too restricted in their actions?' The message is clear. From now on, we will see a much more aggressive stance on the part of the police in the coming period. And that is not because of what happened at Millbank. The bourgeoisie has launched a severe attack on workers and there is no room for compromise.
The serious bourgeoisie will not be too concerned about a little damage to private property, which they can easily afford to replace – and which in any case comes in very useful as a propaganda tool to justify their stepping up of police repression. What they are concerned about is this militant mood of the students infecting the rest of the working class. The government knows it has no concessions to offer - therefore it will offer the baton instead. What was in their interests was to let the occupiers have their way, to let rip and provide the bourgeois press with some images to splash on the front pages. They wish to demonise the students, and the idea of fighting the cuts. More importantly they wish to prepare public opinion for the real battles they foresee against an aroused working class in the future.
Having considered all the above, what would be dangerous is the idea that "direct action" by students alone can stop the Tory attacks. Effective direct action can only be carried out by the organised labour movement, mobilised with a programme to nationalise the banks under the democratic control of the working class – the only class that has the power to take on the bankers and capitalists and their stooge Tory government.
Where next for students?
For most of the 50,000 students at the national demonstration, the question in the minds now will be “what next?” It is clear that demonstrations alone will not defeat the cuts. The huge demonstrations of over one million people in London in 2003 against the Iraq war failed to stop the Blair government. The ruling class can tolerate demonstrations, however strong, as long as these do not challenge their right to govern over society. What is required is a movement that can bring this government down.
The immediate task for students now is to build a fighting campaign against the fees and cuts in every university, in association with school students and university staff. Pressure must be put on student union leaders on every campus to call for mass meetings of students, along with the various unions representing staff – the UCU, Unite, and Unison. These campaigns must be linked up with the local labour movement, in order to build a mass movement of workers and youth against the cuts. The great events of May 1968 in France have shown what is possible when students and workers unite and fight.
Ultimately we must tell the truth to students and workers: the reforms of the past – free education, universal healthcare, retirement at 65 on a decent pension – are no longer possible under capitalism. A radical transformation of society is needed.
The national demonstration of students was important because it was the first step in linking up the student movement with the wider working class. What was clear was that this changed mood has not dropped from the sky. It is the first point of escape for the seething discontent that has accumulated as a result of the cuts. This mood the Tories cannot cut back, and is raging just beneath the surface.
Thousands of students went home to their respective universities with a story to tell and a political education a hundred times more valuable than what can be gained from a textbook or a seminar. Hundreds of thousands of others looked on, and are beginning to draw their own conclusions.
Remember the 10th of November. It marks an important beginning in Britain. The movement of the students marks the first step in the class struggle, a prelude to the awakening of the British working class.
See also Geoff Dexter's gallery: