Saturday, 13 November 2010

After the demo: where next for the student movement?

Where next after Wednesday's mass demonstration? How can that tremendous display of anger, passion and determination - of a magnitude predicted by nobody - become just the beginning of something bigger, not merely a one-off spectacular? For many left-wing and radical students the instinctive response is to advocate student occupations.

One reason for this response is an absolutely correct defence of militant tactics, of direct action, in the aftermath of attacks by press and politicans on the 5000 students involved in the siege of Millbank.

Another factor is the precedent set by the nationwide wave of 35 occupations in solidarity with Gaza, during the first three months of 2009. For the 'Gaza generation', occupations are the obvious tactic.

A day of action is set for 24 November, just two weeks after the national demo. Activists will seek to build on the demo's success and it's likely occupations will take place, or at least be advocated by many on the student left.

There's no doubt in my mind that any occupations should be supported fully. And they should be defended 100% from any media vilification and condemnation by NUS leaders like the president Aaron Porter.

It's important, however, to think carefully about the place of occupations in the current movement against cuts and higher fees. This is a radically different situation to the Gaza solidarity movement, for two major reasons.

Firstly, the scale of mobilisation. In terms of the numbers involved the Gaza occupations ranged between 20 and 200; most were in double rather than triple figures. Most were short-lived, lasting maybe 2 or 3 days. It was highly impressive at the time, though a similar wave of relatively small-scale sit-ins now would be in a very different context.

There has already been a national demo of over 50,000, including 5000 who participated in the more militant action at the Tory campaign HQ. It isn't enough to follow that with occupations which only involve a tiny minority of the student body in any given college or university. Different tactics are needed.

Secondly, there's the question of what demands students place on their college authorities, and whether these are winnable through occupation. Most of the Gaza sit-ins won at least some of their demands; a number of them were unqualified victories.

These occuaptions were partly about raising awareness of the Palestinian cause and promoting solidarity with Gaza, but they also had concrete demands like the college administration formally condemning the attack on Gaza, launching student exchange programmes and donating old equipment to Palestinian students. These demands could be won at the institutional level and didn't require any change at national government level.

It is different now. Hundreds, never mind tens, of students can occupy their college and get nowhere near winning their demands, i.e. stopping the cuts and the fees increases. These are decisions made by central government. Many specific choices about implementation will be made by institutions, but national mobilisations are needed to confront a national attack. Local action has to serve that bigger movement.      

Occupations will make sense if it's possible to directly involve large numbers - hundreds not tens on a campus, many thousands of students nationwide - and if they are rooted in bigger, broader protests. A local demo of a thousand might be followed by a sizeable minority of the students involved going into occupation. Otherwise there is the danger of looking small and isolated, even of retreating from the challenge of building a genuine mass movement. 

A useful precedent to consider is the widespread direct action by students, school students and others when the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003. This action was on a large scale and was part of an even larger movement, which of course had gained its highest expression in the 15 February demonstration. Thousands of students had also been involved in direct action and militant protests the previous autumn, on the issue of Iraq.

Recently over 1000 protested at a planned visit by Vince Cable in Oxford. That's far preferable to if a much smaller number had occupied a building. In the weeks and months ahead numbers will be crucial: we need a mass broad-based movement that's also capable of being radical and militant.

On 24 November there may be places where large-scale occupations are viable, but in most colleges the priority should surely be holding mass student meetings to discuss the issues and plot the way forward, and also local protests either on campus or in the local city centre.

The student movement is part of a bigger anti-cuts movement. Connections need to be made and strengthened. That means leafleting large workplaces, holding big campaign stalls in city and town centres to connect with the wider public, and joint student-staff meetings on campus.

Such activities should also be geared towards piling the pressure on NUS to call co-ordinated days of action and another national demo, potentially even bigger than Wednesday's, for the spring term.

The tasks now facing the movement require student activists to think and imagine beyond the experiences of the recent past. Fees can be smashed and cuts can be stopped. This week's demonstration has to become the starting point for a mass campaign.


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