Wednesday, 10 November 2010

This is just the beginning: 60,000 in biggest anti-cuts demo yet

It's great to learn that so many people marched in London today - at least 50,000, possibly more - to oppose increased student fees and cuts to higher education funding.

Broad and radical, massive and militant, the national demonstration (jointly organised by NUS and lecturers' union UCU) must be this country's biggest weekday protest since the huge Stop the War demo when George Bush visited in November 2003.

It's the second demo - after the very impressive Scottish TUC march - to blow apart the myth that people in this country won't resist the cuts. It's an indicator of the possible scale of that resistance, as well as an affirmation of the unity of students and lecturers in the face of devastating cuts and the escalation of fees which will follow the Browne Report.

NUS has for many years been to the right of almost every trade union in the country. It has become corporatised and hollowed out as a campaigning body. If NUS can call a protest on this scale, it's a sign of something changing at grassroots level - a shift in the mood for a fightback - rather than a tribute to the organising prowess of the official channels of the student movement (it is telling that NUS President, Aaron Porter, has described 'rogue protestors' today as 'despicable').

If NUS can do it, then the trade union movement can do it - and on a bigger scale, uniting trade unionists, students and many others. The TUC demo of 26 March is too far away. The PCS union executive is correct to call for the TUC to organise a national demonstration much sooner.

It seems, from today's fantastic show of strength, that university students and lecturers are aware of the scale of what's happening, and the need to organise collectively (on a national scale) to stop the ConDem government. The coalition's junior partners, the Lib Dems, have had their credibility shot to pieces since their endorsement of higher fees. Today's protest reinforces the message that they will continue to be hounded.

But it's interesting, also, that the first big national anti-cuts demo is over territory where Labour is exceptionally weak. The Browne Report was commisisoned by the last government and is essentially an extension of Labour policies over the last 13 years. Opposition from the current shadow Cabinet has been lukewarm, to put it politely.

The Labour leadership can ignore today's events, or it can tack left in an effort to connect with the widespread hostility to the government on these issues. Whatever happens, today's demo illustrates that large-scale mobilisations are possible - and they will happen irrespective of what Labour does. The official Opposition will, perhaps predictably, follow rather than lead.

For NUS and UCU the stakes have been decisively raised. Activists will need, in coming weeks, to argue and organise for a sustained mass campaign of protests, strikes and occupations. This is just the beginning.


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