Thursday 23 December 2010

The student protest movement - and its future

James Meadway's major new Counterfire article, 'Where next for the student revolt?', addresses most of the important issues and debates in the movement, from the role of social media to the limits of a weak NUS leadership, from the challenge of student-worker unity to the relationship between democratic student assemblies and the wider anti-cuts movement. It begins:

'It has been an exceptional few weeks. A generation of students has emerged from sleepy apathy on the campuses to hurl itself at university and college management, the police, and the Coalition. It has swept aside, on the way, its own official leadership in the National Union of Students. It has hammered at a previously immovable government, to the point of splitting the Liberal Democrats, junior Coalition partner, in three different directions, and provoking previously well-buried tensions on the senior Conservative side to satisfying eruption. And it shows no immediate signs of slowing down.

The movement was (somewhat inadevertently) launched by the NUS itself on 10 November, when an official demonstration, heavily promoted across universities nationally, turned into a miniature uprising in Westminster. Over 50,000 attended what became the largest student demonstration in British history, taking organisers, police, and government by surprise. Even the radicals couldn't entirely believe their luck in discovering that Tory Party headquarters in Millbank had been left virtually undefended, requiring no more effort to gain initial entry than walking through the front door.

Subsequent demonstrations, called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts via Facebook for 24 November, saw what the BBC reported as 130,000 protesting nationwide, often with riot police in attendance, and police horse charges with prolonged kettling in Whitehall.

A further demonstration on 30 November, again organised without official NUS or other union support, saw smaller numbers in central London braving heavy snow and evading police kettles across the city. Protests also took place the same day in Cardiff, Colchester, Newcastle, Bath, Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Belfast, Brighton, Manchester, Scunthorpe, and Bristol.

The newly-formed London Student Assembly called a national demonstration for 9 December, the day of the tuition fees vote in Parliament. Backed by the University of London Union and the London Region of the lecturers' union, this mobilised well over 30,000 and successfully forced its entry into Parliament Square, against the wishes of the police.

Police violence and a seven-hour kettle provoked the destruction of prominent public buildings, including an attempt at storming the Treasury itself, with doors and windows broken through.

Behind all this public protest, students occupied their universities, demanding a halt to the proposed education funding reforms and attempting to force their own, spineless university managements into opposition against the government. Both the number of universities occupied, and the number of students involved, are without precedent for a generation in Britain.

But as well as the university students, tens of thousands of FE and sixth form students, aged 16-19, and school students walked out of their classes to join protests. There was even at least one occupation of a sixth form, at Camden School for Girls in north London – again, an unprecedented step.

It is now beyond question that these protests have been transformative. British politics has been shaken from top to bottom. The veneer of implacability that the Coalition maintained has been shattered. Its entire programme of cuts, right across the public sector, now lies exposed to opposition. It is possible the Liberal Democrats will never fully recover from the shock. An historic victory might, just, be within our grasp. The real questions now concern, first, the extent to which that radicalisation extends; and second, the next steps for the developing student movement.'


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