Ben Lewis reports on a promising weekend of student action and plans for the battles ahead
If one image best summarises the radical transformation of the student movement within the last year, it is that of a rather concerned policeman escorting the supine National Union of Students president, Aaron Porter, from last Saturday’s demonstration against education and public sector cuts in Manchester. The event had the official backing of the NUS and the Trades Union Congress. Yet the students made it clear that their ‘leader’ was not welcome. They chanted: “Aaron Porter, we know you, you’re a fucking Tory too!” The anger was palpable.
In a last-ditch attempt to cling onto his position, Porter is now claiming he was subject to anti-Semitic abuse. Of course, he is not Jewish and it is possible that “you’re a fucking Tory too” could have been mistaken for ‘you’re a fucking Tory Jew’. But his tactics are clear. Porter wants to smear his opponents and critics in the student movement. And – no surprise – the Daily Mail, a publication not exactly renowned for its glowing anti-fascist credentials, has latched onto this line. It quotes an (unnamed) photographer who reports having heard chants of “Jewish Tory scum” coming from the crowd. As with the Mail‘s attempt to smear the de facto leader of the student movement, University of London Union president Clare Solomon, the agenda here is obvious: throw as much muck at the militant students as often as possible in the hope that some will stick.
Anyhow, in addition to the 5,000 who marched in Manchester, around 10,000 simultaneously took to the streets of London in a peaceful demonstration that was characterised by its vibrancy. On arrival at Millbank Tower the protestors quickly split up into smaller groups (‘civil swarms’) to avoid being ‘kettled’. These groups continued protesting across the city: on Oxford Street to protest against the tax evasion of Top Shop and Boots; on Trafalgar Square in front of the usual melee of tourists and shoppers; and outside the Egyptian embassy, where several hundred protestors chanted for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to go.
It is clear that the mood amongst students is still encouragingly militant. The votes to raise tuition fees (December) and to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance for Further Education (January) may have gone through, but, as last Saturday shows, this has not stymied the movement. It is in the nature of student politics that there will be ebb and flow – exams, holidays and the need to eke out some sort of existence in a bar or a club are crucial factors here. Yet the Con-Dem government’s hopes of heading off student radicalism have clearly not materialised. The question is: what next?
Getting 15,000 people out on the streets is extremely encouraging. Yet, as I have written before, for the moment we are still dealing with a radicalised minority of students, whose commitment is beyond doubt. This student vanguard obviously articulates something much deeper in society: university lecturers, university cleaning and porter staff, even old women and men waving their encouragement to demonstrators – all have welcomed the lead the students have taken in organising protests, occupying their universities and so on. The question now is to tap into that wider mood, deepen the anti-cuts sentiment and link up with sections of the organised workers’ movement that are next in line for the government’s axe.
On a rather small scale, the weekly London Student Assembly has shown how it is possible for different campus anti-cuts campaigns, anti-cuts coalitions, school and college students, education workers, etc to come together to discuss the next steps forward, coordinate struggles and strike deeper roots in society. Attendance has varied dramatically, but this body clearly has a lot of potential as a way of organising and educating new activists. In spite of very poor publicity and the absence of a serious plan to build for them amongst FE and HE students, the LSA has drawn in a lot of people. Communist Students will propose that the LSA now make plans to broaden its base by leafleting students, organising meetings in schools and colleges and attempting to set up local assemblies. Such moves are crucial to organisational continuity between demonstrations. If the will is there, this could quite quickly be replicated on a national scale, building as much support for the TUC demonstration on March 26 as possible.
On Sunday January 30 around 100 activists came together for the rather oddly titled National Assembly for Education, a Socialist Workers Party-inspired attempt to bring together different students from the numerous occupations and plan for the future. The fact that most of the people in attendance were from London showed that we are quite far from a genuinely ‘national’ assembly. Yet there were some encouraging signs coming from the floor: pledges to build support for the University and College Union lecturers’ dispute, to organise more student occupations and also to agitate for a general strike. The meeting was actually quite democratically organised, with comrades being able to propose and oppose proposals.
I moved an amendment calling for “the establishment of city-wide student assemblies to bring together the different universities and colleges, anti-cuts groups to facilitate discussion and action”. I also added that we could then move towards a second national assembly after the March 26 demo based on these assemblies. This was passed overwhelmingly. But neither this nor the motion it amended is actually reported on the Education Assembly website. This is worrying because the assemblies are an obvious way to step up the fight. Setting them up will then allow us to move towards genuinely national assemblies based on delegates from the localities. Our perspectives must be for mass action and participation. The assemblies can facilitate this work.
Against the backdrop of these tasks, the question of the NUS is largely of a peripheral nature.
The role of the NUS is to effectively train a new generation of machine politicians in the dark arts of labour bureaucracy manoeuvring and dealing behind closed doors. In normal times, this allows fairly mediocre politicians like previous presidents Gemma Tumelty, Wes Streeting and others to earn their laurels and climb into a cosy job in the bureaucracy or the charity sector. Aaron Porter, perhaps the most mediocre of the mediocre, was destined for the same path. Yet unfortunately for him his time in office has not been normal. The NUS machine is predicated on student inactivity, apathy and demobilisation, so it should come as no surprise that Porter has played the role he has. For him militant action is just not cricket.
Instead of looking to subvert the rules of the NUS game though, the far left has been all too keen to obediently abide by them. Whereas aspirant bureaucrats from Labour Students or the Union of Jewish Students might meet in hotels to carve up electoral slates and positions, the far left has tended to do it away from prying eyes in the cosy confines of Costa coffee outlets.
Indeed, the only way that I actually found out about this year’s ‘united left slate’ (read: disunited right slate) at the forthcoming NUS conference was by going for a beer or two with a Workers Power comrade after a recent LSA planning meeting. Apparently representatives from the various left groups got together on Saturday January 22 to divvy up who would stand for what position. The carve up is between the SWP (Mark Bergfeld for president and Ruby Hirsch for vice-president for further education); Workers Power (Joana Oliveira Pinto for VP union development); Student Broad Left/Socialist Action (Aaron Kiely for VP society and citizenship) and independents like National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts supporters Michael Chessum (VP higher education) and Sean Rillo-Raczka (VP welfare). The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Jade Baker is to contest the women’s officer position, but not as part of this slate.
These bureaucratic machinations have gone on for far too long. Not only are they inexorably bound up with the continued disunity of the left and its various bureaucratic regimes, their lowest common denominator politics are quite clearly lagging behind the students we have seen entering into struggle in recent times. When students are being subjected to police batons and mass open air imprisonment (kettling) the ‘Marxist’ left consciously limits its propaganda in NUS elections to ‘student trade unionism’: fees, cuts and closures. Things like revolutionary politics, the need for a revolutionary party, for radical democracy against the state, etc are limited to the confines of their own sect perspectives, not proposed as the basis of unity. Whereas in normal times it might allow this or that group to get a footing in the bureaucracy, today’s situation demands something qualitatively better.
If we are to actually harness the anger amongst students, if we are to radicalise and politicise it, then the left must shape up. At present it is not fit for purpose in offering a serious alternative to the Con-Dem government or Ed Miliband’s ‘nice cuts’. Apart from doing the ‘hard yards’ of campaigning on the campuses, in the halls of residence and in the student assemblies there should be a fight – an open and protracted struggle – for the unity of the student left on a pro-partyist, revolutionary basis. Just as the student movement’s boldness has won support in society more generally, so such a daring move could have enormous resonance amongst our class in the colossal battles ahead. Our vision must not be one of sect fishing for recruits, but of mass partyist unity.