Matt Hall: The last weeks of 2010 have been the most exciting politically for a long time. The tuition fees vote was lost, as we know, but this is just the beginning. One of the main achievements was how spontaneously, creatively and energetically a ‘student movement’ was formed. It is the beginning of our fight, but it is also the beginning of our movement, and we have important decisions to get right; one of the most important being how we organise.
If we do not build and grow actively within and beyond the student base in 2011 we will stagnate, and to build and grow we must organise. Our actions so far have been radical and our ideas for the future equally so. We need to channel these ideas and actions into something more powerful. However, if we organise conservatively from this point, we will kill off much of that radicalism. To centralise and bureaucratise what we have created these past couple of months, replacing one defunct and restricted representative system with another, will be anathema to most people’s anger and energy, and again, we will stagnate. Apart from the initial Millbank demonstration our only obstacle to escalation thus far has been the bureaucratic and conservatively organised NUS, with one man at the top dictating direction. To seek a replacement of such a structure, or something similar, would be alienating and de-motivating for many. Not many people seem to be seriously suggesting such a centralisation of the movement, which is encouraging, and I would add my voice to that opinion with a suggestion below about how we view the movement and some initial practical proposals, wishing to add to the important contributions on this blog so far from Guy Aitchison and Jo Casserly.
Occupations are vital to this movement nationally and still exist in networks, email lists, friendships and on campuses, and we must still consider these campus based groups as occupations, albeit adjourned for now. They provide scores of dedicated activists in disparate geographical locations and environments and are by their essence dissipated power structures, preventing centralised hierarchies from developing thus retaining the innovation, energy and autonomy that has so far ensured this movement’s success nationally. We cannot rely alone on this kind of spontaneity in itself to get us where we want to be however, but we must also not dampen it.
To focus our energies on electing sabbatical officers to be our representatives, formalising leadership within the movement or embedding some kind of hierarchy, as Jo seems to be suggesting below, I believe, would be a massive mistake. This will kill both the energy and legitimacy of the movement that has arisen through its autonomy and we have already seen how this approach has failed catastrophically, both in Parliament and with the NUS. Holding people to account every few years with an election is no accountability at all. This revealed fact is an integral part of the movement’s anger. True accountability for this movement is doing it for ourselves and holding ourselves accountable. We should continue and improve upon the alternative democratic vision created in occupations that has been successful so far and take it to a national level. The occupations presented an imperfect yet inspiring version of what true democracy is. Consensus decision-making, autonomous working groups and daily opportunities to influence strategy served us exceptionally well in occupation, albeit with inevitable problems. I sympathise with the problem of ‘unofficial leadership’ developing through force of personality and commitment that Jo astutely highlights below in this blog, however we should not discard this attempt at true participation in favour of a defunct and conservative alternative by electing leaders and creating hierarchies. This approach has already failed us and would be antagonistic to many people’s newly found energy and anger. We should be aware of the limits and issues of our existing approach and continue seeking its improvement, but solving issues of leadership and increasing participation is not achieved by formalising hierarchies.
I want to suggest that we view the movement as a whole as a collective of overlapping concentric circles of influence, ability and responsibilities (autonomously adopted), containing groups, individuals, organisations, activity and ideas. The occupations are circles of influence at the heart of this with the responsibility and ability to pull a wide range of people and groups onto campus and into the movement. They are not centralised and nor are they the grassroots proper, but should be seen as a conduit between the local and the national. Middle ground cells that have the advantage of geographical permanence and the ability to reach both downwards, outwards and upwards to the national level. The occupations should take a leading, but not leadership, role in developing the movement, by viewing themselves in this central position.
Each occupation, I believe, should take a building and organising responsibility and look outwards and towards the grassroots – to other students on campus, school pupils, community groups, Trade Unionists, workers, the general public and other universities not occupying – to bring them into contact with one another and the collective movement through free and open occupation assemblies held on campus regularly (which has already happened at a number of occupations mentioned by Guy Aitchison below). All people fighting for an alternative, not just students, are legitimate members of this movement, no matter their status, position or politics and should be seen as such. These assemblies should then influence regional and national open occupation assemblies held regularly on the same model. These open assemblies will again be a place for all to influence action and direction, from community anti-cuts groups to individual Trade Unionists, autonomous anarchists to occupying students. This will not dampen the autonomy, innovation and energy of activists on the ground, new and experienced alike, but will provide the organisation we need to increase our power on a national level.
In addition, a proper national network of occupying universities should be established to exchange ideas, build relationships and make proposals for strategy. This occupation network should seek to actively engage with students at universities who did not occupy to give help, assistance and advice for organising on campus and advice on occupying. Getting more universities into occupation is vital to keep the growth of the movement spreading, particularly outside London. These new university occupations could then adopt the same model in their area of free open assemblies and continue to build and spread the movement.
The national assemblies should be organised in conjunction with other existing groups that have been essential so far, and that should also be viewed as hubs of activity, influence and responsibility within the movement, such as NCAFC and EAN. These organisations have done exceptional work in organising national demonstrations and walkouts and will be equally integral in 2011. However due to the nature of the occupations as free hubs of collective organisation I believe they should be central to organising the national assemblies proposed.
Organising in this way will give the movement the collectivist order it requires, whilst maintaining autonomy of ideas, strategy and action at local levels. We have the online tools to do this like never before and we can organise, act and communicate throughout the movement with ease. Having this collectivist order; disparate but organised, autonomous but with unity, will maintain our strength. Our collective intelligence, through assemblies and networks, will ensure we are not all organising conflicting demonstrations and actions on the same day and diluting our strength, yet neither do ideas for demonstrations and actions need to come from, or be filtered through, one central authority. We need to link with one another in an organised way for strength, but our strength so far has come from the ground and we must keep it that way.
To realise our power we must become a genuine ‘movement’ rather than disconnected and separate groups across the country with no common voice and direction. However, what we have seen so far is that our strength comes from unity of purpose not centralisation and hierarchy; it comes from autonomous actions not hierarchical decision-making. To win we must organise, but organisation must not be imposed upon us.
by Laurie Penny
Ed Miliband’s pitiful offer of 1p membership won’t tempt the young back to parliamentary politics.
Democracy is going cheap. Just in time for the January sales, the party responsible for introducing tuition fees has decided that it wants to jump on the youth protest bandwagon. “Join the party for one penny, and we will be your voice,” writes Ed Miliband in a rather desperate Christmas message to under-25s.
Labour is making a fundamental error, however, in assuming that these young protesters want or need anybody to “be our voice”. Parliamentary politics has sold the young out, and whatever bargain-basement price tag mainstream parties slap on their membership, they aren’t buying it any more.
The young people of Britain do not need leaders, and the new wave of activists has no interest in the ideological bureaucracy of the old left. Their energy and creativity is disseminated via networks rather than organisations, and many young people have neither the time nor the inclination to wait for any political party to decide what direction they should take. The Liberal Democrats represented the last hope that parliamentary democracy might have something to offer the young, and that hope has been exquisitely betrayed – no wonder, then, that the new movements have responded by rejecting the old order entirely.
What we are seeing here is no less than a fundamental reimagining of the British left: an organic reworking which rejects the old deferential structures of union-led action and interminable infighting among indistinguishable splinter parties for something far more inclusive and fast-moving. These new groups are principled and theoretically well-versed, but have no truck with the narcissism of small differences that used to corrupt even the most well-meaning of leftwing movements.
At the student meetings I have attended in recent weeks, ideological bickering is routinely sidelined in favour of practical planning. Anarchists and social democrats are obliged to work together alongside school pupils who don’t care what flag you march under as long as you’re on the side that puts people before profit. When the Unite leader, Len McLuskey, wrote in these pages this week encouraging union members to lend their support to the “magnificent student movement”, he hit precisely the right note – one that respects the energy of these new networks of resistance without seeking to hijack it. The unions have begun to realise what the Labour party is still too arrogant to consider – that the nature of the fight against bigotry and greed has evolved beyond the traditional hierarchies of the left.
It is highly significant that one of the first things this hydra-headed youth movement set out to achieve was the decapitation of its own official leadership. When Aaron Porter of the National Union of Students was seen to be “dithering” over whether or not to support the protests, there were immediate calls for his resignation – and in subsequent weeks the NUS has proved itself worse than irrelevant as an organising force for demonstrations.
Of course, the old left is not about to disappear completely. It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.
For these young protesters, the strategic factionalism of the old left is irrelevant. Creative, courageous and inspired by situationism and guerrilla tactics, they have a principled understanding of solidarity. For example, assembling fancy-dress flash mobs in Topshop to protest against corporate tax avoidance may seem frivolous, but this movement is daring to do what no union or political party has yet contemplated – directly challenging the banks and business owners who caused this crisis.
The young people of Britain are no longer prepared to take orders, and are unlikely to pay even a penny for a vacillating, pro-business party to be “our voice”. We have never spoken in just one voice. We speak in hundreds of thousands of voices – voices that are being raised across Europe, not in unison but in harmony. The writing on the wall of the Treasury earlier this month may yet prove prescient: this is just the beginning.
Following this mornings press conference by the students of the National Campaign Against Fees And Cuts, it is clear that those leading the defence against this coalition Governments attacks on public services, are not those we’d normally expect to answer the clarion call and ‘lead’ the fight back.
While trade union bosses were given the opportunity to address the protesters on Mallet St yesterday, it was clear very quickly that most assembled were less than keen to listen to ‘leaders’, and more eager to get to Parliament and make their voices heard. Perhaps the message given by said ‘bosses’ wasn’t quite up to scratch.
Student movements over the last decade or two certainly couldn’t be recognised to be ‘militant’, and the lack of leadership from both the NUS and the national trade union movement appears not to have been lost on many of these young people, who seem to have suddenly developed a political fervor and willingness to take on the full force of the state.
Many of us are shocked. Not because there were scenes of ‘violence’ on the streets of London, not because windows were smashed and graffiti was daubed across buildings in the ‘political elites front gardens’, or shocked because some posh couples car was covered with paint and ‘felt the indignity of receiving a broken window’, but shocked because the students we remember over the last twenty years were about as radical as a tin foil hat and a copy of Socialist Worker.
Much of this sudden rise of welcome militancy can only be attributed to one thing and that is the Trade Union movements inability to pull its head out of the sand and lead any kind of effective counter attack against the onslaught and oppression of both the previous two governments, and now the current coalition sham who are clearly trying to destroy the welfare state and return us to a society based on pre-war philanthropy.
While the media spouts it’s drivel about ‘violence to property’ and battles between student ‘thugs’ against the police or ‘infiltration by outside elements’, the student ‘leaders’ stand resolute refusing to condemn the protesters who fought back repeated attacks and intimidation by the Metropolitan Police and firmly declare their intention to carry on regardless of the vote in Parliament.
Meanwhile there is silence from the trade union movement. Not a whisper to declare the media rhetoric as being hideously biased, not a murmur to declare support for those on the front line fighting the government to save us from the Americanisation of British society.
The students want to unite and fight with organised labour, but organised labour it seems is in danger of producing nothing other than the re-hashing of songs of the great struggles of days gone by, or the occasional dragging out of ageing class warriors of the same distant struggles to decorate a podium to try and prove they are still up for the fight.
As of 1300 today, there is still not a trade union leader who has appeared on our screens to publicly support the student movement and condemn the police for trying to stifle the right to protest.
Off your knees TUC, you are in danger of being left behind and being consigned to the history books. There is a movement growing across Europe, and you’re likely going to miss the bus.
The best the TUC has been able to muster against the cuts is a national demonstration in March2011.
And that simply isn’t good enough.
Ruahri ó Cléirigh
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent
There have been more than 50 arrests following the tuition fee protests
The lecturers’ union president has signed a statement refusing to condemn protesters who attacked a Conservative party building last week.
Alan Whitaker has joined calls to “rally behind all who were arrested for fighting to defend their education”.
A radical students’ group has also threatened to target Lib Dem offices and Downing Street next week.
But the UCU union’s official spokesman rejected last week’s violence as “totally unacceptable”.
Backing “acts of resistance”, the lecturers’ statement has been signed by 24 members of the University and College Union’s national executive.
The UCU spokesman said the statement supporting the arrested students had been signed in a personal capacity by lecturers and was not the union’s official policy.
But the scale of support among the union’s leadership for this latest statement suggests deep divisions in the response to the outbreak of violence, during a protest march against raising tuition fees.
There are also divisions among student protestors, with student activists set to reject the more moderate strategy of the NUS leadership.
The Education Activist Network has warned that the Liberal Democrat headquarters will be targeted in the next wave of protests, set for 24 November.
The protesters are calling for students and their supporters to stage a walk-out and then to demonstrate outside Liberal Democrat offices and then Downing Street.
Alan Whitaker, national president of the UCU, has joined about a third of the union’s national executive, in calling on university and college staff to “stand with those students who were arrested”.
“We will not side with those who condemn the violence against windows and property but will not condemn or even name the long-term violence of cuts that will scar the lives of hundreds of thousands by denying them access to the education of their choice,” says the statement.
“The victimisation of individuals for acts of resistance is something that our movement has a proud record of opposing,” says the statement.
There have been more than 50 arrests following the storming of the building.
And there was widespread criticism, including from Downing Street, of lecturers who had appeared to be sympathetic to the occupation of the Millbank building.
But the spokesman for the latest lecturers’ statement, Tom Hickey, says it is “pure hypocrisy” for lecturers to be expected to either condemn or condone the occupation last week.
He says demonstrators were provoked by the government’s decision to “privatise” higher education, without any mandate from voters.
Mr Hickey, who lectures at the University of Brighton, says he expects the lecturers’ union to back a campaign for the defence of those who were arrested during the demonstration.
The 10th of November saw around 50,000 students descend on London. The occasion was not a casting call for Skins or the unveiling of Russell Brand’s new clothing line at Topshop but a mass demo against the government’s proposed tripling of student fees to £9000 a year. Students came from all over the UK, with Norwich’s UEA sending seven coaches as well as delegations from NUCA and city college. Scottish students also turned up on mass to show solidarity and German and Australian students were also spotted.
Unsurprisingly for students the language was colourful, placards proclaimed “The Con-dems put the N into cuts” and under the black and red banners an informal ‘most offensive chant’ contest seemed to be taking place. Honourable mention to “If ya Tory and ya know it slit ya wrists” which was met with a socialist refrain of “that’s a bit too far…”
The march itself had a slow start and appeared to be a micromanaged affair with little scope for hijinks, stewards strictly enforced the will of the markedly un-progressive National Union of Students. During the march’s pre-ordained route mischievous spirits began to soar as some students were passing Millbank Tower, the headquarters of the Conservative party and a small section of the protest broke away and laid siege to the unguarded building.
Protesters quickly stormed the building, occupying the lobby and throwing open the front doors and urging others to join them. Windows were kicked out and masked protesters spray painted revolutionary symbols and slogans on and around Millbank Tower.
The attack on the building escalated throughout the day, only a few hundred yards from where NUS hacks appealed for calm from their podium. The students however had different ideas and at the peak of the disturbance around three thousand students were reported to be involved in the disturbances, lighting fires, damaging or stealing office equipment and generally making themselves at home in the Tory HQ. Conspicuously absent from the party were the delegations from A-fed and Sol-fed who left early claiming that they didn’t see any tactical advantage or point in smashing things.
At the time of writing as far as I know only 32 arrests were made, a minute amount for an action that lasted over four hours. I do fear however that those who were new to civil disobedience/ direct action may have left themselves open to reprisal by failing to protect their identities by appearing unmasked and in some case talking to the media and giving their names. This will be a lesson learnt hard. On the positive side only fourteen injuries were reported and half of these were to the Police.
I’d like to wind up by saying how inspiring today has been. Whilst black banners were in attendance they quickly disappeared after the first wave of the assault as their followers were well aware that they would be marked as targets and scape-goats for police, leaving the majority of the damage to be done throughout the day by students who may not have previously embraced militant tactics. So whilst the NUS may blame radical elements (and my sources tell me that members of P.I.I.S.T. may have been in attendance) it is quite clear that no vanguard can claim responsibility for this spontaneous uprising and that it was certainly not a few ruining it for the many. So let us hope that this is the re-birth of student radicalism, France or Greece it may not be but it is definitely a leap in the right direction.
Student activist on the scene.