This article by Michael Chessum of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts was published in the Guardian on 3 January.
Never let them tell you that protest achieves nothing. Before the first national student demonstration on 10 November the government could talk with impunity about a programme of unprecedented co-operation in the name of the national interest.
Within a month it was beating schoolchildren off the streets and rushing Liberal Democrat MPs through the lobbies against their own election pledges. The contrast between the vibrant student protests and the suited millionaires in the cabinet, some of whom have now admitted that they voted against their stated intentions, is stark.
Police tactics have proven to be a political education in themselves. They have taught anyone who was on the streets that the state regards the safety of property twice as highly as it regards the welfare of people. The right to presumption of innocence, to sanitation and sustenance, to personal safety, all proved to be expendable. Anyone who followed the media will have noticed that smashed windows and vandalised buildings were the headlines; that Alfie Meadows – a philosophy student from Middlesex University who was apparently hit on the head by a police baton and left with bleeding on the brain – was seemingly deemed a secondary matter.
These are the symptoms of a society, and of a political class, which has internalised the values of neoliberalism to the point of absurdity and brutality. They come alongside a programme of cuts that will hit the poorest hardest – leaving many cut off from university education to join the masses of the unemployed and underpaid.
Now, this era of political extremism has begun to be challenged: not by a new approach from within the political elite, but by a tide of fury on the streets – led by teenagers and co-ordinated through Twitter and Facebook. “Real politics” and “the big society” have manifested themselves, and they have turned out not to be as compliant or as obedient as those in power had hoped.
In the new year, the student movement will be tasked with firming up its aims and methods, and linking to a broader range of social forces. The calls to action from Len McCluskey, Brendan Barber and Mark Serwotka shows that the student movement has been instrumental in leading trade unions into the battle – putting them on the spot over their willingness to fight. The past two decades have seen an enormous assault on education, public services and working conditions, unprecedented in its ideological nature. It is an indictment of the official structures of trade unions and students’ unions that it has been left to the likes of us to lead the way.
For McCluskey to state that serious trade union mobilisation is important, and can be triggered by student protest, is hardly dinosaur politics, as one misguided Guardian editorial had it. The student movement has redefined the form that tactics take – with flash mobs, online mobilisation and amorphous organising structures. But it is still the basic principles of mass civil disobedience and the withdrawal of one’s labour that has the power to lay low the coalition. Students cannot meaningfully withdraw their labour, or bring down the coalition on their own – but they can create the atmosphere and the conditions for something much bigger. This is why students and unions must work closely together in the months ahead.
The return of mass direct action on campuses and on the streets has carved out a political space quite distinct from the old structures of resistance. Its rejection of the rhetoric of deficit reduction and the inevitability of austerity and social injustice has yet to find serious backing from the front benches of the Labour party, which for years concerned itself precisely with the reaffirmation of market-driven economics.
It also stands in stark contrast to the National Union of Students, which has nervously refrained from any kind of direct ideological challenge to the status quo – preferring a politics of appeasement and an abandonment of the principle of free higher education. There is now evidence to suggest that its president colluded with the government to cut maintenance allowance for the poorest students. NUS leaders must end this culture of vanity and capitulation. Those who are incapable of doing so should resign.
With the tuition fee bill passed through parliament, we now face a campaign to repeal the government’s reforms, or – better still – to make the government so untenable that its policies are never implemented. Eyes now turn to the national demonstration in London and Manchester on 29 January, as well as other days of action centred around the defence of education maintenance allowance.
Our cause is far from defensive or anachronistic. The fight to defend the welfare state is a transformative, not a conservative, political project. It will put us on a collision path with the ideological status quo and the classes that benefit from it, and will give us an opportunity to thrash out our vision for the future. It is a future that emphatically includes rank and file organisation among ordinary working people. Call me a dinosaur if you must, but I’m only 21.