Reflections on the recent student struggles in Britain

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In November and December 2010 protests against aspects of cuts in education showed that the imposition of austerity measures is meeting resistance in Britain. We are publishing here extracts from a longer internal report for the rest of the ICC, adapted for our public press. It's a contribution to the wide-ranging discussion that recent events have provoked. We intend to publish a separate text on the ICC's intervention in the movement in the near future.

 

“We want a future”

This slogan was chanted at one of the numerous demonstrations that spontaneously took place across Britain on 24 November. Tens of thousands of school children, sixth form and Further Education students (16-18 years old) and university students took to the streets to protest against the coalition government’s plans to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance - weekly payments of up to £30 for poorer FE students; to increase university fees from £3000 a year to up to £9000; to reduce funding for university teaching by 100% for the Humanities and up to 95% for the rest. A significant part of the younger generation believe they are being robbed of their future, and aren’t willing to accept this passively.

This generation, faced with the deepening crisis, is deeply aware of the need to gain academic or vocational qualifications by at least attending further education. They are also fully conscious of the alternative, becoming one of the 1,000,000 under 18 years without education, benefits or jobs that the system leaves literally with nothing (you cannot claim any benefits until you are 18), or low paid unskilled work. They have had this driven into their heads from a young age, and suddenly they are told they will not get money for support while at college, and if they get to university they will be faced with up to £50,000 worth of debt, which they will be paying back for decades.

The attack on the EMA is particularly important in this movement because it’s an essential part of the social wage for many working class families. It pays for travel to college, books, paper and food, or at least parts of it. Given the high cost of travel in the major cities and rural areas its loss will restrict access to further education for the poorest students. The younger students have seen this as an attack not only on them but their families and in many cases clearly see it as an attack on the working class. It is this attack that has led to the movement being so widespread in cities and towns across England. Older schoolchildren and FE students have taken to the streets where there are no universities. They have also mobilised because even when they don’t feel able to - or don't want to - go to university they need to go on to further education or they want their friends and family to be able to. These young proletarians have been at the vanguard of this movement.

The storm tide of growing workers’ discontent washes across Britain

Only a few weeks ago the British media was mocking the social struggle in France, as being typical of those 'hot blooded' Latins who take to the streets at a moment’s notice. At the same time they were extolling the 'common sense', pragmatism and passivity of the working class in Britain.


From The Independent, 21 October 2010.

On the 10 November the wave of protest by students which has been washing across the world since 2006, through France, Greece, Germany, the US, Puerto Rico, and Italy, crashed down upon the shores of the British Isles in a storm surge of militancy amongst the children of the working class. The spontaneous besieging of the Tory Party Headquarters during the first students' protest against the attacks on higher education lit a match to the powder keg of discontent that has been simmering for years. Spurred on by the practical example of the students’ refusal to be corralled into a pointless A to B demonstration and, instead, taking things into their own hands with the surrounding the Tory Party HQ, and completely indifferent to the enraged response of the ruling class and its media, there have been four weeks of demonstrations, occupations of schools, colleges and universities, and an increasingly open defiance of the repressive forces of the state.

A tide of working class militancy has ebbed and flowed across the country as schoolchildren and students have shown their capacity for self-organisation. In some schools pupils have called meetings to discuss the attacks; there have been examples of several schools coordinating their discussions and actions across cities; demonstrations have been called via Facebook; university occupations have opened up their discussions to anyone who wants to join in; they have broadcast their discussions via the internet and set up forums where people can send messages of solidarity or enter into discuss with them. In London some students went to striking tube workers’ pickets (who in return showed their solidarity at the last demonstration in London), while the occupiers of University College London made the payment of a 'living wage' to the university cleaners one of their demands and won it.

These expressions of self-organisation have not been as widespread and clear as in the anti-CPE movement in France in 2006 but they certainly expressed the same dynamic towards the mass mobilisation of a generation of young workers to defend themselves.

The social question is alive and kicking

In the space of a month this explosion of militancy has gone from the besieging of the Tory Party HQ to around 30,000 school pupils, students and others opening defying the state's increasing use of repression in London on 9 December. On that occasion the demonstrators initially succeeded in outwitting the massive police presence to invade Parliament Square, which was meant to have been sealed and barricaded off (it is illegal to demonstrate outside the home of democracy, without police permission) in order to spare MPs from hearing the anger of their victims as they voted on these attacks. The MPs heard more than their voices: they heard police helicopters, vans, charges by mounted police, baton assaults and the resistance of the protesters as the police contained and beat them for hours for having the audacity to stand up for themselves.

The fury of the ruling class faced with this refusal to be subdued by its repression was expressed by its media. Live TV coverage and news programmes made no pretence at objectivity as these mouthpieces of the ruling class attacked the students, school children, their parents and others as they sought to defend themselves against a police force which, from some reports, had been told to make sure that those participating were terrorised into not wanting to demonstrate again. Only a couple of weeks before the main media channels had tried to hide the use of police horse charges against some on the 24 November demonstration; on the 9th they openly showed the police horses charging, sometimes up to 15 at a time into the crowd. They were also not so coy about showing police beating protesters and did not stint in their praise of these defenders of democracy. A count was kept of the number of injured police whilst injuries to demonstrators were mentioned as an afterthought, or as part of a plea for a less repressive democracy.

Away from Parliament Square the students, drawing on their previous experience of being contained by the police, broke up their demonstration into numerous smaller ones which went off in several directions. From various reports it would appear that these demonstrations were not met with much hostility and indeed were often greeted with applause from people on the pavement.

It was one of these break-away demonstrations that met up with Prince Charles and his wife on a night out. Their startled looks mirrored that of the ruling class: the plebs are revolting and we have not been able to control them.

The idea of there being some form of social peace in Britain has been bludgeoned to the ground along with those students and others who were wantonly beaten about the head by the state. More importantly many of those who have participated in this movement will have had their illusions in democracy battered. They have learnt that the only way to be heard is to stand up and defy the state, not to submit.

A blow to the ideological attacks of the new managing team

Following the 2010 General Election the British bourgeoisie hoped to use the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to maintain and strengthen the ideological attack on the working class:

  • The coalition with the Lib Dems was meant to help soften the image of the Tories, to bury memories of Thatcher and the 1980's.
  • The image of the Lib Dems was to be presented as a moderating counter-weight to the Tories.
  • The formation of the coalition was supposed to show that politicians and thus the population can put differences to one side and unite in the common interest of the country.
  • Austerity measures simply had to be accepted because there is nothing else to be done, but they would be implemented 'fairly'.
  • There is nothing to be done but trust the politicians to sort things out.

 The events of the last few weeks have marked a serious challenge to the bourgeoisie's ability to keep up this ideological offensive. The fact that the first open display of mass struggle against this coalition was focused on Tory HQ and accompanied by furious chants of “Tory scum” by thousands who have never experienced a Tory government undermined any hope the bourgeoisie may have had of re-branding the Tories. The hatred of the working class for the Tories is so deep that it passes from generation to generation. As for the Lib Dems being a counter-balance, a force for moderation, that has been undermined by the fact that their leadership voted for these attacks after signing pledges before the election that they would not increase fees. In some ways the Lib Dem leadership is even more hated than the Tories. The students and school children expected it from the Tories but not from that nice Mr Clegg and kindly old Vince Cable, who had made such an effort to get the students to vote for them. It will be interesting to see the impact of recent revelations in the Telegraph, whose undercover reporters caught several Lib Dem MPs making unsympathetic comments about their coalition partners.

The government’s mantra that “we’re all in this together” is treated with nothing but widespread contempt. This movement has been animated by a deep, passionate hatred of the rich, who they see as being given billions of pounds in bonuses and tax dodges, while students and schoolchildren, along with the rest of the working class, are having their futures robbed from them. There is no hesitation by the vast majority of schoolchildren and FE students and many university students about seeing themselves as working class and these attacks as being on the working class.

The idea of 'fairness' has been mocked mercilessly. Schoolchildren will point to the fact that the rich get away with paying as little tax as possible whilst they are being told to sacrifice themselves.

Clearly, this rage against the rich is very important for the future development of a wider and more profound class consciousness. However, at the moment it is also been used as the main portal for the influx of bourgeois ideology into this movement. This primal anger, without a wider perspective concerning the nature of the system, is mixed with a sense of unfairness, that the rich should pay their share. More dangerously the Left is using the idea that these attacks are simply ideological, because, so they claim, the ruling class, could readily pay for further education and the EMA if only they taxed the rich effectively, if they only spend money on education and not war, and that this is what we should expect from the Tories. The power of these ideological illusions cannot be forgotten.

If at the moment these illusions are a weight on the movement, many of those participating in it do not hold many illusions in the Labour Party either. They remember that it was them who introduced fees in the first place. Also the Labour Party has not given the movement its backing, nor has it said it will scrap the increase in fees if it is elected.

The culmination of the movement so far, on 9 December, also posed the question of democracy very starkly. Up until then there had been a powerful belief that if they protested enough the government could back down, but the result of the vote showed that it was not able to do so. Not only did these illusions in the reasonableness of the bourgeoisie take a powerful blow: this happened at the same time as the forces of repression where literally beating them about the head. This has left those who participated and the rest of the working class with much to think about.

A major problem for the ruling class, a lack of political control over the movement

This movement confronted the ruling class with a huge challenge from the beginning: how to contain and politically control the movement? For a month the ruling class has been faced with a movement which none of its numerous political forces was able to fully contain and control:

  • The National Union of Students (NUS), which organised the original protest on 10 November, and mobilised 50,000 students, lost its ability to act as the main student body when its leader Aaron Porter denounced the attack on the Tory Party HQ time and time again on news programmes. You had the ludicrous situation when he was denouncing the attack on Millbank as the working of a violent minority against a background of live TV coverage of thousands of students surrounding the building and the newsreader even saying to him, “how can you say that, when you look at these pictures?” After his performance the NUS lost any ability to even try to control the situation and its lower ranks had to go with the movement in order to maintain some form of credibility.
  • The NUS has no influence amongst the schoolchildren and very little amongst many sixth form and FE colleges.
  • The Labour Party could not control this movement because it had to denounce the attack on the Tory HQ and it had also introduced fees in the first place.
  • As for the far left, none of the pseudo-revolutionary organisations in Britain has enough influence to control the movement. The Socialist Workers Party is probably the largest but its influence has waned over the last decade. The Socialist Party (the former Militant Tendency) has played a role through its militants in the universities and colleges but it has no overall national influence. To a large extent, the leftists have had to hide behind the main ‘activist’ networks, such as the Education Activists’ Network (EAN) and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). They certainly had an influence on the movement, but it is significant that at the meetings of these networks there has been a strong reflection of the strength of the real movement – for example, in the fact that the organisers are often compelled to accept a free and open discussion, in contrast to the heavily stage-managed format of traditional leftist meetings. Some meetings called by leftists are even referred to as ‘assemblies’ (as in Brighton for example), again reflecting a real desire for new forms of self-organisation as well as expressing the leftists’ function of recuperation.

All this has left a situation where the NUS, and its various university organisations, have called three national demonstrations while knowing that their ability to control them was decreasing with each demonstration and the increasing confrontations with the police.

On the same days as these national demonstrations there have been numerous local demonstrations called by meetings of FE students, school children, individuals calling for demonstrations via Facebook, by coordinating bodies of schoolchildren such as the network that was set up in Oxford. Or, on the day, schools have spontaneously walked out: in one case 3 teenagers went around a school calling out the students and were followed by 800 others. In many case teachers tried to lock children in or the police threatened to arrest them for truancy. This led to an interesting situation where in large cities such as Manchester the main demonstration drew a few hundred whilst in smaller cities and towns such as Bury 1,200 school children demonstrated. In Brighton up to 2,000 students and children walked out on 24 November, This demonstration ended with 400 school pupils trying to storm the central police station where their friends had been taken when arrested.

The following quotes from The Guardian and Libcom.org give a sense of the spontaneous nature of this movement:

Hundreds of teenagers poured out of Allerton Grange high school in Leeds just now to join the protest.

"The well-planned action has seen almost the whole school empty with carefully prepared banners picked up from prepared stores.

“The students are now marching to the nearby Roundhay high school in the hope of encouraging students there to join in. The two schools are high-achieving comprehensives in a largely prosperous part of Leeds. Both regularly win Oxbridge places.

“The students are chanting ‘they say cut back, we say fight back.’ Two 16-year-olds said that the focus was on the loss of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. One said: ‘without EMA I'll never be able to go to university. I want to follow my dream.’” (The Guardian)

Bristol was possibly bigger than last week - if you go by Facebook, 700 or so more people had RSVPed (including Avon & Somerset Police). 2,000 was one report, it could have been more. A higher proportion of school & college students, including a kid in a balaclava who looked about 12. At least one school who had been locked in by teachers last week were out this week. As in Brighton, anarchists were handing out legal info / bust cards.

“There was heaps of energy - the march moved quickly in ever widening circles for over 3 straight hours, keeping out of the way of police & occasionally breaking through lines. (Though not the line guarding the M32.) This caused traffic chaos which in turn helped stop the police from being able to move their vans around to contain the demo.

“We went through Cabot Circus & the mall a few times & stopped for a quick break in the middle of the shopping area - I think partly on the assumption that it was a safe place to stop because they wouldn't want to kettle a rowdy crowd in the middle of a bunch of expensive shops.

“There was a brief attempt to get into a Vodafone shop. Police got pelted with mustard from the German Christmas markets. There were a couple of pretty half-arsed attempts to occupy the council house & the administrative centre of the University of Bristol. Snowballs were thrown at cops & at horses (who really don't like them).

“The march got kettled up in Bristol Uni at the end, though a good portion saw it coming & got out before it formed, more jumped out through hedges & some got out with a rope, as reported above.

“Police did cavalry style horse charges into a loose crowd outside the kettle - it really looked like someone could have been hurt. A couple of people were beaten by police around the edges of the kettle. There were 10 arrests, mostly towards the end when people were trying to break out of/avoid kettling, I think mostly of college students.” (Libcom.org, 30/11/10)

The information we have on how widespread and large these local demonstrations were is limited because much of the media have played down the involvement of school children. However, it is clear that an important minority of school children, sixth form and FE students have participated in such demonstrations and in many cases organised them themselves.

Here it is necessary to mention use of the internet and smartphones to this movement. The younger generation has made full use of their skills and knowledge of this media. Facebook has played an important role in coordinating struggles; Twitter has also allowed people to stay in contact; the occupiers of the University College of London also set up a Google map on 9 December which showed where the police were gathering in order that the protesters could avoid them. Also the internet has been used for posting photos and videos of the demonstrations, and of the police repression. For example, YouTube footage of the 24 November gave the lie to police denials that they had made mounted charges into the crowd, while a video of police manhandling a demonstrator in a wheelchair and dragging him across the road was accessed internationally

All of these expressions have meant that the main media outlets have been sidelined by many of those participating and they have made their own reports of what has been happening. The mainstream media distort information to the general population but this has encouraged the young to rely on their own sources of information and organisation.

The real difficulties the bourgeoisie have had in trying to deal with this movement is summed up in the plea by the head of the police in Bristol for someone to become the leader of the movement:

Mr Jackson called for someone from the student body to come forward so they could better co-ordinate what he referred to as a ‘leaderless protest’” (local press quoted on Libcom).

The ruling class's only response: increasing repression

The last month has seen the ruling class escalating their use of repression as the movement has developed. With their political organs as yet unable to control the movement the state has had one main response; increasingly violent repression.

Some have compared the culminating confrontation between the police and students on 9 December to the Poll Tax riot of 1990. But this comparison misses the difference in historical context. The Poll Tax riot marked the end of a movement and took place at a time of a retreat in class consciousness. These recent confrontations between the movement and the police, which have taken place not only in London, but in other cities, are taking place at a time of international upsurge in struggles following five years of increasingly draconian attacks on the working class. Above all this is the first widespread movement in Britain mobilising tens of thousands of young proletarians and others since the resurgence of struggles in 2003.

This confrontation between the classes has not been posed so starkly in Britain since the mid 1980s and the miners’ and printers’ struggles. The bourgeoisie have spent the last quarter of a century boasting about its ability to bring about 'social peace' and very low levels of class struggle. In the last weeks the class war has been brought to the forefront of workers’ attention.

The siege and attack on the Tory Party HQ involved almost no violence against the police and only some breaking of windows. When someone threw a fire extinguisher from the roof of the building they were condemned by the crowd with cries of “Stop throwing shit!”

The small police presence was able to stop a mass invasion of the building. A couple of weeks later these same students would be facing repeated charges by mounted officers and baton charges by police in full riot gear.

The progression of the state's use of naked violence against what in many cases were schoolchildren shows their concern. The demonstration on 24 November witnessed the use by the police of kettling, basically trapping protesters into confined areas by blocking all the means of exit. This method had been used at the G20 demonstration in 2009 and had been criticized even by parts of the bourgeoisie as counter-productive because it fuelled anger. It was used more extensively on 30 November demonstration and finally on the 9th you had a systematic policy of the imposition of several kettles together, Around parliament it would appear the police had the central kettle on the Square with surrounding kettles, which meant that you could get out of one only to find yourself in another. This was demonstrated at the end of the demonstration by the police “releasing” those who had been trapped for hours outside Parliament; only to then kettle them on Westminster bridge for several more hours in the freezing cold and packed together like cattle in cattle trucks.

Along with the kettling there was an increasing use of violence. Before the 9 December demo there had been clashes between some of those trapped in the kettles and the police, as they desperately tried to escape; and there were incidents of police beating protesters, but this was generally hidden by the media. On the 9th however the media openly showed horses charging into the crowds, riot police batoning people etc, obviously all from the angle of the police 'protecting' themselves. But the message was very clear: if you protest you will face the full force of the state. The near hysterical news programmes made it clear that this was the police 'defending' the democratic right to 'protest peacefully', that the violence was due to a small minority etc. On the ground people were being told by the police that they were being so violent in order to discourage people attending future demonstrations.

It is clear that by the 9th some elements had come prepared to confront the police, but the vast majority had come to show their determination to express their anger at the attacks despite the increasing repression. The young protesters learnt very quickly not to allow themselves to be kettled at the beginning, as happened at the 24 November demonstration, and to get to Parliament Square. This they achieved, but then the police systematically kettled them and began to attack them. In many cases they were packed together making it very difficult to escape the police charges, so they had no choice but to fight back or else be trampled by horses or beaten by the police. Even then many protesters were able to see beyond the immediate violence:

We all go down together, horses looming above us, baton blows still coming down on our heads and shoulders. I am genuinely afraid that I might be about to die, and begin to thumb in my parents' mobile numbers on my phone to send them a message of love.

“On top of me, a pretty blonde seventeen-year-old is screaming, tears streaming down her battered face as she yells abuse at the police. The protesters begin to yell 'shame on you!', but even in the heat of battle, these young people quickly remember what's really at stake in this movement. 'We are fighting for your children!' they chant at the line of cops. 'We are fighting for your jobs!'” (New Statesman)

The videos and news coverage of these confrontations do show masked youths fighting the police, but the majority are unmasked and desperately trying to defend themselves.

Within this chaos the youth still displayed their vibrant spirit. Some, following the example of Italian students, had homemade riot shields which were in the shape of books, with Marx on the front, or with titles like Brave New World, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Adorno's Negative Dialectics. The latter apparently played a major role is dismounting a mounted policeman!

From The Really Open University

It was clear the state was going to win such confrontations, but the long-term result of this repression is going to be extremely important. The idea of the state and the Coalition being somehow 'nice and fair' has gone out the window. In its place thousands of young and not so young people have experienced state violence or seen their friends and family members not only attacked but treated like criminals. The police constantly video demonstrations; even in small towns, they photograph participants - often openly doing so by going amongst those kettled and photographing them. A whole generation has seen that the state’s only response to their demand to be listened to is violence. The implications of this are still to be seen.

The prospects for wider confrontations

This movement has shown the first steps in the overcoming of the demoralisation inflicted upon the proletariat in Britain by the crushing of the miners, printers and others in the 1980s. A generation of young proletarians has stood up and been counted. Many older workers have looked on in admiration of this movement and feel a sense of ‘at long last we are fighting back’. The question of violence has taken on a new dimension. For years the media has presented the population, i.e. the working class, as passive. At the beginning of the movement, the media were able to find students willing to criticise the use of violence, but, after the confrontations of 9 December, Newsnight was unable to find one student willing to criticise the use of violence on their own side: instead the students asked the various reporters why don't you denounce the violence of the police? The state's attempts to present the austerity programme as 'fair' and equally shared throughout society have been exposed as fraudulent, and its only response to protest has been increasing violence and repression. The last month has left the working class with much to reflect upon.

While the passing of the law raising tuition fees on 9 December, and the onset of the Christmas holiday period, have inevitably produced a pause in the movement, many of the students have vowed to continue the movement in January. We are already seeing a radicalisation in the tone of the trade unions, for example in an article written by Len McCluskey, head of the main public sector union Unite, in the opinion section of The Guardian of 20 December and summarised as the paper’s lead article:

“Britain's students have certainly put the trade union movement on the spot. Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach.... Trade unions need to reach out, too. Students have to know we are on their side. We must unequivocally condemn the behaviour of the police on the recent demonstrations. Kettling, batoning and mounted charges against teenagers have no place in our society.

“It is ironic that young people have been dismissed as apathetic and uninterested in politics – yet as soon as they turn out in numbers they are treated as the 'enemy within', in a way instantly familiar to those of us who spent the 1970s and 1980s on picket lines.

“And we should work closely with our communities bearing the brunt of the onslaught. That is why Unite has agreed to support the broad Coalition of Resistance established last month, which brings together unions and local anti-cuts campaigns from across the country.

“The TUC's demonstration on 26 March will be a critical landmark in developing our resistance, giving trade union members the confidence to take strike action in defence of jobs and services”.

The Guardian website for the same day also reports on the announcement by Unite and another big public sector union, the GMB, which they would be backing the next day of action called by the NCAFC and the EAN for 29 January.

Meanwhile RMT leader Bob Crow talks about the need for “Industrial action, civil disobedience and millions on the streets” to raise the profile of the Left and the unions, the better to assist in their attempt to recuperate any movement against austerity attacks.

The prospect looms for bigger and wider class confrontations. The bourgeoisie is now readying its union apparatus to take charge of the situation, but it is not guaranteed in advance that they will succeed.

WR, 23/12/10.