At last Thursday’s anti-tuition fees protests, students culminated their two-month campaign against savage tuition fee hikes, shaking the coalition government to its core. Such a protest has not been seen in London for 10 years. We’ve had bigger numbers, but the vibrancy, clear political analysis, and anger-mixed-with-party atmosphere, have all been absent for a long time.
Students could not have given a clearer lead to the rest of society. The protest was a culmination of a wave of occupations, marches, local days’ of action, and more. Although organised, it was not top-down – the National Union of Students resigned their leadership role early on. It came about through organising by local, national and, vitally, online centres – with many decisions being taken on radically democratic lines.
Self-interest was never a primary motivation for current students who are organising in solidarity with the next generation which will actually pay the price of fees. Indeed in occupations around the country students have gone well beyond fee rises, questioning the very structures of education.
But Thursday’s demonstration was far from dominated by white middle-class kids. I was taken aback by the amount of working-class, Black and Asian school and university students – no one taken in for a second by the idea that the Government’s proposals were ‘necessary’ or ‘fair’. The government has declared war on them, their communities and their class – pure and simple.
The immediate result of this mobilisation: a government majority of 84 slashed to 21. But the faces of Ministers – in particular Lib Dems– told of greater fears for their future. Outside, protestors were angry but unsurprised. After all when a party tells you it opposes tuition fees in May and in December agrees to triple them, clearly the political model isn’t working (anymore than it did when the Labour Government first introduced them).
That anger was compounded by a set of brutal police tactics which have not received nearly enough attention. Scores of riot police on horses, with visors, shields and more padding than the Michelin man, charged at unarmed protestors, many of them legally children. I have never seen so many bloodied protestors. One student required three-hour brain surgery so severe were his wounds. Hundreds more were repeatedly beaten and finally, at 9.30, marched onto Westminster bridge with no facilities, no information, where the cold was guaranteed to be worst. David Cameron got it right about “violent, thuggish behaviour”, but it was the police acting on clear instructions.
What does this mean long-term? First the Left must take the issue of violence head-on. The policies being inflicted on this country – without electoral mandate – are truly violent. The - at worst - vandalism carried out by protestors in the face these policies has been surprisingly moderate. No progressive change in society has ever come about without much worse scenes. The Left has to lose its fear about this issue.
Second, and even more worrying, was the lack of trade union presence. The RMT made a good show on the protest, as have UCU at previous protests. Otherwise just a handful of local, mostly university-based, flags peppered the march. This will come to haunt us. The students cannot carry the can for the failure of others forever. The unions want to reinvent themselves, to appeal to new activists, to get young people to understand the importance of solidarity. This was – hopefully still is – the opportunity. Local organising is vital. Student organising is vital. But trade unions remain the only bodies which can truly mobilise on the scale needed. If they fail, we all fail.