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The students’ moment

Student activist Michael Chessum reflects on the state of the fight against the Tories’ education reforms

February 22, 2012
6 min read

Photo: Andrew Moss Photography

The past two years have been a lesson in the necessity and resilience of mass dissent. It is necessary because after 30 years of Thatcherism, and no serious parliamentary opposition, the government is embarking on a programme that will end the public sector as we know it, throwing our increasingly improvised daily lives open to the logic of the market, just as that logic has become morally – and literally – bankrupt.

And it is resilient primarily because it began with a mass movement of young people too young to remember a time when real alternatives existed. Any force capable of mobilising students in 2010 would not have been put off by anything as trivial as a defeat in parliament.

This wave of dissent began after the ‘end of history’, and has continued to grow despite being encumbered by Thatcherite anti-union legislation and repressed in the streets. It has spawned the beginnings of an ideological renewal for the left, given trade unions a kick-start and created thousands of activists and different campaigns.

Transform or bypass

The weaknesses that exist within this movement lie not in a failure of collective will or ideological critique, but in the failure of these things to permeate ‘our’ institutions. Part of this is a failure of the organised left to translate grassroots radicalisation into bureaucratic weight. All eyes are on Occupy, anarchists and the largely unaligned student activist networks (such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, or NCAFC) – not on the paper sellers, for whom a cycle of recruitment and factioneering still often prevails.

Unlabelled grassroots pressure, driven by the sheer scale of the assault on pensions, may bring us a few days of large strike action per year. But in order to bring the government down and pose a credible alternative to further neoliberal retrenchment (the only real goal that serious leftists can now have), a cohesive political project is needed, capable either of transforming the institutions of the left, or bypassing them altogether.

Failure to organise rapidly, properly and imaginatively will mean the end of public education and the welfare state. Veterans of previous great waves of working class and anti-capitalist dissent will be well acquainted with the timid trade union leader and the careerist NUS president. The superficial reappearance of such characters is only half of the story: in reality the state of trade and student unions – let alone the Labour Party – is now far worse than it has ever been.

Supporting, not organising

The outright hostility of the NUS leadership that characterised the student revolt of 2010 has abated in recent months following the election of a more sympathetic president, whose manifesto included a call for a national demonstration. But this pledge has gone unimplemented, putting the NUS in the absurd position of supporting the NCAFC-organised demonstration on November 9 2011, but, as a large organisation with massive resources and hundreds of staff, refusing to actually organise it.

In the end, the demonstration was funded as much by PCS as by NUS, and the whole thing was done on a little under 5 per cent of the cash, and almost none of the staff support, that went into the 10 November demonstration in 2010 prior to the fees vote.

In what seemed to sum up what was wrong with much of the official student movement, a flurry of student unions threatened to pull out of the demonstration just days ahead of it, citing mistimed risk assessments and the failure of the NCAFC – a campaign with barely any money and no staff – to, among other things, take out public liability insurance that would have cost tens of thousands of pounds.

In the midst of the biggest assault on the welfare state ever, with the government’s higher education white paper proposing to privatise, cut and fence off universities, and further cuts to further education colleges coming through, many unions hid behind their trustee board structures, clung to the idea that inaction was preferable to trying without a guarantee of success, and in some cases merely shrugged, as if mobilising for a national demo to defend education and the welfare state was an odd kind of thing for a students’ union to be doing.

Rapidly generalising

Within this context, the ability of the NCAFC to mobilise about 10,000 people – as it did on 9 November – was a significant achievement, testament to the durability and reach of the NCAFC and to the continued, and rapidly generalising, anger among students ahead of the 30 November strike action. If NUS had organised the protest itself, turnout may have been closer to 100,000.

As it was, we put the higher education white paper debate on the agenda, kept some of the student movement alive, and built momentum for N30. The ‘total policing’ of the demonstration itself, unpreventable for the NCAFC as organisers, is something that we must tactically digest in the coming months.

The alternative strategy, pioneered by Labour-aligned NUS leaders while their party was in power, of lobbying for crumbs from the table, is taken seriously by barely anyone under the current government. Unless NUS moves rapidly to mobilise again, the prevailing political culture within it will have twice fallen victim to its own lies: that mass mobilisation and direct action, backed up with serious political demands, are ‘dinosaur tactics’ from decades ago, used only by the hard left to lose valiantly.

Echoes of this rhetoric can be found throughout the Labour Party and its commentariat, and parallel structural and legal shifts can be found in the trade unions. The legacy of Thatcher and Blair has pushed the student movement and the labour movement to the brink of inertial catastrophe.

That is the real issue at stake in 2012: it is not a question of whether ‘the rest’ can keep up with ‘the students’ in their various Uncut or Occupy guises, but whether or not the mass unrest of the past 18 months can organise itself as a movement, and is able to reclaim the political ground that has been lost to Blairism and its heirs.

It is a moment in which student activists must take seriously the fight for bread and butter issues on their campuses as well as the broader battles, and it is a question to which the old organised left may not have a timely answer.

Michael Chessum is a co-founder of NCAFC and a member of the NUS national executive council. Visit www.anticuts.com for more details

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