Looking at the history of student struggle, the key to the involvement of workers, as in '68, was the intensity of the student struggle and its capacity to create a social crisis into which workers could be drawn.
Michael Bailey and Des Freedman, eds, The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (Pluto Press 2011), 182pp.
The student movement of 2010 was the largest for a generation. It transformed the political atmosphere around the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition government’s cuts programme and popularised the ‘rejectionist’ argument that the deficit could be paid for by taxing the rich, the corporations, and the banks or by cutting Trident and the war budget for Afghanistan. It undermined the legitimacy of the government by exposing a larger democratic deficit: the election of 2010 had revealed an electorate that voted centre left, but the government they got was monetarist and right wing.
So what led to the rise of this transformative movement? In the broadest sense the student movement was prefigured by the anti-globalisation movement that was born at the Seattle World Trade Organization conference in 1999. For a decade anti- corporate, anti-capitalist values and popular demonstrations that express these sentiments have been part of political life. They have left their mark on the attitudes and shaped the political participation of a generation of young people. The anti-globalisation movement, especially in Britain, fed into the anti-war movement as it arose after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. Mass anti-war demonstrations, large-scale political rallies, pickets and protests have provided a vehicle for political action for young people over this period.
In particular the first modern mass action by school students took place as part of the Stop the War Coalition’s campaign against the Iraq war. In the days around the outbreak of war in 2003 school students struck and walked out to join protests and marches against the war. A minority of them directly organised School Students Against the War. This organisation had been reformed by a new generation of school students six months before the fees protests and the individuals in this organisation were part of the fees protest as well.
Many of the first generation of school students had, of course, gone on to be university students in their own right in the period after 2003. At university they continued to participate in anti war activity and were galvanised by events such as the Israeli attack on Gaza at the start of 2010 (see Chapter 12). So the generation of students that confronted the new ConDem government in 2010 contained some considerable numbers who had direct experience of protest and action of a highly politicised kind. Moreover, there existed a decade-long experience of such action, perhaps taken by their old brothers, sisters, relatives and friends, which shaped the environment in which they had come of age.
In response to the ConDem government’s plans to increase tuition fees and scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a series of demonstrations, protests and occupations were launched in the last two months of 2010. Many myths have flowered around the student movement that both helped to build and emerged from these events. It is said that it was a spontaneous revolt, without official leadership. It is said that it was all organised on the new social media. It is said by some that it was mainly school students who demonstrated, while others have claimed it to be a movement of university students. The truth about the student demonstrations is that they happened on the scale they did because of a mixture of official and unofficial organisation. The first demonstration on 10 November 2010 could never have been the size that it was without the official organisation and legitimacy imparted to it by the NUS and the UCU. At the Millbank Tower a militant minority, albeit a very large minority of some many thousands, gave the action on the day a character that the official unions did not imagine existed and did not like when it was expressed. Nevertheless, without the official call the demonstration would not have had the size it had and the minority of militants would not have gathered the support they needed to take effective action.
The two subsequent, mainly school student demonstrations, built on the impetus created by the first demonstration and they were popularised using Facebook and Twitter. But they also relied on unofficial networks created from the first demo and on the intervention of militants organized at ULU, in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and, to a lesser degree, the Education Activists Network. The final and second biggest demonstration, benefited from the limited call given by the NUS and UCU but it was overwhelmingly the work of ULU and the unofficial campaigns whose organised base was significantly widened by the widespread occupations of the colleges taking place at the same time. In this demonstration university students once again outnumbered school students.
The action of the school students was in many ways the most exciting and visible part of the campaign. But the organisation by university students, with the capacities of their local unions and occupations to draw on, was essential in giving the movement politics, strategy and stamina. The shock troops came from the schools, but the organisational capacity, the logistics, the ability to deal with the police, courts and the media, came from university students.
The wave of university occupations significantly added to the student’s organisational capacity. As we shall see in the next chapter, they were bases from which wider involvement could be galvanised. They were centres of political debate and places where the next demonstration could be prepared and, crucially, they brought the debate about fees to the door of the college administrations who were to implement it on behalf of the government.
Workers and students
The student struggle of 2010 was immediately effective in dividing the Liberal Democrats. LibDem ministers voted for the fees rise, some LibDem MPs abstained, others voted against the proposal. The Daily Telegraph chose this moment to attack the LibDems over the ‘Cablegate’ interview in which two undercover reporters encouraged Vince Cable into some bragging about his opposition to Rupert Murdoch’s expansion of his media empire. LibDems slid in the polls from 22 per cent support at the election to 12 per cent, even as low as 8 per cent in some polls. The government as a whole won the vote but it lost the argument and its stock with the electorate slumped. In polls after the student demonstrations Labour was ahead of the Tories for the first time since the election.
Union leaders from Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka to Len McCluskey, the newly elected leader of the country’s biggest union, Unite, praised the students and urged trade unionists to follow their example. But would they? This was the question being asked across British society. In many minds the precedent of 1968 was being recalled. Then, as we have seen, a student struggle had detonated a general strike in France and, on a slower timescale, it was the precursor of workers’ struggles in Britain. But, as we have also seen, it was the intensity of the student struggles that first led to official action by the unions and this, in turn, led to unofficial action on a wide scale. The myth of students simply ‘calling workers out’ or of ‘unofficial action’ simply spreading as a result of student-worker contact underestimates the complexity of events and so disarms those who today wish to generate a higher level of working class resistance based on the student struggles.
The student movement that emerged in 2010 is the biggest in Britain for a generation, but it is not yet bigger than it was in France in 1968. The first task in the coming period is to sustain and intensify this struggle. This is not because very many today share the illusion of some on the far left in 1968 that the students can build ‘red bases’ in the colleges that will be sufficient to challenge the government on their own but because the key to the involvement of workers lies, in the first instance, in the intensity of the student struggle. Artificial attempts to ‘link with the workers’ will not necessarily help because trade union struggles move at a different pace than those among students. The students can, however, cause a social crisis into which workers, organised and unorganised, are drawn. But for this to happen the student struggle itself, the occupations and demonstrations, need to be sustained and spread. The trade unionists in the education unions will find it easier to become involved in the struggle if this is the case, and this can be a bridge to other workers becoming involved. Occupations are key to this because they make the campuses ungovernable for the university authorities and present the staff with the question of taking sides in a way that demonstrations alone do not.
 YouGov, Gov’t trackers—update 8 December 2010. Available at: http://today.yougov.co.uk/politics/govt-trackers-update-8th-dec [accessed 18 February 2011].
Special offer for Counterfire readers. To order The Assault on Universities for only £9.99 including free UK P&P simply visit: http://bit.ly/pluuni
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
More articles from this author
- The Secret Left-wing Diary of Owen Smith, aged 46 and a half
- Only a Corbyn victory can open a path out of the crisis
- The EU vote: this is what a social crisis looks like
- One simple argument about the existence of the state of Israel
- A quick guide to who’s fighting whom in Syria
- Why bombing Syria is a very bad idea
- ‘Long to reign over us’? The monarchy, land, money and guns