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Austerity has been a disaster for students as it has been for so many people. But the student movement is not responding adequately to the crisis. Katherine Connelly explains

Young people face massive levels of unemployment, insecure and low paid jobs and are pressured to accept, and even be grateful for, the chance of working for free in 'internships' after being forced to amass huge debts at university. When the government tripled fees in 2010 there were huge, angry student demonstrations, including the student invasion of the Tory HQ at Millbank.

But this year's demonstration called by the National Union of Students (NUS) was considerably smaller and ended not in students turning upon the government but a minority turning on the NUS leadership.

The NUS campaign for the march was uninspiring. Good demonstrations are built when the slogans inspire and resonate with people, when campaigning is intensified beforehand to persuade people to attend and bring their friends, and when people feel that their march can make a difference.

The NUS largely failed to do these things. The slogan 'educate, employ, empower' sounded like a recruitment company jingle, rather than a punchy expression of opposition to what is being done to our education.

A misguided approach

But much of the left's response to these problems was disastrous and has helped to weaken rather than strengthen the movement. On the day of the demo a group of left wing students tried to persuade, and then physically force, people not to follow the official route but to stay in front of parliament. This led to a split of around one thousand.

When the main part of the demonstration reached Kennington sections of the left heckled speakers and threw eggs and fruit at NUS president Liam Burns. Other union leaders were also heckled and abused. At one point some left groups were chanting 'general strike, general strike' over a young student who was explaining that she had been driven to working in strip clubs to pay her fees

This kind of behaviour created the atmosphere for the stage invasion which followed. The rally had to be ended in chaos as activists stormed the stage and speakers couldn't continue. The result of all this is confusion and demoralisation for those students who came and gloating articles in the press happy to report that the student movement is eating itself alive.

It should be obvious to everyone on the left that Liam Burns is not the main enemy. The eggs should have been reserved for Cameron, Clegg or Gove.

Splitting the march and disrupting the rally are going to disillusion people with the whole movement not the NUS leadership.

Missed opportunities

The problems go back to well before the demonstration. It would have been better in the first place if, as Counterfire argued, others on the left had pushed for the NUS leadership to mobilise for the massive TUC demonstration on October 20th. That would have given people the confidence to start organising over student issues on a far larger scale.

More student activists should have spent the summer and early autumn mobilising for 20 October as a step towards building the student demo.

Unfortunately too many left groups appear not to be interested in unity. They are focussed on what differentiates them from other students and other sections of the movement and attacking the NUS.

Anyone who was around will recall that it was the NUS-called march in 2010 that kicked off the mass opposition to fees in the first place, and that this was the biggest student demo in years. Clearly the national NUS is not providing adequate leadership for students. Criticism is necessary.

But the answer to this problem is not to abuse or physically attack them but to pressure local student unions to mobilise on the widest possible scale, and where they won't, to organise a wide mobilisation through the movement. This is elementary for anyone who wants to reach out to the wider student body.

But rather than seriously trying to build mass campaigns in every college, working with the student unions where possible, some groups are increasingly inward looking and sectarian, more comfortable sloganeering and sniping than getting out on the campuses. London, where these groups are strongest, had a low turnout on Wednesday.

The way ahead

The student movement must turn its back on sectarian infighting, ritual sloganeering and the obsession with publicly abusing and shouting down official movement leaders.

The situation for students is too serious. We need a broad, united movement that is linked to the millions of others who are suffering from this government’s policies.

The task is now to go back into our colleges, link the anger that students have with the widespread anger against austerity in general, organise rallies and meetings in the colleges against the cuts to courses and departments, against the marketisation of education, and the looming unemployment that we face.

If we can build a mass movement in the colleges we can put pressure on the NUS and, more importantly, start to threaten the main enemy in Whitehall.

Comments   

 
#1 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Alex Etches 2012-11-23 02:08
This article completely ignore the role the NUS has played in trying the de mobilise our movement. Actively picking a shit location for the end rally so it makes no political point whatsoever is just on of the few ways it has done this. Furthermore we should not condemn what was an outpouring by frustrated students as the actions of one left wing sect, we should understand that it is part of a wider disenfranchisement with the NUS and an inevitable reaction to a Labour Student who has clearly not learned from the mistakes of his predecessor.

Also no one was physically stopped from crossing our 'picket', I can say that with certainty as I was part of it. Maybe you should be next time?
 
 
#2 EGGEgbert 2012-11-23 11:41
I have thousands of eggs.
 
 
#3 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Haroun Lazim 2012-11-23 13:55
There is frustration with the NUS, and it frequently finds its expression in sectarian organisations. But Kate's point suggests to me that ultimately that you have two options:
1) ignore the NUS unless it is either useful or needs to be clearly criticised (and I suggest you do this in a calm and coherent way), and use your energies to build a robust, militant and broad-based movement and not fuss about whose name goes on the propaganda but make sure you promote high quality propaganda, because only with large numbers and good tactics like direct actions will students have any clout
2) spend your time screaming at the nus and talking fruitlessly about alternatives to it whilst still in a position of weakness, thus further alienating the very student body you hope to empower
the nus is shit because we have been weak for too long, not the other way round
 
 
#4 MrTrish 2012-11-23 15:45
This article is total nonsense. Unity of what? With whom? The NUS was equally attacked in 2010/2011 when they betrayed and abandoned students involved in the most important struggle for a generation. The movement happened inspite of them, and the leaders were attacked then with equal disgust as now. The nonsense division you pose between *either* organising on campuses *or* disrupting leader's speeches clearly doesn;t exist.
 
 
#5 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Rav N 2012-11-23 17:30
Counterfire which side are you on ?!!!!!

This is how the ruling class works: They have people in parliament, people in big business and banking, and people at the head of the police, media, and now it seems NUS (and some other unions).

Liam Burns is part of the Labour Party, and many others within the NUS, especially at the top of the hierarchy as the partys vote for their candidates in blocks, are also Young Labour, Tory or Libdems, all Thatcherite neo-liberal partys currently involved in oppressing the masses.

The route and slogan weren't shit because the march was badly organised, this was done on purpose in order to ensure the demonstration had no clear demands, and was going nowhere important, so that it would acheive nothing apart from making the thousands of angry students who came down to the demo and chose to follow the NUS think what a waste of time, lets not go on another pointless demo again.

The NUS leadership were pressurised into calling for this demo, and once they called it they used their authoritarian control over the NUS to make sure the march would weaken and not build the student movement. After the slogan and route had been announced by the leadership, a majority within the NUS called for new slogans and a different route, but because of the undemocratic and hierarchical structure of the NUS, they were ignored- also because the leadership was intent on making this march as pointless as possible, rather than a starting point from which to build more marches, actions and a mass movement which could achieve a lot.

But hundreds on the left were not prepared to see the NUS fail the student movement again. So we went to Embankment, picketed the demo at Westminster Bridge, with the aim of ensuring the thousands of angry students get their voices heard somewhere relevant, like Parliament Sq, Downing St, BIS and Millbank, instead of Surrey County Cricket Club.

We failed because of the strength of the Police, who blocked us whenever we tried to leave the march route. However we succeeded in that thousands of students now realise the NUS will never help the movement acheive our goals, and plans now are to disaffilliate from the NUS and join an alternative, democratic, non hierarchical organisation that demands free education for all, aboliation of student debt, universal ema and grants, and acts towards the acheivement of these demands.

Its either that of Educate! Empower! Employ! March Against Cricket! Counterfire, which side are you on?

Revolution is a process, Not a Slogan
 
 
#6 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Rav N 2012-11-23 17:32
either that or*
 
 
#7 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Rav N 2012-11-23 18:05
Check out who else is on the same side as the NUS http://static0.demotix.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/a_scale_large/1600-7/photos/1353519571-nus-march-splinter-group-tries-to-gain-access-to-parliament-square_1620017.jpg
 
 
#8 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Haroun Lazim 2012-11-23 18:08
The problems with the NUS are very deep, so actually my previous statement about why it's shit is pretty inaccurate.
And ok the two options I gave are not entirely mutually exclusive. To a point. When you actively start banging on about an alternative, certainly at this point it will simply be ignored by the majority of students. If you build an empowered, independent campus, then you can decide about affiliation. Tiny pro- and anti- NUS factions, which is what you'll get otherwise, are a complete waste of time and a recipe for disaffection. Have your critiques of the NUS, but stay calm and coherent.
 
 
#9 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Ben Metters 2012-11-23 18:17
Counterfire is on the side of the hundreds, if not thousands of students present on the demonstration who had never marched before and, on the basis of the shambles in Kennington park, are likely to never march again.

Counterfire is on the side of those students who recognise that the key to building an organic, broad movement is not by forcing them into certain actions. How exactly you plan on winning the arguments and germinating genuine grass roots activists by using police tactics (Kettling) against them is beyond me.

Counterfire is on the side of those who believe that the fight needs to be taken to the right people. Trade Union leaders and speakers talking about the effect of the cuts on women should not bear the brunt of the anger.

In this same vein, Counterfire is on the side of those who believe that revolution is indeed a process and, as such, tend to avoid chanting 'ONE SOLUTION, REVOLUTION' and 'GENERAL STRIKE, GENERAL STRIKE, GENERAL STRIKE' over the aforementioned speakers.

And finally, Counterfire is on the side of those students who feel disillusioned and dejected. Whether that disillusionment is spawned from a decision taken solely by Liam Burns to approve the route, or is born from the idiocy of storming a stage in Kennington.

We all know that the route was awful. We all know that Kennington is nowhere near the seats of power but that is where we ended up. There was an opportunity there to use that anger in discussions in the pub or on the coaches home afterwards to build connections and talk about a wider movement, whether that be within or out of the NUS.

These opportunities vanished when, instead of talking to people, sections of the left decided to shout over them before invading the stage.
 
 
#10 Beware of both Careerists & TrotsMike Shone 2012-11-24 04:42
Very sad behaviour to have to comment on. But a pretty good set of points made by Katherine.

I was a student activist in the 1960s and even in those days student action could be undermined by by two particular diseases : careerism and the ultra left. Jack Straw was an example of the first :President of NUS in 1968 and lunatic attacks by Trotskyist groups , like the SWP & IMG, on police cordons at anti-Vietnam war demos. were an example of the second.

Careerism has increased in student politics over the years so that many more student leaders have been much more concerned to use positions much more as stepping stones to future careers and are much less concerned about effective action on behalf of those they represent.

It is important to sideline as much as possible both the careerists and the ultra left (Trotskyists) and form strong organisation around well motivated, concerned and informed students.

Mike Shone UEA 1965-69
 
 
#11 October 20Vas 2012-11-24 06:04
https://vimeo.com/51833106
 
 
#12 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself no hierarchy 2012-11-24 14:46
The picket on Westminster Bridge was the only constructive action of the day and was met with overall approval from protesters. No wonder people were pissed of at Kennington! As you say we should be targeting 'the main enemy in Whitehall' which meant boycotting the NUS route on the day and protesting at Parliament.

I would question whether seeking a solution in the broad left is really a move for change or an advert for the books on Trotsky you are trying to sell on your website.
 
 
#13 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Elton John 2012-11-24 19:00
I think y'all are just procrastinating to avoid doing essays for your entry-level degrees.
 
 
#14 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Smash the NUS 2012-11-25 02:53
Counterfire on the wrong side of history. Big surprise there.

The demo did not "weaken rather than strengthen the movement." This is easily the most exciting moment since 2010. There are now appeals for a break from the NUS, and the development of a radical alternative to this joke of a "union."

This reformist approach has granted the UK student movement such great victories as having among the highest tuition fees in the world, increasing privatisation of public services and increasing austerity.

You deliberately try to cast off dedicated activists as reckless.
You write that "much of the left's response to these problems was disastrous and has helped to weaken rather than strengthen the movement."

So which side are you on, if you are not included in "much of the left?"

And then you write that "a group of left wing students tried to persuade, and then physically force, people not to follow the official route but to stay in front of parliament."

As opposed to the NUS, which forced us to march to irrelevancy? So their forcing us to irrelevancy is okay, but a popular effort to face Parliament is deemed forceful and illegitimate? Must be in Counterfire land now.

The people who held the bridge should be commended for making the demo meaningful.

And as for the rest who went to the middle of nowhere: "sections of the left heckled speakers and threw eggs and fruit at NUS president Liam Burns." Good! The location and the demo was a joke. The "movement" is a joke. People are angry, and with good reason.

Disaffiliation from the NUS is a great idea. Even if there is no radical alternative to the NUS, disaffiliation is still a legitimate tactic and should be pursued. It will increase the power of local unions to pursue their own interests.

Just as the idea of a radical alternative to the NUS is beginning to crystallise, Counterfire pisses all over this momentum for all the wrong reasons, instead of fanning the flames. You'll be proven as on the wrong side of history here.

Disaffiliate! Toward a radical union! Toward free education!
 
 
#15 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Lindsey German 2012-11-25 09:00
Mike Shone makes an important point about NUS careerism, which has always been there. Former NUS presidents include not just Jack Straw but David Aaronovitch and Charles Clarke. But he is wrong to link the militant Vietnam protests of the 60s with what went on last week. They involved a new generation demanding to demonstrate and challenging the police - and fighting with the police made headlines at the time. Even then, the campaigners deliberately routed their biggest march of 100,000 in October 1968 to Hyde Park not Grosvenor Square at least in part because they didn't just want the protests to focus on a bundle with the police.
Compare that with the student march. It attracted around 7000 - a pitiful figure for an NUS demo. All right, crap route, crap slogan. But you have to ask why it was so small. NUS didn't mobilise properly. True for every NUS demo I can remember. But the left should be able to mobilise using the NUS call. It didn't. So there were as many people on the Millbank breakaway in 2010 as on the whole demo last week.
The last two years have seen the movement dwindling because it didn't relate to the mass of students but instead talked to itself. Frustration is no substitute for political thinking and leads to the antics of last Wednesday and to the sorts of idiotic response so eloquently expressed by the Smash the NUS comment.
The student movement in 2010 played a very important part in galvanising the wider workers' movement. Time for it now to stop being so self referential and self satisfied and to start the work of organising on the ground.
Incidentally, I helped organise the Gaza march in London yesterday. Overwhelming young, very angry but completely united in its purpose, whatever the political differences of those on it.
 
 
#16 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Feyzi Ismail 2012-11-27 12:11
Was the picket at Westminster met with overall approval from protesters? Really? When the vast majority went off to Kennington? If the left wants to have more of an influence on the student population in this country we have to be talking to them. If the vast majority went to Kennington, then so should the left.

A real problem was the size of the demo. The left should have organised emergency general meetings, or failing that massive rallies in every university, postered everywhere etc. beforehand. This definitely didn't happen in lots of London universities anyway.

Instead the left split the demo, which was already small, and then attacked the mainstream leadership in a completely incomprehensible way. Most students will just think that’s crazy. It wouldn’t even occur to most students that the NUS is the main enemy.

Disaffiliating from the NUS won’t help the left either. It will damage the left’s ability to engage with masses of students. No one is arguing the NUS is providing good leadership, but they do have the potential to mobilise thousands. So when the NUS calls a demonstration the left has to build it as big as possible. That’s a far better way to create the militant mood we need – like in 2010 when 70,000 marched. And if we’re talking numbers there’s a huge difference between a 70,000-strong demo with 5,000 people breaking off than 1,000 people breaking off a 7,000-strong demo - let's face it a tenth of the size as in 2010.

If the left got the NUS to move, as they did this time, then thing to do is not attack them but be the left in the movement, pull them to the left as far as possible. Ultra-left posturing will not help influence people.

Building a movement around the NUS is necessary – but it has to involve the widest possible numbers of students. In the process we can influence them. This is what happened when SOAS students held an occupation over Gaza last week – we built a union general meeting, got hundreds of students there, put the case for the occupation and won the argument. The vote was almost unanimous. So that's 250 students and the student union backing an occupation - one of the most militant actions one can take - over Gaza. Isn't that where we want to be? Isn't that the way to start getting the left's arguments out there and drawing in larger numbers of students?
 
 
#17 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Matthew Brett 2012-11-27 20:30
I just want to indicate that at least three of the people commenting on this piece are Counterfire members, not to mention the writer of the original piece.

I think that's worth pointing out. Parroting the party line doesn't necessarily make your argument right.

Like many others, I think a radical alternative to the NUS is a critical pursuit.

What union offers discounts for McDonald's and Domino's pizza? It's insulting! You don't change this through good "leadership," "unity" or building a broad left.

The problem is structural in nature, so the solution should be structural as well. At best, the NUS can only be reformed from within. It cannot be changed. It is not a fighting union; it is not a democratic union; and it never will be.

Students can build a militant union from the grassroots that will actually struggle for free education. It's entirely possible and worthwhile.

Or we can stick with a lumbering lobby group with great offers for the next Odeon blockbuster. Free Medium Fries with a Big Mac or McChicken Sandwich. Would you like some exploitation and imperialism with that?

I also find it painfully ironic that Counterfire members here are calling for unity while denouncing a vast segment of the radical left they are supposedly part of.

I don't intend to follow up on this comment. It's really not worth my energy to debate over this forum. Hope you understand. Solidarity with those who held the bridge and stormed the stage!
 
 
#18 James Meadway 2012-11-27 22:10
"I just want to indicate that at least three of the people commenting on this piece are Counterfire members, not to mention the writer of the original piece."

Well, yes. It is a Counterfire site. It really shouldn't be too surprising that Counterfire members publish and post here.

"I think that's worth pointing out. Parroting the party line doesn't necessarily make your argument right."

Nor does it make it wrong. This isn't an argument - although it is quite close to redbaiting; this isn't the first time you've tried to target Counterfire members.

"Like many others, I think a radical alternative to the NUS is a critical pursuit.

"What union offers discounts for McDonald's and Domino's pizza? It's insulting! You don't change this through good "leadership," "unity" or building a broad left."

My union, Unite, regularly offers all sorts of money off tokens. So do the others. This doesn't in any way invalidate what the union does - frankly, it's not central to what a union does (or should do). It can become a problem if a union thinks it is all it should do - but that's a problem of how the union is run, not of its existence as a union.

"The problem is structural in nature, so the solution should be structural as well. At best, the NUS can only be reformed from within. It cannot be changed. It is not a fighting union; it is not a democratic union; and it never will be.

"Students can build a militant union from the grassroots that will actuall! y struggle for free education. It's entirely possible and worthwhile.

"Or we can stick with a lumbering lobby group with great offers for the next Odeon blockbuster. Free Medium Fries with a Big Mac or McChicken Sandwich. Would you like some exploitation and imperialism with that?"

The point about fries (etc) has been dealt with. The rest is, unfortunately, fantasy. The NUS represents (almost) every student in the entire country. It singularly failed to mobilise them last week - unlike the events of 2010 - but then the left, which you somehow expect to construct a whole alternate union, mobilised even fewer.

I can think of no better way to isolate the left still further from the mass of students than in the attempt to "smash the NUS". What happened last Wednesday did more to isolate the left, pushing us *further* away from any kind of mass radicalisation. A handful of self-declared leftists attacking an ineffectual union bureaucrat at the end of a small, damp protest will not (funnily enough) rouse up a mass movement.

"I also find it painfully ironic that Counterfire members here are calling for unity while denouncing a vast segment of the radical left they are supposedly part of."

I don't believe in the unity of the lemmings - charging as one over the same cliff. There is nothing wrong with arguments on the left - particularly when it is heading in the wrong direction.

I want a united mass movement able to take direct action of the kind we had in 2010. This requires that the left relates to the mass of students, and wins arguments with them - something it is very substantially failing to do.

I'm also not going to take lectures in "radical alternatives" from those who sought to close down a widely-supported, successful student occupation.
 
 
#19 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itselfHenry 2012-11-27 23:11
Clarify a few points:

The storming of the stage is not symptomatic of students' frustration with the NUS. Every speaker asked the crowd "who wants to hear speeches?" these were always met with louder applause than the chants. This is further illustrated by the crowd dispersing minutes after the storming of the stage. We were faced with a situation where a crowd with socialist flags were chanting an abstract call for general strike (I fail to see how this is relevant for a student demonstration) over speakers who were calling for unity within the student movement. If we pretend otherwise we are fooling ourselves. We must remember to look outside the organised left, analyse how student's feel and how we can advance the movement. kidding ourselves does nothing but injure the movement.

Secondly, the route was a poor choice. However it is largely irrelevant. Would the outcome of the demo have been noticeably different if the route was better? No. I doubt the Con-Dems would have changed their mind if the route went past Whitehall or Parliament square, that's not how demonstrations challenge the state. Numbers force change.

On that note, we must consider how we can get the greatest number of students active in the student movement and how this can be a springboard for resistance more generally. This is always the crucial question for socialists. Looking back to 2010, we must remember that those demonstrations that were largest were those organised the NUS which utilised it's mobilising power. Not only this, but the most radical demonstration, when the storming of Millbank tower took place was also organised by the NUS. It's ridiculous to claim that a lack of militancy can be attributed to the fact that the NUS mobilised for this recent demonstration. Of course the slogan was rubbish, and I am not claiming that Liam Burns is a revolutionary, but neither was Aaron Porter, but that didn't stop Millbank, it didn't stop students organising and it didn't stop students coming out in large numbers. In fact it lit the fuse to the whole fightback against this government.

When I look at the situation at Sheffield Hallam, it was the union that put on subsidised transport down to the demo. Without this, we simply would have not been able to bring students along. I have been really happy with the unity with which we have acted during the build up to the demo, both between groups on the left, union officers and the wider student body. I fail to see how any alternative "radical" students union could improve the situation for us as activists. In fact all I can foresee it achieving is isolating the left from other students and workers.

I fail to see how keeping students from crossing a brigde was either popular (that's just a clear case of numbers, I fail to see how this could be disputed) or exciting. None of the activists I came down with, many of them extremely angry and whose first demonstration it was, found this anything other than frustrating.
 
 
#20 RE: Why the student movement needs to stop devouring itself Feyzi Ismail 2012-11-28 07:33
On the one hand Matt says the only way to reform the NUS is from within, and on the other, that universities should disaffiliate from the NUS - which one is it?

Matt also calls for militant action and radical alternatives, but when it came to the SOAS occupation - one of the most militant actions students can take - and voted on democratically - he did everything he could to oppose it.

If he knew anything about the political situation in Britain he would know that the right has been calling for disaffiliation from the NUS for decades. This is not a question of denouncing anyone it's about having a serious strategic argument. Once again, rather than splitting the movement, our argument is that we need to relate to the broadest possible numbers of students.

Disaffiliation will not help this. It would be a huge setback that would be exploited by our enemies - the Tories and university managements would be laughing all the way to the bank.
 

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