Two years after the iconic ‘Battle of Millbank’ Feyzi Ismail discusses the politics of the student movement, the significance of the tactic of occupation, and what lessons can be drawn

Student breaks windowI want to focus on the student movement of 2010 – the biggest eruption of student protest in Britain since at least the mid-1960s – over the tripling of tuition fees, the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, cuts to arts and humanities courses and the general marketisation of education. Perhaps some of you were there, or at least you remember Millbank, the day the National Union of Students (NUS) called a demonstration, and when by most accounts, between 50 and 70 thousand students turned up. It was that day, on 10th November, that the student movement kicked off, and neither the NUS nor the most seasoned activists expected it.

While the media focused on the so-called violence of the students – broken windows and burning placards – student activists at different universities were planning how to take the movement forward. Because clearly there was anger and concern at the prospects of the tripling of fees: the demonstration showed this unequivocally. But it also showed that a united, collective response from students had the potential, at least, to get the government to back down. It was a campaign that students felt they could win.

But who was going to lead this movement? Immediately after the demonstration the NUS wanted to distance itself from the movement, given that it was now beyond their control. And the NUS certainly wasn’t going to be calling another demonstration anytime soon. So one issue was the question of leadership – who was going to lead the movement.

The other issue was what were going to be the aims of the movement exactly? The aims couldn’t be so ambitious that students would feel they were somehow abstract or unattainable. And on the other hand, they had to be ambitious enough that they could inspire people and involve and mobilise the vast majority of students. So this was a question of strategy and tactics – what were students actually going to do to take the movement forward? And take it forward in such a way that it was as broad and as radical as possible.

Because if the movement was to be successful, it had to involve both those students who had never been on a demonstration before – and who had come only to protest against the tripling of fees – but also those students who were already politicised and who might advocate demands that were even more radical, such as the abolition of fees altogether. So it had to be both broad and radical – those were two essential ingredients.

So what actually happened? After that demonstration on the 10th of November, students in different universities began to discuss the tactic of occupation. Now in hindsight, I think just about everyone who was involved in the student movement would agree that one of the central pillars of the movement, one of its overwhelming strengths, was the occupations at different universities.

Because having an occupation on campus brought the issue of fees and cuts directly to students, staff and management. There was no way the issue of cuts and the trebling of fees could be ignored in the face of an ongoing occupation in the middle of campus. They put direct pressure on management in a way that the demonstrations alone couldn’t do.

But the occupations played another crucial role: they became organising centres for sustaining the movement, and ultimately they gave the movement its defiance and determination. Because it now became an ongoing activity: it wasn’t just preparing for a demonstration weeks into the future; the occupation of physical space was 24/7 – you had to defend the space as well as shape it, in order to get more people involved.

So the demonstrations were extremely important because they revealed the breadth of the movement, the unity of the movement – and they could deal blows to the government at a national level. But combined with the occupations at a local level, which you could argue in some sense reflected the depth of the movement, you had a powerful recipe for creating a crisis situation for the government. And I think it was that combination that ultimately shaped public opinion in favour of the students and against the government. Despite all the media hype.

Building an occupation

So how did we organise the occupation, for example, at my university? I’m at SOAS and although we have a relatively good tradition of student activism, we still had to fight for the occupation; we still had to argue that this was the right thing to do. So a small group of us – I’d say between 5 and 10 of us in the anti-cuts group and beyond – got together and began organising. We knew there was an upcoming Emergency General Meeting (EGM) that had been called by the students’ union, to figure out how to respond to the issue of fees and cuts.

Normally these union meetings get between 50 and 100 people. But we knew we had to get as many students as possible in the room to debate and discuss the possibility of an occupation. And the reason why we had to do this is precisely because we did not want it be a small occupation, with the same old faces, in some far-off corner of campus. We knew that that would have absolutely no effect.

But there was an even more important reason why we needed a big union meeting. It would be more democratic. If large numbers of students could debate and discuss the idea of an occupation, even if we lost it by a small margin, that would be much better than winning in a room in which there were only 50 people.

So we got together a plan. We submitted a motion calling for an occupation at SOAS. We didn’t provide details of how, when or where, we just put the idea out there, and explained why it was important. Crucially, we also mobilised for the meeting. We put up posters saying OCCUPY SOAS in big letters, we gave out leaflets, we sent out emails and we made announcements in classes. We also strategised amongst ourselves, about how we were going to make the argument in the meeting. We knew there would be a debate.

The day came, and almost 300 students showed up. I remember that room was absolutely jam-packed. And it wasn’t that students had come along because they were in favour of occupying. In fact, on the contrary, the majority were against it. So we had a huge task before us.

Sure enough, 2 ½ hours later, heavy words exchanged, lots of fiery speeches by both sides, and we won the vote by 8. The democratic origins of the occupation were vital. Because not only did we have the official backing of the students’ union, we had also managed to genuinely convince people, on the basis of a political argument, to actually switch sides and join the occupation.

And that democracy had to be transferred into the occupation itself. So that every major decision was the result of an attempt to achieve consensus, in the first place, and where consensus was not possible, the occupiers would vote. That was not only the best way of running things in terms of efficiency, but the occupation had to be democratic because it gave the occupation legitimacy.

You see, getting 300 students in a room was brilliant, but the student population of SOAS is over 4,000. On top of that there are something like 400 academic staff, and then about 6-700 support staff. Those people count as well. Because the more support you have from outside the occupation, from non-students, the stronger the cause would become.

And we knew this. So what we did inside the occupation was as important as what we did outside it, in terms of the demonstrations and the wider movement. That EGM was on a Thursday. The following Monday, 12 noon, we had called all those in favour of occupying to meet outside the steps at SOAS, which is a central place everyone knows at SOAS, and we would occupy the building opposite.

Monday came, and about 60 students turned up. We made speeches, chanted slogans, and then proceeded to march into what’s called the Brunei Suite – a very fancy, very big room that SOAS management rents out for the sum of about £650 a day. Usually for corporate clients. In those days the doors of the Brunei Suite were usually open, so we just walked in. Nowadays, there are usually bolted locks and chains across the doors.

The politics of occupation

So we did it. We were in occupation. Amongst the triumphalism and smug faces, we immediately set about creating a list of demands. And again, we had to make them broad enough that large numbers of people would support them, but also radical enough that they would inspire, and actually put pressure on management.

The first demand was scrapping the proposal for the trebling of fees. This was the main demand at SOAS, and had to be in order to position ourselves in direct opposition to government. The other demands were the following: that management release a statement condemning the planned tuition fee increases and call on vice chancellors across the country to unite against threats to higher education; that the school shows greater financial transparency; that students not be marked absent on the day of the demonstration on 24th November; and that there should be no victimisation of occupiers or those who sympathise with the occupation.

Of course we then set about publicising our demands as far and as wide as possible. We ended up – that is, the SOAS occupation – setting off a series of occupations at other universities, in the end totalling about 50 occupations across the country – the greatest show of student militancy in a generation.

We knew early on that university managements were going to side with the government over the issue of fees and cuts; the university managements were going to be the last ones to argue against government plans. And so while we needed the mass demonstrations to focus anger at the government, we also needed the occupations to direct that anger towards the managements at individual universities.

The point was to push the pressure that we were feeling back up to where it came from. If we could make our universities ungovernable, then the university managements would be forced to put pressure on the government, not on its own students. After all, we were the ones trying to defend our education.

Despite that, incredibly – we were in the minority. Most university managements – together with others who disagreed with the occupations – portrayed them as immature, illegitimate forms of protest. In fact the opposite was true. The general level of organisation, democracy and debate inside the occupations was high. Students had organised schedules of activities laid out days in advance; teams of people allocated to specific tasks; lists of duties pinned to the walls inside the occupations, from cleaning the space to co-ordinating legal work. All the while trying to grow the occupation.

Crucially, it was inside the occupations where much of the organising for the demonstrations in late 2010 took place: providing stewards, printing leaflets, making banners, organising flash mobs and mobilising students and staff across campuses – this was all done inside the occupations. And because those demonstrations were big, this once again put university managements on the back foot: clamping down on individual occupations became increasingly untenable.

Understanding the impact, learning the lessons

So you can begin to see how both the demonstrations and occupations were starting to reinforce each other. What was the effect of the occupations? The immediate effect was that they localised and polarised debate within each university. This was a good thing. Everyone was talking about it. And concretely, the occupations served to turn passive agreement into active support. But were demands met? Not in the way students would have wanted, because we were effectively arguing for a reversal of the planned cuts and fees, which didn’t happen.

But there were many important gains. At SOAS a large proportion of academic staff had signed a letter to the SOAS vice chancellor, condemning the cuts and fee increases and expressing “strong support” for the SOAS occupation. And it’s not like they had nothing to lose – management had already made it clear that school policy “did not recognise occupations as a legitimate form of protest” in their words. So staff were siding against their employers.

In fact everyone who was supporting the occupation took some risk. But there was a point when things started to turn. University after university went into occupation. At SOAS, when the management threatened to send in bailiffs to evict the occupation, all of sudden a certain sense of pride about the occupation surfaced. Supporting the occupation now became a badge of honour. Students had the moral high ground, and lecturers and support staff became vital to maintaining it. The lecturers helped organise teach-ins and teach-outs; support staff brought food for the occupiers; union officials offered to stay awake all night on security rotas. By this time it was clear that SOAS management policy prohibiting occupations had become meaningless.

So what was the wider effect of the occupations? Well, they helped bring the education debate to the rest of society. This was no small feat. Should the students be supported in their increasingly confrontational battle with the government to defend education? Or should the government be supported in its task to bring down the deficit? What kind of weight did the student movement have behind it? Was it possible for the students to force the government to reverse its plans?

Bringing the education debate to the centre of public attention inevitably opened up arguments against the cuts more generally. This was not accidental. Students were setting an example for workers inside and outside the university: the question was, if you support the occupations and the defence of education, what are you going to do when your workplace or library or local council is threatened with cuts? Waiting for official action i.e. waiting for the unions to call a strike or a demonstration – could mean putting up no resistance at all.

So there were a number of lessons learned, or had confirmed, from the experience of the student movement. The first was that it was a combination of official action – remember the demonstration was originally called by NUS – and unofficial action, which was reflected in the occupations, that was the driving force behind the student movement.

Second, in terms of the occupation itself, democracy was crucial, both in securing the occupation and maintaining it – this is what gave it its legitimacy, allowed it to be creative and focused. Third, the occupations provided alternative forms of leadership. And leadership was important. When the occupations began to really reflect the anger and the widespread sentiment of students – when they began to put forward increasingly radical demands – this exposed the limits and weaknesses of the official leadership of the student movement, the NUS.

Sure enough, alternative leaders emerged from within the occupations, and when the NUS failed to call the next demonstration, it was these other leaders from within the movement that called it. Now, many people had called the student movement a leaderless movement. In truth the movement produced all kinds of leaders, including those that had never been involved in politics before. The fact is that the SOAS occupation would not have happened if a group of students had not argued for occupation in the emergency general meeting in the first place. They weren’t leaders in a traditional sense, but they took a lead in getting together a plan of action and taking it to the wider student body.

And it was precisely the initiative that students took to organising within the occupations that allowed the best occupations to grow and involve increasingly larger numbers of students. Without a level of organisation, led by people taking initiatives to a wider group, it would not have been possible to draw in the large numbers of staff and students that we did. So, far from being associated with being a kind of dictatorial space, it was good leadership that actually ensured that the occupations remained open and accountable spaces.

So what happened in the end? As you know, we didn’t beat the government. But we did create a crisis around the issue of fees on the day of the vote in parliament, on 9th December. It made everyone question the government’s priorities. So the legacy of the student movement, what it will be remembered for, is having started the fightback against austerity in general. It actually started to turn this argument – that the cuts are inevitable – on its head.

Why? Because it quickly became about broader issues. Why, if we can pay billions of pounds to fight wars that most people don’t even agree with, why can’t we pay for education? What kind of education do we want anyway? And why do only some people have access to the best education and the best jobs, and not others?

And when young people were physically confronted in the demonstrations by the police – beaten and kettled – they were asking fundamental questions about society: why do the police always side with the government? Do they not have opinions of their own? Why is the mainstream media never wholeheartedly on our side? And why, if we live in a democracy, do we not actually get what the vast majority want? Is it something to do with democracy itself or with the way it’s implemented by those at the top?

All of this means that the fight isn’t over. If you look at the way society is organised, the state will use everything at its disposal to push through its policies. It will use the media, the courts, the police… it will use management, academia, and every other institution in society – to create a consensus that somehow can’t be questioned.

The problem for the coalition government today, however, is that we’re coming to a point where people have no choice but to fight. If you think about it, there must be hundreds of small struggles within workplaces across the country, against management, over the issue of cuts. People’s jobs being threatened or cut, or people are not able to find jobs in the first place.

So while activists are needed to fight those battles within workplaces, we also need a broader movement that can bring all those battles together. Because if the government uses everything at its disposal, we have to bring all of our forces together. We have to bring the students, women’s groups, disabled people, pensioners – everyone who is against the cuts – into a wider movement that puts a different argument out there: are the cuts really inevitable? Who actually created this financial crisis in the first place? And why, when society itself is not equal, do we all have to pay?

The student movement of 2010 was the first big stand against austerity, and paved the way for the massive TUC demonstration a few months later. It put the idea of broad, national mobilisation against the cuts on the map. And it put massive pressure on the government, coming close to winning its demands. It was the combination of national and local pressure, sustained, that was so powerful. Two years on, increasing numbers of people in this country believe the cuts are not inevitable. Any new student movement that wants to be relevant has to now connect with the wider anti-cuts movement at a national level, which can mobilise across the rest of society. We can then start to see the kind of action needed to force the government to change its priorities or step aside.

From New Left Project site

Transcript of speech to Demand the Impossible, a summer school on radical politics and political activism for young people.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU