James Meadway analyses the causes of the lull in the student movement, and argues that if the movement was to sustain itself beyond the activist minority, it had to maintain its relationship to the wider mass of students.

After thoroughly shaking up British politics at the end of last year, all the way up to the fateful tuition fees vote on 9 December, where protests, at their height saw 20-30,000 storm into Parliament Square and the Treasury invaded, the student movement was quieter last term. A second wave of occupations did not materialise and street mobilisations were notably smaller. At the same time, a series of debates have opened up around the movement and the left more generally.

It’s worth recalling the November-December movement’s achievements: perhaps most importantly, the consensus that the Coalition had carefully developed for immediate and swingeing public spending cuts has disintegrated. The students broke the argument on spending wide open, and from a majority of public support for spending cuts at the time of the Spending Review, the majority now oppose the Coalition’s plans. The case for maintaining public spending now has a real constituency – with even Ed Miliband belatedly recognising this, appointing born-again Keynesian Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor last January.

We wrecked the Lib Dems, and mercilessly exposed their broken promises. We showed that it was possible to stand and fight against this government, helping push the movement against the cuts onwards – whether through UK Uncut or local anti-cuts campaigns. And the TUC anti-cuts demonstration simply would not have been 500,000-strong without the prior impact of the student movement.

Mediocre NUS President Aaron Porter is stepping down and his replacement will have to pay at least lip-service to the movement. We have now in the colleges a larger and more confident left than at any time in years, with election after election returning anti-cuts, anti-fees candidates. Support for the lecturers’ strikes in March was widespread, with festival-like scenes on picket lines and a number of colleges occupying in solidarity.

Sobriety and disagreements

But while acknowledging all this we need a sober assessment of our current situation. Fees were not stopped. Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is still due to be scrapped this year. Cuts are proceeding apace. It is in dealing with the challenges of this new situation that the movement has wobbled.

In part, this uncertainty was inevitable. With term ending shortly after the vote, universities and colleges closed until early January, breaking the momentum. For some institutions and courses, assessment through coursework and years structured around semesters, rather than terms, meant unpleasant deadlines in January and February. A- and AS-level students faced at least mock exams over the same period. Structurally, the academic year works at a different pace, post-Christmas.

All this was known beforehand, however. More pressing was the change of pace and direction forced by the parliamentary vote on 9 December. From the initial, NUS-led 10 November demonstration to the vote, the whole movement had a definite target to aim for: we all knew that, one way or another, the more of a political ruckus that could be created ahead of the vote, the more likely we could inflict a defeat on the government. This provided a structure and unity to the movement, and forced the pace of our actions. Every occupation and protest could all point towards the same definite goal, and questions of strategy subordinated to that. Disagreements that already existed over the best way forward for the movement mattered less when we all knew time was short, and momentum was on our side.

Those disagreements were real nonetheless. They included, for example, the critical argument over the purpose of student occupations. Those on the socialist left, including Counterfire, argued that it was an important strategic move by students – a way of applying pressure to college managements, who in turn would be forced to apply pressure directly to government. For this to be most effective they would have to be run on a mass basis, seeking to win the widest possible layers of students in their support.

An occupied space could then provide a meeting point and a base for further protest. The alternative, associated more with autonomists and anarchists, tended to argue for occupations as an expression of resistance in itself – the creation of a liberated zone as both a symbolic representation of how a new, better education system could function, and a vital organising centre for activists. Strategic considerations came second.

At the height of the movement such divisions mattered little. Occupations spread throughout the country and provided the backbone of the movement until 9 December. They were well supported by students on their campuses – in general, on a far broader scale than the January 2009 occupations over Gaza. And they provided a base of operations for further protests, including the innovative teach-outs (in which impromptu lectures would be given in public spaces, in protest at the privatisation of knowledge) and the huge street demonstrations.

The wider argument

Contained within the debate over occupations, however, were the seeds of a far wider argument – the one that came to the fore as students returned after the Christmas break. This centred on the vexed question of relationships between the activist minority, a wider layer of less mobilised students, and beyond them the student body as a whole. This is never a settled, or easy question to answer, and assumes a distinctive form in the colleges, where it is nearly always possible for a small minority of students to pull off at least some form of action. They can relate, or not relate, to the rest of the student body as they choose.

It is not possible to act (for example) as a workplace militant in the same way. To act without the support – even the passive support – of your workmates is to leave yourself open to immediate victimisation. At every point, the question of the activist’s relationship to the wider environment is central. There is a necessary relationship between the activist and the wider political body that in the colleges and universities can appear to be an optional extra.

This distinction can give student politics a dynamism that workplace politics may lack. A minority on campus can move very rapidly into activity – occupying a building or staging a protest – and potentially detonate a wider mobilisation. This was roughly the pattern in the student movement: a very large minority of students occupied Millbank and the square opposite, more passively supported by the rest of the demonstration. A minority of students staged the initial college occupations, winning over huge numbers as time went on. Initial actions helped ferment broader support. It was a case study in winning hegemony – and on the basis of radical activity. Gramsci would have been proud.

However, early successes did not remove the central political question. If the movement was to sustain itself beyond the mobilised, activist minority it had to maintain its relationship to the wider mass of students. Despite its many successes, it is now clear that the minority did not do so. Mobilisations have been self-evidently smaller and more sporadic since Christmas. Even allowing for changed circumstances – the break, exams and coursework, the passing of the Act – this has to be considered also a failure on the part of the activist minority.

It is a failure that developed precisely from the failure to answer correctly the core question of how the activist minority relates to the rest. In some cases, this was a deliberate, strategic choice, seen in prototypical form in the dispute over the purpose of occupation. Those who weighted the immediate symbolism of an action more highly than its role in building the movement could ignore the question. Those influenced by autonomist politics inclined towards this position. Many of the political innovations arising from the student movement, like UK Uncut’s high-street occupations, or the teach-outs, were sparked from this quarter. But where in boiling mass of the November-December movement this could appear as a glorious exercise in political imagination, in straitened times post-Christmas the same style of activism too often the character of an isolated political sideshow: perhaps most glaringly in the slightly nutty plan to occupy anti-cuts ULU as an ‘anti-cuts space’, proposed by a handful of activists. Nonetheless, that section of the movement influenced by autonomism and anarchism displayed an imagination and initiative that might otherwise have been lacking.

For those in the organised far left, who would on the whole pay at least lip-service to the need for activists to relate immediately to the movement, the issue is more complex. In practice, it seems that much of the left fell victim to a pleasant optical illusion. The November-December movement had, in its wake, created a far larger body of students prepared to identify with the left generally. These students did not, on the whole, join the existing left organisations, forming instead a broad left milieu across different campuses. (Indeed, it is striking that most of the existing far left appears to have failed to recruit from the movement, despite strenuous efforts.) That milieu could be mobilised for different purposes, and would – if it turned out – provide the impression of success: certainly relative to the scale of mobilisations the student left had been used to. But it was not quite the same as relating to the wider body of students. It just meant the immediate audience was somewhat larger.

This became clear on 29 January when the national demonstration that NUS had finally been provoked into calling, up in Manchester, was opposed by a demonstration of the student left in London. The London turnout was somewhat higher than the official march, as the new milieu was mobilised, and certainly higher than left-led student demos in previous years; but the political damage was more than done. The movement had split itself, in the most obvious way possible. A single, united march in Manchester, with the left building for the demonstration and pushing union bureaucrats into doing likewise, could have been bigger than the 10,000 who turned out on the day in London. Its political impact would have been all the greater, whatever the turnout.

By deliberately separating out the radicals from the official march, the movement as a whole was weakened, while the possibility of provoking NUS into further anti-cuts efforts was lost. A few cat-calls directed by the usual suspects at Aaron Porter in Manchester did not substitute for a serious mass mobilisation. Meanwhile, the ability of the left to relate to the wider student body – as it had done successfully, pre-Christmas – was markedly hampered. We had chosen a self-inflicted irrelevance. The split, far from exposing the NUS leadership – as some of those pushing for it argued – merely exposed our own serious weaknesses.

It was this inability to understand how to build and sustain a movement that helped cripple it after the Christmas break. It allowed, in the 29 January farce, even a clodhopper like Aaron Porter to briefly outmanoeuvre the left, running a disruptive (but entirely untrue) story about the “racist abuse” he had suffered in Manchester.

The ULU elections and NUS

The same weakness, however, also arose from deliberate political calculation. Clare Solomon’s failure to win re-election as President of the University of London Union (ULU) was, of course, a blow. Candidates of the left won every single other position in the ULU elections this year, and Clare’s vote increased very substantially on last year’s total. Her margin of loss (around 100 votes) was small. Nonetheless, we need to understand how – after the last year – this happened. Many students were plainly shocked at the result.

First, precisely because Clare is a successful, high-profile student leader of the left, who has brilliantly campaigned for her members over the last year, she has attracted a backlash from the right. That she is also a single mother, a mature student, and LGBT added a predictably revolting virulence to the howling and shrieking. London Student, ULU’s independent newspaper, had spent the year attempting to stoke this hysteria in a campaign bordering on the obsessional, with seemingly endless pages devoted to varying degrees of character assassination, wilful misrepresentation, and plain snidery pointed in Clare’s general direction. In any case, substantial votes against Clare were recorded in the historically right-wing campuses of Queen Mary, University College London (UCL), and Kings College London (KCL).

So Clare attracted opposition. But she also attracted great support. The majority of students in London, as other elections across the capital confirm, have clearly identified themselves with the anti-cuts, anti-fees position she articulated – and not with the watered-down Aaron Porteresque politics of her opponent. It should have been possible to mobilise this leftish constituency in greater numbers for Clare than the right managed for their nonentity.

This brings us to the second reason for failure. Clare’s election campaign relied critically on Counterfire members and the independent left. With a few honourable distinctions, the organised far left did essentially nothing to help. This, in a winnable election for a critical position, was a serious political mistake, driven by a narrow concern for group-building over a wider concern for movement-building. It compounded the bad decision, earlier in the year, not to stand Clare for NUS President. As the most high-profile student activist, by some distance, she could have galvanised a national campaign and secured a larger vote on the conference floor.

NUS conference is enemy territory for radicals and it was always unlikely that this year would prove substantially different. Conference delegates were elected prior to the November-December movement and reflect last year’s politics more than this; but the fragmentation and weakness that has been revealed in recent months also has real political costs. No single group or tendency has anything like hegemony over even the left itself, and there is a certain organisational weakness that is hard-pushed to stand up to the – battered but not broken – Labour machine inside the National Union. As it was, a weaker Presidential candidate won fewer votes than others on the left standing for different full-time positions, and fewer votes than the leading left candidate managed at the last year’s conference. Conference even managed to reject a call for a further national demonstration. Elections for the multi-member National Executive Committee were more promising, with four socialists elected, but (although useful) this is a weaker, part-time body.

It was, given the state of play at NUS nationally, a significant error for most of the organised left to duck out of supporting Clare’s campaign for re-election at the important regional centre of ULU. Given the close result, a small push would have tipped the balance. But the desire to push factional advantage outweighed consideration for the wider movement. The overall result has been to help weaken the student movement, confuse many of those in it, and hand the right easier eventual victories. The whole sorry business reinforces, once again, the absolute centrality of relating outwards, to the movement and to those huge layers of students not contained within the ranks of the self-identified left. A failure to grasp this helped produce a defeat for Clare, and fragmented the movement itself over the last term.

Next steps

Much, nonetheless, has been achieved. Across the country, a new student left has come together. It may in general not be joining the traditional organisations of the left, but there is now a serious mass of students that broadly identify with the radical’s concerns and analysis. In college after college, this is now taking institutional shape, with significant victories for anti-cuts, anti-fees candidates in students’ unions – including places where no previous left presence existed, like Royal Holloway.

For the colleges themselves, the holes in the government’s shoddy plans for universities are becoming daily more apparent, whether in the £9,000 fees that are becoming the standard rate, or the financial black hole the proposed loans scheme opens up. Next year could see further explosions in academia as the cuts begin to bite, although it is not clear there will be the same national focus.

But it is perhaps the impact of the student movement on wider society that is its greatest single legacy. Anti-cuts campaigns gather momentum across the country, taking heart from the students’ own battle. If the 500,000 plus on the TUC march did nothing else, they nailed the lie that the cuts are popular – or that no-one will protest about them. Of course, the TUC demonstration did more than this. It raised the spectre of a real mass campaign against the cuts, broad and radical, pulling in unions and workplace militancy alongside flashmobs and council chamber occupations. The most urgent task now is to turn that spectral possibility into a living and breathing movement – local activity alongside a national umbrella of the kind offered by the Coalition of Resistance.

James Meadway

Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).

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