Ben Metters explains why he will be marching in the student demonstration on 21st November
The NUS demonstration on 21st November comes two years after the 2010 student demonstrations, when hundreds and thousands of students up and down the country marched and occupied against the ConDem government’s raising of tuition fees and the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Students have also been part of the TUC anti-austerity protests; on 26th March and 30th November 2011 and just a few weeks ago on 20th October, when a quarter of a million people marched through central London against the cuts.
The demonstration also comes as it becomes clear that austerity is only just beginning to bite. The Olympics effect may have pulled the economy officially out of recession, but it doesn’t feel much like a recovery. The coalition’s war on the working classes seems to have only just begun. This September, the first year to pay the new higher rate of fees started university with numbers down 8.9% on last year. This week, it emerged that there is a £1bn black hole in higher education funding, opening the door to increased privatisation and the possibility of more tuition fee rises in the future.
When Ed Miliband spoke to the anti-cuts marchers on 20th October, he made clear that if he were in government, he would also be cutting, and got rightly booed by crowd. But it underlines that we can’t look to a change of government in 2015 to save us from austerity.
Councils of despair
That this is the position after two years of protest has left some asking what the point is of demonstrating further. If the battle over tuition fees and higher education funding was lost, is there any hope for the fight against austerity? Why would marching from A to B change anything?
The answer is that the fight is very far from over. We are just at the beginning of the building the movement against austerity, and the demonstrations are at the heart of it.
When I got home from college on 10th November 2010, turned on the TV and saw students occupying the headquarters of the Conservative Party, I felt like we had a chance. When I saw 700 16-18 year olds walk out of my college two weeks later to join a protest of thousands in the centre of Bristol against the rise in fees and the removal of EMA, I felt like we had a chance. Even after being charged by police horses in Parliament Square and hearing the news that the vote had gone against us, I still felt like we had a chance to win this war.
The legislation may have been passed, but we should not give up hope. Legislation is not the end of the story, merely the beginning. LGBT campaigners fought vehemently through the late 1980s and 1990s to see the homophobic Section 28 repealed. Hundreds of thousands poured on to the streets in 1990 to fight the poll tax and won, helping to topple Thatcher along the way. The lesson of these struggles is that it takes time and work to build a movement, but that every protest can inspire new activists to get involved in the struggle.
The stakes are high. Young children and mothers are dying because they don’t have enough money for food. Disabled people and even the terminally ill are having their benefits withdrawn because they are found ‘fit for work’. Young people face a bleak future where they are leaving school, are unable to afford to go to university but can’t find a job anywhere. Young LGBT people, estranged from their parents, are being left to suffer as support is withdrawn.
It is not enough to lament the demolition of our welfare state, to be shocked and appalled by the growing levels of inequality or to be outraged by the privatisation of our education system. Voicing how pissed off you are in the back of the student union bar, or your local pub, or over dinner isn’t going to change things.
The route of the NUS march on 21st November, from Embankment to Kennington, might not be the most exciting on paper. At the start we pass the Ministry of Defence, Portcullis House (where the back door deals that formed the coalition played out), and Parliament, before crossing the river and walking to Kennington- home of, well, let’s face it, not much. It might not recall the heady days of autumn 2010, when students marched from the heart of Bloomsbury to Parliament Square. It might not quite be our Tahrir Square, or a Quebec-style six-month student strike culminating in the fall of the government, as in Quebec. But it is an essential fight back.
When they say cut back, we say fight back
We have the opportunity to stand up and make our voices heard, to see the mass politicisation and empowerment of young people marching together and shouting NO.
NO, we will not let international students face deportation at the hands of draconian immigration policy.
NO, we will not allow our education system to be transformed into a playground for the elite.
NO, we will not condemn young people to a bleak and uncertain future.
When they say CUT BACK, we’ll be there shouting FIGHT BACK.
Where will you be?