3 Years On… 7 Fragments on the Latest Winter Rebellions

by Craig McVegas

14 February 2014

Next to the storming of Millbank, 9th December 2010 arguably saw the most notable ‘moment of excess’ of the Coalition-era student movement. Over the course of about ten hours, thousands of young students from universities, colleges and schools found themselves on the wrong end of police batons, riot shields and horse charges. Suddenly, aggressively, masses of young people were disenfranchised and radicalised. Three years on, there appears to have been a resurgence of political activity among student activists, from involvement with the ‘3 Cosas’ campaign at the University of London to a fresh wave of occupations at Sussex, Birmingham, Ulster and London universities, to the recent #copsoffcampus demonstrations.

As this never-ending winter continues, what should activists take from the experiences of the past three years? What were the missed opportunities throughout that period in 2010/11? And is the character of ‘student politics’ changing? Here Craig McVegas offers seven fragments on the latest winter rebellions:

1. NUS and the legacy of Parliament Square.

The demonstration which culminated in the kettling of Parliament Square on 9th December 2010 was notable for the absence of the National Union of Students, which infamously held a concurrent ‘glowstick vigil’ the other side of the river. Arguably then-President Aaron Porter’s rapid condemnation of the storming of Millbank led to the mass divergence from NUS in that period, which was characterised by a nationwide escalation in activity though occupations. Instead, call-outs were being led by the nascent NCAFC on a non-existent budget, backed up by the University of London Union, the Education Activist Network and short-lived bodies such as the London Student Assembly. Unable or unwilling to keep up with the pace, NUS stood still when students were in movement. Despite efforts by well-meaning socialist types to revive or reclaim the cash-heavy body, for the meantime at least it looks content to remain cumbersome, stoic and irrelevant.

2. The kids aren’t united.

The Parliament Square demo had an extremely sizeable contingent of London-based school and Further Education students. While the headlines pushed the tuition fees issue, the fight to prevent the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was getting into full swing. Smaller demonstrations on both 24th and 30th November saw gradually increasing numbers of school and FE students joining with HE students, and even a couple of thousand turned out for a hastily-arranged London Student Assembly ‘Save EMA’ demo in the following January. In retrospect, the failure to retain numbers of school and FE students is perhaps the most glaring missed opportunity of that period. With incredibly few colleges having student unions, there lacked any obvious contact points other than standing outside waiting for classes to finish. The incredible police violence in Parliament Square was surely a huge contributing factor, and it is telling that when university students came out en masse for the trade union-led ‘March for the Alternative’ on 26th March 2011, comparatively few FE students joined. To its credit, NCAFC did initiate an FE student caucus in January 2012 but it struggled to engage this ‘hard to reach’ group for the most part, and arguably came about a year too late in terms of the potential it could have had.

3. NCAFC, Nacaffca, Encafk, Nackerfacka.

On 4th June 2011, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts instituted its first official democratic structure at a ‘reinvigoration conference’ in Birmingham. To resolve the problems of the existing workload being carried out by a small number of individuals and the anticipated decline in momentum which would come with the academic summer break, a solution was offered in the form of a provisional committee to oversee the running of the organisation and maintenance of the nuts and bolts through the summer. Hesitations raised by some libertarian communists pertaining to how ‘provisional’ the committee would be were ultimately proven correct: the committee still remains the focal point of NCAFC. Similarly, fears that the prior coordination of local anti-cuts groups would be subsumed into a national body were broadly confirmed. This should not be seen as a victory for anarchoid naysayers. While it is true that NCAFC has at times been fixated around a national grouping of activists, often without root in their own local organisations, the democratic structures of the organisation have always remained open to meaningful interventions. That these haven’t often been taken up by libertarian communists is hardly the fault of the organisation itself. In any case, we can now see that NCAFC has at least succeeded in maintaining a core set of structures which have lasted through the low-points and are now able to respond to the current documented ‘resurgence’ in student activity. In contrast with 2010/11, links to local campaigns NCAFC once claimed are arguably all but gone. On my own campus at Sussex, NCAFC is little-known to new activists and not seen as a viable platform for coordinating with other campuses so much as a way to link to an external national body. It is my hope that local groups will now look to use NCAFC’s structures to engage with other campaigns in order to learn from each other and coordinate their efforts.

4. The university is a factory. Shut it down!

The recent renewal of student activity – and I feel calling it a movement is a little hasty – has demonstrated a very different focus to the activity of 2010/11. NUS is nowhere in sight. The front-groups – Youth Fight for Jobs, Education Activist Network – have been ditched. Instead the focus has moved towards workplace issues within the university, of students both ‘as’ and ‘with’ workers. The Sussex Against Privatisation campaign was perhaps the first notable step in this direction, and the national demonstration held at Sussex on 25th March 2013 did a lot to stir the imagination of many students nationally with regard to issues relating to the university-as-workplace; issues of outsourcing, working conditions, pay and recognition. The ongoing fight over outsourcing at Sussex has seen students not just organising in solidarity with workers, as in the anti-cuts movement, but organising day-to-day with workers through initiatives such as the sadly ill-fated Pop-Up Union. Similarly, and with greater success, the 3 Cosas campaign at the University of London has involved an independent union as a vehicle and legwork from workers and students acting together. In a recent Novara TV report on one 3 Cosas demonstration, the present scenario was well described by Daniel Cooper: “The anti-cuts student movement effectively is dead. University finances are in a relatively stable state despite the hefty cuts. What you’re seeing is isolated, and in some instances dramatic, labour-battles. What you are principally seeing at the moment in the student movement is attacks on staff.” Cooper is correct; where the movement of 2010 was characterised by its reactive anti-cuts emphasis, the new turn is demonstrating a proactive foray into the workings of the marketization of education, in particular the efforts of university managers to squeeze their variable capital in order to maximise profitability.

5. When they say fight back, we say #fsu.

This change of direction is rattling some cages. Universities are now going on the offensive, targeting students for suspension or exclusion and colluding with police to have peaceful occupations violently evicted. While the recent #copsoffcampus demonstrations were certainly reactive to this situation, it is important to locate them within the wider solidarity being shown to the proactive, workplace-centred campaigns. From my experiences of the most recent Sussex occupation, all blows delivered by management were rightly seen as attempts to intimidate the campaign, and were responded to by a desire to make the education workers’ strike on 3rd December as disruptive, and hence effective, as possible with roaming roadblocks preventing deliveries and traffic from entering campus.

6. Casual sex with multiple partners.

Not only in London, Sussex and Birmingham, but now across the country we are seeing a rebirth of student activity in a new, more proactive (and arguably more politically interesting) direction. It will now be important to see how, and whether, these workplace-oriented struggles can bring together both the incumbent structure of NCAFC and emerging independent unions with a new breed of students who are bold, angry and active without ever having had a ‘Millbank’ or a ‘Parliament Square’, and broad in composition without the sectarian divisions of yesteryear. There always exists a temptation when first seduced by the initial excitement of activism to succumb to adventurism and siege mentality. The sudden urge to nail your colours to the mast so as to signify who you will and won’t work with has lured all activists at some point. Who doesn’t remember sitting in a meeting posturing for the ‘most radical’ direct action, afterwards slagging off this or that grouping for being too liberal, too ideological or too sectarian? There is a sense that this hackneyed routine is changing. There exists among many newer activists a healthy attitude of pragmatism and a developing sense of political utility which was missing in the anti-cuts movement. In 2010/11, the Anarchist Federation, Solidarity Federation (SolFed), the various Trotskyist groupings all saw a surge in their membership with the general rise in adventurous political activity. A year or two later, many of these new recruits had either rescinded or left dormant their subscriptions, having passed through the honeymoon period and realised that the sex had either grown tedious or had never been all-that in the first place.

7. Make (the) poverty (of ideas) history.

Today’s student activists are opting for more interesting bedfellows. Single-minded but not narrow-minded, broad but not vague, and often vehemently defensive of their own autonomy and agency, our newest companions choose their alliances discerningly, always with the political goal – fighting the marketization of education – in clear sight. Whether working with incumbents such as NCAFC, SolFed, the Greens and Labour, or renewed projects such as the Autonomous Students Network, newer activists are more likely to prioritise their wider campaign, the workers implicated in it and the diversity of tactics required to achieve victory, rather than the allegiances, divisions and petty group nationalisms which germinated too quickly sometime in 2011. This should be welcomed by student activists, incumbent organisations and fellow travellers alike. Until recently, the absence of political content and poverty of ideas was generating a frustrating and circular obsession over questions of form. Now we can observe a fresh injection of content, more politically astute than the cohort in 2010, embedding the struggle within the university as a factory, keen to learn the lessons of the past and advance the fight not merely temporally or symbolically but politically. If seasoned activists want to make the most of these new opportunities and reconnect with their formative ‘moments of excess’, they need to be prepared to take a leaf from the book of their newest comrades.

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