7 Reflections on the Battle of Parliament Square and the 2010 Student Movement

by Craig McVegas and Arianna Tassinari

11 December 2015

Five years have passed since the so-called ‘Battle of Parliament Square’, when thousands of students marched on parliament while MPs took a symbolic vote on tuition fees in the Commons. The protest has become infamous as arguably one of the most violently policed in recent times. Horses charged the crowd and some students were left with life-changing injuries from police batons. Protesters were forcibly ‘kettled’ in Parliament Square and crushed onto Westminster bridge late into the night, while the Met authorised the use of rubber bullets on captive students.

9 December 2010 was a transformative day for many of the attendees and the UK student movement as a whole. With higher education under renewed threat from the HE green paper, it’s an appropriate moment to reflect on the rise and fall of the 2010 student movement in the hope it can be instructive for the struggles of the present.

1. In many ways 9 December was more remarkable than Millbank.

Fair enough, seeing a bunch of young people storm their way onto the roof of Conservative campaign HQ isn’t something you see every day, but Millbank happened on a National Union of Students demo (10 November) that had 50,000-odd students bussed into London by student unions the length and breadth of the country.

By contrast, the 9 December demo was called on Facebook and generally hyped through social media. While the NUS, having condemned its own members following Millbank, held a poorly-attended ‘glowstick vigil’ in another part of the city, tens of thousands of college and university students self-organised delegations to march on Parliament Square to mark the symbolic vote on tuition fees. By that point students were generally operating in autonomous anti-cuts groups independently of the leadership of student unions. This was perhaps one of the biggest strengths of the 2010 movement, and a crucial moment of empowerment and political inspiration for many of us.

2. 9 December was an end point.

Millbank and Parliament Square are generally the events of 2010 which get the most coverage today, but it was the fertile period in between those events – marked by further mass demonstrations on 24 and 30 November – that transformed the movement and made the 9 December mobilisation possible. With the NUS spiralling into irrelevance, a national wave of up to 50 occupations acted as localised crucibles of radicalism, where students developed demands, experimented with participatory democracy, galvanised support, and linked up with other occupations via Skype, email and Facebook.

Every occupation received some form of backlash, but with the threat of a tuition fee hike taking centre stage among other cuts to HE and the education maintenance allowance (EMA) it wasn’t difficult to attract support. Nonetheless, the prioritising of the tuition fee dispute meant that when Labour called for a symbolic vote in parliament (in an attempt to force the Liberal Democrats into crisis over their pre-election pledge), 9 December became the finale for large sections of the movement, with college students departing after a last attempt to save EMA in 2011.

3. The trauma is still playing out for many.

In stark contrast to the sense of political exhilaration which characterised the preceding period, the sheer level of violence protesters experienced in Parliament Square on 9 December put many off activism completely. The intended effect of prolonged kettling in near-freezing temperatures (without access to water, toilets, food or medical care) was to stop a swelling autonomous movement in its tracks and prevent swathes of students (especially younger ones) from coming back onto the streets again, and in many cases it worked. People were beaten, teeth were broken, and at least one life was almost lost. Through 2015, some have still been fighting court cases in relation to the events of that day.

The burnout resulting from that period revealed one of our key limitations as a movement. Because we didn’t have any sort of infrastructure of self-care beyond a vague sense of looking out for one another plugged awkwardly into an almost competitive culture of trying to mould ourselves into fully fledged ‘Activists’, we weren’t able to build a movement that could sustain itself. The importance of mental health has become better acknowledged in recent years, but we should continue to reflect on this failure.

4. Good strategy doesn’t rely on good stunts.

Another limitation was that for all our enthusiasm and initial energy, we began to run out of strategic ideas. Many people put a lot of work into trying to sustain the movement past the moment of ‘defeat’, but once we’d worked our way through the inventory of the student activist toolbox (the public meeting, the list of demands, the sit-in, the funeral procession, the die-in, the flashmob, the occupation, the banner drop, the national demo, the regional demo…) we stopped thinking strategically and started trying to think of new things for the sake of the stunt.

This over-reliance on spectacle had a demobilising effect in the long run, and also allowed us to slip into something of an ‘activist calendar’ largely based around NUS elections, sabbatical elections and academic term times. Rather than thinking about how we could best leverage our demands and sustain the pressure we’d built, we often opted for convenience and familiarity. This isn’t to say we should steer clear of any of the tools available to us, but it means considering our motivations for going with a tactic, and collectively evaluating its impact in light of what we’re trying to achieve.

5. What happened to the graduate without a future?

In 2012 Paul Mason popularised the term ‘the graduate without a future’, which retrospectively captured the ‘no future’ character of the previous two years. With the election of the Coalition government in 2010, austerity began to bite and our post-2008 fears that we would be a generation worse-off than our parents’ generation sank in. Youth unemployment rose steeply in the period after the global financial crash, and by 2012 it had hit 19%. This was the backdrop to our indignation; as we saw it, they were wrecking our future.

Since 2012, both youth and graduate unemployment have steadily fallen, and at least as far as George Osborne can spin it, there’s been some popular sense of a slight recovery (however hollow). Combine this with the contrived reorientation towards ‘employability’ and other such enhancements across universities, and the sense of urgency of the graduate without a future seems lost on many students even just a few years later. We are still going to be worse-off than previous generations, but the appetite created by the ‘no future’ rallying cry has been lost. If we want a new hook, we need a new political vocabulary to conceptualise the material and structural conditions in which are now operating as students and workers.

6. Firefighting appears inescapable.

In many ways the agenda of the student movement in 2010/11 was one of firefighting – reacting urgently to government plans as and when we heard about them. This set a fast pace on their terms rather than ours, leading to a frantic period of activity, mass burnout and relatively little room to manoeuvre outside the pressing issues confronting us. Organising largely through anti-cuts groups meant each new cut at a national or local level would be flagged up, and there would be some hurried call-to-arms to defend this or that service, often on a more or less weekly basis.

The reorientation of student campaigning towards the more proactive demand for free education creates space to explore that demand in terms of other struggles (for example through the articulation of liberated education and the racialised construction of curriculums). However, as we see with the current rush to decipher and battle the HE green paper, some degree of firefighting seems unavoidable. The important lesson from 2010/11 is not to let the pace of government overwhelm the resistance.

7. How do we develop ideas for the future?

The 2010 student movement was characterised by a multitude of campus groups and local campaigns, an intense period of learning (about the crisis and the economic situation, about organisation and politics), and mass participation. It was important to us to understand the material environment in which we were operating and develop our ideas, politics and strategy accordingly. This required the messy but engaging process of learning and arguing together, and reflecting on our tactics as we went along.

However it is also fair to say there was a growing layer of ‘vocational activists’. For example, the 9 December protest didn’t emerge spontaneously – it was thought up, planned, and mobilised for by more seasoned activists (in this case, the University of London Union and National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts), responding to the wave of student militancy persisting into winter despite the NUS’s attempts to demobilise students.

The Battle of Parliament Square was both demoralising and radicalising. While most of the movement subsided afterwards, many became part of the vocational activist layer (ourselves included). This had and continues to have political implications; the main risk being that rather than offering tools to the movement as the 9 December demo provided point of convergence at a moment of highly intense but fairly dispersed activity, ideas are instead allowed to develop away from mass participation, and collective analysis of material conditions gives way to activist truisms. The result is that ideas are put in advance of a movement, which flies counter to the understanding that it will take a mass movement to win. In 2010 we didn’t, but we came close and felt the heat of a government under pressure. To build a movement that can go further and secure the future we couldn’t, it’s fundamental we take a look at our recent past.

Photo: Veronica Sawyer/Flickr

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