Unite’s Len McCluskey and other union leaders have rightly hailed the student protests for kick starting a mass movement against the cuts. But what is the dynamic behind the student revolt? PIERS MOSTYN offers an explanation.
Undoubtedly the trebling of fees and scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance was the immediate trigger. And many will have been inspired by protests in Athens, Paris and Rome. But neither factor really explains the scale and militancy of the actions, in particular the unprecedented break with the NUS leadership. Youth and student movements abroad in recent years have not triggered this response. And the campaign against Labour’s original imposition of fees was muted. So what’s new this time?
A majority of the activists have no background of political engagement. Many, in the midst of a titanic battle with the government, were very vague about what they stand for or how they think they are going to get there. Some have concluded from this that the student protests are politically shallow – a flash in the pan that will not last.
Certainly the preferred media perspective is to caricature it as a “middle class revolt”. But this is far from the truth, as the big marches of November and December showed.
The growth of higher education in recent decades has drawn in a significant working class intake. The attacks are targeted against the less well off who are bound to be at the forefront of opposition. In addition there is a distinct mobilisation of 14 to 18 year old school, sixth form college and further education students – mainly working class and with a significant involvement of black youth. Faced with the withdrawal of EMA and spiralling youth unemployment after a demoralising decade under New Labour (marked by deepening inequality and narrowing educational values), they are particularly militant.
But perhaps more significant is that these young people quickly grasped something that the organised labour movement and older workers had not – at least not until the students themselves began to change the equation.
In breaking with traditional structures, taking repeatedly to the streets, refusing to be straight-jacketed or cowed by police repression and engaging in direct action against college authorities they were taking big risks. This lack of fear partly reflects inexperience. Not weighed down by decades of the defeats suffered by the rest of the class they felt no need to curtail their militancy. More importantly, the students instinctively grasped the fundamental underlying political weakness of the government and the forces it represents.
Two years of economic crisis has blown a massive hole in the popular legitimacy of all three main parties and their role as ideological prop for neo-liberal capitalism. Major division at the highest levels amongst capitalist economists prevails. The election provided no mandate for any particular course. The government has only been stitched together through one part lying to the electorate, particularly the young, to get votes then proceeding to a complete and immediate U-turn.
The political weakness of the bourgeoisie’s austerity offensive was laid bare in the student fees vote itself with all Lib Dem MPs not on the government payroll and a number of Tory MPs rebelling. It’s main proponent, Vince Cable, publicly aired the possibility of abstaining. And at the time of writing he is on the ropes.
In these circumstances, although in the short term the students have been defeated with the passing of that vote, it is not inconceivable that future fractures will go the other way, even that the government could be brought down.
The normal pattern would be for opposition to be harnessed by and derailed by the Labour bureaucracy. But with Labour’s frontbench offering no real alternative other than a slightly less aggressive student fee increase and slightly less savage cuts and the new leadership generally clueless under Miliband – there was only one place for an alternative: on the streets.
The organised labour movement has been shell-shocked by repeated setbacks and lacking in self-confidence. Consequently it has, in the main, been too ready to accept at face value the Con Dem posture – which was to look and behave like Blair and Thatcher, strong governments with the will and power to force through policies against opposition.
By contrast, the students went into revolt because they could see the emperor had got no clothes. In the process this underlying weakness has been exposed, and the student protests garnered significant public support. As a result, hopefully the unions will be spurred into action.
The political weakness of the bourgeoisie will be a key factor in rebuilding the confidence of the wider class. But it won’t last forever and it certainly won’t last if serious defeats are sustained. This makes it imperative to harness the momentum.
Politically most of these students may have been on the starting line back in the autumn – but with deepening self-organisation, continued action to put pressure on government and college authorities and a key role at the heart of the broader struggle against austerity – that is changing fast. A significant youth radicalisation is under way.