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The dangers of an "alternative" NUS or national leadership for the student movement

The danger the student movement in the UK faces is of creating a new tier of leaders who, however well-intentioned, seek to manage the movement and end up sapping it of its power, radicalism and creativity.
Guy Aitchison
30 December 2010

The magnificent vitality of the student movement so far has been built on self-organisation and direct action. In the absence of leadership from a cowardly and co-opted NUS, thousands of students took control for themselves, organising political meetings, occupations and protests. Without doubt, the past few months have been an empowering and transformative political experience for thousands of young people, demonstrating what can be achieved when traditional hierarchies are bypassed and people start organising for themselves. Nonetheless, there are now calls to set up a new central organisation, a kind of shadow NUS to provide co-ordination and representation for the radical wing of the student movement.

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This seems to be what James Meadway is after when he calls for an “alternative national leadership to Aaron Porter and the collapsing New Labour consensus” in his long, authoritative piece on the student revolt for the socialist group Counterfire.

Meadway is clearly not alone in viewing the “significant unevenness” in the student movement as a source of weakness, rather than strength, so it’s worth interrogating what centralisation would mean. How, for example, would a new central body be constituted? What authority would it have and in whose name would it speak? The danger we face is of creating a new tier of leaders who, however well-intentioned, seek to manage the movement and end up sapping it of its power, radicalism and creativity. They would come under intense institutional pressure to police the movement from within and dilute its aims – indeed, this is why the Met, the mainstream media and the political establishment have been craving for “leaders” to point the finger at.

We need to recognise that the student movement’s openness and pluralism is a political strength. Without it, it won’t succeed in bringing in the larger public. It would be a tragedy to now descend into ideological fetishism or for different factions of the far left to move in and try and appropriate the anger and energy to grow themselves at the expense of the wider cause. But this is the risk we run with centralised top-down structures.

Meadway argues that the ease of organising provided by ubiquitous social media reinforces the need for a credible central voice to prevent confusion and disintegration. “In a world in which everyone can organise a demonstration through Facebook,”, he says, ” it is absolutely vital that not everyone does so.” What this view ignores is the way in which a leaderless movement, organising through networks on and offline, constitutes its own sites of legitimacy and authority. The demonstrations called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and theLondon Student Assembly, for example, saw huge turnouts precisely because these groups already had credibility within the movement built up through informal networks of fellow activists and the success of previous actions. By contrast, the fake demo on December 20th organised by an unknown individual with far right links, had almost zero attendance thanks to people warning each other not to attend by posting on their Facebook walls etc. Far from proving the need for central leadership, as Meadway argues, the incident demonstrated how communities of mutual trust and support even within a young movement help to guard against badly thought through or malicious actions.

Some campaigns will spring up, blossom, and then vanish; others will rise steadily and gain support. It’s the messy democracy of a mass movement - let’s embrace it. What we desperately want to avoid is a situation in which a central body, of dubious legitimacy, seeks to define which are the “real” protests (ones organised by them) and which aren’t (ones organised by rivals). Rather than setting themselves up as a central leadership, experienced activists should concentrate on disseminating skills and education within the movement. We need more people trained in organising demos and direct action, more people trained in legal observation, more people with the skills and self-confidence to deal with the press. Let’s have a situation in which the authorities have to keep on guessing where the next big mobilisation is going to come from.

The worst outcome would be to default back into the top-down model of mobilisation last seen with Stop the War. Although it had some successes in shifting public opinion, the anti-war movement never realised the huge potential it showed in the historic protest on the eve of the Iraq invasion because the means it adopted were crushingly dull and conventional, involving endless marches from Trafalgar Square through Whitehall to hear talks by the same old central cohort. Its top-down method of organisation left it exposed to the sectarianism and in-fighting which eventually pulled it apart.

Instead of submitting to the discipline of “leadership”, we should continue in the spirit of radical democracy and participation with which we have began. As we have seen, in the occupations and other sites of student resistance, this offers the best chance of harnessing the energy, creativity and talents of students and building a sense of shared identity and purpose. So, let us say “Yes” to more occupations and student assemblies, “Yes” to new campaign groups and organisations to add to the mix, but “No” to new central hierarchies which claim to know the interests of the movement, represent it and negotiate on its behalf.

This article originally appeared as part of a roundtable discussion at New Left Project on "What next for the student's movement?". It has prompted a thoughtful response by Jo Casserly, on the UCL occupation blog, arguing for organisation, ideology and accountable leadership in the movement.

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