openDemocracyUK: Opinion

It's time we realised social movements are more than just a warm-up act

Ten years on from the UK's vast student protests, it's time to realise how important they were.

Michael Chessum
10 November 2020
Students occupy the roof of Millbank Tower in 2010.
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Charlie Owen

Ten years ago today, the plate glass windows of Conservative Party headquarters at 30 Millbank were kicked in by an angry mob who stormed through the building, graffiting the walls and hurling documents (and a fire extinguisher) off the roof. The riot took place at the end of a fifty thousand-strong march organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) in opposition to the Coalition government’s plans to triple tuition fees, and it shocked everyone – from the NUS leadership which described it as “despicable”, to the media who put it on every news bulletin, to those of us who were in the crowd ourselves. It was one of those moments when an event, a spectacle, outstrips all expectations, and throws open possibilities which were inconceivable a few days prior.

Millbank was the start of an explosive moment of protest, which gripped the country for a solid month. On 24th November, something like 130,000 students took to the streets across the country, tens of thousands more on 30th November, and forty thousand marched on parliament for the vote on December 9th. In the absence of the NUS, which actively opposed the protests, the task of coordinating fell to forty-odd university occupations that were scattered across the country and to the new Left networks, chief among them the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), which had been set up in February that year and whose logo spread like a virus across campuses off the back of misappropriated printer credit.

The movement triggered by the Millbank riot was disruptive and wild. Those who took to the streets, walked out of school and occupied their universities viewed direct action and mass mobilisation as their biggest weapons in their fight against the elite. After the student movement, and to a great extent accelerated by it, would come the anti-austerity movement of 2011, with its massive public sector strikes and marches, alongside Occupy, UKUncut, and a million local anti-cuts struggles.

Read most accounts of the past five years, and the conclusion is essentially the same. Massive and symbolic though they may have been, the student movement and all of the other social movements that exploded at the start of the decade were just warm-up acts for the ‘real thing’. Their internal life, the reasons for their failures and success, the ideas and nascent politics they contained – none really matter. They created the human material for the Corbyn Project, and the rest is history.

After 2015, the kids from Millbank were taken under the wings of serious professional besuited men, and seriously taught how to do serious politics. Social movements and strikes fell away. In 2017, the same year as Labour’s electoral step forward, the number of days lost to strike action reached its lowest point since records began in 1891. Momentum and the Corbyn leadership played very little role in those social movements that did emerge on the climate and anti-racism. The anti-Trump protests we organised were massive, but not part of an ongoing movement as such. The biggest social movement, the anti-Brexit movement of 2018-19, had very different roots, and the student movement, despite a leftwardly-drifting NUS leadership, has remained largely motionless.

The problem was not the attitude of the Corbyn leadership, which was largely supportive of strikes when they happened, but the logic of the project. The Corbyn project lacked any proper form of internal democracy, either within the party or in Momentum. Its mass base spent its time as footsoldiers, and were, in part because of the siege-like nature of the broader political situation, lined up to defend and support whatever the leadership line was on any given day. All internal debate, all sense of bottom-up renewal, was put in a box marked ‘later’.

The transformation of British politics, and the renewal of the Left over the past five years, has been an inspiration. But it remains the case that the Labour Left has prioritised electoral politics, both inside Labour and in general, to the exclusion of everything else, and has failed to build a movement which can mediate its differences democratically. The result is a culture built around loyalty rather than proper debate, and a movement which obsesses about parliamentary politics and leaders rather than engaging in social or industrial struggle. The Left is now a much bigger place, but we have no collective strategy and no democratic forum in which to have a discussion about formulating one.

I spent much of my time in the years between 2010 and 2015 making the argument to those around me that we needed to intervene in the existing institutions of the Left, and find a political expression for the mass movements that we were a part of. The audience for these arguments, many of whom described themselves as anarchists, was intensely sceptical, and they had a point. Ten years on from the occupation of Millbank, I think we need to dispel the idea that the social movements are just warm up acts for grown up, professional electoral politics. There can be no real Left renewal without them.

Michael Chessum was a co-founder of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and a sabbatical officer at UCL during the 2010 protests, and was later a member of the NUS national executive and President of the University of London Union. He went on to serve on Momentum’s first steering committee and is the national organiser for the left wing anti-Brexit group Another Europe is Possible.

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