What next for the UK's student movement?

The volcanic eruption of student anger and militancy in Britain over the last few months has blown the political space wide open, making a broad-based movement against austerity thinkable. Whether or not it can grow and ultimately succeed will depend on the next steps the movement takes.
Guy Aitchison
23 December 2010

The volcanic eruption of student anger and militancy in Britain over the last few months has blown the political space wide open, making a broad-based movement against austerity thinkable where previously there was only rumbling discontent. It has certainly been an exhilarating experience to be part of, but whether future historians look back on the heady period leading up to the parliamentary vote on tuition fees as the beginning of the fightback against the neoliberal juggernaut or the last desperate gasp of social democracy, will depend on the next steps the movement takes.




An extraordinary opportunity has been presented to us. Len McCluskey, general secretary of the biggest trade union, Unite, has called for an alliance between trade unions and the "magnificent students’ movement". This call, from the leader of the country’s biggest trade union, which echoes the countless personal messages of support delivered by unionists at the university occupations, is without parallel in the history of social activism in this country. With over seven million members, the labour movement represents by far the largest organised force in this country, and through the power of co-ordinated action, from strikes to occupations, to political mobilisation and education, is capable of putting serious pressure on the legitimacy and functioning of the state. The key question now is how to turn rhetorical expressions of solidarity into concrete relationships of support and co-operation, not only with trade unions, but with the full diversity of campaign groups that are springing up at a local and national level to fight the cuts.

One important theoretical debate concerns whether the movement should strive to retain its hitherto organic and decentralised nature or whether this is merely a temporary phase before the inevitable discipline of central organisation and leadership. I hope to set out elsewhere the creative potential of networked organisation and the dangers of over-reliance on traditional hierarchies. Here I will confine myself to ten practical suggestions on the way forward. They are in no particular order of priority and come from a student perspective:

1. Convene nationwide meetings of the occupations, and then broaden these out to other groups. We need forums to strategise on the way ahead. Online networks have proven their efficacy, but the occupations also demonstrated the importance of a shared space and face-to-face interactions in fostering the strong bonds needed for concerted political campaigning and direct action. One of the most impressive political meetings I’ve taken part in was the Cambridge University occupation general assembly - a genuine "big society" get together of over 300 people from all backgrounds and walks of life, brought together to discuss how to oppose the cuts. There is no reason why these kinds of meetings can’t become a regular occurrence.

2. Educate each other, disseminate skills. The occupations served as fast-track apprenticeships in political activism. Thanks to them, hundreds of young people now have the skills and confidence to run democratic meetings, deal with the press, engage in non-violent resistance to bailiffs, and so on. We need to disseminate these skills further through workshops and informal instruction, across sectors as well as within them. At UCL occupation we were given a lesson in the community organising techniques of "power mapping" by a unionist from the TSSA. Students, in return, could offer their own knowledge and skills, such as how to organise through social media.

3. Build and strengthen links with school students. They have been the most radical and militant, leading from the front at the days of action. University students need to be forging links with students at local schools, giving talks to their societies, and encouraging them to get involved in activism. They are the ones who will suffer the brunt of cuts to EMA and university funding and many are keen to get involved. I expected ten pupils at a talk I gave to Camden School for Girls, with Jo Casserly, on the eve of their occupation – instead there were at least 100.

4. Keep it adventurous and creative. Think flashmobs, culture jamming, political art, the techniques of the Yes Men and the Situationist International. A group of Goldsmith’s graduates have formed the University for Strategic Optimism, a nomadic institution which pitches up and holds lectures in capitalist spaces such as Lloyds TSB and Tesco. As we saw in Parliament Square, even a calculated technique of state repression, such as the kettle, can be subverted and turned into a mini festival. We need more of this; anything satirical and subversive the authorities find difficult to handle.

5. Convince the wider student body. When you’re caught up in deliberative enclaves of the like-minded it can be easy to ignore the opinions of the wider student body. This is a mistake. Their support, even if only passive, is critical. Public talks, workshops, and informal persuasion can help bring them in. This is an attractive moment of political persuasion by example, but also argument; it needs to face outwards not be totally absorbed by itself.

6. Call for co-ordinated strike action. This will be a vital tool in defeating the government’s austerity programmes. Students should be making the political case for strikes in defence of jobs and the welfare state, as well as providing support for workers who withdraw their labour. At UCL occupation we organised delegations to attend the pickets of striking tube workers – this should become a regular activity.

7. Improve legal knowledge and anti-surveillance practices. We can expect a furious backlash from the police and the wider political and judicial establishment. The repression of student activists has already begun with police raids on suspected leaders. The Met are demanding ever more draconian powers and tools to deal with protesters, whilst Lib Dem politicians urge intrusive "intelligence" gathering operations designed to suppress legitimate dissent. We need more people trained in legal observation attending demos, and wider awareness of the techniques needed to foil police intelligence gathering, both online and off.

8. Beware sectarianism. As a political theory Phd student, I enjoy robust theoretical debate as much as the next activist, but one of the wonderful things about the occupations (at least the ones I witnessed) was how they prioritised practice over ideology. It would be a great shame to now descend into ideological fetishism or for different factions to move in and try and appropriate the anger and energy to grow themselves at the expense of the wider movement. This movement's openness and pluralism is a political strength; without it, it won't succeed in bringing in the larger public.

9. Become a networked participant. There has been something of a backlash against "clicktivism" of late (largely from those with little experience of digital activism) but it’s no coincidence that the most successful anti-cuts actions to date – the student protests and UK Uncut - are those that have harnessed the power of online networks. Join Twitter, join Flickr, work Facebook, set up a blog – and use online platforms such as False Economy to link up with other campaigners in your area and pool knowledge and resources. Start open mixed group websites for exchanging information, ideas and video reports and images. Participate in non-partisan websites such as OurKingdom or start your own.  Ultimately, activists should consider moving their online operations from private social media conglomerates, inherently vulnerable to corporate and governmental pressure, to self-hosted, open source networks. The scandal of corporate connivance in the attack on Wikileaks and the recent "disappearance" of UK Uncut’s Facebook group underlines the urgency of such a switch.

10. Support the motion of No confidence in Aaron Porter, but don’t let it distract from the core task of building the movement. It would be nice to have a combative NUS President prepared to mobilise the organisation’s resources on behalf of students, but the real lesson of the last few weeks has been how ineffectual "leaders", desperate to appear responsible and safeguard their own careers, can be bypassed by taking autonomous action.

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