The way forward after the Millbank Occupation

Student revolt breaks the opportunist spell

November’s student invasion and occupation of the Conservative Party’s national headquarters at Millbank took pretty much everyone by surprise.  Chancellor Osborne’s spending review had sparked angry local demonstrations and a London march organised by the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) and the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, but drew nothing more ferocious from the TUC than a promise to have a bit of a demo next March. With the firemen’s dispute on hold and Transport House telling everyone to bide their time and wait for the spring, the scene seemed set less for a winter of discontent than a winter of enforced apathy. 

The Millbank occupation on 10 November challenged this mood dramatically, taking by surprise in equal measure the forces of the state and the opportunist leaders of the National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Lecturers’ Union (UCU).  The NUS had at first predicted a turn out of 5,000 and even later only revised this figure up to 15,000. Subsequent occupations and sit-ins spread like wildfire across the UK, culminating in ever more ferocious demonstrations on the 24 November and the 9 December (the day that £9,000 p.a. tuition fees won approval at Westminster).

NUS chief Aaron Porter took one look at the Millbank occupation and without blinking denounced it as a “hijacking” by a tiny minority, denying the evidence of his own senses; his counterpart at the helm of UCU, Sally Hunt, denounced the same mythical band of trouble-makers and appealed for “discipline”. Since then the discomfiture of the opportunists has grown ever more acute as occupation followed occupation and each new demonstration showed itself more confident and challenging than the last.

After Millbank: violent suppression fails to stop spreading militancy

On the day of action on 24 November a dozen or more universities were occupied (including Leeds, Cardiff, Birmingham and three in London), protest marches erupted in Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Bristol and Cardiff, and schoolchildren walked out of lessons in Leeds, London and elsewhere. Demonstrators who found their path to London’s Parliament Square blocked by police were then kettled in Whitehall, resulting in 32 arrests and 17 injuries, including 2 to police.  Yet these attempts to stifle popular protest only increased the growing outrage at the state sabotage of sixth-form and higher education, encouraging the youth to link their own battles with the wider battle against the cuts being imposed on the working class and helping them to grasp the role of the police in defending the rights of capitalist private property.

The brutality with which the police were prepared to treat those who got in the way of those property rights was made clear to all on 9 December, the day that Westminster said Aye to raising the ceiling on tuition fees to £9,000 per annum. It was clear from the start that day that the police were spoiling for a fight.  The plan was to sidetrack, contain and then disrupt the mass protest, doling out extra-judicial punishment along the way.  Demonstrators, armed with nothing more life-threatening than a few plastic bottles and the occasional firework, found themselves systematically penned in behind metal fences, kettled for hours, beaten with truncheons and charged by horses. 

A flavour of the day’s events comes across in an eyewitness report from an independent film maker and activist from the Islington Hands Off Our Public Services campaign.  She reports: “I was at the student protest.  From the wall I could see …the riot police coming in and forming a line. In front and surrounding them were a crowd of people. To my right fences started coming in to put up in front of the police and form a barrier between the police and the people. Behind the riot police more police came, whilst to my left others on horseback were coming forward and more riot police. At some point the riot police surged forward, what I could see were shields and batons smashing out. People started shouting, ‘shame on you, shame on you’. Below me a young man with blood on half the side of his face came running out with his girlfriend following him. The riot police surged forward again and this time stopped below my feet. Below me a man had passed out, a woman was shouting that she had to get out because her friend was having an asthma attack, a few men and women held their arms up above their heads and were pleading with the police to help them get out. A guy was helping the man who had passed out. Finally a riot police went and helped carry him out, but another riot police started to attack the man that was helping him. The riot police below me re-formed and made a tunnel and forced people to walk down the tunnel towards the next kettle. The people, those who had been pleading, and others who did not want to go, were forced to walk past the tunnel into the next kettle. I could hear one riot police shouting move to a man who was saying he didn’t want to go there and why wouldn’t they let him pass. The riot police re-formed to stand face-to-face with the people. A few fences were put up between them. Behind the riot police across the square another group of riot police started to march in to circle behind the group. At some point, perhaps after 15-20 minutes, I could see the riot police who had gone in from behind storm into the kettle, where the people had been forced to go. The fence was easily ripped down and the riot police below me moved in. As I jumped off the wall I saw perhaps 8 rows of riot police moving in and begin to lash out and beat people”.

Independent corroboration of such accounts are to be found in abundance on YouTube, where multiple footage directly contradicts the Met’s self-serving lies about peaceful coppers persecuted by violent protesters.  Particularly shocking episodes were the manhandling of a man with cerebral palsy from his wheelchair, whence he was dragged bodily along the pavement, and the brain damage inflicted on a young philosophy student knocked out by a police baton.

Wheelchair-bound Jody McIntyre, unfazed by a blatantly hostile interrogation by a BBC hack, had this to say on his blog: “There are those who say I shouldn’t be on the frontline of a protest, but I believe every single one of us has a duty to fight against those oppressing us. To those who believe I should just ‘take it’, I have taken it but I still don’t believe being dragged out of your wheelchair is an acceptable consequence of attending a demonstration against rising tuition fees”.

Meanwhile the mother of the injured student Alfie Meadows reported that, having beaten him senseless, the police then tried to prevent medical staff at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital from treating the young man.  It was a pure stroke of luck that Alfie Meadows did not end up suffering the same fate as Ian Tomlinson (a bystander done to death by the Met at the G20 protest) or Blair Peach (the anti-racist activist slain by police in 1979).  It took until April this year for the Met to admit that Peach had been killed by an SPG assassin, who has till this day continued to evade punishment.

Whilst the reckless brutality of the boys in blue passed without comment, the media whipped themselves into a condition bordering on hysteria over the funny thing that happened to Charles and Camilla on their way to the Royal Variety Performance.  In a moment of pure farce, the Rolls Royce bearing the heir-in-waiting and his consort to the show got stuck in the middle of demonstrators.  Clearly panicking, the chauffeur took the lunatic decision to plough on willy nilly through the crowd, at considerable risk to life and limb of those on foot.  The predictable and rather low key response – a cracked window and a splash of paint – were transformed by the media into an insurrectionary assault upon the monarchy, giving Cameron the opportunity to fulminate about visiting the “full force of the law” upon all and sundry.

With the attempts to suppress websites like Fitwatch which monitor the behaviour of the political police, the use of trumped up charges against the founder of WikiLeaks to suppress devastating revelations about imperialist mendacity and war crimes, and the continued persecution of those like the imprisoned Gaza protestors who resist those war crimes, bourgeois democracy is ever more blatantly taking the road of open suppression of dissent.  Over 180 have already been arrested in London for the crime of protesting against the education cuts.  As the dust settled on the events of 9 December, the official count registered 12 police and 40 protestors injured.  Instead of apologising to Alfie Meadows’ mother for the disgraceful attack on her son, or expressing regret at the maltreatment of Jody McIntyre, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson instead did some loud thinking about the possibility of banning students from marching (“one of the tactics we will look at … if we think it is the right thing to do then we will do it”) and the use of water cannon to stifle further dissent (officers were said to be taking advice from colleagues in Belfast).

The enemy within: Labour

The spirited response of the student movement, even from the direct victims of this brutality, is a reminder that when imperialism picks up a stone to crush dissent, it not infrequently drops it upon its own feet, drawing yet more forces into the fray and stiffening the resolve of its enemies. But it is also clear that, whilst state violence may inadvertently help to unite and strengthen the resistance, the disorganising ideas of social democracy as purveyed by the Labour Party and its sympathisers in Trot and revisionist circles continue to dump a bigger cold shower on dissenters than any number of water cannon.

We can only sympathise with the students occupying University College London when they experience at first hand the kind of ‘support’ offered by the likes of Aaron Porter, the Labour careerist currently warming the same seat as that occupied by earlier NUS presidents like the racists Jack Straw and Phil Woolas.  Taking Porter at his word when he pledged legal and financial help to all student occupations, students at UCL were shocked when he refused to pay the legal bills run up by the fight against eviction.  They challenged Porter on this treachery, telling him “you are our union and we’re facing a legal bill, you promised us support – we urgently need your help”. In reply, the president said that when he promised to support and defend the protests, he meant that the NUS could possibly look into the legal status of the occupations and offer some advice!  The UCL and Slade students drew the only possible conclusion:  “Time and again the leaders of the NUS have put their political careers before the interests of the students they claim to represent. After broken promises and chaotic, indecisive leadership, our union has again failed to support its members in the face of the gravest threat to education in decades. If Aaron Porter is incapable of providing leadership then he should step down.” Students in occupation at Cambridge, suffering a similar rebuff in their plea for legal assistance, hit the nail right on the head: “From our Universities to our government to the NUS, young people are being failed by institutions which are meant to be standing up for us.  This is why we are waging a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience”.

It is not Porter alone that needs to be purged from the NUS, but the Labourite contagion of which he is the carrier.  It is the politics of social democracy which have concentrated fire exclusively on “Tory cuts” and Clegg’s treachery, meanwhile concealing the capitalist essence of the cuts and letting the Labour Party originators of tuition fees pass by unscathed. And it is those politics which instinctively push students away from any serious challenge to capitalism, favouring instead candle-lit weep-ins for the “death of education”.  Now however is not the time to mourn, but the time to fight.

Education cuts: an attack on a whole generation

The education cuts are an issue which connects with wide sections of the population.  By starving universities of state funding and encouraging them to make up the shortfall by jacking tuition fees up through the roof, the state is attacking primarily the middle class for whose children higher education has been the normal expectation.  Whilst some modest percentage increases in working class access to higher education had been conceded in the boom years, the universities have remained fundamentally the preserve of the middle class.

But the tuition fees issue is a working class issue too.  The small stream of workers’ children who do secure university entrance will shrink to a trickle under the daunting shadow of debt.  Further, the wide differential in the magnitude of fees to be charged will also guarantee a class polarisation between socially cleansed, up-market universities and their poorer neighbours.

And whilst raising the tuition fees thus intensifies the discrimination against the offspring of the working class that is already built into the educational system, the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) introduces a fresh and direct new attack on workers’ children. The EMA is a means-tested grant available to 16 to 19 year-olds who need financial assistance to pursue their education. Scrapping it not only destroys a potential springboard into higher education but will also force vast numbers of school students to abandon their studies prematurely, leaving them even less equipped to navigate their way through austerity Britain.

Taken together, the hike in tuition fees and the abolition of EMA set a blight on the education and career prospects of a whole generation of children.  On one side, capitalism is serving notice to the middle class and better-off strata of the working class that their relatively privileged status has been a provisional affair.  When the class interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie are threatened by crisis, the petit-bourgeoisie will find themselves increasingly pressed down into the ranks of the proletariat. On the other side, capitalism is mounting a frontal assault on the educational opportunities of the working class itself.  

Whilst it remains to be seen to what degree sections of the middle class may come to play in the future as the reserve of the revolutionary proletariat, two things are already striking: the speed with which a largely middle class protest over fees has passed over into a generalised youth revolt against the capitalist cuts, and the central role being played by Labour Party influence in efforts to drive that revolt back into the reformist cage.

Strengthen the link between students and workers

As noted at the beginning of this article, the sudden eruption of the student revolt has done much to change the political climate, posing a real threat to the defeatism with which the labour aristocracy seeks to infect the workers’ movement.  However, this nascent revolt can only develop and mature to the degree that the working class is able to join the fray directly, pushing aside the social democratic faint-hearts and lending proletarian backbone to the shared struggle.  The revolt of the students, timely and inspiring as it is, cannot substitute for the revolt of the proletariat.

That is why great importance attaches to the efforts of the shop stewards’ movement to unite the working class in resistance to capitalist cuts.  It would be a great misfortune were the NSSN to suffer sectarian division at this crucial moment.  Yet as it approaches its next conference (on 22 January), the NSSN has been riven with open and bitter discord.  The Socialist Party (SP), the single most influential political force within the national steering committee, secured a majority in favour of launching a national anti-cuts body.  In the view of the SP, this body would work with other similar campaigns to coordinate a national level of resistance.  In the view of an opposing faction this venture would blur the trade union focus of NSSN and also duplicate the function of existing anti-cuts campaigns.  Hopefully discussion at the impending conference will clarify the real points of difference, muddied at the moment by squabbling over incidentals – which campaigns started earliest, which particular Trotskyite faction dominates which campaign, who gets to use the official NSSN letterhead in circulating emails to supporters etc.  The broad pattern seems to be an unhelpful tussle for influence between two competing Trotskyite groups, the SP and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), complicated by a no less unhelpful syndicalist faction who regard the intervention of any political party in the affairs of the NSSN as detrimental to grass roots solidarity amongst union reps. (To compare small with large, the Bolsheviks’ response to Menshevik domination of the Soviets in 1917 was not to denounce political parties in general but to fight a tooth and nail partisan struggle against the Mensheviks in particular!)

It is interesting that the SP-dominated national steering group casts doubt on the reliability of the SWP-dominated Right to Work Campaign and the Coalition of Resistance when it comes to the question of fighting all council cuts, whether implemented by Tories, LibDems, Plaid Cymru or the Labourites.  They correctly assert that this question “will increasingly become a major issue of the anti-cuts movement as Labour councils start to implement Con-Dem cuts, like Neath/Port Talbot and Rhondda Cynon Taff in Wales who between them have issued 17,000 90-day notices to their workforces. This has resulted in the threat of a 2% pay cut in Neath/Port Talbot on top of a three year pay freeze! Ignoring this and inviting such councillors into the anti-cuts movement is to give them a left cover and will divide the council workers from the anti-cuts campaigns”.

We can only heartily endorse these sentiments, pausing however to recall the long history of Militant entryism which helped keep Labour afloat in working class strongholds like Liverpool and only ended when Kinnock pushed them out of Labour as surplus to imperialist requirement.  The call for a new workers’ party never sullied Militant lips so long as “Labour, the party of the mass working class” continued to offer left reformism a berth in steerage.  And even now, when the SP to its credit is prepared to take the fight to Labour councils, it STILL tells Unite members to get behind the “left” leadership candidate with the most solid Labour credentials (Len McCluskey) and have no truck with the Respect candidate who at least had the bottle in his election literature to raise a question mark over Unite’s servile relationship with the Labour Party (Jerry Hicks).  The SP should follow its own advice with greater consistency.

Students and workers need to unite in one common battle against capitalism.  In order to achieve this unity, it is necessary first of all to identify the first, most crucial step on the road to emancipation.  That first step, for workers and for students alike, is to break the link with the Labour Party.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.