We have a date, a route, a slogan. This has given some of us satisfaction, but also frustration. What can we make from what we have, with a week and a half to go?
The point is we are marching on parliament on the 21st of November. The point to make is that this is a good thing, an opportunity. A national student union demonstration, that seeks to direct the anger against the changes to education, will march towards Parliament.
It is in Parliament that the people responsible for wrecking education will be, and the building itself represents them. Those who themselves all received free higher education in spite of all their class privilege, their private education and family connections. They were the ones who felt it justifiable to determine the worth of humanities to the minds of working class people.
It was in Parliament where Theresa May made the decision to attack London Met by taking its international student license.
It was in Parliament, and in cabinet offices, that the decision to cut housing benefit for under-25’s was made.
There is no illusion in my mind that marching on parliament will convince them of the logic of our argument by the kindness of their hearts. But it makes clear where we lay the blame for the reactionary changes that are happening on campus.
That clarity is necessary when we take up the attitude, and the slogan, of ‘what parliament does the streets can undo’. Not deference to the benevolent authority of the state and patient demands in time for the 2015 election but real democracy from the base up.
That slogan is not just a declaration of faith: its a strategic foundation. When we look at Quebec the movement made gains because it refused to abdicate responsibility to student leaders. They were accountable to a mass movement and as such were in no position to make crappy concession to the government, and the government had to concede to the streets. The French movement against the CPE law quite clearly did the same thing. And lets not labour under the delusion that there’s something about people in Britain that makes them inherently adverse to these kind of tactics…just watch the footage from the Poll Tax riots.
Therefore we’ll be building the demonstration. As big as possible and as wide as possible; with people who don’t believe in free education and with people who worry about employability as well as those who fight for education as an emancipatory right.
Without a shadow of a doubt this is a difficult time to be an activist. There’s an understandable reticence about marches, especially from those who felt the frustration of what felt like a defeat in 2010.
But its clear that the cuts are hitting, debt is burdening people and that universities are being radically and savagely restructured. However the experience of these things are uneven. At my college management have avoided activists’ anger and no department is being cut yet. But its becoming clear that there are massive problems. The funding for dyslexia screening has been completely withdrawn. A swathe of PGCE students are faced with the possibility of no placement over the next few weeks. Students are increasingly living in poverty due to rents that are completely out of proportion to grants and wages.
What that means is there’s anger. But its not expressed as campaigns, or directed towards parliament, to those who have contributed the most towards this state of affairs. For those of us with a memory of 2010 and who are still committed to fight for free education the task is obvious. Find out where these cuts are hitting and have conversations that can link the objective anger to the wider politics.
Yes, a demo is only a day. We don’t hold out hope that a bi-annual mobilisation will shake up the establishment. But we don’t write off the potential within it. The experience of a demo can be powerful: a way of opening up people’s imaginations to the possibilities of collective action. Sometimes the work required to get people there, and the conversations that are had to do so, are more important, in terms of building networks of activists, than the event itself. We shouldn’t forget that having the focus of a demo has made these things easier.
More crucially we can see the demo as the means to begin the movement again. Obviously the tape has not been rewound to november 2010 – many things are different. But part of the reason for the decline of the movement last time was the absence of an alternative forum to debate the way forward; an expectation that parliament would do the right thing.
Now it is clear that far more needs to be done. And that perhaps it is not simply the attack on education, but austerity as a whole that needs to be challenged. The fact that we have a date after the demo to work for puts us in a better position that 2010. On December the 5th, exactly 2 weeks after the demo, George Osborne will announce the next round of cuts.
We can make that date a national day of action, whether the action be demonstrations, occupations, banner-drops or photo-ops. If we make sure that we’re talking about that now and on the demonstration then momentum, and an actual movement, become far more real.
We are itching to be like Quebec. But we have to recognise that we get there not simply by trying to transplant their structures but by building a movement with people who don’t yet see the need for those structures. We want to be in the situation where it is not just us that recognises the strategic need for direct democracy but huge swathes of the student body because they are invested in struggle and the struggle demands it. To orientate towards a new organisational form at this point would be to go down a blind alley, another experiment at being separate.