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Students aren’t Tweeting in London, they are protesting

November 11, 2010

(This article is re-posted from ZNet.)

Students have finally had enough. Fees were introduced in 1998 and we hardly heard a squeak; they were bumped up to over £3,000 in 2006 and no one revolted. But today students smashed their way into the Tory party campaign HQ in a show of anger against a political elite they believe have abandoned them.

Around 200 protesters, who had taken part in the 50,000 strong demonstration against cuts in education, broke through police lines and smashed windows to enter the building, occupying it for several hours before being forced out by the police.

This kind of radical action shows that some students are disillusioned with the National Union of Students protest and lobby model. With the Lib Dems doing a U-turn on their pledge to vote against an increase in fees, and Labour discredited as a champion of students, students have been left feeling that there is no one left to lobby.

There has been a significant segment of the student movement that has been pushing for more drastic action for a while. What has changed is that that segment has swelled to include a much wider section of the student community.

Several commentators and indeed the NUS have said that the Millbank occupation was not a student-led action and that anarchist agitators are behind it. Images of black-hooded youths have added to this belief. Speaking to the people inside the building, however, revealed a different story. Those dressed in black were students too, and several fresh-faced, excited students said this was their first demonstration. Meanwhile, Philippe Clem from Hull University said: “I’ve never been on a protest before … we just came to join the march, but we just got swept up in this. It’s amazing.”

The crowd of students outside the building, lighting fires and shouting their support for those inside, swelled to over a thousand. This tells a different story to the one told by those wishing to discredit the protest as just a small bunch of troublemakers kicking off. The fact that the building was only a few hundred metres from the end rally supports the claims of those inside that this was unplanned.

Some of the people inside were obviously more seasoned activists, Robert Briggs, 28, of Kings College London, said: “This is nothing, this is a spark, but it is important for people to see that they can do something, that they are not totally powerless.”

The issue at the heart of the protest was the proposed increase in fees up to £9,000 a year. Alison Bent, 19, of Sussex University said, “I really don’t know how I’m going to cope. I’ve always wanted to come to uni, so I had to do it, but it is really scary.” Anger towards the Lib Dems was also evident with effigies of Nick Clegg hoisted high and placards demanding “I want my vote back”.

Recent events in Greece and France where students played a large part in the unrest over public sector cuts appeared to have inspired today’s actions. Chants of “Greece, France, now here too!” echoed through the HQ as people stormed up the stairs.

There is a very real possibility that this could motivate people looking to fight the cuts to other public services to look beyond just protesting and lobbying. Across the country there have been meetings and protests already, with speakers at rallies calling for poll tax style revolts.

No doubt Polly Toynbee will be looking on disapprovingly – she has argued that students are low on the pecking order of pain inflicted by the coalition government. And she is right that students are largely from middle class backgrounds and so won’t be as hard hit by austerity as many others. But her argument assumes that there is only a certain amount of space in society for protest. If the students are successful, her argument goes, then others will face more severe cuts. Quite the opposite: if the students make some headway, others will be spurred on to push their agendas more forcefully.


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