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We need to support student direct action

It must have been amazing to be a student at Millbank yesterday. Having trudged through the streets with 50,000 others on a polite organised march against tuition fees, hundreds – and then thousands – spontaneously broke off to take their anger to the source of the problem: the Tory Party HQ. Watching crowds of students surge through the front door to take over the lobby and the roof, I wished my first protest had been that exciting and successful.

The media inevitably focused on the usual “riot porn” – smashed windows, argy-bargy with the police, the odd placard stick being chucked. They were less interested in the fact that hundreds of students had occupied a government building and had issued the following statement: "We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning."

This sudden burst of civil disobedience seems to have caught the country off-guard, but we shouldn’t be surprised. In the words of one participant: “While we are told that this was a minority of radicals, what I saw was not just the usual suspects…What I saw was 18 year olds who had never been to a demonstration before. Ordinary students who are fighting for their younger siblings, for the people a few years below them at school, for the kid next door …What I saw today was not hardened activists hijacking a demonstration. It was hundreds of angry students doing what people do when they are angry”.

This is exactly the type of direct action we need if we’re going to stop the cuts. What would have been a 30-second news clip of just another march through London has become the top story in all major UK news outlets and has picked up by the international press. Media commentators, whilst disapproving of the protest, are calling it a “wake-up call” for the government and a serious blow to the unity of the ruling coalition, while the bookies have slashed the odds of a dramatic political U-turn on student fees. A whole new generation has tasted the power and energy that comes with effective rebellion and we can expect to see resistance snowball.

Sadly, the National Union of Students – who co-organised the original march – seem to have failed to spot the huge political opportunity created by this surge in student activism. Instead, NUS President Aaron Porter has been falling over himself to disparage in ever-stronger terms the “despicable actions” of this “minority of idiots”. He told BBC News: “I absolutely condemn the small minority of students and others who have gone off for this splinter demo. This was not part of the plan, and frankly detracts from the message.”

This came as a particular surprise to those of us who spent last Saturday afternoon in the company of Mr Porter at Shared Planet, the People & Planet national conference of student campaigners. I was speaking on a panel with him about how to build a strong student movement to combat the multiple challenges facing this generation.

Having just watched the Irish Union of Students fail to support a student occupation of their Ministry of Finance, and knowing NUS’s history of half-hearted and divisive responses to student fees and education cuts, I challenged him directly: in the spirit of building unity, would he support direct action occupations against the cuts by students in the UK?

He said yes.

Four days later, and he’s all over the news distancing NUS from the student occupiers and the thousands who cheered them on. This is totally unnecessary and plays into the hands of those who want to weaken the movement, just at the point where unity is essential. I totally understand that, as President of NUS, it would be difficult for him to go on record and fully support an action that included property damage (though I hope one day to see that happen!)

But all he needed to say was: “Obviously NUS doesn’t condone smashing windows, but the mass occupation of Tory Party Headquarters is a sign of how angry people are about the vicious government cuts and we can expect a lot more of this sort of thing…” and then continue talking about tuition fees.

This is basic movement-building stuff. Many different groups are now mobilising in opposition to the cuts, and are using a diversity of tactics from lobbying to marches to shutting down Vodafone stores. All are valid and necessary. It’s vital that we all support each other and keep our eye on the common enemies – the government that’s slashing public services and the fat cats refusing to pay the taxes that could plug the deficit instead.

So why would Aaron Porter not be doing his best to build a strong, unified student movement? Well, nearly every NUS President since the 1970s has gone on to work for the Labour Party, which introduced and then hiked student tuition fees in the first place. Many ex-Presidents have become MPs, special advisors or even ministers (step forward Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and Phil Woolas – oh, hang on, he doesn’t work for Labour anymore). Surely Aaron Porter couldn’t be thinking of his career at a time like this.

Could he?

Photo by Andrew Moss under a CC Licence.

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