New Internationalist

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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  1. #1 Matt Wardman 11 Nov 10


    I think you need to clarify, Jess.

    ’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!)’

    ’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.’

    When does this stuff cease to be valid? Putting people in hospital? Attempted murder by throwing objects off roofs? When someone is actually killed? Would you draw a difference between injuries to police or demonstrators.

    There are clearly ’groups’ out there willing to use these tactics, and using them on the demonstration you are writing about - where do you stand?


  2. #2 Tom Ash 11 Nov 10

    Was the group who occupied Conservative Party HQ protesting against the proposed increase in what students who go on to earn above the average wage pay, or ’against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected’? Because regardless what you think of the proposed increase, you can't really lump it with those cuts. In fact, many of the students who anticipate they'll earn above average wages and were protesting against those wages being garnished by the state presumably want to keep the current subsidy they get from taxes paid in part by people who make below average wages. Including ’poor, elderly, disabled and working people’. I know it's not this simple, but it seems worryingly like protesting against the principle of progressive taxation.

  3. #3 bakuninsbum 11 Nov 10

    People and objects are not the same

    ’When does this stuff cease to be valid? Putting people in hospital? Attempted murder by throwing objects off roofs? When someone is actually killed?’

    Putting people in hospital is <i>not</i> the same as breaking a window or two. People are not objects and objects are not people. Conflating the two leads down a really unpleasant path; something like the world we've got where the possessions of the rich are valued more highly than the lives of the poor.

    Given the scale of economic violence that the Tories are meting out to ordinary people I'd have said having their posh London office smashed up a bit was them getting off lightly. Poor people are going to have to deal with the unseen violence of state imposed poverty for a hell of a lot longer than a single day.

  4. #4 dannychivers 11 Nov 10

    @Matt Wardman

    There's nothing in Jess's article that advocates violence against people. You're criticising her for something that she hasn't said!

    The invasion of Millbank will have far more of a useful political impact than the march alone would have done. I wouldn't personally have smashed windows but I understand the anger and frustration that leads people to take this kind of action, and so I cannot condemn it.

    Our polite marches have been ignored too many times. I would never support anything that caused harm to other human beings (which is why I oppose the spending cuts, an act of ideological brutality which would lead to pain, hardship and misery for millions), but a few broken office windows and one idiot chucking a fire extinguisher is not a ’descent into violence’.

    @Tom Ash

    The slashing of state funding for education takes us down a dangerous path where only the wealthiest can afford to go to university. Maybe some of the participants yesterday were primarily worried about their own futures (which is fair enough!) but I suspect most will be thinking of the bigger picture - an even more stratified and unequal society.

    ALL of the proposed spending cuts are unnecessary (see, and we're far more likely to beat them if everyone who's affected stands together. Which is why that ’solidarity’ quote from the protesters was so important.

  5. #5 Tom Ash 11 Nov 10


    (Disclaimer: I may be getting this wrong, since I'm only going on my fairly poor understanding of the Browne report.)

    But the proposed change is to replace the cut state funding (which as I said does come in part from taxes paid by people earning below-average wages) by payments from (future) above average wage-earners who've been to university. In itself that's technically 'progressive', kind of like a mutant graduate tax (see this IFS support ).

    So if you don't end up earning an above-average salary, you won't pay any extra - which shouldn't lead to a situtation where only the wealthiest can afford to go to university. (Admittedly there is a worry that poorer people will be put off by the pound figure of the debt they'll still supposedly owe, regardless of the fact that they won't actually owe it if they remain less well off than average.)

  6. #6 Tim 11 Nov 10

    spot on

  7. #7 yourusername 11 Nov 10

    > So if you don't end up earning an above-average
    > salary, you won't pay any extra - which shouldn't
    > lead to a situtation where only the wealthiest can
    > afford to go to university.

    The problem is essentially that none of the main parties believe in the political viability of putting up income tax. Until someone has the guts to do that we're going to see an endless string of half-arsed and confusing attempts to replace that income. Yes, we need to tax the rich. But lets be honest about it rather than coming up with byzantine and obfuscationary ways of doing it.

  8. #8 Matt Wardman 11 Nov 10

    @Dannyc, @bakuninsbum

    Jess advocates these type of occupations - rather than the peaceful demo - as a direct action model that is essential to this campaign.

    This occupation has involved about a dozen people taken to hospital and an incident where people were feet from being killed.

    What do you mean no violence against people was advocated?

    These are mainly inexperienced protestors, and will look to the likes of the Co-Editor of the NI as a model.

    I think that Jess and other prominent leaders should supply one.

    My piece is here:


  9. #9 Nick 11 Nov 10

    It is not just about the system being brought in for undergraduates. It is about the massive withdrawl of government spending on Higher and Further Education. This affects jobs at colleges and universities, post-graduate students (who have no or very little funding oppurtunities)as well as undergraduates. How can it be described as fair that someone such as myself who has achieved a distinction in my MA (which I self funded by using savings I have spend 4 years building up by working in the care sector and as an archaeologist (my profession), taking out loans and having a part-time job) and has propsed research ideas which are being very well recieved cannot do a PhD due to not being born into a wealthy enough family? Especially when there are many people doing PhDs with weaker ideas and much lower achievements at undergrad and masters level? I was brought up believing that I could do anything in life if only I kept my head down and worked hard enough. I have ambitions to be a university lecturer, or failing that a secondary school teacher. At the moment I can see very little chance of doing either as I do not have enough money. With the proposed changes to education that small chance becomes no chance. In addition, I am at the moment working as a care worker. A job that pays so little that I have to claim government benefits, such as tax credits and help with NHS charges, to help me out. Even then I cannot afford to pay rent (I rent an attic room in a small terrace house) and food on my monthly wage. If I had the opportunity to continue my studies I could potentially earn a lot more and thus pay more tax.

  10. #10 Jess Worth 11 Nov 10

    Jess W


    Of course I'm not advocating violence against people - I'm talking about the validity of civil disobedience as a tactic to bring about change when other avenues of influence have so blatantly failed.

    The person who chucked the fire extinguisher was really stupid to put people in danger. And if you watch the clip of the crowd's reaction, you'll see that everyone there immediately told him/her to stop it and that this wasn't acceptable behaviour. A chant of 'stop throwing shit' breaks out amongst the crowd and it doesn't happen again:

    I'm concerned, though, about how this one incident is being used to discredit every single one of the thousands of protesters who were there. You can't discount the validity of the protest just because one person amongst thousands did something stupid. But that's exactly what many people are trying to do - it's a very convenient excuse for diverting attention away from addressing the reasons why people were there in the first place and what it was they are so angry about.

    So no, I'm not advocating violence against people. The violence of the cuts is the real problem here, and civil disobedience has a proud history of bringing about social change when the more 'polite' campaigns you may feel more comfortable with have failed over and over again. That's why we need it now.

  11. #11 my user name 11 Nov 10

    Good to see that someone (Jess) in the media has a view a bit for sophisticated than ’OMG, they're breaking windows. That's not civilised!’ Interesting to read comments from another independent media outlet - [a href=’’]UK Indymedia - to see what several people at the demo made of it.

  12. #12 Matt Wardman 11 Nov 10


    Thanks for clarifying that; appreciated.

    There were a lot of younger people there who are new to activism, as I'm sure you know. The last thing it needs is for them to think that doing things that way is best.


  13. #13 to matt 11 Nov 10

    The best way

    You offered a criticism of what happened, and said that the direct action that Jess is suggesting is not the 'best' model for new activists. Given that the polls suggest the Lib-Dems achieved a high student vote, that they pledged not to introduce higher fees, and reneged, what do you think the best model is? And why do you think your best model will be effective?

    I'm not trying to have a go - if you have a better and more effective model, I would like to know more about it.

  14. #14 Stu 11 Nov 10

    That's perfectly consistent with every single NUS President in the last three decades. I spent years trying to work and campaign with those MP-wannabes being nothing but disruptive. Of course he lied at Shared Planet, re-election is in April and P&P have a large number of people who are also delegates at NUS Conference. That's what they do. I know P&P, especially at an office level, was/is far removed from NUS (and I always viewed this as an incredibly good thing, stops them being infected by the NUS garbage) but this also causes naiveness.

  15. #15 Simon McMahon 12 Nov 10

    There's an interesting range of ideas floating around here and I think it's good that the demonstration has got people discussing why protest is important and what form is acceptable.

    Regarding Higher Education the issue is composed of a range of elements that are not simply related to the cost of education: it's also about the redefinition of universities as shops, limiting course content depending on its marketability, and the lack of accountability when politicians break promises. It is this last point that can make the student movement crossover into other areas, if they are patient and wait for the right time...

    I outlined the main points over on Open Democracy too:

  16. #16 Independent thought 12 Nov 10

    Lets not facts stand in the way...

    ’occupied a government building ’ - No! It is actually owned by a company and is has no government departments.

    ’Tory HQ’ - No! They only have one floor and it is actually occupied by a number of different organisations including the Audit Commission, the Charity Commission, a travel company & a steel company. The lobby that was trashed was for the whole building.

    So the protest you support actually impacted on honest hard working people including those in the public and charity sectors. The building includes no government ministers or departments. No rich business men live or work there.

    Well done you are supporting scaring normal working people (including pregnant women) who just want support their families (who probably included students or future students). If you really had guts the students would have tried to occupy parliament or the Treasury but lets be honest this was a soft easy target.

    But lets not let the facts get in the way of your student dreaming.....

  17. #17 K 12 Nov 10

    More facts ...

    Chair of Charity Commission = £130,000 per year (and is not part of the Charity Sector - it is the sector's regulator - that's why the govt. were allowed to cut their budget)

    Chair of Audit Commission = recently blocked from getting £240,000 per year.

    Maybe they're not business, by they are rich by my definition. Do you know the other companies (travel, steel, and the building owner, and all the others) are not ’rich businessmen’? If not, you're statement is an opinion, not necessarily fact.

    ’The building includes no government ministers or departments.’ Nobody has claimed it has, and neither should political parties be sharing offices with public offices - they are different things.

  18. #18 Jeremy Poynton 13 Nov 10

    ’We’ need to support students ... who is this ’we’

    By the way - you claim that the source of your problems is CCHQ. Where were you all when Labour introduced tuition fees? No riots then, were there? And I don't suppose you are smart enough to know that the new measures being introduced are those commissioned by Labour - and watered down by the coalition.


  19. #19 Mike -England 13 Nov 10

    what absolute rubbish, if the tory's had a backbone they would be demanding that every single one of the CRIMINALS were being arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, at least if they did that then these criminals would all have something real to complain about with fines to pay instead of interest free student loans that only have to be paid back once they are earning more than many people or serving jail time with no chance to run up any debts.

    these criminals and their so called leadership are a disgrace and have set the cause back by decades, this country needs to understand that not all students are this kind of criminal scum.

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