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Student protests: the return to the streets

Trade Unions
Last November students set the capital ablaze when what was supposed to be a conventional march, organized by the moderate National Union of Students (NUS), turned into an explosion of rage against the coalition government's plan to withdraw state funding of universities and triple tuition fees.

Now, a year on, they are out on the streets of London again. On Wednesday around 5,000 students assembled in London in response to the call-out from the National Campaign Against Cuts and Fees (NCACF) in defence of public education and against the tide of privatization.

The day itself passed off largely without incident. There was the typically tickling display of placards, creative theatricality, dubstep-blaring sound systems and even a few dozen in black uniform who tussled with police and broke a few windows. In emulation of 'Occupy St Paul's' around the corner, there was also a brief attempt by scores of protesters to pitch up camp at Trafalgar Square which was met with swift and decisive force by police.

In the light of the protest movements that have shaken the globe this year, Wednesday may have seemed relatively timid. Certainly in comparison with the wave of student protests last winter, which saw turnouts of 50,000 in London and unprecedented mobilizations across the country, the numbers were disappointing.

Conspicuously absent were the droves of college and school pupils, who last year provided much of the raw impetus and energy at demonstrations. For many of them it was a radicalizing experience, for others just a good excuse to bunk off school. But as those who had the most to lose – both through Educational Maintenance Allowances and high university fees – where were they today?

The Metropolitan Police's media campaign in the run-up – warning of plastic bullets and distributing leaflets warning people of the potential legal repercussions of participating – may well have played a part in discouraging many from exercising their democratic rights to protest and assembly. 

Similarly the press were more than happy to go along with the scaremongering. The day before, the London Evening Standard devoted a double-page spread to that familiar bogeyman of the window-smashing anarchist intent on ‘unleashing a sea of rage’ – mentioning only an obscure blog as its source. The Telegraph, running a similar article, even admitted that officers had ‘no specific intelligence of violence’.

The Met's approach on the day was emblematic of the 'total policing' espoused by their new chief. A huge police presence almost dwarfed the protesters and accounts of plain clothes grabbing protestors, a section 60 order empowering officers to force the removal of masks (on pain of arrest) and a suffocating escort that decided when and where the march went were also conspicuous.

This was no doubt a reaction to the tumult of the summer's riots and disorderliness of the union-organized anti-austerity demonstration on March 26. But it was also a foretaste of an arguably tightening grip on civil liberties in the anticipation of more social and industrial unrest ahead.

Ultimately last year's defeat – marked by the passing of the measures – must be acknowledged as a factor that crushed spirits and means almost starting again from scratch. Yet despite the muted tone, Wednesday's event cannot be underestimated.

Most notably there was the presence of electricians involved in a dispute over a 35 per cent pay cut who, despite the police's best attempts to kettle them, eventually managed to join with the students. While this is only a beginning, it has the potential to lead to a greater solidarity and shared political identity between quite disparate sections of society – following in the footsteps of the alliance of anti-austerity activists with healthcare trade unions.

And not only were the terms of the mobilization much broader than those set out last year by the NUS, who showed themselves to be completely out of step with the pace and dynamism of the 'real' movement. Instead of merely negotiating a ‘fairer deal’ – crumbs from the privatized table – there is the start of an articulation of an ideological alternative.

The greatest achievement of political and economic elites over the past 20 years has been to convince us that policy is a technical area, only to be dabbled in by specialists and economists, not open to or comprehensible by the majority. 

But now, replacing the tiresome and meaningless mantra of 'free education', there is a vision – based upon principles of what public service is – that strikes a hammer at the heart of the dominant view of education as just another 'commodity'.

The 'Alternative Education White Paper', authored by lecturers' union UCU is a good starting point. And the next student mobilization – taking place locally on November 23 – will show what these ideas can translate to on the ground.

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