Workers' Liberty's Beth Redmond leading the chanting
On Wednesday 19 November, ten thousand students marched through central London to demand free education. The political waves from this demonstration, organised by left activists despite sabotage from the leadership of the National Union of Students, are having a positive impact on the student movement. We hope they will have a positive impact on the wider class struggle.
In the last six months, free education has been put back on the student movement’s agenda. The people who made this happen were the organisers of the demonstration – above all the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.
At NUS conference, in April, the NCAFC and others on the left defeated the (broadly right-wing Labour) leadership to pass policy in support of free education. This was the first time NUS conference had backed free education since 2004 (for more on the history, see here) – and compared to 2004, the beginning of a long quiet period for student activism, there is much more of an organised student left to fight for it. NCAFC quickly issued the call for a national demonstration and in September NCAFCers on NUS national executive pushed through a motion to support it (proposed by Workers' Liberty member Daniel Cooper).
After the motion passed, NUS did virtually nothing to help build the demonstration, despite its enormous resources. The demonstration was formally sponsored by a coalition of activist groups – the “Student Assembly Against Austerity” (a front for left groups Socialist Action/Student Broad Left and Counterfire), the Young Greens and NCAFC. In practice the bulk of the work was done by NCAFC, with very limited resources; the Young Green contributed; SAAA made a lot of noise to promote itself but contributed little. Formal support from NUS did help the organisers work effectively with a large number of student unions.
Then, two weeks before the demo, NUS withdrew its support on the most spurious of pretexts, which we will explain below.
In that context, the turn out on 19 November is all the more impressive. It may be the biggest student demo in Britain since the upheaval of 2010. It showed the basic point of NCAFC: that effective organisation geared to helping develop and build grassroots activism can win results. A few SUs cancelled their coaches, but on these campuses activists organised outside their unions to get people to the demo anyway. Overall there was a powerful mobilisation. Students took par from across the country, from as far as Exeter and Aberdeen. There was a massive turnout from London, particularly from UCL and Kings. There was a decent presence from school and college students, and walkouts from school in a few areas, for instance in Lambeth in South London.
NUS Scotland continued to support the demonstration and mobilised well for it. The NUS Black Students’ and International Students’ Campaigns also maintained their backing.
Part of the enthusiasm the demo produced must have been to do with its political character. It could not have been more different from the going-through-the-motions, bland, apolitical trudge away from London which NUS organised in November 2012. Demonstrators marched from ULU/University of London, the site of many sharp battles over the last two years and a fitting starting point given that ULU has just been shut down by UoL management as part of a drive to stifle student protest about the direction education is going in. We marched to Parliament Square and the protest concluded with a number of militant actions against targets like the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and Scotland Yard.
The political stance and character of the march, shaped by NCAFC and socialists involved in it, in opposition to more moderate slogans from the "Student Assembly", were different too. Free education was proudly proclaimed as our goal – and we openly met the government’s lies about lack of resources in society with the demand to take wealth from the rich. NCAFC placards on the demonstration said “Tax the rich”, “Expropriate the banks” and “Students and workers unite and fight” – for NCAFC chants, see here. Internationalism, solidarity with migrants and opposition to the nationalist right were emphasised throughout.
At the rally by Parliament, MC’d by Workers’ Liberty member Beth Redmond on behalf of NCAFC, along with SBL's Aaron Kiely, demonstrators heard speeches from a wide variety of people, including Labour MPs John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, Green MP Caroline Lucas, Ritzy striker Holly Fishman Crook, and Reuben Williamson, a 16 year old school student from Lambeth who had brought many dozens of comrades from his school with him.
There were rousing and moving speeches from Mexican activists campaigning about the disappearance and murder of 43 left-wing teaching students in Mexico. These comrades had a contingent on the demo. (NCAFC is co-organising a demonstration with them on 28 November: see here.)
Student Labour Party members and Young Labour activists who support the Labour Campaign for Free Education initiative had a contingent with a banner saying: "Labour Campaign for Free Education: Abolish Fees, Tax the Rich".
The role of NUS is worth looking at in more detail. The NUS leadership justified its withdrawal of support by telling lies about the preparations for the demo in terms of police liaison, safety, etc. They combined lying about what the organisers had done with making demands which in other circumstances they themselves have publicly said are unreasonable.
Things in the student movement being what they are, they combined this with use and abuse of identity politics, citing the fact that the NUS Disabled Students’ Officer was backing them as unanswerable evidence that the demonstration was more than unusually “inaccessible” or “unsafe”. In fact, once the DSO realised the leadership had distorted the truth, she worked fine with the demonstration organisers and supported the demo! Some NUS officers made noises about the possible presence of the SWP – something which had not bothered them on the 18 October TUC demonstration, where the SWP were present in much larger numbers.
The NUS leaders are, mostly, Blairite/Milibandite hacks, careerists who do not want to lead a fight. They did not want NUS to support free education, they did not want to support the demo, and they took what they thought was an opportunity to get out of it without looking too bad. In fact, they brought a wave of contempt and derision down on themselves. But what was striking was how some supposed left-wingers in the NUS structures went along with them. Again, much of this was justified on grounds of identity politics – if some NUS officers representing self-organised liberation groups said the demo was “unsafe”, then it must be wrong.
What a contrast between the NUS time-servers who backed the leadership on pseudo-liberation grounds, and the NCAFC team, virtually all women, who were the central organisers of the demo. NUS has a slogan: "Women in leadership". Unlike NUS, these comrades put it into practice.
As it became clear that the momentum for the demonstration had not been broken, some of the NUS soft left started to semi-back track. Some of them turned up on the demonstration, not repudiating their support for NUS withdrawing support, but claiming to see no contradiction. All this says a lot about the lack of consistency, political courage and will to fight which exists in the left wing of the NUS bureaucracy.
At the 2012 NUS demo, there was a violently anti-NUS mood – remember the famous banner saying “Smash the NUS”. This time the condemnation of NUS was strong, but more measured. There is widespread recognition that effective use of the NUS structures by the left – not relying on them, but using them – was important in getting the demonstration off the ground. The fight around this, as it turned out, achieved two goals – gaining support for the demonstration and exposing the NUS leadership for what they are.
• Meetings on as many campuses as possible to discuss the way forward.
• NCAFC has called days of action on 3 and 6 December (see the NCAFC website).
• NCAFC conference is 13-14 December in Manchester. It is important that activists involved in building the demonstration from across the country join NCAFC, make it their own and strengthen its fight. The various left student groups should join NCAFC too.
• The campaign needs a good plan of action for next term, including further mobilisations both local and national, a campaign around the general election and a strong intervention in NUS conferences.
• We need to strengthen and develop links between students and organised workers, on campus and off.
• Socialists in the student movement need to build on the political momentum to further politicise the movement and raise bigger ideas – both ideas for the struggle and wider ideas about how we can transform society. Popularising the fundamental ideas of class-struggle socialism among students will be crucial to developing the movement.
That is the role Workers’ Liberty students set ourselves. We are proud of the part many of our members and our other comrades in NCAFC played in making the demonstration possible and a success. We will continue the fight on every level.
07775 763 750
Beth compering the rally in Parliament Square