Some thoughts on the NUS demo

10 November 2010


Or, how and how not to defend direct action.

Today around 50,000 students marched through London, variously against fee rises and cuts (NUS’s position, I think, it wasn’t exactly clear), for free education funded by taxation of the rich and business and against cuts and marketisation, and for banterous rugby team larks (thankfully few). I joined the Free Education feeder march at ULU, where thousands of students and lecturers rejected NUS’s pathetically tame slogans in favour of radical demands for an end to fees, living grants for all and worker-student solidarity against cuts.

You might not know about any of this. Partly because NUS stewards were sent to tell constituent member unions not to join in the free education march. But probably more due to what happened next. The demo passed Tory HQ at 30 Millbank, and waves of demonstrators occupied the front courtyard, burned effigies, attacked the building and eventually (some) gained entry. You might know about this. It’s getting blanket coverage on all news channels as I write.

The NUS would condemn their mothers for a safe Labour seat

The usual condemnations came from, amongst others, Caroline Lucas, Sally Hunt and NUS president Aaron Porter. Violence is ‘disgusting’, ‘disappointing’ and ‘despicable’. The demo was ‘hijacked’ by a ‘minority’. So here’s some facts:

- Smashing a few windows is not violence. Very little actual violence took place. And most of that was from the coppers
- None of these people were actually at the Millbank action – they got their info from the media, and the police
- Fees are going up to £9k. Courses, teaching hours and facilities are being cut. The EMA is essentially being abolished. A few smashed windows need to be taken in perspective.

Quite aside from any of these facts the so-called ‘leaders’ of our unions and ‘left’ movements have no qualms about disowning their own members in the media. They’ll use the ‘violence’ as a justification, but the reality is there is no direct action you could take, peaceful or not, that these people would support. The NUS leadership will condemn the sitdown in Parliament Square just as strongly as the occupation of 30 Millbank. They are not opposed to ‘violence’. They are opposed to radicalism, full stop.

Then there’s the question of tactics. Sure, Aaron might feel genuinely disgusted (I hope he’s sick, honestly) at the sight of students voicing their anger, not just marching from A to B. But why choose to focus your media comments on condemning this, rather than on your political aims? If anyone is to blame for the focus on the events at Millbank, it’s the leadership, ‘left’ pundits and commentariat who feel the need to return to it again and again in interviews, on blogs and on Twitter. Who is pressuring you to take this moral high ground? Sure it’s fun for you to take another well-aimed kick at the organised left, but jesus, not on national platforms. Maybe if the press were knocking down your door demanding you comment, you’d regret the injuries. But you’ll notice our leadership couldn’t wait to jump in with the strongest condemnations possible – reports of Porter’s appearance on BBC News came through as we were still assembling at Millbank. More evidence that it’s not the violence, but the entire tactic of direct action they reject; they’re not interested in separating the two.

Perhaps Porter et al don’t think it matters that a sizeable chunk of NUS members are angry enough to spontaneously target Tory HQ. After all, the action was clearly planned in advance by trouble-making hijackers, as explained here. It’s good that’s been cleared up – I was under the impression that the hundreds of young, excited, angry, active young people I saw today were for real. Good to know they’re the dreaded outside agitators, buggering up legitimate, tame but authentic protests since their invention some time last century (or the one before that, even). Probably those bloody anarchs again. Because real students aren’t angry, don’t fight back, and crucially, listen to Aaron Porter. Classic condemnation of direct action at work here – the only authentic protester is the compliant one.

Maybe I’m laying it on a bit thick. After all, looks like there were 14 injuries (though how many were police-inflicted we can’t tell yet). And throwing a fire extinguisher (allegedly) from the roof is a bit daft at best. But NUS’s repeated failures to even countenance direct action tactics have got us here. Imagine a union which not only organised this kind of protest, but prepared people for it, say with legal rights, direct action and tactics training for starters; much harder to see, then, a few people getting carried away with roof-top furniture. To be absolutely clear, it’s not the smashing things up I’m questioning here. The only part of today I’d change is the slightly edgy feel it took every now and then (having to tell some people to ‘stop throwing shit’, mostly), which could be easily prevented with a bit more consciousness of how to look after each other on actions.

The leftie commentariat are confused, again

So, the NUS leadership and various other bureaucrats are shitbags. Nothing new here. But there’s been great swathes of shite talked by people who are supposed to be on our side (even if from behind a computer) too. After Polly Toynbee (who, never fear, I do not count as on our side in the slightest) decided to invent her own hierarchy of the screwed, it seems this kind of ranking has become a bit fashionable. Students, we’ve been told, are privileged. Even The Third Estate have joined in. Perhaps the Cambridge experience addles some people’s brains, but today I marched with student parents, working students, students in poor quality & over-priced housing, students in £30k+ worth of debt, FE students being priced out of HE, FE students terrified the EMA cut will prevent them studying, part-time students with no access to loans and more. Those from monied backgrounds, those who have no debt or part time job, are in the minority. And even they will be affected by the wholesale destruction of their institutions. Perhaps we can forgive (or not) Polly, for having been a student so long ago, but when your graduation hangover is still fresh there’s no excuse boys.

Not all of the lefties-on-the-net failed quite so spectacularly to get it. Laurie Penny was there, and did a reasonable job of defending the action to her followers. But a different kind of not-quite-right appears here, albeit a well-meaning one. According to Laurie the violence is tragic, the hard left in charge while the unaffiliated simply danced, and most people just scared. There’s too much of the outside agitator argument here, unsupported by what I saw today. And it’s just not possible to label the majority at Millbank scared kids – if they were that scared, the safe environment of the NUS rally was round the corner. It takes the agency of the ‘unorganised’ away to claim they were in the main confused, frightened or unsure. From what I saw, a lot of them were interested, active and angry. It’s also far too strong to say the violence was ‘tragic’, without any analysis of what kind of violence it was. I don’t consider smashing up fancy office blocks a tragedy – you might argue about tactics, but don’t join in the mainstream media chorus that’s wilfully confusing vandalism, direct action and assault.

Where next, maybe

The real left (not the internet-only, hand-wringing moralist or NUS entrenched ‘left’) need to defend this kind of action, immediately and seriously, and explain why these tactics can work, whereas A-B marches alone never will (see France, Greece). We need to call out NUS’s condemnations for what they are – an extension of their distaste for anything even verging on radical (or useful).

But we also need to have discussions with activists about why it might not be worth being arrested for smashing glass – about strategy, not moral judgement. We need to organise together, so next time we’re outside Millbank there’s a more co-ordinated set of demands, and more consensus about where we’re going with it. Again: moralising about damage to property, no. Discussion about where, when, who and why, yes.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts played a major role in pulling together what was an impressively large and vibrant Free Education Bloc today. It’s probably the best forum for continuing education activism – a coalition of people from all over the left, with regular planning meetings and a focus on action. Check them out at anticuts.com.

And with all this serious and complicated stuff, remember: red flags were raised over Tory HQ today.