On 15 November, around 1,000 students took to the streets of London demanding free education. Students gathered at Malet Street and marched to Parliament Square to demand the scrapping of tuition fees, the reintroduction of student grants and a cancellation of all outstanding student debt.
At the Socialist Students stage, students and young workers repeatedly made the point that after the general election, not only is it possible for us to win free education but furthermore to get rid of the Tories altogether and to pave the way for a radical left-led Corbyn government to enter power.
A lively atmosphere could be felt on Malet Street that afternoon, contributed significantly to by a loud and bold Socialist Students contingent. Yet inevitably, some students will raise questions concerning the relatively small turnout on 15 November as compared to previous student demonstrations in the past.
However, we think it would be a mistake to argue that the modest turnout in London on 15 November is an accurate reflection of the mood which exists amongst students to fight.
Much of the blame must fall on the right-wing leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) who not only refused to publicly support the demonstration, but who actually blocked a motion in support of it being heard by the NUS National Executive Council earlier this year.
Another factor that must be appraised is the role of the Labour Party leadership. Despite Jeremy Corbyn publicly coming out in support of the demonstration, this support was of an extremely limited fashion and only announced a week ahead of it.
After the massive enthusiasm which was generated at the general election for the policies of free education around Corbyn’s manifesto, the opportunity for the Labour leadership to translate an electoral revolt at the ballot box into a wider reaching movement by calling and leading a campaign for free education was missed.
Socialist Students previously wrote an open letter to both Angela Rayner and John McDonnell, the shadow education secretary and the shadow chancellor respectively, requesting that the Labour leadership tabled amendments in Parliament to the chancellor’s budget calling for the scrapping of tuition fees and cancellation of student debt, as well as publicly supporting direct action being taken by students on Budget Day. Unfortunately it appears that at this stage, the Labour leadership have no plans to table such amendments.
National Campaign against Fees and Cuts
Unfortunately, responsibility for failing to realise the potential also lies with the organisation which organised the demonstration, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).Very early in the run up to the protest, on 6 September, Socialist Students wrote an open letter to the NCAFC National Committee requesting that the two organisations meet to discuss opening up the planning of the demonstration to other groups and student forces on the left in order to make 15 November as successful as possible.
In the context of the failures of NUS leaders to organise a demonstration, we wrote;
“Without the NUS, a national demonstration on the 15th of November, if it goes ahead, will need to organise democratically all capable forces within the student movement.”
“Organising a successful national demonstration, especially in absence of the leadership of the NUS, will take the involvement Socialist Students and other organisations which have a national presence on university campuses.”
Socialist Students believes that such an approach could have at least somewhat counteracted the negative role played by the NUS leadership. Unfortunately, Socialist Students never even received a response to this letter.
This was a serious error, and the modest turnout on the day could have been much higher had a more open, and ultimately less sectarian, approach to the planning and execution of the demonstration been taken by the leadership of NCAFC.
At the same time as this, in many areas of the country (including Leeds and Birmingham), leading members of NCAFC locally requested that Socialist Students groups and societies hosted their speaking tour in promotion of the demonstration on 15 November, apparently unaware that they had previously ignored the open letter and our requests for our organisations to meet, following the elevated political mood which has opened up fresh possibilities for the student movement.
This contradictory approach to our organisation is ultimately a reflection of what has been, up to this point, a sectarian approach to Socialist Students on behalf of the NCAFC leadership, and on the other hand the lack of forces NCAFC has on the ground at many campuses up and down the country. Despite having some national media profile, 15 November demonstrated the vital importance of serious political organisations carefully and attentively building their forces on a local level, something which NCAFC have clearly failed to do in the previous period.
The unwillingness to allow other organisations to participate in the planning of 15 November also created easily avoidable problems on the day itself. For example, there were some logistical disagreements between Socialist Students and some of the organisers of NCAFC during the set up for the demonstration.
This unwillingness was taken to an absurd degree when, later in the day, after the failure of NCAFC’s sound system at the main stage, their organisers requested the use of the Socialist Students’ sound system. When we said we would be happy for our sound system to be borrowed, along with the reasonable request for Socialist Students to have a speaker on the platform. We were accused of ‘petty factionalism’.
Socialist Students took a completely different approach to our stage, having a list of speakers ready but simultaneously running an open microphone and inviting the crowd up to speak, and even welcoming speakers to put across a differing perspective than that being offered by Socialist Students. This approach is an indication of the confidence Socialist Students holds in our political programme, and also our willingness to debate the ideas needed to take forward the student movement in a positive manner with other groups.
NCAFC by contrast seem to think that the only way to maintain the prominence of their ideas and programme within the student movement is to keep a tight and undemocratic grip on its leadership, preventing different organisations from challenging the politics of NCAFC and thereby cutting across the chance to build a mass and democratic student movement.
Despite NCAFC’s unhelpful approach, a decision was taken by Socialist Students to stop using our louder system in order to allow speakers on the NCAFC stage to be heard by the crowd.
Remarkably, a threat towards our comrades of a court injunction was made with regards to the setting up of a gazebo. When it was raised with the NCAFC organisers that we had previously written to them and that such a disagreement could have been avoided had they more pro-actively involved Socialist Students in the planning process, we were told that the matter of the open letter was irrelevant and that we needed to do what we were told!
This is without going into detail of other instances in which NCAFC organisers and stewards attempted to throw young Socialist Party comrades off the demonstration (one because he wasn’t a student!).
What next? Budget day and beyond
This is starkly contrasted with the approach that Socialist Students has taken to planning its national day of action on Budget Day, 22 November, which we have sought to build democratically alongside other local student groups. In our open letter to NCAFC, we wrote;
“Given the current mood, such action [on Budget Day] could potentially be received very enthusiastically and pull new layers of students into struggle, especially if built co-operatively and democratically alongside other groups.”
We note however that instead of seeking to work with us on building for Budget Day, NCAFC have instead decided to call a very similar day of action on campuses on the Wednesday following Budget Day on 29 November.
Given our previous attempted correspondence with NCAFC, and the modest result of their approach on 15 November, we believe that their decision to ignore actions which are already planned by students for Budget Day by calling a separate day of action on 29 November is yet another serious mistake on behalf of the NCAFC leadership, who at this stage risk cutting the nose to spite the face.
It is a shame the NCAFC leadership have so far acted this way. Yet we remain positive concerning the opportunities which exist for the future of the student movement.
Necessary at this stage is a set of further actions after 22 November, including follow up meetings on every campus about what to do next following the budget to win free education, and where necessary to plan further and escalated actions into the new year. As part of this, Socialist Students would like to take the opportunity to once again invite the leadership of the NCAFC organisation to meet with us in order to democratically build for successful movements on Budget Day and beyond.
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