Budget week protests build towards People’s Assembly

The TUC’s Pre-Budget Rally heralds a week of planning and protest against the Tory government’s austerity agenda.

Anti-cuts campaigns are springing up everywhere to oppose the bedroom tax, save hospitals, keep fire stations open, defend education.

In all cases local Labour parties and Labour MPs are showing their support and defending public services for local communities.

This new mood of opposition to Tory cuts needs to be translated into a new Labour economic policy that tears apart austerity and makes a clear and reasoned case for government-led investment to create jobs and growth.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, called by the Coalition of Resistance, takes place on 22nd June and is rapidly gathering support. As Owen Jones wrote at the weekend, the Assembly ‘aims to unite all opponents of austerity in one movement’ and Labour members should get involved in.

Register today: People’s Assembly – Against Austerity

 

Budget Week of Protest

Wednesday 13th March
EDUCATION
London Region of the NUT  Gove Must Go protest
5pm, Cathedral Piazza, Victoria St

ANTI-CUTS
TUC Pre-Budget Rally
6pm, Emmanuel Centre, Marsham St

Thursday 14th March
FIRE SERVICE
Save Westminster Fire Station public meeting
6pm, Mary Sumner House, Tufton St

Saturday 16th March
BEDROOM TAX
Labour members will be joining over 50 protests against the bedroom tax this Saturday.

HOSPITALS
Camden, Islington and Haringey Labour and London Young Labour are joining the Save the Whittington protest.
11.30, Highbury Corner

FIRE SERVICE
March to save Clapham Fire Station
12 noon, Clapham Common

Monday 18th March
HOSPITALS
Planning meeting for a London-wide Save Our Hospitals protest
6.30pm, Camden Town Hall, Judd St

Tuesday 19th March
EDUCATION
Bring Back EMA campaign has called a Budget Day of Action

Wednesday 20th March
ANTI-CUTS
PCS Budget Day Strike and Rally
12-2pm, Old Palace Yard, Abingdon St

ANTI-CUTS
Budget Day Protest
Coalition of Resistance and Unite the Resistance
5.30pm march from Kings College to Downing St

 

 

French lessons on accessible education

Back in 2010, the 50,000 students that took part at one of London’s largest demonstrations in recent memory were very sure of what they were protesting against: the Coalition’s proposals, now realised, to cut state funding for higher education and to triple the cost of university tuition fees. Unfortunately, the protest is remembered more for the violence of a few students and heavy-handed police tactics than for its political influence. Towards the end of the afternoon the focus of the demonstration had waned to the extent that some groups swapped their placards and chants for dubstep and dancing.

A local protest at my university around the same period spurred an impromptu occupation in front of an important administrative building. Eager students scaled the fence and gave leg ups to their friends to fill the lawn. Yet, as was the case in London, once protest at the plans had been demonstrated there seemed to be no agreement about what should be done next. Hard-hitting slogans dissipated into a disorganised mix of anarchist rhetoric and directionless ‘fuck-the-system’ rants. The crowd became smaller as people decided to escape the cold and go home for tea.

Labour, like the protesting students, is sure of what it opposes. This is no bad thing when faced with Michael Gove and David Willetts’ drastic cuts and policies, such as the promotion of a ‘military ethos’ in schools that seems to lament the death of the cane. The GCSE marking scandal and confusion over the free schools scheme and the expansion of academies have resulted in what Chuka Umunna recently described as an “omnishambles”. However, also like the students, Labour must be careful that it does not let lack of focus undermine the strength of its criticism. A clearer vision for education would not only create a point of common ground for Labour supporters and students beyond the opposition to Coalition education policy, but would also lend any future protests greater impact.

Labour does have some ideas for education reform. Ed Miliband recently announced plans for a Technical Baccalaureate, for what he termed the “forgotten 50%” who do not obtain the grades necessary for university, as a serious vocational alternative to Michael Gove’s plans for a stringently academic English Baccalaureate. Yet soon after the announcement of the Tech Bacc at the Labour conference, the idea was adopted by Gove, leading some to suggest that he had stolen the idea. Labour would perhaps be better focussing its campaign on the provision of a broader curriculum than the Ebacc allows, as music and art risk being sidelined for exam-focussed lessons on the key subjects, vital for the all-important league tables.

The switch to a single, government-regulated exam board and the decision to raise the education participation age to 18, supported by both Labour and the Coalition, are evocative of a more European-style education system. The espousal of the word ‘Baccalaureate’ suggests an admiration for the French system in particular. This may be no bad thing – although elitism is still present in France, sciences are held in higher esteem as they rely less on the cultural capital that can give middle class students an advantage in arts subjects. Vocational qualifications are also well developed, highly regarded and most often lead to a job, which is more than can be said for the UK’s system of NVQs (initials sometimes jokingly referred to as standing for ‘not very qualified’).

There are two main differences in the French system which allows it to outstrip the UK on equal access to education. Firstly, state universities are free or at most a couple of hundred pounds a year to attend, with generous bursaries offered to cover living costs. Labour could be stronger in its proposals to reverse or lessen the UK’s £9,000 yearly fees, especially for poorer students, to re-establish education as a right, not a privilege.

However, the most striking difference between the two education systems is the relative non-existence of private education in France, where the few private schools are in general either religious or no better than their state counterparts. The divide between private and state education in the UK continues to represent in stark relief equalities ingrained in our education system and politics. If Labour wants to mobilise its voters on the Left and provide a vision for a truly equal school system, it could take a harder line on private education, ensuring private schools better serve local communities, as well as continuing to improve the state sector so that eventually no one will want to go private, as is the case in France.

Labour must return to focus on ‘Education, education, education’ with strong radical policies that favour a good quality education available for all.

 

NUS must show leadership in campaign against fees

I’m expecting a bit of déjà vu on Wednesday. A demonstration called by the National Union of Students in defence of higher education. A cold November day in London. Throngs of angry young people.

You may feel like students on the streets is a familiar sight – but the last time the NUS called a demonstration was in fact two years ago: 10 November 2010.

I was a sixth-former at the time. I helped to publicise the demo at my school and ran off flyers on the school photocopier. Seventy pupils turned up on the day at the meeting point we’d advertised – the first good sign of the active role my school would play in the fight for free education.

For many, this was their first demo. No one quite knew what to expect, and as we shuffled down Whitehall chanting “Nick Clegg! Shame on you! Shame on you for turning blue!” we soon realised if you shouted really loudly, it was only so long before your voice packed in.

As we walked over to the official rally, where NUS leader Aaron Porter dished out soundbites, we saw a conflict going on between two stewards.

“That’s the Tory HQ,” said one, gesturing towards Millbank Tower. “Let’s demonstrate here!”

“Keep moving,” said the other, looking worried.

We could hear the swelling crowds inside the tower drumming and chanting “Tory scum!”

So we turned towards Millbank. Before long, most of my sixth-form was there – with several making their way to the roof.

Windows had been smashed, fires lit – to keep warm more than anything else – and there was something compulsive about the atmosphere. Here were young people – my fellow students, most of whom had been apolitical the day before – and they were genuinely angry.

What was more, their anger was being directed where it mattered: right outside the governing party’s offices, and in full view of the world’s media.

There was also something striking about the leaderlessness of the Millbank protest. The sixth-formers here weren’t being told how to demonstrate, where to march: it was all down to us.

But perhaps that concept felt threatening to the NUS leaders, who were committed to a strategy of lobbying the government in the hope of concessions.

I went home from that demo elated, only to see both journalists and NUS officials on TV write off the Millbank demonstration as mindless violence pursued by career agitators.

When a movement reaches such a peak, with students excited about their ability to shape the national debate, a successful leader will seek to sustain the momentum.

It soon became clear that the NUS was simply pursuing a course of misguided damage-limitation, with officials apparently concerned that associating with “extremists” might harm their future careers.

Aaron Porter, the NUS president, refused to support subsequent demos and occupations. He later described his approach as “spineless” and “dithering” – but still failed to give meaningful support to the new hubs of activity.

The shortcomings of the NUS didn’t seem so important at the time. At my school, the next (non NUS-endorsed) demo saw 300 walk out of lessons. We soon had our own occupation, on the eve of the vote in parliament.

But once politicians had stuck two fingers up at the protest movement, there was an increasing lack of direction among students. And rather than providing leadership, the NUS was reported to have written to the government suggesting cuts to student grants.

It has taken the NUS two years to support another demonstration. This is certainly welcome. But although the union may have recovered from its fear of demonstrations, the student movement has still not recovered from the failure of its leadership.

A handful of the newly politicised young people at my school stayed active, but many simply did not know where to go, such is the value placed on structure and leadership in our society. Already disillusioned with parliamentary politics over the betrayals of Lib Dem MPs, these young people became permanently disillusioned with the protest movement too.

Millbank was a rare moment, when there was so much potential for a new, long-lasting wave of activism.

The next time such a moment arises, and it could well on Wednesday, the NUS must learn the lessons of 2010 and realise that it owes it to the students it represents to make it something that lasts.

 

By Conrad Landin