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Students from all over the country travelled to London on Wednesday, November 10, for a peaceful protest organised by the National Union of Students and the University and Colleges Union, to oppose the proposed hike in tuition fees to a cap of £9,000.
The Funding Our Future demonstration saw an estimated 52,000 students march from Whitehall to Millbank, with 250 of these students coming from Lancaster.
Robbie Pickles, LUSU President, was impressed by the mobilisation of Lancaster students. “I think given the distance that there was to travel and the fact that we didn’t really have to incentivise the trip at all, and I think for students to come down at short notice and to put in the time was actually fantastic and every one of them should be very proud of what they’ve achieved,” he said.
The principle behind the day has been overshadowed, however, by the incidents that occurred at 30 Millbank, the home to offices of the Conservative Party. Around 2,000 people were said to have split from the route of the march to gather outside the building, with a minority of those becoming involved in criminal damage and violence.
The initial number of police on hand at the protest was not enough, and this number had to be doubled when the riots became more severe. 41 of the 550 police officers there were injured, and 50 arrests were made.
NUS President, Aaron Porter spoke out about the incidents on the NUS website. “All of us at NUS are deeply disappointed at the actions of a small minority of those 50,000 people who attended – and I know from the hundreds of emails and tweets I’ve received that the vast majority of you share my view that their actions were shameful, dangerous and counterproductive.”
He added: “We must move forward – head held high. I won’t have our campaign derailed by people like this.”
Pickles was concerned by the effect of the violence: “I would worry that members of the public might have been turned off by the actions at Millbank, but I think MPs will get the message, and I hope that will make a difference.”
LUSU also issued a statement on the official line against the violence on the day following the protest, but did not speak out against direct action. “LUSU recognises that there is more than one form of protest and that direct action per se should never be written off completely as an effective style of demonstration.
“Many people across the country are supportive of this heightened style of protest. However, there can be no doubt that the violence in yesterday’s action makes our work over the next few weeks and months harder as it was far less well received.”
The overall message of the Union was clear, as it sought to emphasise the unrepresentative nature of the violence: “As a Union we must be sure to thoroughly condemn this violence which was not part of the planned itinerary for the day and which is in no way representative of the views or behaviour of the majority of Lancaster students.”
At the end point on the march, on Millbank in Westminster, the demonstrators were shown films made by the NUS and UCU, and speeches were made by the General Secretary of UCU, Sally Hunt; Deputy General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress, Frances O’Grady; and President of the NUS, Aaron Porter.
While Hunt spoke, she encouraged demonstrators in chants of “Tory scum”. This was felt by some to be a little off-message, particularly in light of the ongoing incidents at Millbank.
The general feel of the protest from Lancaster students was positive, however. During the protest many students spoke about how impressed they were with the number of people there.
Mark Lord, Cartmel JCR President, hoped that something would come from the students’ efforts. “I think it’s very good, good turnout. I think we’ve shown a fair mobilisation of all students and if the MPs aren’t willing to listen to this, then they shouldn’t really be in office,” he said.
Kitty Brown, a Pendle College alumnus, also attended the march. “It’s really good, I wasn’t expecting anywhere near the number of students there are – I knew there was going to be a lot but I didn’t realise how many. I don’t think there’s any way students’ voices couldn’t be heard today… whether they’re acted on is a different matter,” she said.
For the most part, banners and chants were aimed at Nick Clegg, with Lancaster students carrying placards that read ‘We agreed with Nick… then he betrayed students.’
Kate Bailey from Furness College said, “It’s about Nick Clegg and the other Lib Dems standing up for what they believe in, rather than going along with the Conservatives.”
Pickles was impressed overall with the success of the event. “I think the protest was on the whole an unmitigated success. 52,000 students marching in London is unprecedented. It’s been a generation since we’ve seen something that big happen, and even then I think the impact has been less. I think no-one can deny the success of the day,” he said.
He spoke about where students can go from here: “LUSU will continue to work positively with the National Union of Students to ensure that we’re present at any future demos. We’ll also be putting pressure on our own Vice Chancellor, Paul Wellings, to involve himself in constructive debate with us, which he’s signalled that he’s interested in doing in The Guardian newspaper. We’re going to keep our eye on the ball and make sure we’re ready to protest again when the time comes.”