Beyond Protest – the NUS Demo 2012

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On November 21st thousands of students will take to the streets ofLondon to protest, following the callout by the NUS. In a welcome departure from the line that has long been circulating within student unions – that protest failed in 2010, and our best bet now is to cosy up with management – our student union, LUSU, plans to support this demonstration and organise transport for students.

It should be noted (and underscored) that this has only come about through the tireless efforts of activists across the county, who managed to get NUS President Liam Burns to pledge in his manifesto to organise a demonstration, and who have managed on campuses across the country to pressure their local unions. Anyone who doubts this should remember the crisis of legitimacy the NUS suffered following previous NUS President Aaron Porter’s betrayal of the student movement. This culminated in Aaron Porter being chased through the streets of Manchester by angry students, in January 2011, into the ‘protective’ arms of the police (remember the police assaults Alfie Meadows; the Hilliard brothers; Tahmeena Bax), along with a host of SUs passing ‘No Confidence in Aaron Porter’ motions.

However, having said this, I have some sympathy with the argument that ‘a protest won’t solve anything.

The first wave of demonstrations, in 2009/10, were focused on getting anti-fee rise pledges from prospective MPs in the run up to the general election; the second wave, in 2010, were focused on defeating the tuition fee-rise bill in parliament. When, on the 9th of December this was allowed to pass the student movement entered into crisis. The NUS had portrayed this vote as the key event, projecting a sense that the movement’s single aim was to block the fees bill. The NUS’s basic conservatism, their self-confessedly ‘spineless’ inability to provide leadership, and the sectarian divisions they had established in an attempt to distance themselves from left-wing students, fed their inability to elaborate a more general critique upon which to build a more sustainable movement.

Evidently other forces were also important, here, in defeating the 2009/10 student movement. However, the exclusive focus on parliamentary politics, on one issue (fees) and on one parliamentary vote, were serious strategic errors. For this meant that, when the bill passed, the movement felt itself to be defeated and (gradually) lost much of its constituency. This experience continues to assert its presence. Some were radicalised by the experience of political betrayal and police brutality – as well as the strength and solidarity they felt in the movement. But, many were left feeling disorientated, bitter and disillusioned – including many in the SUs.

This is part of why the demo in Wednesday week 7 is so important. It represents an overcoming of this historical experience, and a chance to rebuild and relaunch a student movement.

But, what are we fighting for this time? Some have claimed that the campaign title, ‘educate, employ, empower’, is vague. However, it is precisely its generality that is its strength: this is an explicitly political protest, not a single issue protest. It is about opposing the harmful effects of government austerity policies on young people’s lives, and it is about demonstrating our oppositional strength and will.

A catch-line is not enough, however. What is necessary is that we – as students and young people – go beyond the one day protest to build campaigns on our campuses and in our local communities, as well as nationally and internationally, against inequality, exploitation and oppression. The national demonstration is an opportunity for us to realise our collective strength – but it is when we return home to our universities and colleges that the real work must begin.

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