There are now probably more than a dozen significant anti-fees and cuts organisations involved in the fight against the government’s right-wing agenda. There’s been varying amounts of co-operation between these campaigns since November, with activists from the vast array of networks coming together in the national Days of Action. The media are not incorrect when they say that a large number of these protests are organised via Facebook and Twitter. Certainly much of the action conducted in Cornwall has been done this way, with students, Labour party members and the emerging Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance in the foreground. But will this movement fizzle out without a leader? Or will it merely lead to a more grassroots-led campaign?
Laurie Penny has been arguing extensively in the New Statesman for a more ‘democratic’ approach, that is, a campaign run by students which has no fixed leadership. But the worry is that the movement loses momentum and coherence if it continues in the form of unaccountable groups, setting up events through Facebook in the hope that everyone else follows suit. But another frightening aspect of the criticisms of leadership concerns the casual dismissal of trade unions. Coordinated strike action will have a bigger impact on the government than a few thousand getting kettled in Parliament Square.
Part of the fear of leadership stems from the NUS’s timidity, nay, aversion, when it comes to supporting the student movement. Aaron Porter has truly failed young people in his attacks on the Millbank occupiers, his support for cuts (as leaked to the Telegraph) and his failure to back other protests after the fantastic first demonstration in London in November. But, as Owen Jones argues in a recent Left Futures article, the failure of the NUS leadership is not a failure of the idea of leadership in general. Len McCluskey of Unite has been immensely vocal in his opposition to the cuts, calling for a programme of strikes. Similarly, Matt Wrack of the FBU, figures in the CWU, and most clearly, Mark Serwotka of the PCS (which leads the ‘There is an Alternative’ campaign), are all indispensable presences in the anti-cuts movement.
There is no way around it. Unions are democratic. They are organised. And they have 7 million members. Student support for the unions should not merely be tactical though. It is a moral issue. The working class will lose out more because of the cuts than middle-class students. 1.3m jobs are at risk because of the government’s economic plans. The higher rate of VAT will punish families. Cuts to housing benefit will force 300,000 out of their homes – in London alone. The assault on welfare – £18bn in cuts – is going to be detrimental to both workers and the unemployed. Students have to stand alongside workers as a matter of principle – the principle of solidarity.
This sense of solidarity is in danger of being broken. The Socialist Workers’ Party, famous for their unsteady reputation on the left and the right, have organised demonstrations about education in Manchester and London on the same day that protesters from Youth Fight for Jobs are having theirs in Manchester. The SWP are good at mobilising activists, making it likely that the marches are well attended. But on the Facebook January 29th protest event page, Youth Fight for Jobs say ‘its unfortunate that some of the education campaigns are organising separate events’ – as if having action on a national scale is a bad thing. Having protests in two cities is not divisive – it will probably boost the turnout by widening the ability of people to actually get there. Having an elected leadership that could organise without this kind of jealousy would clear up some of these disputes.
When it comes to the fight-back, we have to accept there will be differing opinions on how to organise and what our message is. This is inevitable: but with no clear leadership, our message may become obscure. Are we fighting against education cuts or all public sector cuts? And if there are hundreds of bickering organisations are we not weakened? The solution could be a consolidation of the networks into a major democratic force with an unambiguous direction, which can then function on the same platform as the unions – not in competition with the unions.
Merging the different campaigns may not be the most popular suggestion, but it’s one that needs to be seriously considered before we decline into a disparate sprawl of disconnected individuals. The last thing we should be thinking of doing is eradicating the notion of leadership.