Saturday’s TUC march showed unions are needed more than ever

Credit: Steve Cooke


Nick Clegg received an unusual York welcome on Saturday.

Over 3000 anti-austerity protesters marched for ‘A Better Way’ through York to greet the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference being held at the Barbican.

As the Deputy Prime Minister spoke in favour of his motion on immigration, hundreds stood outside the building – a building which York’s Lib Dem council closed while it was last in control of the authority – to vent their anger at the cuts to public services, privatisation and other policies which hit the poorest hardest. Needless to say, the marchers’ chants, boos and cries of ‘shame’ reflected this palpable and genuine rage.

It was rage at everything from the Lib Dem’s propping up the Conservatives in government, to the tuition fee betrayal (Clegg’s crocodile tears notwithstanding), the bedroom tax, the back-door sell-off of the NHS to private companies and – judging by the presence of university lecturers and their UCU union – the dismal state of higher education under this government, with course and department closures, real-terms pay cuts and increasing marketisation.

This was a feeling expressed by the many students on the march too – a bloc that reflected the more radical spectrum of the protest. York’s Socialist Students made an effigy of Nick Clegg himself, hanged off the city walls, alongside a ‘Welcome to Traitor’s Gate’ banner. A grim sight for delegates to behold, in a wealthy former-Lib Dem city where they probably expected a friendlier reception amid Labour authority unpopularity. No such luck.

The TUC-organised demo couldn’t have chosen its day to be more symbolic. Saturday marked International Women’s Day. That very morning, delegates were hit with headlines of ‘Osborne’s tax and benefits changes hit women almost four times harder than men’. Not the best way for the previously centre-left party to celebrate IWD. But who wouldn’t have predicted that the three-year freeze in child benefit would have hit women hardest? Or that the cut in the top rate of tax for millionaires mostly helps rich white men?

Speakers at the rally after the march were quick to point this out. All ten speakers were women – a figure that contrasts sharply with the Lib Dems current level of gender representation. The figure hasn’t been picked up upon, but those 10 northern speakers are more than the Lib Dem’s current number of female MPs in the whole of the UK – and certainly more than at the next election after a number of announcedfemale resignations . Most inspiringly, leading the march were strikers (almost entirely women) from Care UK in Doncaster – workers who have just finished a week-long strike against the company to which their jobs were recently handed over to by the council. They’re facing pay cuts of up to 50% in an attempt to boost profits – and they’re fighting back.

Thirty years on from the miners’ strike, it’s a reminder that unions still matter. In fact, the whole protest – amid hundreds of union flags and banners – served to prove that trade unions, in standing up for the hardest-hit by austerity, are actually more needed than ever in the face of the neoliberal onslaught that is this coalition government (and don’t think the austerity will end with Labour, either). Indeed, the TUC collected 52 full carrier bags of food at the demonstration for local food banks under strain from the weight of a cost of living crisis.

Saturday’s march showed that, with over six million members – the majority of whom are now women – and the ability to mobilise thousands in the cause of social justice, unions still pack a punch. But with just 13% of 16-24 year olds members of what are still the largest democratic civil society bodies, perhaps the biggest message was that our generation needs to get organised. Otherwise, the current austerity measures could be ‘permanent’, to use Cameron’s word.

On Sunday, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity are planning to wave Clegg off as he leaves the city. Given the welcome he got, and the goodbye he’ll receive, he may well get the message that York – with its large student population alongside those hit by benefit cuts – isn’t such a big fan of the Lib Dems, after all.

Credit: Steve Cooke

Credit: Steve Cooke


The spirit of youth discontent wasn’t dead, just resting

This was first published here at OpenDemocracy

Student radicalism is making a come-back. About time, I might add.

It’s now nearly three years since the infamous riot at Milbank Tower, Conservative Party HQ, at the height of student unrest in November 2010. Mention Milbank to a student – or ex-student – leftist today and you will hear a sigh of nostalgia. It’s no wonder – there hasn’t been anything like it since.

You always know a movement is soon to wane when you hear the desperate cry: ‘this is just the beginning’. It’s usually just the end. I heard the phrase repeatedly in the winter of 2010 as a naïve, but increasingly angry, college student. A month or so after ‘Demolition’ – the 50,000 strong NUS-backed protest in London, a bunch of my friends organised a protest against the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. Just a dozen turned up – mostly ageing socialist sect members we’d asked to help mobilise the protest, actually. We blamed the weather and exams. Possible factors, true. Either way though, our movement was dying, abandoned by the NUS amid the age-old accusations of ‘mindless violence’ (i.e. property damage). Needless to say, most of the actual physical violence, as Alfie Meadows and others learned, was from the riot-geared and mounted Met police.

Yet it was followed by an upsurge of worker action over pensions and cuts – a mutually reinforcing cycle that built solidarity among the public sector and those in education. Once the strikes had ended however, the whole edifice of activism did too.

2011’s anniversary protest of Milbank, though spirited, was a damp quib, despite the best efforts of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Police estimate 2,000 marched, organisers reckoned 15,000. The reality was obviously somewhere in between. Kettling, pre-arrests and the lack of a mobilising issue – since the tuition fee vote had long passed – all played their part in putting youngsters off. On top of the fact that the NUS’ backing of the march was only nominal.

‘Demo 2012’ crushed spirits even further, a stage-managed A-to-B walk through London’s remote corners in the rain. Liam Burns bore the brunt of the blame, heckled as a traitor to the cause and careerist. It was a funeral march, the speeches mere eulogies for a lost battle. For many, it marked the end. I came home that day, on the long coach journey back up to York, mourning.

But, another year on, we have a spark. October marked the start of a wave of industrial action in the education sector – starting with the NUT/NASUWT school strikes on the 17th that saw nearly 3,5000 schools closed or partially closed in a regional warm up to an upcoming one-day national walkout before Christmas. Young people joined rallies and marches in their thousands, defending their teachers pay, pensions and jobs.

Two weeks on, Britain sees its first ever joint UK-wide strike by Higher Education unions over the pathetic 1% pay rise on offer. Both academic and non-academic staff will refuse to work, and uni students are planning to join them. Take a look at the support statement here. It’s time to rekindle that forgotten solidarity.

All this comes at a time when the government has confirmed its plans to privatise the student loan book – to literally flog off all student debt (under the Student Loans Company) to big business. Students haven’t been quiet – despite the little known nature of the plans – blocking (and in some cases occupying) a number of Liberal Democrat MPs offices just last week, including Vince Cable and Simon Hughes. Young Greens led a protest outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the same day – it looks like Cable can’t hide. The NUS, as usual, has been weak. But pressure has also already forced over 30 MPs to sign an Early Day Motion in Parliament condemning the sell-off.

These are just a couple of trends building up, alongside a flurry of radical student conferences, from Student Fightback to the Student Assembly Against Austerity on November 2nd in London, Shared Planet on the 2nd and 3rd and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference on the 23rd and 24th of November, hundreds are already expected to attend events which could kick-start a hitherto moribund movement, just days before a country-wide postal workers’ strike and the People’s Assembly’s all-day ‘Bonfire of Austerity’. Expect creative action in every major city – from bank occupations to road blocking.

There’s something in the air. The next few weeks could be pivotal in revitalising the radical student movement and bringing back that nostalgic spirit of passion, anger – and most importantly, solidarity. I won’t jinx it and say ‘this is just the beginning’ – I’ve learnt my lesson. But if we seize the moment, something interesting might at last be on the rise again.

‘March’ – a song for the TUC’s ‘A Future That Works’ Demonstration

There aren’t enough modern political songs. Especially not about this government. In a feeble aim to fill part of that massive gap I’ve written a song in support of the TUC march for A Future that Works, being held on the 20th October in London. The song is part of a project called ‘Make The March‘, which encourages artistic and musical work to promote the demonstration, as well as new talent (and of course opposition to austerity).

Five works will be picked out by comedian Josie Long and artists Bob and Roberta Smith, the most ‘shared’ of which will win £100. So if you think it’s any good, please share the song (even if you’re not keen on the song itself!). Half the dosh in the unlikely chance I win will be given to the Green Party, who I believe are the only serious political party to support a real alternative to austerity based on green jobs, fair taxation and an end to costly wars and nuclear weapons.

Anyway. Share it around by going to the Make The March page here and Tweeting/Facebook-ing it. Ignore the poor iPhone recording. It’s a small contribution to enraged-British-youth political music, but a contribution nonetheless. See you on the streets!

You can find out more about Make the March here.

2011: The Year of Resistance

Some spectators of the student and anti-cuts movement in 2010 point out that there hasn’t been a major demonstration since the 9th of December. But the phrase ‘this is just the beginning’ highlights what the campaign is really heading towards. The fact that the last big demonstration was only three weeks ago says a lot about how the scale of discontent towards the rise in tuition fees and the cuts to the public sector. The cuts haven’t even begun to bite yet – it is in 2011 that we will see a veritable explosion in activity against the government’s economic plans.

The TUC’s warnings that the year will be ‘horrible’ for public sector workers and the public in general coincides with the Local Government Authority’s prediction that during 2011 around 140,000 public sector jobs will go. We haven’t had such an onslaught against ordinary people in Britain since the 1930s – and the reaction in opposition to the cuts will be similarly unprecedented. When an organisation like the IMF is arguing for more investment in job creation, you know that times have changed: these cuts will damage the economy.

UK Uncut will be resuming its actions in the New Year, and with the snow gone turnouts will be considerably higher. The storm of media coverage surrounding the events gives a massive boost to the campaign, and indeed the Radio 4’s coverage today went into detail about the background of UK Uncut – a dozen or so people meeting up in a pub and setting up the website that has spawned a mass movement. When you compare the truly grass-roots nature of the ‘group’ with seedy organisations like The Tax-Payers Alliance (Tax Dodgers’ Defence League might be more apt), it is clear who is representing the interests of the poor, and who is representing the interests of big business.

As it becomes clear that students’ interests are no longer represented by the Liberal Democrats, representation will be taken to the streets. January 29th’s protest in London against education cuts and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance will draw even more union support than before as the campaign widens against all cuts to the vulnerable, the jobless, students and workers.

Action is happening on both a national and regional level. Plymouth has had over 20 actions in the past few months. Truro, one of the smallest cities in the country, has also had its fair share of marches and demonstrations, varying from 150 students blocking the main road to a small group of activists putting up a sign outside the Council building saying: ‘Dear Cornwall Council, thanks for slashing public services. Love, the bankers xx’

It is this diversity of dissent that will provide the strongest defence against the cuts. It will be university occupiers writing letters to the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, it will be people blockading Topshop in Brighton, it will be union activists leafleting in Manchester, students lobbying their MPs in Scotland. It will be a coalition of every demographic, in every area.

There is also likely to be a lot of action on the 11th of January, which is rumoured to be when MPs vote on EMAs. Though Parliament’s website gives little information, coinciding the day of action with the day of the vote would be an effective way of challenging MPs to think again about whether to scrap the scheme which helps over 600,000 young people go on to further education.

When the campaigns for keeping the EMA, abolishing tuition fees, fighting tax avoidance and the cuts come together on March the 26th (the TUC-organised march), something exciting will happen. Whether it will be half a million people uniting peacefully, or genuine unrest and civil disobedience, one cannot predict.

Few are anticipating a wide-scale socialist revolt, or a new era of class consciousness. But the important thing to remember after this is over (and that will not be any time soon), is that while Cameron is indicating that he’s ‘trying to avoid’ restoring public services once/if the economy recovers, we must elect a government in 2015 that will rebuild what’s left of the public sector so that people will be put before profit. Until then, we exercise our right to protest with as much might as we can.

A Message to Aaron Porter – Support the Student Movement or Step Down

A few days ago a video emerged on the internet that shocked thousands: cerebral pulsy sufferer Jody McIntyre being thrown out of his wheelchair and dragged by police across the ground at the student demonstration in Parliament Square last Thursday. At the same protest, Alfie Meadows was smashed in the head by a baton and had to undergo immediate brain surgery. The most disturbing aspects of this news was not only that police initially refused to get him medical attention, but that NUS President Aaron Porter refused to condemn the actions of the police. In total, over 40 protesters were injured or hospitalised because of Met police brutality on the 9th. Where was Aaron Porter, the supposed representative of students across the country?

It is vital that we do not bicker amongst ourselves and let the bigger issues pass us by. But Aaron Porter has spent the past month U-turning (he said the NUS would provide legal support to students – it didn’t) and attacking students who attended the 10th November Millbank demonstration. He apologised to the UCL occupation about his ‘dithering’, and then did nothing to support further demonstrations – successfully proposing a motion refusing to back the 9t December protest in London. While over 30,000 students and activists were defending education in Parliament Square, being kettled for hours in the freezing cold, Porter was at a candle-lit vigil attended by less than 500 people.

25 student unions are required to initiate a vote of confidence and an Extraordinary Conference. Birkbeck SU has put forward a motion calling for his resignation and announcing he has lost the confidence of students, saying he is ‘incapable of leading’ the movement. I think it’s imperative that SUs in and around Cornwall do the same – Cornwall College, University College Falmouth, University of Plymouth and the University of Exeter. This movement needs a leadership that is prepared to stand up for students, to organise, to back us and to truly represent us.

The emails leaked a couple of weeks ago and published in the Telegraph in which Porter backs education cuts and cuts in grants for the poorest students shows that he says one thing to young people and something else to government. If he supports the fight, he has to put that into practise. Otherwise, he appears more like a young Met representative (with Sir Paul Stephenson describing the police violence as ‘splendid’).

FXU and other SUs in the South West – back a vote of no confidence or this generation will be left without a leader we can trust to pave the way.

(Watch the BBC’s shamefully biased interview with Jody McIntyre here)

The Week in Action – What’s Been Happening in Cornwall and What’s Next

A summary of the past and coming week in the local anti-fees and cuts movement.

The Past Week – Falmouth Protest Against the Cuts

Last Wednesday saw well over 100 students and activists take to the streets in Falmouth over cuts to education and the public sector. With speakers including prominent Cornwall Green Party member Howard Newlove and Socialist Party representative Tom Baldwin, the march proceeded through the streets and won huge support from local people, many who came out to see the demonstration.

The peaceful protest received plenty of press attention, starting on Falmouth moor and ending up near the maritime museum. Despite the cold weather, the mood was positive as students and others looked forward to the future growth of the Cornwall movement against fees and cuts.

Another extremely encouraging development was the focus of the event – not merely on tuition fees but now against all cuts to jobs and welfare, as students have begun to realise that only by working with unions, left-wing groups and community organisations can the coalition’s disastrous economic plans be defeated.

Other notable events in the week included Sarah Newton’s visit to students at Tremough campus and the demonstration outside County Hall in Truro which saw GMB, Unison, Labour activists, students and community campaigns come together, refusing to let the snow put them off. Outside of Cornwall, Exeter University was occupied on Wednesday by around 150 students following a march through the city. A large lecture theatre in the Peter Chalk centre was successfully occupied and remains so. Solidarity to them – a great result, especially after the takeover of the Stannary in Tremough Campus only a week or so before. Exeter Occupation blog and Facebook page.

The Week Ahead – Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance Launch Meeting and Truro Uncut Action Against Tax Dodger Phillip Green

The launch of a Cornwall-wide anti-cuts group will be on Wednesday in Truro School at 6:30pm, to discuss plans for the future of the resistance against the cuts, and aims to unite as many individuals and organisations as possible. March the Fury urges everyone opposed to the coalition’s plans to be there for this important first meeting.

On the 18th of December, as part of a national campaign by UK Uncut to pressure owner of Arcadia group Phillip Green to stop dodging millions in taxes, activists in Truro hope to shut down key tax-avoiding companies’ shops such as Vodafone, BHS, Boots and Topshop. Vodafone was recently let off a massive £6bn in taxes, at a time when huge cuts to public spending are affecting millions of people nationwide.

We will be meeting on Lemon Quay at 11am. Bring banners, placards and friends – let’s shut down the tax-dodgers.

Join the Facebook event page.

8.12.10 – Falmouth moor occupation: Cornwall’s students to stage huge protest before vote.

Preparations are being made for what is expected to be a huge occupation of the moor in Falmouth this Wednesday, by over 500 students and local people against the cuts to education.

The protest is planned to precede the vote on tuition fees on the 9th, which will see another demonstration in London, dubbed ‘London Calling’. This time the NUS and UCU are backing it (as they did with on the 10th), along with a coalition of other anti-fees organisations – EAN, NCAFC, Youth Fight For Education and more.

But the one in Falmouth on the 8th will be immensely important as a new stage in Cornwall’s fight against the cuts. Though the occupation at Tremough has fizzled out, the sit-in on the moor will bring together students and workers from all over Cornwall, with many expected to come from Truro and the surrounding area. The prospect of a considerable Cornwall College should not be limited by the fact that the SU president there is a Conservative. Mass mobilisations should take place everywhere across the county, and as we have seen with recent NUS dithering, we should not wait for right-wing SUs to back demonstrations.

The aim is to occupy the moor for as long as possible, and March the Fury urges students, parents, trade unionists and socialists in Cornwall to come and express their outrage at the sheer scale of the cuts to higher education and the marketisation of universities.

That which is privatised is rarely reclaimed, and therefore it is essential that in Cornwall we defend what educational institutions we have.

On a side note, transport up to the demonstration in London from Falmouth/Truro is currently being arranged. The event page concerning the coach trip can be found here.

It should also be noted that regarding these protests, the NCAFC has published legal advice for protesters to assist them in case they are arrested or injured by police.

Falmouth Protest Poster


Solidarity with those who have been occupying Tremough Campus’s Stannary and Library for almost a week.