[This piece was written for Militant Student]
The president of the London School of Economics student union, David Adelstein, and Marshall Bloom, president of the Graduate Students’ Association, have been suspended for taking part in demonstrations and direct action against their leadership. Millions of people are taking to the streets in France, and there are massive protests in the US after the government ignores its people’s demands. The year? 1967.
But there are some crucial differences. In the ‘60s university education was free – indeed they actually paid students to go to university. Britain was under a relatively left-wing Labour government. Today we are facing the most brutal cuts for generations – and university fees are being tripled, alongside unprecedented cuts to teaching budgets and the humanities. These are disturbing, and simultaneously exciting, times. As nearly 100,000 workers join forces with students every day in Wisconsin, revolutions break out in the Middle East and Northern Africa and Britain prepares for it’s largest demonstration in years on March 26th – times seem to be changing. In a very big way.
And yet the head of the Bank of England, Mervyn King said recently he’s ‘surprised people aren’t angrier’. When a representative of the bourgeoisie says makes this kind of comment, students and workers know it is time to take the action to another level.
This action is becoming international. Spurred on by the student protests of last year, UK Uncut formed to challenge tax dodging. Just a few months later it has spawned off-shoots in the US, France, Canada and Sudan. In a globalised economy, direct action is too becoming globalised.
At home, however, over 100,000 UCU members look likely to strike this month, and like the radical students of the 1960s we should be joining these lecturers in solidarity – a concept summarised in the book ‘Student Power’ over 40 years ago – ‘the first students to revolt…may not be those who suffer most acutely’. For school and college students to see people already in university protesting against the rise in fees is immensely inspiring, and has strengthened the movement. In this ‘renewal of revolutionary politics’ we are seeing 17 year olds radicalising people in their 50s who were active during the miners strikes of the ‘80s. This is a unity the left hasn’t seen for a long time, and the recent election result in Ireland (five United Left Alliance candidates were elected) only adds to the evidence that unity can have a fortifying impact upon the cause for democratic change.
Figures alone mean little, but the left groups of the UK have seen their numbers grow over the past year, a fact that all socialists and students should welcome. These developments add to the call for a fighting NUS, and after Aaron Porter’s standing down, Mark Bergfeld (for president) and Michael Chessman’s (for vice-president of FE) election campaigns have shown there is a real chance for the National Union of Students to be transformed, as in the late ‘60s, to a body that truly defends its members.
But after the exam period, it is imperative that the movement is revitalised. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are set to lose their jobs this year. Two thirds of public sector workers are women, who are being hit disproportionately. Pandering to the national press, however, is the ‘freedom of the lemming’, as one commentator put it. November’s student protest last year put young people on the map, and sparked a national revolt. Both the March 26 demonstration and the march from Jarrow to London on the 1st of October will bring together many groups, but it is in the student unions and local communities that we must develop the fight – the anti-poll tax campaign had groups in nearly every part of the country when it was introduced.
So as youth unemployment reaches a million, like the LSE student union president of 1967, SU’s must put all they can into building diverse and progressive campaigns against the cuts, and ensuring that this year is the year for a left NUS. Adelstein, it’s worth knowing, was reinstated as president after a militant 10-day occupation at the university. Just something to take note of…