I got the text while I was at work. But my phone was off and I did not read it till 4.30 that afternoon. By then my 17 year old daughter, S, had been “kettled” for over three hours. She was frustrated, cold and angry. I dashed over to Westminster.
It was the 24th November and the second national day of action against fee increases. All over the country an estimated 130,000 students and school students organised marches, occupations, and other direct actions.
Remonstration and pleading with the phalanx of bored officers facing me was to no avail. So I had little choice but to spend 2 ½ hours observing this surreally brutal snapshot of austerity Britain. A temporary Siberian gulag for dissenting children just yards from the seat of government.
Cordons of riot police fenced in a group of one or two thousand young people on Whitehall, most of them under 18. Temperatures hovered near zero. Kids were not dressed appropriately – they quite reasonably expected to march and be home before dark. High pitched chants of “we want to be free” wafted over the batons and shields. Fires were burning around the Cenotaph war memorial.
The police claimed to have released the youngest children after a relatively short time. But, like many of their other statements over the following days this simply wasn’t true.
Other examples: that there was no charge of police horses into the defenceless crowd. Or that a police van, subsequently decorated by fed-up protestors anxious to fill in the time constructively, had been abandoned by officers in fear when surrounded by marchers. Both exposed in video’s posted on youtube.
It was only from 6pm that a very slow trickle of children was released – initially restricted to 13 and 14 year old girls. I saw children of that age group still being released an hour later – frozen after 5 hours of open air imprisonment.
If the aim had been to quell their spirit or disperse the protest, it was a massive miscalculation. In fervent solidarity the mates of those kettled up had refused to go home. Each released “prisoner” was greeted by dozens of young comrades – whooping with delight and chanting slogans. These groups then engaged in spontaneous further protest – sitting down in Westminster Bridge road and blocking rush hour traffic – in solidarity with those still detained.
And it wasn’t just the young. A woman next to me anxiously waited for her 74 for year old mum, a retired school teacher, imprisoned by riot police in hypothermia-inducing conditions for 6 hours.
During the course of my wait I found out that my 14 year old daughter, R, who also attended the protest only narrowly escaped the kettle herself. The police cordon came down like a guillotine imprisoning her friends and leaving her on the outside with a line of burly coppers in between. Rather than give up and go home, she then spent two hours arguing, negotiating and cajoling until, worn down, the officers were finally persuaded to release her friends.
A large proportion, possibly a majority, of these young protestors was girls. Many were black or Muslim. Most were working class. They were also articulate, political, militant and reluctant to give up. I felt sorry for some of the coppers, forced into endless political debates with these angry kids about education, fees, cuts, policing, civil liberties, war and the state of the world.
S’s release at 7.30 pm was a moment of heightened emotion, of a kind I have not experienced in many years of political activity. I quickly bundled her and her friend, in states of shock, frozen and starving, into the nearest café for a hot chocolate and some food. But they didn’t come willingly. They felt guilty about leaving their friends behind.
They told me how ill people – including one person with epilepsy and another who was vomiting – were not allowed to leave. How just one portaloo was shipped in for which people had to queue at length, escorted out and then back in to the kettle, for the privilege.
Welcome to life under a coalition government, one part of which has long defined civil liberties as an immutable, core value. Ed Miliband claims to have turned his back on the Blair/Brown legacy, but not a peep of criticism has been heard from the Labour leadership.
Warmed up at home S and R told me the story of their respective days. 250 had walked out of S’s 6th form college. Well up from the handful that accompanied her for the first march a fortnight previously. And this at a college with no history of radicalism, where studiousness is the order of the day.
Like a flying picket, the group first marched to a neighbouring comprehensive school, hoping to encourage pupils there to join them and proceed into town en mass. But the head teacher had locked the gates there, barricading all the pupils in, so S and friends formed a protest outside chanting that they should be allowed to join the protest.
R was meeting her friends at the tube station – but they were confronted by police officers stationed to pick them off and send them back to school. One of her group was “arrested”, put in a police van and marched into school by unformed officers. The rest, not easily put off, had to resort to a roundabout route into town under the radar on a variety of busses.
From these and other anecdotes it seems there was a co-ordinated police campaign across London boroughs to prevent school students even reaching the march. But for this and head-teachers blockading school gates there would have been many thousand more school students in attendance.
Punitive measures have continued after the event. One 15 year old girl participant I know of was excluded for 8 days. Her older sister was given a dressing down for organising a 6th form walk out and her parents hauled up in front of the deputy head. Other parents have received stiff letters insinuating unlawfulness and neglect. Court action can’t be excluded.
As well as celebrating this upsurge in youth radicalism, students unions, trade unions and anti-cuts campaigns need to organise defence of these youngsters and their parents. The considerable public opposition to the fee increases must be harnessed allowing them the space and freedom to continue protesting as they see fit.
All this happened only a week ago, but it’s already old news. 30th November saw a further nationwide day of action, with many occupations set to continue for the foreseeable future.
The mass militancy has already had an impact. Lib Dem support is plummeting, heavily dependent as it is on young people. Its MPs are desperately seeking ways to avoid voting for the fee increase with the absurd result that Vince Cable, a government minister, has said he might abstain even though he backs it.
NUS president Aaron Porter, who first responded by denouncing “violence” and then dithered during a fortnight of local actions has been forced into a public self-criticism of his own “spinelessness” and backing for the occupations.
The school students who are so angry are the generation that stands to lose most. The vast majority will be slammed with the costs or deterred from higher and further education before any of them get a chance to vote about it, let alone be betrayed by mendacious political careerists. But this is only part of the story behind their anger.
The 14 to 18 year olds are “Blair’s children”, growing up under the shadow of New Labour education policies that were marked by authoritarianism, marketisation and a narrowing of the curriculum.
League tables, SATS and endless testing drove out the creativity, imagination, curiosity and experimentation that are a hallmark of adolescence. By the age of 10 they were being warned in stern terms that failing tests would jeopardise their future exam prospects, their chances of higher education and therefore their lives.
As a result, in contrast to older generations, young people have been placed in a continuous state of stress and anxiety about their future, forced to think about degree courses and jobs when barely into their teens. Many of their parents enjoyed education for its own sake, studied subjects because they expanded their minds and horizons and were given the freedom and space to take these precious years one step at a time.
Out on the streets today’s teenagers have had yet more to deal with. Subject to a government-generated frenzy of initiatives to control and criminalise. The notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Orders – now widely discredited – enabled senior police officers to declare gatherings of more than 2 youngsters in a public place illegal. Kids with hooded tops were prohibited from shops and other public places. School playing fields were sold off, play centres and youth clubs closed down. One shameful consequence has been the imprisonment of more children in this country than any other in Europe – including some, immigration detainees, who have done nothing wrong.
With a housing crisis, low wages, insecure jobs and “flexible working” – these children often live in crowded conditions and with parents forced to take several part time jobs. Modern family life for many – far from being a haven from school and street is marked by addictions, mental health problems, violence and teenage pregnancy rates that have placed Britain at the bottom of a UN league of advanced industrial nations in the quality of life of its children.
This philistine authoritarianism, born of neoliberal capitalist ideology, was sold to the young and the wider public as necessary preparation for work and higher education.
But then along came the economic crisis and this promised future has turned out to have been a mirage. The jobs have disappeared. Further and higher education are no longer a passport to security and employment, let alone a mythical social mobility. Indeed the message is: don’t even bother applying unless you are rich.
Youth participation in the recent protests is therefore no flash in the pan. They may be temporarily pushed back by police repression and school exclusions, but these young people will not easily give up. Neither is it surprising that many of those on the streets are working class, black and female. This is far from the “middle class” revolt that even the more sympathetic media like to portray it.
There is an understanding of how the fees hike is part of broader ideological attack on the whole concept of education. The school students didn’t have to read the Browne report, which advocated the assessment of educational value in economic terms defined by the market, to know what is in store. They know that educational choice is being blocked off and restricted down to vocation-based courses not just at university level but going right back to the beginning of Year 10, when they embark on GCSEs. And they don’t like it.
This background and the obvious fact that these young people come to political activism completely inexperienced – are all distinctive factors that mark this youth revolt out from the older student, trade union and community based anti-cuts movement. That the youth protests have been warmly welcomed across the spectrum – from national union leaders to Guardian letter writers – is very positive. But it is particularly important that the movement takes the trouble to properly understand this development and offer the right type of support.
Our job is to give encouragement, financial and material help and space to organise; and to defend them when the youths are attacked politically, legally or physically. Above all we need to ensure they have a voice and profile so that their needs, demands and priorities are listened to and become part of the wider movement.
The last thing they need is for adults or youth clones of adult groups to parachute in and organise them. They should be encouraged to continue and deepen the self-organisation they have already embarked on. This has been done before.
My own formative experiences were in the National Union of School Students in the early 1970s. In some respects the climate today is more favourable for such self-organisation. In those days teachers were largely hostile, to the point that in order to support them in a pay dispute NUSS marchers were forced to the very back of an NUT demo because we were thrown off it. CND had a large, militant and largely autonomous youth movement, YCND which was closed down when it became too radical. Similarly the Labour Party’s youth wing was periodically shut down if it became too vocal or vibrant. Right now there seems greater respect for these young people from their teachers, parents and elders. There certainly ought to be.
These school students are not just the leaders of the future. They are leaders now. Uncowed by authority or past defeats, with little to lose and much gain, they have fearlessly and at great risk shown the way.
How to build a united mass movement is a key question for any successful resistance to the onslaught on jobs, wages and services, just as it is for the campaign against fascism or to get the troops out of Afghanistan. Winning a majority for a fundamental transformation of society towards socialism, poses the question on a more profound level. But how is this unity in action to be achieved?A united working class has never been created spontaneously. Capitalism creates divisions and competition, particularly in times of crisis. Obvious examples are those along national, racial, gender and regional lines. But divisions between workers as employees and consumers, tax payers and welfare recipients are also encouraged. And a frenzy is presently being whipped up over which job or service should be cut or maintained, which part of the welfare state is less and more valued – pitting the interests of one section of the class against another.
That there should be different experiences within the class should come as no surprise therefore, nor that these give rise to different political perspectives. Marxists view the capitalist economic system as both wholly responsible for the global misery being inflicted due to the present crisis and functionally incapable of restructuring itself in a way that will prevent it re-occurring at regular intervals in the future. And yet this hasn’t let to a mass conversion to revolutionary socialism. That’s because, historically the overwhelming majority of the working class in this country has considerable faith in the potential for reforming capitalism to meet its needs. It will take more than an economic crisis and a bit of propaganda for that to change.
Overcoming disunity and winning a majority for socialism, or a particular campaign, cannot be achieved simply by proclamation. Nor can it be achieved by setting up small formations, pretending they are broadly representative and then excluding or marginalising all whom disagree. Posed in this way both methods sound ludicrous, but they are hardly uncommon practices in the British revolutionary left.
It is largely through their own experience of struggle that the many sections of the working class will develop the unity and perspectives required. This happens through a process in which collective consciousness is raised and self-confidence strengthened. At times this can occur very quickly.
But this will never happen unless methods of organising bring together all the different sectors, experiences and perspectives. This is turn entails not just a fundamental respect for different tendencies and currents, but a positive understanding of the necessity for pluralism in any successful movement.
Democracy and transparency
By definition true pluralism requires democracy and transparency to create trust. People want that reassurance if they are to invest their precious time and money in a joint activity with others whom they have disagreements. There is always a concern to know who is involved, how structures are accountable and who controls the resources.
In the 1920s and 1930s there was an ongoing debate in the international Communist movement and later in the left opposition about the United Front. Initially this was in response to a ultraleftism in the early 1920s during a period of defeat or decline following an initial post-war and post-Russian revolution upsurge. Communists in some countries over-estimated their own strength and the extent to which the mass of workers might readily break from reformism.
The Communist Third International under Stalin then lurched through a series of zig zags that went from a strategic alliance with the social democratic trade union bureaucracies even through bitter betrayals like the British General Strike of 1926; to the ultra-left “third period” in which the need to defeat “social fascist” social democratic parties was posed as a pre-condition for the defeat of fascism itself; to the popular frontism of the 1930s in which the defeat and roll back of class militancy was the price to be paid for participation in government and unity with the “liberal” bourgeoisie.
What immediately comes across from these debates is that the united front is not an abstract off-the-shelf formula that can be downloaded and applied for any given situation. It’s application is always a concrete issue dependent on the political context and the class balance of forces. Nonetheless there are lessons to be learnt.
Rather than rigidly applying particular slogans or organisational forms, or making a fetish about exactly who is involved, the guiding consideration should be a broader assessment as to whether the united front has a dynamic towards strengthening the consciousness, combativity, organisation and independence of the class. This is best achieved by a focus on common actions with specific goals, rather than vague long term aspirations.
The United Front is an organic and sensitive process that cannot be achieved by ultimatums or artificial preconditions, abstract or schematic approaches. In particular any mechanical counterposition of the strategic goals of revolutionary Marxists to the need for such unity will prove disastrous.
In Britain there has been no mass communist or revolutionary tradition. So the issue has been differently posed historically. Primarily it has involved a recognition of the hegemonic position of the Labour Party and its leadership in defining the political landscape of the working class.
Successful mass social and political movements
In the early 1930s Trotsky described the British Communist Party as compromising “an insignificant portion of the proletariat” and referred to it’s “extreme weakness”. He criticised Communists for trying to impose their own fronts instead of understanding that the masses will only come to revolutionary consciousness through the experience of struggle, something that will only occur through being drawn into a united front.
80 years on, the revolutionary left finds itself in a weaker position – not just because of small numbers, but due to a historically low level of class struggle in the past two decades. Despite this it is still possible for movements and struggles to be built using united front methods.
Successful mass social and political movements have been built in the last three decades. The Anti-Nazi League, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Anti-Poll Tax campaign and Stop the War were all, to varying degrees, action focussed mass campaigns that were pluralistic, based on autonomous grass roots activism and democratic national structures. These features were key to their success. And despite its ultimate defeat, the movement in support of the 1984-5 miner’s strike was similarly a model united front.
The anti-cuts and rate capping fights of the 1980s are perhaps the most recent example of an anti-austerity struggle. They were largely organised around and led by the Labour left, focussed in particular local government strongholds. This aspect is very unlikely to be replicated today.
But even if there are no signs that local Labour Parties will lead a fightback today, the involvement of individual Labour councillors, MPs, members and party structures is essential if the broadest possible campaign is to be build. Trade unionists and the local communities at the brunt of the attacks are likely to be the core building blocks this time around. And much of the strength of any struggle will be at the level of local actions.
But “localism” on its own will not be sufficient. In every campaign against cuts and job losses it will be impossible to build sufficient momentum without confronting fundamental political questions of national governmental policy: concerning the causes of the economic crisis and who should pay for it. And local campaigns, whilst retaining their autonomy, will need to co-ordinate in a national democratic structure.
Combining the need for a national, highly politicised approached that addresses these issues, whilst remaining as broad as possible, rooted in local activism and focussing on simple and specific concrete goals will be a very difficult balancing exercise. Getting it right will lie at the heart of any successful resistance.