The first step of the joint NUT/NASUWT strike campaign – a one day regional strike in the North West of England – was a big success writes Roy Wilkes. Over 2000 schools were closed across the region. 5000 teachers marched through Manchester, 4000 in Liverpool, 1000 in Preston and 500 in Chester. Young teachers, and young women teachers in particular, featured prominently in both the marches and the rallies. The atmosphere was vibrant, positive and optimistic – celebratory even – with passers by showing enthusiastic support (and several young people actually joining the march). It felt like we were turning a corner, that at long last we were beginning a serious fightback against Gove and his cronies.
Not before time. It is worth briefly recapping how far backwards Gove has pushed us over the last three years.
When the coalition took office there were only a couple of hundred academies. Now over half our secondary schools have been academised and the forced academisation of primaries is gathering pace. Ofsted are playing a more and more blatantly political role in failing primary schools in order to drive forward the program of forced academisation. And Gove is gradually letting it be known that academisation is but a first step towards fully privatised schools-for-profit.
Gove is determined to impose his own antiquated vision of a gradgrind curriculum. Phonics tests are sucking the joy out of learning for our very youngest children. And for older students, Gove is narrowing the curriculum, imposing rote learning in place of critical thinking, and scrapping modules and continuous assessment in favour of assessment solely by terminal exams. (However, it is on curricular issues that Gove has suffered his biggest setbacks, as recent concessions on the history curriculum have shown.)
The Condems have forced through changes to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, which mean teachers working till 68 or older. The government is still refusing to publish the valuation of the scheme, one of the key demands of the unions, fully 3 years after it was due to be published.
Gove has abolished national pay scales, automatic annual increments, and across the board cost of living rises (even the measly one percent), and imposed Performance Related Pay on all schools as a legal requirement. (It is interesting to note that Osborne has used this particular Gove ‘victory’ as a template for the latest wave of attacks on the rest of the public sector. Pressure should now be exerted on Unison and Unite to join the teacher unions in resisting this with joint strike action.)
Threat to jobs
In his latest submission to the School Teachers Pay Review Board, Gove has argued for scrapping all limits to contracted hours (currently 1265 hours per annum) and to the length of the school year. He has also pledged to abandon the workforce reforms which have enabled teachers in recent years to concentrate on teaching and learning. As well as worsening teachers’ conditions of work, this is a direct threat to the jobs of thousands of technicians and support staff.
These attacks aren’t the disconnected random acts of a madman, although that’s how they seem sometimes. There is a coherence to all this, a rationality. We know that because these attacks aren’t only happening here in the UK, they are happening across the globe. Indeed, for many years the World Bank has made it a condition of its loans to underdeveloped countries that they adopt exactly these so-called reforms to their own education systems.
Transnational corporations and the neoliberal politicians who support them have for many years taken a keen interest in all matters educational. The most obvious (but not the only) reason is that they are interested in privatising state education in order to unleash its huge potential for delivering massive profits. The total education budget in the UK was £99bn last year. If corporations can screw 20% or 30% profit out of that (which would be perfectly feasible if they can get away with driving our pay, conditions and employment levels low enough), then they are looking at serious money.
But grabbing profit isn’t the only reason capital is interested in education. Control of education would give the corporations more direct control over the supply of workers/consumers in the globalised and neoliberalised economy.
Capital wants a low paid, poorly pensioned and acquiescent teaching force whose job it is to train (rather than educate) a low paid, poorly pensioned and acquiescent workforce. They want children to spend long hours in school 6 days a week with short holidays, as preparation for working long hours for the corporations with no security and few if any paid holidays. They want teachers to be judged by standardised testing that sifts and sorts young people so that the most acquiescent can be placed within the corporate hierarchy, while the rest make up an impoverished and immiserated reserve army whose sole purpose in life is to keep the insecure zero-hours workforce suitably disciplined.
That is the miserable future Gove wants for us, for our schools and for our children. That’s why we really are striking not only for our own pay and conditions but more importantly to defend some semblance of a quality education, and to protect our children from the nightmarish future that Gove and his corporate backers has in store for them.
At this year’s Easter conference, the NUT passed a motion to establish a national campaign for education. Yesterday’s strike in the North West should be seen as the first round of a wider struggle for the high quality education system that our children deserve. It is important therefore that we go beyond opposing government policy on education and the attacks on teachers, we also need to develop and share our own vision for education. That vision will evolve and develop as the movement grows. But I would suggest that any left vision for education would include elements of the following:
1. Massive investment in education. We need to build more schools and recruit more teachers so we can achieve a significant reduction in class sizes. Why can’t we have the same pupil-teacher ratio as the Eton’s and Harrows that we are so often compared with?
2. Schools don’t cause poverty as Wilshaw claims, but poverty does impact massively on educational attainment. We should therefore make common cause with all those fighting the attacks on welfare and the introduction of the bedroom tax. And we should campaign vigorously for free school meals, including free breakfast every day, for all children.
3. Abolish OFSTED. In its place we want teachers supporting each other, collaborating with each other and cooperating with each other, to share good practice and raise the quality of the service we provide for all of our children.
4. No league tables and standardised testing. Instead we to trust teachers with the job of assessing students, in the knowledge that they would do so not in order to grade and sift young people but with the sole intention of guiding future learning.
5. Scrap performance related pay. Instead we want fair pay and decent pensions for all.
6. A reversal of all academisation and an end to privatisation. We want schools that really are at the heart of their communities and which are genuinely democratically accountable to the communities they serve. Teachers, students, parents and members of local communities should be encouraged to participate fully in the governance of schools. And cooperation between schools in each area should replace the destructive competitiveness that is encouraged by league tables.
7. Critical thinking rather than rote learning. If future generations are going to tackle the horrendous problems capital will have bequeathed to them (not least of which are environmental problems), people will need to have developed a confident and critical approach to problem solving. It won’t do us any good to have a cowed and submissive population schooled only in obedience and the regurgitation of facts.
8. Education for equality. Teachers have worked hard to build into education a sense of mutual respect and opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia. We can’t let the corporations undermine that.
9. And finally, we must make common cause with students in post 16 and post 18 education. Reinstate in full the EMA. Scrap tuition fees. Grants not loans for all students, so that young teachers and other graduates are not weighed down for decades under an intolerable burden of debt.
Teacher activists in the North West need to do much more than arrange solidarity messages to the other regions as they take strike action in September and October, while waiting for the national strike in November. We need to build on the success of 27th June in order to mobilise students, parents and local communities as part of an emergent campaign for education. We have much to learn from the Chicago teachers, who have built deep rooted community involvement in their struggles against privatisation and for defence of teachers’ pay and conditions.
And we still have work to do in organising teachers in those areas where confidence is still low, and especially in primary schools. The vast majority of secondary schools were shut by the strikes yesterday, but the picture is far less rosy in many of the primaries. I know of one primary school where the head called each teacher into her office individually and bullied them into pledging not to strike. Only one class was closed in that school, that of the NUT rep. That kind of bullying needs to be tackled head on.
The strength of support that they had built up in the community gave the Chicago teachers the confidence last year to call indefinite strike action. When Mayor Emanuel tore up their contracts (which is what Gove is doing to us now) the Chicago teachers walked out and pledged not to return to work until they got their contracts back. After 7 days of inspirational strike action and daily mass demonstrations, they won. We need our members to develop sufficient confidence to pursue the same level of determined struggle. For that to happen we need to emulate the Chicago Teachers Union’s model of social movement trades unionism.
By combining escalating strike action with deep rooted community involvement in the struggle we can and will defeat Gove (not to mention his de facto backers in the Labour Party.) And from the ashes of his miserable policies will rise the high quality education system that all of our children deserve.
Ian Parker reviews Andrew McGettigan’s book The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (ISBN: 978-0-7453-3293-2), published by Pluto Press at £16.99 on 30 April
The minority Conservative government propped up by Orange Book liberals keen on neoliberal reform has an ideological agenda above and beyond hypocritical claims that it must take emergency action to deal with the ‘financial crisis’. The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall in 2004 did not have a chapter on higher education, but they have enthusiastically embraced the Tory agenda, and reneging on their commitment to scrap tuition fees is just the start of it. In fact, the restructuring now being carried out has not even had to be ratified by the promised but delayed ‘Higher Education Bill’ (to match the 2011 Education Act and 2012 Health and Social Care Act). The ConDems have been able to move so fast because the main lines of the marketisation of higher education were actually laid down by the previous labour government. An advisor (Charlie Leadbeater) to the Blair government argued back in 2000 that ‘Universities should become not just centres of teaching and research but hubs for innovation networks in local economies, helping spin off companies for universities, for example. Universities should be the open-cast mines of the knowledge economy’.
Now Andrew McGettigan’s invaluable analysis of the state of higher education in England (there are a specific questions in Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland that would have to be analysed separately) in his The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education published by Pluto Press gives us a detailed picture of what the government is up to now, and how it is driving through its reforms. Andrew had been a postgraduate student of philosophy during the Middlesex University destruction of the radical research centre there in 2012. A campaign fought to keep the philosophy centre open, and when that failed – some would say there was a little victory at the end because the centre was snapped up by Kingston University and most of the staff saved their jobs – activists were still left puzzled by what had gone on. Why would Middlesex close down a high-status course that was bringing in research funding? It turns out that not only shedding the centre and the staff still would leave the university with a regular income from the Higher Education Funding Council to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds (for research already registered in the previous dodgy national research census). Middlesex had succeeded in driving out critical academics so it could reposition itself in the new undergraduate education marketplace.
What comes through in McGettigan’s book is a very direct message: Neoliberal restructuring of higher education now is not primarily to do with saving money but with educating students and staff to compete with each other. Yes, it is true that George Osborne wants to cut the ‘block grant’ administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills by £3 billion (down from £5 billion to £2 billion a year) by 2014/15, but this reduction is, first, designed to be permanent (it will not be restored when the ‘crisis’ is over) and, second, it is designed to bring into being ‘a new regulated market in higher education’. The massive increase in student fees from £3,375 to a maximum of £9,000 for students in the state-funded universities is only a first step, student loans will be made available to private providers (and new universities can now be formed with only 1,000 students), the block grant from government to universities will be slashed even further (to bring about a ‘level playing field’ with the private sector), and finally the £9,000 cap on student fees will be lifted not only from the private universities – it already has been – but from the state sector too.
The shift to tuition fees and student loans introduced under Labour and driven forward by the current government goes alongside the transformation of the state university sector into a new market. McGettigan shows how private equity companies are moving in to take advantage of this market. They know how to navigate it, exploit and fillet it so that for-profit learning will replace open-access public education. McGettigan is focusing on England, but we can already see how things will go if we look across the US. The largest university in America is the University of Phoenix with about 500,000 students, and is larger than all of universities of the elite ‘Russell Group’ of universities in Britain combined. A quarter of the Phoenix budget is spent on advertising, and this reels in students who will take out massive loans, with the real sting in the tail being the completion rate, the proportion of students who are able to get through the course and emerge with a degree, which is an amazingly low 9%. The founder of Phoenix is now a billionaire, but the students who go through this place are poorer, and the staff who are employed on part-time contracts are unable to defend themselves, let alone defend ‘education’ as such. Why does this matter to us? Phoenix is part of the Apollo Group which also owns BPP University College of Professional Studies, which was granted university status in the UK in 2010. This was the second private university created (after the University of Buckinghamshire), and there will be more and more of these.
The threat does not, of course, only come from outside (from US imperialism bringing the free market to the UK so it can extract profit from our own universities), but from the deregulation of the state universities who turn themselves into corporations (and then look overseas to try and extract profits from student markets there). The universities here are turning to joint ventures with private companies, outsourcing of services (the University of Sussex occupations were a response to this) and setting up ‘external’ campuses. This is something Middlesex had set its sights on (with external campuses in Dubai and Mauritius), and more recently the University of Central Lancashire at Preston (UCLan) in the North West of England attempted to go private so that resources could be shifted very fast to new campuses in Cyprus, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Overseas student income is an especially lucrative market – nearly 50 percent of visas issued for entry into the UK are to students – but the ideological offensive in education then comes into conflict with the ideological offensive over immigration, so things are being steered now to fly academics overseas, and keep the students there. And even that conflict of interests is tied up with marketisation and privatisation of the university sector. The investigation by the UK Border Agency into student visas at London Metropolitan University (LMU), for example, was triggered by what McGettigan calls ‘a lucrative validation deal’ with the London School of Business and Finance (a private college which was due to take 5,000 overseas students sponsored by LMU).
We can see very clearly that the universities restructured as corporations must be able to move quickly and flexibly to exploit opportunities, and, like any other corporation, any democratic accountability must then go out the window. Students who are told that they are ‘customers’ and lured in by promises that the customer is king soon discover that they are just commodities in this new market. Lecturers are told to buckle down and give the students what they want – but only if the customer demands a product that will help them compete with others, not if they ask for a space for critical reflection on knowledge – and are reminded that they are completely dispensable. And workers that run and clean the campus, who work in the reprographics and kitchens, have their own conditions of service trashed as they are moved into private outsourced companies.
McGettigan gives us analysis and diagnosis, and he shows us what the stakes are for what he calls the ‘public debate’ that must happen before a Higher Education Bill is passed through parliament. He is not promising us more than that in his book, and what he does is to brilliantly and clearly describe what we are up against. But things are moving very fast, have moved since this book went to press, and we also need some signs of hope. There are some. The Middlesex struggle (in which the university was, as he says, able eventually to ‘strip its own assets’) mobilised students, it was part of a new wave of action linking student and lecturer activists. The UCLan privatisation has been beaten back by combined union struggle (even if the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills claim that it was transfer of pensions that was the sticking point), and there are many other struggles – Sussex is just one of them – where democracy and accountability are the watchwords of new campaigns. They are resisting the logic of capital which turns people, ideas and education into commodities on the market-place, and these new activists in the universities are working together and thinking for themselves, which is what education should really be about.
While the agenda for National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference 2013 seemed very inward looking, the actual debates and decisions marked a significant step in committing the NUT to a fight against the politics of austerity peddled by the Tory led Coalition Government. Jon Duveen reports.
The most hotly debated motion was one from the Executive supporting the joint agreement with the NASUWT. This agreement means that the majority of teachers will be part of a campaign in defence of our pay and pensions, against any increase in our workload and against any funding cuts that will lead to redundancies and cuts in provision. The agreement calls for a series of regional strikes, starting on June 27th in the North West of England, and spreading over September and October leading to a national strike before Xmas. Alongside this there are to be joint rallies in all the major cities of England and Wales to mobilise teachers, parents, governors and trades unionists against the Governments attacks on education and teachers.
Whilst the timetable was slower than most of the NUT wanted it was probably more than the NASUWT were initially prepared to commit to. It is an historic agreement in that for the first time since the two unions separated, over the issue of equal pay, there is a commitment to a joint campaign. This agreement means that the majority of the teaching force is committed to a campaign against the Government over aspects of its austerity policies. For some of the left of the NUT, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers Liberty, this agreement was not enough. They sought to add into the Executive’s motion a call for a national strike on June 26th. It was the debate around this amendment that generated the most heat at this year’s conference. For us in Socialist Resistance the strategic direction of the joint agreement was more important than a one day national strike of the NUT. For some on the left the need to be more ‘left wing’ than the Executive was more important than the joint agreement. The supporters of the one day strike generated a lot of heat during the debate but not much light. The defence of the Executive’s motion was left to some of the Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) leadership and ourselves. At the end of the debate the Executive’s motion was supported by over 2 to 1. The task now for all members of the NUT is to make sure that bare bones of the joint agreement is given real flesh over the next few months.
The debate over facility time also generated a lot of discussion. The issue here was not about a defence of facility time but what to do if Local Authorities (LA) removed facility time as has been done in a few areas. One side of the debate argued that in these circumstances the union should pay for the facility time for Divisional Secretaries. On the other side the argument was that if this was done in one area then soon every LA would stop funding facility time and soon this would affect all the unions in the public sector. The debate on this amendment was the last debate of conference and the only debate that needed a card vote. In the card vote the supporters of the NUT not paying for facility time won by almost 2 to 1.
Other debates were much more consensual with very few speakers or voters against. A Priority Motion on Immigration making it clear that the NUT ‘condemns the attempts by politicians to scapegoat immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees for the economic problems of Britain’, was carried unanimously after an amendment defending the ‘rights of all children and their families, regardless of immigration status, to have access to social housing, welfare services and in particular the NHS, free at the point of need’, was passed. This allows the NUT locally to get involved in a range of campaigns defending immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
The motion on the Crisis in Education committed the union to building a National Campaign for Education (NCE) and urged local union groups to build ‘local school conferences’ to help develop the NCE locally.
Conference was addressed by both Mark Serwotka and Owen Jones who both stressed the need to get involved with the more general campaign against austerity, with Owen stressing the need for the NUT to get involved with the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.
Overall the Conference moved the NUT to the left. It aligned the union to build on its strategic policy of working with the NASUWT; it moved the union to defend immigrants from attack; it sought to build a national campaign for education; it agreed to clear class size guidelines, etc. However, although austerity and the fight against it formed the backdrop of the Conference, the issues of an alternative economic strategy and of poverty were not discussed. What was also clear from the debate on the joint agreement was that some of the left were still within a ‘more left than you’ framework and were unable to see that in a strategic sense the unity with the NASUWT was a massive gain for the NUT
In a press conference on Monday 18th March the two largest teacher unions announced a series of joint strikes starting on Thursday June 27th and continuing into the autumn term.
The first days of strike action will be regional strikes, involving every part of the country in turn. These will be followed by a national strike in the second half of the autumn term.
Both unions have said that there will more strike action to follow this if Michael Gove does not listen to the concerns of teachers about pay, pensions and workload.
It is the first time either union has announced such a programme of action and the first time we have had such a clear intent by both unions to work together in the interests of teachers and education.
The NUT and NASUWT together represent 85% of the teaching profession.
Campaigning to win support
As part of the process of building support for the strike action amongst teachers and the wider public there will be a series of Saturday rallies around the country beginning early next term. These will take place in major towns and cities and will feature speakers from both Unions as well as parents, governors and education campaigners.
These rallies will be a really important part of our campaign and it is crucial that NUT members support them and bring people along.
Model Pay Policy
The NUT and NASUWT have also launched a Joint Union Model Pay Policy, which we want to see adopted by all schools. This policy will seek to keep in place all the security and transparency of the current School Teachers Pay Document. Both unions will support paid strike action in schools that do not adopt this policy.
Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary said, “This is a very important time for the NUT and the future of the teaching profession. Michael Gove is not listening to the collective voice of the profession. He is pursuing courses of action that are detrimental both to the education of our students and the careers and well-being of teachers. I urge all NUT members to support this campaign to make our voice heard.”
The battle against fees and cuts is far from over. In fact it has just begun. Last term’s demonstrations divided the Lib Dems and shook the Coalition Government. Yet the cuts have hardly started. The students’ movement itself is only just off the ground. There are more than 2 million students in Britain. Another 1.7 million attend FE colleges. Most colleges have just only started to organise.
A second, greater wave of occupations and demonstrations could bring the education system grinding to a halt. This would have the backing of staff and free them to join the struggle. It is their jobs that are under threat. The vote in parliament was just the start. Universities must decide in the next few months what fees they want to charge. Then there are the looming cuts in staff and facilities that will be an inevitable consequence of the funding cuts. Occupations will be central to these new struggles: They can stop universities functioning.
Get your copy of our student bulletin here. (Apologies that the link earlier was broken. It’s now fixed.)
James Haywood, communication and campaigns officer at Goldsmiths’ College spoke to Socialist Resistance about the student mobilisations.
SR: Coming from Goldsmiths’ radical student movement, was the wide extent of the student struggle a surprise to you?
JH: I have to admit that when we waited at the Goldsmiths’ meeting point on the 10th November I was genuinely shocked at how big it was. I think what I was most surprised about was the strong Further Education (FE) delegations on that march, and how radical they were. I think that is what has marked this struggle so far, the 15-18 year olds who have everything to lose in these policies. They are inspiringly radical!
SR: You must have seen something in the wave of radical election victories?
JH: The election victories were good, but it’s one thing for someone to vote for a radical in an student union election, quite another for them to come out and occupy buildings and battle with police. The student unions have given us a good base of resources to help build this momentum, where we have radicals elected, so just goes to show how important union elections can be.
SR: Why do you think the Tories focussed on the students?
JH: I think they genuinely thought they would pass this through with nothing but some National Union of Students (NUS)-style lobbying and a few question time debates. It shows the arrogance of the rich yet again!
SR: Have they bitten off more than they can chew?
JH: I think they have gained a “victory” over students but at a huge political cost. Time will tell how Millbank etc affects the movement at large, but it looks like the student movement has reignited a flame in the UK public.
SR: The National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts (NCAFC) and other rank and file groups have developed a massive profile. What’s the role of NUS been?
JH: Well it was the NUS demo which was the launch pad for this movement, so we do need to give them credit for organising the demo. But that is where compliments end.
From emails sent to student union officers, NUS president Aaron Porter seems to want to focus all our energy on lobbying MPs, even after the Lib Dem scandal! They are terrified of unleashing a movement which they can’t control, because it will do radical things that they don’t agree with.
I have to admit that after Aaron came out in support of occupations at UCL, I had some optimism that the NUS was coming on board. But that has proved false. Career before principles!
SR: Is there a need for something in between, like a movement of radical student unions?
JH: We do need a network of radical Student Unions but we still don’t have the weight yet to form our own national union. I think if people are serious about the idea, we need to throw our weight into getting anti-cuts people elected in the spring, and re-assess our weight once the votes are in.
SR: What can British students ;earn from the struggles abroad?
JH: Well quite simply that radicalism works, and wins. If people genuinely want to stop the cuts and fees, we need to look at places where the campaign has won. France is the most obvious example. Those who dismiss this are not serious about the fight; and only want a symbolic campaign at best.
SR: What will happen next? How important is the campaign against Aaron Porter?
JH: I think the campaign against Aaron is fine, but if we really want a radical change we need to get people to the NUS conference, and, more importantly in my opinion, we need to get activists elected to local students unions. The SU hacks are the base of the right in NUS, if we reclaim our SUs we will be in a strong position to reclaim our NUS too.
SR: There’s a movement building to elect Clare Solomon as NUS President. Her victory would be great. What role does the NUS conference play in the struggle next year?
JH: It would be great to get Clare elected, however NUS conference has seen more and more inroads to democracy and it will be a monumental task. Let’s be clear, NUS conference is not representative of the grassroots. Your average activist does not naturally gravitate to NUS anymore, it’s your careerist types who do. That can and should be reversed, but I think we need one step at a time.
SR: What will success look like for the student movement in three months? In six months?
JH: The real success will be turning our occupations into disruptive instruments. We need occupations to stop universities from working, not just symbolically ‘liberated’ spaces. If we begin to stop universities from operating, then we have the kind of leverage that can genuinely win this fight.
Sean Thompson reflects on his time in the 1968 student movement and explains how today’s is different.
In the hazy golden glow of hindsight, Wordsworth seemed to have been writing about us in the spring of 1968; ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!’ The Tet offensive seemed to be a decisive turning point in the Vietnam war (a prediction which turned out, unusually for the left, to be correct). The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign had organised a demonstration of over 20,000 people the previous October and the next, in March, had been over 100,000 strong and even more militant. In May, as I drove through Finsbury Park with the first bundles of the first edition of the Black Dwarf, I listened on the car radio to the sound of the Internationale being sung on the streets of Paris by a huge demonstration of workers and students. Bliss indeed.
There had been a few sit-ins, such as at LSE in protest at the appointment of Walter Adams as Vice Chancellor, the previous year. However, in response to the May Events, a rash of student protests and occupations started to sweep the country - and, indeed, Europe. For a few weeks, students in Bristol, UEA, Sussex, Keele, Hornsey, Guildford, Corsham and at the time, it seemed, almost everywhere else, occupied their colleges - and in many cases won significant reforms from the authorities. Then they all went on holiday.
There was a was a lot of nonsense talked about ‘The Student Revolution’ at that time, with silly theories - such as universities becoming ‘Red Bases’ and whatever it was that Marcuse was going on about - gaining a temporary currency. However, while not wanting to overstate the significance of the specific events we have witnessed over the past month or two, I think that the current wave of student unrest is different from - and more significant than - the events in those dear dead days of May and June 1968 in three potentially vital ways.
First of all, while the student protests of 1968 were political, they were political in somewhat abstract ways; opposition to the war in Vietnam or to Apartheid, or even to the universities‘ involvement with corporate and/or state interests. Even the protests about the content and form of teaching in the art schools tended to reflect the concerns of an advanced, fairly politicised, minority. On the other hand, the protests we have been seeing over this winter have been largely the expression of students’ outrage at the attacks on their living standards and educational prospects - in other words, they have been rooted in the real life experience and aspirations of ordinary students.
Second, the student protests of ’68 were overwhelmingly middle class in their makeup; not suprising, since even though HE had expanded in the ‘60s and become an option for more working class kids, they were still a very small minority in a sector that was much smaller than it is today. Today, the HE sector has vastly expanded and far more working class youngsters attend university, or aspire to it. In addition, FE colleges have become an alternative to sixth forms for many working class kids and preparing them for university entrance has become a central role for FE. For these youngsters, the Education Maintenance Award scheme (EMA) is a vital support and the Government’s plans for its abolition from April has been seen by many of them (rightly) as a vindictive and mean minded attack on their living standards and their plans for the future. Thus, a feature of the street demonstrations across Britain has been the involvement of many much younger working class students from FE colleges and sixth forms.
Third, in 1968 there was little or no popular support for the student protests, certainly not within the labour movement. However, this time the protests have not just involved a much wider layer of students than were ever involved in 1968, but reacting as they were to what were merely the most visible of the savage cuts in social provision that face us, the students have to some degree come to be seen by many trade union activists (many of whom, of course, have children who have been or will be affected by the cuts) as the first wave of real opposition to the Tories and their Lib Dem bag carriers. And while Len McCluskey’s public support for the students may be largely rhetorical, it is public support nonetheless.
While we should not have any illusions about what the spontaneous upsurge of student anger will achieve on its own, I think that we should see it as a inchoate harbinger of the mass opposition that is to come - that has to come if we are to defeat this dreadful government. This is not history repeating itself - it has the potential to be the beginning of something really new.
Alf Filer draws some conclusions from the far right’s announcement that it plans to attack student demonstrations.
“The next time the students want to protest in our capital, the English Defence League (EDL) will be there.” So threatened ex British National Party (BNP) supporter Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley Lennon , in a speech at Peterborough on 11 December. The EDL , as expected, have thrown in their lot with those forces attacking both the students and any other trade union opposition to the cuts. Fascism is the last defence of capitalism.
Such a statement confirms what most of us knew. The EDL are committed to developing into a hardened street fighting organisation determined first to attack Muslims and then to use that to divide working people, through the scapegoating of innocent victims of the capitalist crises. They see mass student resistance on the streets as being a real challenge, with an ability to mobilise and unite working class youth and trade unionists, whilst making it clear the enemy is not Muslims but the ConDem government, the City, their banker friends and the ruling class.
The racist, Islamophobic, homophobic and reactionary statements coming from the EDL represent a classical attempt by fascists to attack the working class and their allies, in defence of capital. Whilst claiming to be a working class movement of ordinary people, the EDL does not in any way represent or class. It is a crude and violent attempt to act as the storm troopers of capitalism. Some of their organisers may be of the working class but they are certainly not for the working class. Many of its leaders are petty bourgeois small business men, with a few secret financial backers. Their role is certainly not to protect workers from the ravages of the crises, far from it. Congratulations must go to those who recently hacked into the EDL website and exposed some of their supporters.
In Germany, the Brown Shirts violently attacked Jews, gays, trade unionists and socialists in the 20’s and 30’s, blaming unemployment and economic crises on a so-called Zionist Conspiracy. They resurrected the old Tsarist blood lie to frighten voters into supporting them, whilst using street violence to intimidate and attack opponents. Only a divided working class, resulting from a failure of the Communist and Socialist Parties to unite, enabled the Nazis to take power, using the jackboot and the ballot box. The lessons of the rise of fascism in the 30’s and the defeats and human tragedies that then followed in the Holocaust, must be fully understood by the movement today if we are to successfully prevent this being repeated. Stalinism and Social Democracy attempted then to disarm the proletariat in the struggle for Socialism. The united front tactic put forward by Trotsky and his supporters then are just as relevant and essential now.
We totally endorse the statement by the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) national officer Martin Smith:
“Some people in the antifascist movement have argued that if the EDL comes to your town, you should stay at home, ignore them and hope they’ll go away. We think that’s wrong. There are fascist elements with a growing influence in the EDL – and if you give an inch to a fascist, they’ll come back for more.
… When they attack one community, it’s an attack on all of us. And we should remember that if we all come together and stand united, there are many, many more of us than them.”
The EDL is planning to return to where it first started its racist marches, in Luton, on Saturday 5th February. Students and young workers will be there, alongside trade unionists, socialists, community groups, anti-cuts campaigners and many others to make it clear whose streets it is and that it does not belong to the fascists.
In Harrow, Tower Hamlets, Manchester, Glasgow, Burnley, Cardiff and in many other towns and cities across the country, thousands marched in defence of all communities against fascist and racist threats. The cry, “They shall not pass” and “ No Platform for Fascists”, was once again raised in defiance of attempts by the police, the media and the Establishment to protect the EDL whilst arresting anti-fascists and bringing of charges against the leaders of the UAF. This duplicity by the state was rewarded by the EDL subsequently attacking police lines on recent marches, to try to prove who the better street fighters were.
There are those in the anti-fascist movement, who have argued for a position that state bans should be relied on to prevent the fascists from marching. Instead of mass mobilisations organised through local based and democratic anti-fascist committees, Hope Not Hate and others have argued that we should call on the police and the Home Office to ban the EDL. Unfortunately, even if they wanted to, the state representatives make it clear that static demos are not illegal. This does not prevent them using police horses, illegal kettling, batons and other similar tactics to prevent students and youth from opposing the cuts. Some in the media have even suggested the use of water cannons and rubber bullets to put down the students, whilst turning a blind eye to the fascists.
The state is not, and never has been, neutral. State violence is used to reinforce class oppression and oppose resistance by working people and organized labour. The same capitalist state that inhumanely mistreats the children of asylum seekers at places such as Yarls Wood, batons and assaults students such as Alfie Meadows in Whitehall, will be the state that attacks workers on picket lines in defence of jobs. Only united action on the streets, as shown at Cable Street in the 1936 and in Harrow 2 years ago, can prevent the fascists from marching.
Although the BNP lost their seats in Barking and Dagenham, along with other electoral losses in the last general and local council elections, their vote had increased to over half a million nationally. This, combined with votes for other far right and nationalist candidates, shows that they are not finished, in spite of recent splits and faction fights. Nick Griffin is considering whether to run in the forthcoming Oldham and Sandlewood by-election.
Labour and immigation
Yet is the Labour Party able to present a challenge, given its record on immigration controls, support for public spending cuts and accepting the case for cutting the size of the budget deficit?
Disillusionment by working people is understandable when all three political parties argue that cuts are inevitable in one way or another. The disgraced former Labour MP, Phil Woolas, was happy to play the race card by accusing his Liberal Democrat opponent of trying to woo the votes of Muslim extremists.
Similarly, in the middle of the Dagenham election campaign, Margaret Hodge, New Labour Culture Minister at the time, called for tighter immigration quotas. Yet in campaigning against Griffin, anti-racists had to point out the racist nature of immigration controls and how racism cannot be fought with racist arguments. All immigration controls are by definition racist. Theresa May, the ConDem Home Office minister has now also faced defeats following successful appeals over immigration restrictions that her Government had recently introduced. Even the City accepts that immigration controls can have a harmful effect on the economy, yet they only want the restrictions lifted on their “ overpaid key workers” not all workers, many on very low pay.
Democracy in UAF
Over the past 2 years, many in the anti-fascist movement, along with Socialist Resistance, have been urging the UAF to maximise the support it has attracted by convening its long delayed AGM. The aim of this is to enable full and frank discussion within the wider movement on tactics and strategy for organising mass mobilisations effectively and so strengthen the anti-fascist movement. Such an AGM would also permit a more open, democratic and approach, with wider representation on the national committee of the UAF. Unfortunately this is where we must disagree with the dominant political force in the UAF, the SWP. Whilst we welcome and recognise the dedication of their members to this struggle, we do not agree with their methodology.
A more open and democratic structure at local and national level , as opposed to a top down approach, would enable the UAF to deepen its links within the labour movement, at the base. Whilst having endorsements from trade union and political leaders, it is the participation of activists in its everyday life that will enable the UAF to succeed. Perhaps this is where the UAF can learn some of the lessons from the Coalition of Resistance, with over 100 people on its National Council. Internal democracy is not a luxury it is a necessity.
Similarly it has been raised for the need by the UAF to convene an international conference, bringing together the international experiences of the anti-fascist movement, linking in with the international struggle against austerity measures across Europe and beyond. The present crises is international and the struggle against this and fascism must be international also.
The emergence over the past year of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts, and their active involvement in the Coalition of Resistance is a very positive development in the struggle against racism and the cuts, based on the important principle of autonomy and self organisation. It is not sufficient to simply sloganise “black and white unite and fight”. This shows how the victims of racism can unite with the anti-cuts movement and so strengthen the struggle. Similarly we are seeing similar movements emerging amongst women, gays and people with disabilities. They quite rightly are not prepared to accept being patronised but be accepted and welcomed as equals, who have the right to maintain their independence.
The challenge facing the anti-cuts campaigns at a local and national level is to develop a unifying strategy that can reach out to all sections of the working class communities, developing a clear anti-racist and anti-sexist perspective. The labour movement must totally reject any formula that is based on protecting “British jobs for British workers”. The only winners from such a campaign will be the racists and fascists. Internationalism must be at the forefront of our struggle against austerity measures at all times.