Monthly Archives: November 2010

Porter keeps on flipping

by Edd Mustill

NUS president Aaron Porter will have to be careful, as we say back in Sheffield, that he doesn’t “get a sore arse from sitting on the fence too much.”

Initially, he decried the day of action on the 24th for supposedly distracting from the NUS “strategy” of attempting to force by elections on Liberal Democrat MPs, using a constitutional provision which, by the way, does not yet exist.

He humbly back-tracked publicly in a speech to the UCL occupation on Sunday morning. He has acknowledged that peaceful direct action including occupations are accepted as a legitimiate tactic by the NUS, although his recent blog studiously ignores the existence of NCAFC and EAN:

“I want to announce my support for a new wave of action, spurred on and supported by NUS and Students’ Unions, mobilising our students in colleges and Universities and working with other activists and supporters from across the education sector, the trade union movement, parents, families and beyond. There has never been a more important time for a united student movement, and this is what I will lead.”

No activists will read this and think, “Thank god! At last we have a leader.” The numbers at tomorrow’s day of action will not be any higher because of this belated announcement.

Today the Cambridge Defend Education group, which was served with an injuction against its occupation of the Old Schools site, claimed on twitter:

“asked @aaronporter for support w/ our possession order. He said ‘we are not offering legal advice or financial support to students.’”

Porter tried to clear this up by suggesting that the NUS is seeking legal advice about the rights of occupiers but not on a “case by case basis.”

The NUS completely lost the leadership of the student movement after Porter so strongly and quickly condemned the Millbank protest in the national media. They are now trying to reclaim that leadership. The radical students who have mobilised themselves, and the groups who have been behind the days of action, must not let them do this.

Remember that the NUS wanted us to have one march, on the 10th, listen to some speakers, and go back to lobby our MPs. Remember that they have no strategy for defeating higher fees and education cuts.

The ball is still in the court of the radicals. We must start to formulate a strategy for defeating the Bill, and we must keep up and increase the use of democratic forums like general assemblies for debating the direction of the protest movement.

Comparisons can easily be drawn between Porter and Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party (remember them?) Perhaps Aaron gets a dizzying feeling when he sees Ed on the telly; a sense that he is gazing into his own future. Like Aaron, Ed has been unable to make his mind up about whether he supports the students protests, or perhaps whether it is politically expedient for him to do so. Political fence-sitting is fine in times of social peace, and it might even win you an election. Not any more.

Good luck to everyone tomorrow.

As they say in France, “The future belongs to us!”

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Prof. Richard Drayton on “Economic Lies and Cuts”

Here is the first of a four-part video of Prof. Richard Drayton’s talk at the occupied Cambridge Old Schools site. It makes for essential listening for all anti-cuts activists. Check out Cambridge Defend Education’s youtube channel for the rest.

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Posters from the student movement

by Edd Mustill

Here’s something for Sunday, before a heavier post on the student movement later. I’ve collected some of the posters emerging from the student movement.

My favourite is either the Edinburgh poster or the London South Bank one protesting against the banning of the anti-cuts group there.

The fist poster design for the 30th seems to have gone viral but I’m not sure where it came from originally. Can anyone help?

If and when you design more, send us the image at thegreatunrestblog@gmail.com and we’ll put them up.

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Cambridge go into occupation.

University of Cambridge students have occupied part of the Old Schools, the university’s ‘nerve centre’. Students’ Union officers are milling around and making supportive noises while students organise food, publicity, etc. Student journalists are inside and professionals/freelancers seem to be joining them.

Demands will be drawn up shortly. Proctors (university authority figures responsible for discipline) have arrived and are telling occupiers that the university intends to end the occupation and are pursuing legal channels, presumably an eviction order through the courts. More information later, perhaps!

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When is a charge not a charge?

by Edd Mustill

The Guardian reported the following at 3.05pm on Thursday, in the aftermath of Wednesday’s student protest in London:

The Metropolitan police have stood by the Metrpolitan [sic] police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson’s assertion that he had “no record” of police officers on horseback charging at protesters.

A spokesman said: “Police horses were involved in the operation, but that did not involve charging the crowd.”

He added: “I dare say they were doing the movements the horses do to help control the crowd for everyone’s benefit, which has been a recognised tactic for many, many year, but no, police officers charging the crowd – we would say ‘no they did not charging the crowd.”

The spokesman did also add that charging is a “quite specific term”.

Charging is quite a specific term. Take a look at the following video and see if you can see what might be regarded as a charge about a minute in. We should wonder whether Sir Paul has “no record” of this incident.

The video is worth watching to the end. Much credit and respect to whoever is behind the camera and NCAFC for posting it on their website.

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NCAFC and CoR press conference

The following video, from Counterfire, is definitely worth watching after yesterday’s events.

The press conference was held jointly by the Coalition of Resistance and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

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National Day of Action in Cambridge

by nineteensixtyseven

Yesterday hundreds of students, sixth-formers and lecturers took to the streets of Cambridge as part of the National Day of Action against fees and cuts.  At noon those sixth-formers who had taken part in the national school walkout assembled with students outside Great St. Mary’s.  There was a carnival atmosphere, with upbeat boom-box music punctuated regularly with angry cries of ‘Tory scum!’ and heartfelt denunciations of Nick Clegg’s post-election volte face towards Thatcherism.  Many protesters brought home-made banners and onlookers stopped to take in the spectacle.

Soon afterwards the march began, filling the breadth of King’s Parade before turning left on to the Market and making its way via the Guildhall to Downing Street.  The university authorities, having finally gleaned some indication of the route, closed the gates to the New Museum Site at the last moment, no doubt having heard the roars sail over the eastern wall of the complex.  I have been told that secondary school pupils were by this point threatened by the police with suspension, a power that clearly the police do not have but which was likely to frighten away those pupils brave enough to attempt to join the rally.

It was clear from the outset that the police had no clue as to the route of the march.  From the security idly stationed away down at the Engineering Faculty on the corner of Lensfield Road and Trumpington Street it was evident that the universities authorities were not much the wiser.  As the march continued south down Trumpington Street, police vans began to assemble at the intersection with Lensfield, parking up just behind some railings off the road.  Their efforts were in vain, however, as the march instead pulled right again towards King’s Parade.  The police could no nothing but follow the leaders.

The Free University of Cambridge

Once back in town, with traffic well and truly disrupted and onlookers gathering on each side of the road, the march took a roundabout route through Market Square towards Sidney Street, and finally headed towards Senate House.  Some activists then climbed on a pillar by the railings which surrounded the Senate House lawn and implored the gathered crowd to storm the premises.  Slowly at first but then with the increasing confidence that inevitably accompanies the dissolution of everyday inhibitions, people began to climb the railings until several hundred students were on the lawn.  Meanwhile, some activists had scaled the scaffolding on Senate House’s austere exterior, declaring the ‘Free University of Cambridge’ and demanding that education should be free.  This was a playfully subversive ritual, turning upside down the building’s usual role as a regulator of privilege and hinting at its potential to unlock a fairer and more accessible education system.

As was the case in London, the sixth-formers (who let us remember will face the brunt of the increased debt burden) were the most militant section of the crowd.  Some messages were formulated, with the assembled students giving a heavy steer towards making it clear that we opposed all university tuition fees and expressed solidarity with all groups in society set to suffer from the brutality of the Con-Dem coalition government.

Police violence

After the assembly on the lawn significant sections of the crowd began to walk slowly towards the Old Schools building, chanting and waving banners as they moved.  The bleating of one loudmouth on a megaphone was not enough to stop people voting with their feet, perhaps indicating that he would be best advised to give up playing ‘student leader’ and return to organising misogynist events at the Cambridge Union.  As the crowd reached the heavy locked doors of the building, the police guarding the façade acted with unnecessary force, striking several students with batons in the absence of any noticeable provocation.  It is symptomatic of the University of Cambridge’s contempt for the views of its students that it welcomed the police on to university property and then stood idly by as they assaulted people.  As the invasion of the lawn was civil trespass and no criminal offence was committed, it is by no means clear that the police had the right to intervene.  It is reflective of the impunity under which this uniformed bunch of thugs operate that they seemed not to care- something noticed by the student press today.

While it was not possible to occupy a building as so many of our student brothers and sisters have managed this week, the Cambridge rally was significant for the diverse range of groups it mobilised.  The secondary school pupils of the present are the students of the future and the students of today are the workers of tomorrow.  All of our struggles are linked and it appears that the unexpected militancy of the student movement in the last few weeks is spurring on the workers.  The newly-elected General Secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, is promising an ‘alliance of resistance‘ indicating that the anger of union members is shifting the bureaucracy to the left.  In the student movement, our own union in Cambridge has come out in support of the day of action.  On a national level several senior figures in the NUS have broken ranks with the union President, Aaron Porter, whose disgraceful treatment of his members after Millbank has angered many and it is significant that today’s protests were in no way organised by the national union.  The leadership of this still heterogeneous movement is slipping from their grasp: McCluskey be warned.

Students need to keep up the pressure on their universities, and together with workers and community organisations put pressure on the government to reverse its programme of social destruction.  If it refuses to desist then a broad-based coalition must be built to bring it down. These cuts are motivated by a pack of lies and there is an alternative.  This government has no legitimacy and we must fight it. Tuition fees can be our Poll Tax, and Cleggeron can be our Thatcher.  Resist!

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Seeing by the fires of Whitehall

by Edd Mustill

At times on today’s anti-fees march in London it seemed like there were no university students at all. Sixth-form and college students made up most of the demo, and certainly contributed most of its militancy.

A plan to move from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square had been debated and passed at Sunday’s student “general assembly.” On Whitehall it very quickly became apparent that the police would not allow the march to go any further and were going to attempt to kettle it.

Arts students protesting

The much talked-about police van, old and empty, was an inviting target for the anger of people who had been blocked from their preferred destination. A view has emerged among many protesters that it was left there deliberately – there seems no reason for it to have been there – perhaps to divert attention away from surrounding buildings.

Dancing on the Famous Van

Partly to get people away from the van, a push started towards King Charles Street where the police line seemed weakest. This was unsuccessful; the police did not use their batons sparingly. Soon after this a push was made towards the Cenotaph to link up with a few hundred protesters who were inexplicably being kept apart from the main body. This push was successful and broke a police line. However, the police managed to cut the demo in two again minutes later.

The Downing Street half was not initially kettled, as the half towards the Parliament end of Whitehall was. But the Met soon deployed mounted officers backing up a line of police officers on foot who pushed people away from Downing Street. Some who attempted a sit-down protest in front of the police escaped the kettle simply by being walked over. Most were pushed back into the kettle.

As it got darker, it got colder. People began to burn placards and pages of notebooks in small, contained fires to keep warm. Around the fires, the only conversational theme really noticeable was hostility to the police. “Fuck the police” or variants on this, replaced the earlier political slogans.

On the left, a masked man with a dangerous weapon

As we were held for longer, people ran out of paper to burn, but the temperature must have been nearing freezing. People burned all sorts, from plastic bottles to police helmets. The fumes from these materials weren’t easy to breathe, but there was no alternative to keep warm. Such health considerations didn’t seem to factor into the decisions of the police.

They finally started letting out under-18s at around 7pm, long after a skirmish at the end of Downing Street was over.

The vast majority of the thousands in the kettle did nothing but attend a peaceful march which was blocked with no explanation. Those who did shove against the police did so because it was clear that the Met intended the demonstrators to go nowhere.

The pettiness of the police action could be explained by a desire for revenge after they so obviously misjudged events at Millbank two weeks ago. They can have no excuse for holding people, many of them children, in a pen filling with unsavoury smoke for hours on end, with no access to food or water.

Short-shield police pushing up Whitehall

Inside the kettle the political character of the demo was hard to determine. Some took advantage of the sound systems and were still dancing at 9pm. Others seemed dejected and demoralised. The chant “Let us out!” though howled angrily, seemed submissive, the appetite for a shove against the police had gone.

The police intended to demoralise the protest, to turn first-timers off demonstrating. Their success was minimal. There was relief when the kettle finally opened up, but there was also determination. There was pride. To have stood beneath the fluttering Union Jacks of Whitehall and made their mark, to have heard their cry of anger echo through the corridors of power, – these are no small things.

As more people attend demonstrations, they realise that they are always more complex than the telly makes them seem. Lots of rubbish gets written about how protests “turn ugly,” but it doesn’t happen like that. There were no obvious leaders or ring-leaders today. There was a debate around the trashing of the police van, but no huge distinction between a “non-violent” majority and a “violent” minority. Everybody saw the police as the problem, and the government as the enemy.

An eight-hour kettle gives you plenty of time to think and talk, believe me. The indefensible action of the police on Wednesday could not only begin a turn in public opinion; it could also have helped a burgeoning movement begin to define itself.

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How to make people really angry

Make them a promise:
“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”

Text of NUS pledge signed by all Liberal Democrat MPs in April 2010

Hey, that sounds pretty good…

Break the promise by coming up with a pathetic non-reason:
“With the benefit of hindsight, I signed a pledge at a time when we could not have anticipated the full scale of the financial situation the country faces now”

Nick Clegg, October 2010

…wait, when did he suddenly realise the economy was bad? May 7th?…

Deny that you broke the promise:
“We didn’t break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn’t win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it’s the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I’m trying to honour.”

Vince Cable, 21st November 2010

… hang on, the pledge you signed didn’t mention whether you would be in government or opposition. You committed yourselves to voting against higher fees, full stop. We’re not idiots…

Demonise people who are starting to get angry:

“I saw pictures of people who were bent on violence and on destruction and on destroying property and that is completely unacceptable. And we need to make sure that that behaviour does not go unpunished and we need to make sure that we don’t, as the police put it, see scenes like that on London’s streets again.”

David Cameron
, 11th November 2010

… but there’s no punishment for flagrantly breaking election promises, or trashing the welfare state?…

Be hypocritical:
“Here’s what makes me angry. Oxford and Cambridge take more students each year from just two schools – Eton and Westminster – than from among the 80,000 pupils who are eligible for free school meals.”

Nick Clegg, 23rd November 2010

…yeah, I especially hate it when they become Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and make a living screwing over everyone else…

Be patronising:
“Listen and look before you march and shout.”

Nick Clegg, 23rd November 2010

…we’re not crossing a road, Nick. How about you listen to us…

Give over billions more pounds to failing banks:
“We are doing this because it is overwhelmingly in Britain’s national interest that we have a stable Irish economy and banking system.”

George Osborne, 23rd November 2010

…not this shit again! Seriously?!

That should do it.

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Julian Huppert MP on fees, cuts, and coalition

by Edd Mustill

This interview with Cambridge MP Julian Huppert was conducted before last week’s education protest in central London.

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is one of those MPs that advocates of first-past-the-post dream about. Brought up and educated in the area he represents, he seems to embody the MPs’ attachment to their constituency which is regarded as so important.

Fees
Like his Liberal Democrat predecessor, he is a fellow of Clare College. As an academic, he is perhaps more concerned about higher education that some of his colleagues.

“I was one of the student campaigners, I led some of the marches in ’97 and ’98 when Labour were first planning to introduce fees. I think it’s a mistake, I think it’s the wrong way to get people to pay at all,” he says. “Having said which, currently it’s going to be very hard, with the economic climate there isn’t the money to put into it right now.”

However, he is quick to defend his senior party colleagues who have faced so much anger from students in recent weeks. Given that a majority of MPs want higher fees, he says:

“I think Vince [Cable] was placed in an impossible position. Actually he’s done a fantastic job in terms of bringing down the fees from what they would have been otherwise.” He adds: “Do you say I don’t think there should be fees so I’m just not going to play any part in this. Or do you say, look, the two main parties want to do this, we’re not going to win this one, so what I’m going to try to do is to make it as good as possible.”

These are words that perhaps won’t hearten any prospective students who want to see fees defeated in Parliament. Huppert explains that the vote on the fee rise will be taken separately to the rest of the Bill, and he will support the Bill as a whole if he loses on the fees vote:

“I will be quite happy to vote for the Act that introduces the rest of it because if we don’t and we’ve lost the thing on fees, then it would be perverse to say I’m not going to vote for supporting part-timers and all the rest of it.”

It seems even those who will rebel on tuition fees regard the bulk of the government’s proposals as largely “progressive.” Of the NUS pledge, which Huppert re-signed after the Browne Review published its findings, he says:

“There were two halves to the pledge. The first half was to pledge to vote against an increase in fees and the other to try to get a more progressive system, and we are doing the second half. Everybody within the LibDems is going to do the second half.”

Wasn’t the coalition agreement, that only allowed LibDems to abstain on this issue rather than vote against, already an abandonment of the first half of the pledge?

“I don’t think it was. We didn’t know what the government response [to Browne] would be, and I agree with what is in the coalition agreement which is that you come up with something that ensures universities get fair funding.” He adds, “There are so many better solutions to the problem. A graduate tax. There are ways of raising a graduate tax which would be much better than those being proposed.”

But he insists that he still believes in education free at the point of use: “Ultimately I think the correct solution is for it to be funded from central taxation.”

Cuts
Huppert accepts the government’s argument that the deficit needs to be closed quickly, although he says it is being dealt with by changes to the tax system as well as cuts.

“If we do it too slowly there’s a whole psychology about that, and what happens is what’s started to happen in places like Greece. The markets don’t trust each other, interest rates shoot up, the cost of borrowing shoots up as well,” he says.

His argument for public spending cuts is one that public sector workers have heard a thousand times before.

“We know that there is huge inefficiency, frankly, in a lot of things the government does,” he says.
“I think spending money by government is a bad thing; the good thing is what you get for it.”

Some in the public sector, such as police chiefs and fire authorities, have warned that they cannot avoid job cuts given the figures they have to work with. Is he worried that this will result in frontline redundancies, given the figure of 490,000 job losses that the government itself has raised?

“That figure is over four years, and a lot of that will be people retiring, leaving and so forth.” He adds: “In the last 6 months there were 300,000 new private sector jobs created. I don’t particularly mind whether people are working in the private sector or the public sector.”

He is quick to deny that supporting the creation of equivalent jobs with similar skill sets in the private sector implies the privatisation of services:

“No, not necessarily in the slightest. We’re not talking about privatising a service. It’s just that there are other jobs people can do which do not consist of having more bureaucrats.”

In defending the cuts, Huppert touches on an interesting point about higher education funding that is largely ignored. Because fees are not paid up-front, the government has to provide the universities with the money that covers them.

“Universities get the money for students from two sources; HEFCE teaching, and the fees income comes from the government,” he explains. “There is a large amount of money that will go from the government to the universities, from fees, but none of that money comes back in, in the whole time we are talking about.”

This means that charging higher tuition fees may not even save the government any money, especially as their expectations of how much of the debt will be paid back are based on unrealistic assumptions about how much graduates will earn.

Huppert thinks the best way of saving money in higher education is to have less people go to university in the first place. His criticism of the target of getting 50% of school leavers to university is one which has become common on the centre-left and the right alike. He wants to see more vocational courses.

“The fact that we are not good at training people to actually do things, has hit us very badly,” he says.

Coalition
Although Cambridge is much more than the university, it would be safe to say that Cambridge MPs rely less on party machinery to get elected, than on the amorphous mass of liberal-inclined students in the town. These are circumstances that perhaps allow the town’s MP a greater degree of independence than many others.

The day before our interview, Huppert had made the news for celebrating the loss of the last Tory seat on Cambridge City Council on twitter. Labour had won, and the LibDems only came third. “Cambridge is officially Tory-free. Very satisfying!” he tweeted.

Such an episode might betray some of his feelings about his coalition partners, but Huppert doesn’t have a kind word to say about the Labour Party, describing their position on fees in particular as opportunistic. They have no alternatives, he says, to what the government is doing:

“I think their line that ‘We’d cut stuff, we’re not going to say what,’ is really pathetic. It’s really tragic when you have a political party like that, which is now betting everything on the economy collapsing.”

However, he was keen, after the election, for the LibDems to at least explore a coalition with Labour, but not for the usual reason.

“I do not count the Labour Party as a progressive party,” he says. “On some things the Conservatives are being more progressive than Labour have been, which is astonishing. The fact that Labour weren’t prepared to introduce a bank levy and the Conservatives are is astonishing.”

“Labour’s starting point was essentially that we had to support their manifesto. I remember when we had the report back from the first negotiation sessions. We had to support a third runway at Heathrow, we had to support ID cards, we had to support fees at £7,000 per year.”

He does admit to being slightly worried about his party’s poll ratings since they went into government with the Tories, but says: “They’re always very low at this time of the year. It’s a per cent or two lower than typical, but that’s what happens.”

Huppert acknowledged that the fate of the coalition, and of the Liberal Democrats themselves, is tied to the economy. But he is adamant that the party is healthy: “Membership has gone up. We have lots of new members coming and joining.”

Nevertheless, regardless of how he votes, it’s difficult to imagine how these new members will replace the party’s student electoral base which seems to have been so comprehensively trashed.

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