Tag Archives: student politics

We should not have to read this crap on International Women’s Day

*This article will, unavoidably, feature potentially upsetting material relating to rape, victim-blaming, etc.*

by Anne Archist

Phil Sheppard’s article, published on page 14 of The Cambridge Student today, might easily have been a scorecard for ‘patronising bingo’. First he sets the tone by telling us that “discussion of sexual offences is marred by miscommunication”; presumably he believes that nobody could possibly agree with them, if only they understood! Next, his opponents in the debate are told to “cease taking offence”. After all, we all know how emotional women are, right? And they do get “offended” at the silliest things like men pointing out that if they didn’t want to get raped then they shouldn’t have worn that skirt! I’m going to try to deconstruct most of what’s wrong with this particular article, but it’s part of a wider attitude towards rape and personal responsibility, and many of the same arguments could be applied to other examples of this general attitude. Note: I’m assuming Sheppard’s article is only supposed to address a contemporary Western audience, so I’m pretty much responding in kind.

The article’s argument is basically that although victims should not be morally blamed for any actions that may figure in their being raped, such as walking around late at night on their own, they are still causally responsible in a non-moral sense, and therefore more rapes could be avoided if we focused more on encouraging people to take precautions against being raped. It prominently features equivocation; this means using multiple meanings of the same term in an argument as if they were interchangeable. For instance: “All rivers have banks. All banks have cash-points. Therefore all rivers have cash-points.” This example plays on the multiple meanings of the word ‘bank’ in order to reach a clearly false conclusion. It should be evident this is a logical fallacy, meaning that all arguments of this form are invalid.

Sheppard’s equivocation is between two meanings of ‘responsibility’. First, he tells us that by ‘responsibility’ he means “situations in which … a person is a factual cause” (similar to what is known as ‘causal responsibility’ in the philosophical literature). He uses it accordingly when he writes that “If a homeowner leaves his house unlocked in a neighbourhood of renowned burglars, he is partly responsible for his losses”. However, he later writes that “Potential victims must be made aware that they have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”; here he uses ‘responsibility’ in the sense of an obligation or expectation laid on an individual to act in a certain way. He has therefore smuggled in the idea that women have some kind of behavioural obligations without attempting to justify this claim. After telling us he is using a narrow technical sense of the word at the start, he slips into a broader usage later on with no comment and no distinction maintained.

The claim of obligation looks justified, because the author seems to have followed a very rigorous, logical argument through to its conclusion. What he has actually done is use the same word in different contexts to make it sound like a logical argument, when in fact it is an illogical one. Being intellectually scrupulous, I should point out that his conclusion isn’t automatically false just because his argument is illogical. To illustrate: “My house is made of cats, therefore I have two eyes” is not a logically valid argument, but its conclusion is still true.

The article doesn’t rely entirely on this elision of meanings to reach its conclusion – Sheppard doesn’t just say that women have a “responsibility” to take precautions, but also (more reasonably) that perhaps it would be a good idea, purely from a practical point of view. There is certainly a difference here. To say that you are obliged to take precautions implies that you are held liable if you do not (i.e. that you will be considered “at fault” and therefore “blamed”, in Sheppard’s use of the word), and may justify less sympathy towards you, greater leniency towards the perpetrator, etc. To say that it would be a good idea to take precautions anyway is not necessarily to imply these things, in theory. This is the crux of the article – it says, in effect, “we won’t think any less of you if you don’t, but we’d prefer it if you wore a longer skirt”, etc.

There’s one obvious objection to this, which is more or less a recognition of the complexity of causality, the ‘butterfly effect’ model of causation. Yes, if the victim hadn’t walked down that alley, they wouldn’t have been raped. But similarly, if they had eaten a badly-preserved curry they found in the fridge the day before rather than throwing it away, they would have been suffering from food poisoning and not left the house at all that night. Or, if they had left the club an hour earlier they would have walked down the alley before the attacker arrived. Or…

The point here is not to be a smartass. The point is to say that responsibility in the sense of factual cause, which Sheppard says he is talking about, is highly dispersive – as you examine it, more agents become involved, more acts become involved, individual agents’ links become more tenuous and individual actions’ effects become harder to trace, etc. Even with a relatively limited frame of reference we can identify many potential agents and acts that could have changed the outcome in many cases.

Suppose someone takes a taxi to a party and rapes someone there. Is the taxi driver responsible for the rape? In the ordinary sense of the word, clearly not. In the technical sense Sheppard claims to be using, though, they are – their acts formed part of a chain of events that caused the rape. Of course the taxi driver has no idea that their actions will result in a rape, but this is irrelevant to their being a “factual cause”. The moment we start introducing judgements about whether someone knew or could have guessed the consequences of their actions,  we have gone beyond the type of responsibility Sheppard is addressing; frankly, we are starting to draw a line between merely being a part of a causal chain and having some moral significance in the causal chain, which is precisely what we have agreed we are not doing when we say a victim’s actions may be preconditions for their being raped.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Sheppard comes back with a response that goes something like this: “I’m not saying there’s any moral blame attached to the victim knowing their actions make their being raped more likely, I’m just saying that if they can see the consequences then they probably should act differently” – not in the sense of a moral ‘should’, just in the sense that you ‘should’ go to the gym if you want to lose weight (what Kant called “the hypothetical imperative”). This is the only way out of the dilemma that I can see.

This is where I really part ways with the article’s author. He comes across as entirely ignorant of the realities of rape and women’s lives. This isn’t necessarily his fault, as such, and it’s often difficult to know how little you know, so I don’t blame him for thinking he could write a well-informed and well-argued article. Perhaps he has actually studied rape statistics in depth and so on, but we can only go on the article, which puts across an impression of someone who still thinks that rape is something that happens only when a drunk woman in a short skirt walks down a dark alley on her own and a man leaps from a dustbin to violently assault her.

Among Sheppard’s paternalistic pronouncements is the exhortation to women to “begin taking care”. I get the impression that he, like many men, has never considered what he has never had to consider – what might a woman’s life be like? By that I mean both the events that take place in her life, objectively, and her own subjective experience and internalisation of those events. I’m sure Sheppard means well, but perhaps he should think before he puts pen to paper about how much sexual harassment women may have to deal with on a weekly basis, how many women have survived sexual violence and desperately want not to go through it again, how much more attention women may pay to their drinks in clubs, etc. The fact that he literally tells women to be more careful is perhaps the most patronising aspect of the article – but don’t get offended, remember!

Still, people could always take more care, right? Nobody’s perfect. I should re-state Sheppard’s advice as clearly as possible: “[There is] a risk known to, and avoidable by, the victim [who therefore should] take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”. There are several problems with this thesis: firstly, sexual violence is not as easily avoided as he implies; secondly, it is not as easy to determine the reasonability of steps as he implies; thirdly, regardless of the author’s protestations, it puts the emphasis on the wrong party.

Certainly, we know that there is a risk of rape. Some women feel this as practically ever-present, at least in the back of their minds.  But the more you know about rape, the more you realise it isn’t something you can expect to protect yourself against. Multiple studies have confirmed that the majority of perpetrators are known by their victims, most commonly as a husband or partner. Around a third of girls have been sexually assaulted, often by relatives or other trusted adults. How exactly does one avoid these attacks? Should women stop entering romantic relationships? Should young girls lock their doors from the inside when they go to bed at night?

I know both men and women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. One took the “precaution” of getting a (licensed) cab home and was harassed by the driver, who then tried to attack her. One was an adolescent boy attacked by a trusted older male. One was attacked by a stranger in a supposedly very safe environment. There are more, in varied circumstances. The vast majority of these were in supposedly safe circumstances, with supposedly trustworthy people; in fact, I know of only one person who was attacked while walking around in public on their own.

So what would Phil Sheppard have women do? It also seems strange that he doesn’t suggest that men take any precautions – most victims of rape are women, but not all, and apparently we all have a “responsibility” to avoid being raped… And what exactly counts as a reasonable precaution? Once we confront the real trends in rape, rather than the ‘stranger in the bushes’ mirage, should women avoid relationships with men, going outside their own home at all, letting men into their home, etc?

Chastity belts might be some help, but even they have their limits. I’m inclined to think all of these things fall outside the “reasonable” camp. I take it then, that Sheppard is just encouraging women not to dress too sexily, get too drunk, or walk around alone at night, and hoping this will be enough to avert sexual attacks. I hope it’s evident by now why this is basically useless advice. In fact, the advice may be worse than useless.

By writing an entire comment piece about how women are really – after all – partially responsible for their own victimisation by rapists, Sheppard focuses the spotlight squarely on the victim themselves. Sheppard contributes to the overall culture of questioning women’s consent or non-consent in an accusatory manner. In other words, if you didn’t take reasonable precautions, then maybe you really secretly wanted it. This is akin to reprimanding women for not crying out loud enough (as Deuteronomy 22:24 does, condemning raped women to stoning to death as a result).

Sheppard says quite explicitly that the focus should not be on reducing men’s willingness to rape, but on increasing women’s fear: “Educating men about rape is laudable, but only insofar as it does not detract from personal risk-aversion”; women should act more afraid than they currently do, in other words. This renders the argument amenable to those who use rape as a tool of power, whether husband, father, soldier, teacher, politician or priest. Note the wording of the comment (surely not intentionally phrased this way). It would be one thing to say that it would be unfortunate if the focus on men’s responsibility led to women letting down their guard and then being raped. Instead, the wording used states that educating men about rape ceases to be laudable the moment it in any way detracts from (women’s) risk-averse behaviour.

Women’s fictional “responsibility” to take precautions (established only through equivocation) is given priority over men’s real responsibility not to rape (easily established by basic moral reasoning: rape is wrong and one has a responsibility not to do things that are wrong).Similarly, in a singularly unfortunate choice of words, Sheppard writes: “The continued drive against victim-blaming is having a detrimental effect”; in other words, all this feminist noise about how a victim shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for their own rape is distracting us from the Real Issue, which is that women just aren’t trying hard enough to avoid being raped. The implicit trade-off here is having a relatively full life versus the threat of being raped, particularly for women; know that you run the risk of sexual violence if you want to go out alone at night, if you want to have close relationships with men, if you want to travel, etc.

For the record, I don’t think Phil Sheppard is an unreconstructed misogynist victim-blaming rape apologist. I think he’s a relatively intelligent person who’s trying to take an ‘objective’, ‘academic’ stance on a question of power politics that exists in the real world without letting the real world inform that stance. I think he’s got people’s best interests at heart, but I think his article is dreadfully-argued and counterproductive. It tells us nothing we can actually use – it has no actual suggestions of what people could do to take reasonable precautions. It doesn’t even acknowledge the areas that might be problematic, like how small the impact of “precautions” on rape may be, or the contested nature of “reasonable” precautions. This is compounded by the fact that he has worded some things very badly and adopted an air of patronising academia that has been abused to veil an invalid argument towards an empirically-ill-supported conclusion. Phil, I’m sure you’re not trying to blame rape survivors – I understand that, you haven’t miscommunicated it – but I do think you’re going the wrong way about supporting them and fighting rape.

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Turning the anti-cuts movement political for real

by Anne Archist

Note: This article was originally written for The Commune, but they rejected it for being too reformist. It has since been edited to bring it up to date and expand on some of the arguments. I hope that this will allow it to contribute to current debates, especially those raised by Pat around the slogan “bring down the government” and the hollowness of “resistance” rhetoric (part II of that article). The closing paragraph’s assertion that “the left urgently needs to stop regurgitating warmed-over and largely unsuccessful ‘solutions’ from yesteryear in favour of open-minded discussion” was, ironically, in the original text and is not a response to The Commune’s decision not to publish it (although I originally used the term “creative” rather than “open-minded”, which I now feel better expresses what I was getting at).

 

My tentative idea of the moment is that proportional representation is an immediate demand that should be raised by socialists generally, but specifically by the anti-cuts movement. Since the New Labour project began, Marxists have been propping up an essentially bourgeois party as the ‘lesser evil’. Part of the problem is that our tradition has forgotten how to make real political demands of the kind it made through the ranks of the chartists, the suffragists and so on.

This idea of Labour’s being the lesser evil is only fully comprehensible because of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. In order to prevent a tory majority, it has been necessary to call for Labour votes even through the years of privatisation, manifesto pledge betrayals, warmongering, etc. Not only has this tied the hands of the left, it has caused them to drift further out of touch with many working class communities that have simply sunk into political apathy, etc. These are the much-discussed missing Labour voters – those who gradually became unable to grit their teeth and vote Labour even as the least bad alternative any more, but were too class-conscious (or just too cynical and defeatist) to vote for anyone else either.

It is not just the history of the New Labour project and the effects it has had on the left that has brought me to consider the importance of proportional representation, though. After all, why now? The latest triumphalist claim of the SWP and others is that we will bring down the government. We have to ask ourselves serious questions about what effect this would have – would the cuts be stopped? Labour don’t seem to be offering a strident vision of investment, redistribution and so forth. A graduate tax here and a Keynesian platitude there won’t fix the economy (at least, not for the long-term), let alone do it in a fair and progressive manner.

The conclusion we are faced with is that none of the major parties offers an alternative to the cuts consensus, they just offer different brandings – doubtless the Labour alternative is a shade better, but is a movement that started out by bringing down one government going to settle for a difference of shades? It will have to, as long as we don’t mount a pro-active political attack on the voting system alongside our reactive campaign of ‘resistance’ to the cuts. Bringing down a Labour government in these circumstances would merely shift the shoe back to the foot it started on – all governments under capitalism are ‘bad’, but Labour aren’t even close to the left end of the spectrum of possibilities. ‘Square one’ started with massive threats to public services, privatisation, etc under Labour!

There is another interpretation of the sequence of events unfolding before us. Labour, we are told by some, will shift to the left through the process of struggle. As the fightback is organised, Labour will necessarily (both as a result of genuine pressure from the rank-and-file left and due to its desire to bureaucratically control, and parasitically feed from, the movement) adjust to the objective circumstances and the groundswell of socialistic slogans like ‘full employment’ and ‘make the bankers pay’, according to this view. So far, this has failed to materialise.

Our experience is of a Labour party that has no policies and no real public profile under Miliband – it isn’t making hard-hitting announcements in the press or exercising great propagandist influence over people in their communities. It has surged ahead in the polls purely by being – once again – the least bad option, and moreover by being the only other major party. It is a historic moment when parties like the greens could easily beat Labour on policies and rhetoric, but fail to compete purely because of the voting system. However much minor parties might hate to admit it, there normally are reasons (media scare stories, ill-considered policies, etc) beyond FPTP that limit their success.

So what would Labour do? Perhaps they will try to shift the problem to the next Parliament again by sustaining a deficit, and even have some perverse success in presenting this as a ‘fair’, ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ measure. As one of my comrades has been fond of drilling into people’s heads, though, “there’s nothing particularly left wing about a deficit”. It’s difficult to imagine quite what Labour will do – other than make cuts and/or raise regressive taxes – if sufficient growth fails to materialise. Going back to education specifically, the best they might offer is a moderately progressive graduate tax. Remember all those old slogans about “…without illusions” and “…like a rope supports a hanged man”? It would be politically irresponsible to pretend that Labour will leap into action plundering the rich’s wealth like some kind of born-again Robin Hood after nigh-on two decades of “triangulation”, a policy of class collaboration that would have made even Whig trade-unionists blush.

My initial suspicion is that while we may succeed at softening the blow of the cuts (and fees in education), we won’t really win this battle. However, the battlefield of education will be a cornerstone economically, psychologically and ideologically; a victory here will shift the terrain of the wider questions in our favour. An anti-cuts movement that takes on a non-partisan but political character, attempting to open up political space monopolised by the major parties, could lay the groundwork for a long-term gradual transformation of British politics that might reinvigorate broad-left ideas, reintroduce real political influence (rather than minimal pressure on a decidedly bourgeois party) for the organised labour movement, and so on. Either way, new ideas are rightly emerging about the paucity of ‘resistance’ in and of itself as a spectacle of bravado that will achieve little. Maybe some of my ideas here are wrong, but the left urgently needs to stop regurgitating warmed-over and largely unsuccessful ‘solutions’ from yesteryear in favour of open-minded discussion. I hope that this analysis can at least contribute to spurring people on to do this.

 

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Filed under Current Affairs, Marxism, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

A plague on both your houses!

by Anne Archist

There has been a perspective (at least superficially) missing from the recent ‘horizontalism vs hierarchy‘ debate triggered by the student movement’s decentralised self-organisation over the past few months. On the one hand there have been some (mostly newer) activists, politically unaffiliated students whose involvement in the movement is more limited, plus a few left-communists and anarchists influenced by the anti-organisation trend. On the other hand there have been Leninists and some pre-existing activists from other political traditions.

The former are concerned with preventing centralisation and bureaucratisation, widening informal networks and so on; they don’t, however, seem to be particularly interested in building solid organisational and practical links between the occupations, student assemblies, and so on. I get the impression that their vision is one of many different groups doing different things and linked together by a common cause but no real process of coordination or means of ensuring accountability beyond a very local level. The latter are concerned with making the movement more accountable and responsive at ‘higher’ levels, putting structures in place to regulate and coordinate local bodies, etc. I get the impression that their vision is one of  national committees competing for real ‘leadership’ of the movement, with institutional structures and hierarchies extending down towards local anti-cuts groups and heavily permeated with full-timers and lay-activists from Leninist groups.

The missing perspective, then, is one that acknowledges the need for organisation and structures without creating professional ‘leaders’ and buying wholesale into structures that will inevitably lead to a process of calcification. Leninists are (overly) fond of pointing to the famous pamphlet by Jo Freeman, which actually arose from the feminist movement, as a critique of anarchist organising methods. Of course, Jo’s critique can be applied in large part to structured organisations as well, and the remedies she suggests are compatible with anarchism. Incidentally, the response puts across the impression Cathy Levine hasn’t actually read Freeman’s essay, so I wouldn’t really recommend it in relation to this debate.

It is sadly commonplace for debates to polarise, especially when they are conducted in non-ideal conditions (such as under time constraints, in a stressful situation, or across language barriers). I’ve got a long history of writing about this problem as applied to anarchism and Marxism, and I don’t suppose it will be resigned to history anytime soon (I’ll be taking part in a discussion at Cambridge’s Marxist Discussion Group on the topic next term, in fact). We shouldn’t be surprised that the middle-ground hasn’t been given much space in the debate. As part of their relentless drive towards over-simplification to the point of absurdity, some of the intellectual-gutter elements of the left have tried to assert that there are only two options: rigid, committee-based national organisation exercising formalised links with local committees and so on; or else utterly ‘anarchic’ individualist voluntarism whereby hundreds of conflicting statement and tactics will proliferate until the vast majority give up altogether. This is simply not true, and nor does it adequately differentiate between the many factors involved in a successful movement (such as the difference in structures needed for organising a march compared to those needed for publicising it).

Those of you who know me will recognise this as another call for honest but open-minded discussion aimed at understanding our differences but also our similarities, and working ourselves away from extremes of knee-jerkism and towards more considered balancing acts. In short, then, the real challenge for the student movement right now is to find ways of formalising and structuring the relationships within the movement without creating a caste of professional and unrepresentative ‘leaders’, to find ways of ensuring accountability of those taking executive action without also surrendering important decision-making power to them rather than larger bodies, to work out the right attitude to take with NUS and allies like the trade unions that both appreciates their appropriate roles and puts pressure on them to fulfil those roles more closely in line with the interests of society.

The NUS, for instance, is a mediator and a representative – but not of the politically engaged and active ‘student’ movement (which is not really a student movement at all, including as it does parents/staff/etc, but merely a sectional vanguard of a broader anti-cuts sentiment that the left cannot help but see coming). Its actual role (whether we like it or not, and whether we wish this to change over time or not) is to perform a regulatory and mediating function – it works as much for the state as it does for us in some senses – and to act as the voice of all students. We have to understand this function in order to know how to relate to the NUS as it currently is and see what it can do – and what it cannot or should not do – for our movement.

If we cannot find ways of building a democratic, accountable movement that has enough structure to prevent ‘personality-makes-right’ mentality, that organises marginalised or sectional groups with due respect for their needs (such as the women’s section that the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts has been organising since some months before the movement exploded into the news media), and that still allows mass-participation with differing levels of involvement and communication between different localities/sections/etc, then quite frankly we’ve got little hope of winning this struggle. The Leninists are right to assert that relying on groups of friends tweeting and throwing things at the police won’t help us win, but nor will imposing top-down leadership and subjugating our movement to the tempo and whims of the Labour movement. I should point out that of course I’m not implying that all Leninists are calling for this any more than all anarchists are calling for affinity-group streetfighting – if pushed to take a side in the argument, I’d suggest that generally the Leninists understand the importance of bottom-up leadership of ideas better than their opponents understand the importance of accountability and structure.

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Filed under Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

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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Are you an Anarchist?

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Anger at Millbank

by Edd Mustill

Today saw the biggest education protest in Britain for at least a decade. Tens of thousands of university students, school students, and workers marched through London in opposition to the government’s plans to triple tuition fees.

Almost everyone seemed surprised by the size of the march. It was so big that, by the time I got to the end, the rally had finished. People were still walking down Millbank for over half an hour after I got there. All the big universities were represented by multiple coachfuls. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama Students’ Union brought out 180 students, a substantial proportion of its total membership.

UCL before the main march

Some of the loudest, most colourful and most militant sections of the march were students from schools and colleges. They are, after all, those who will have to pay the higher rate of fees.

A London feeder march from UCL began with Sean Wallis of the UCU branch there linking the higher education issue to other struggles. “Let’s take this government on and let’s bring it down,” was his message.

As with any demo that is much bigger than the “usual suspects,” there were many home-made placards and slogans visible. While this displayed a lot of imagination, it also resulted, predictably, in many signs reading “Down with this sort of thing,” “I would have made a better sign if I could have afforded to go to university,” or “Higher fees make kitty sad.”

UCU members turned out as well as students

It would be easy to dismiss such language as the apolitical mumblings of the Lolcat generation without remembering that the majority of people there were probably on their first real national demonstration.

The big contradiction of the demo was that its mood was lively, vibrant, even militant, but its politics were incredibly ill-defined. Much of the blame for this has to be shouldered by the NUS leadership for calling the protest under the vague heading of “Fund Our Future.”

The demonstration’s political content is important. There was a small official Labour presence but no calls for a graduate tax. Some student union offices wore shirts pleading for “Fair Fees” or similar slogans. The demand for free education was taken up loudly by the organised Left and contingents like Sussex and some of the London universities. Broadly, though, the demonstration gave the impression that there is a political battle to be fought and won among the student population, and that not many of those opposing fees have settled completely on a particular alternative.

Millbank

Around Millbank, which houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party, the police appear to have been unprepared for the size of the demo. Students were able to break in through the front entrance of the building.

Some held the roof for a while. They have been condemned by the National Union of Students’ leadership, but thousands of students surrounded the Millbank centre for two hours or more after the official rally had ended cheered them on, except for a brief period around 3.15pm when a fire extinguisher was dropped from the roof targeting the police below, after which the chant “Stop throwing shit” was taken up by the crowd.

Protesters on the roof

That such a large contingent remained to support an ill-defined militant action indicates the main characteristic of the protest as a whole: ill-defined militancy. Millbank bore the brunt of a vast and nameless anger. We do not yet know what other forms this anger will take.

Without the Millbank action, the demonstration would likely have been reduced to a footnote in the daily news cycle. With the Millbank action, the press coverage was dominated with pictures of windows breaking. Protesters appear to be trapped in a catch-22 situation with the media, but actions like this, whether you agree with them or not, open up, in front of a national audience, questions about what sort of tactics are necessary to defeat this government.

Police guarding the entrance

“You Lied”

Although it was the Conservatives’ HQ that was attacked, most anger on the rally was reserved for the Liberal Democrats who have broken their promise to oppose higher fees. Quickly, almost hauntingly, along the route of the march the words “You lied” appeared on walls and post boxes. Fake Liberal Democrat leaflets headed “Hollow Promise” were distributed among the crowd.

Alone and forlorn in the crowd, one student even allowed their placard to make the admission, “I agreed with Nick.” Chants of “There’ll be no LibDems in Parliament next year” were not uncommon. The Liberal Democrats appear to have killed their student electoral base stone dead. Of course, it suits the NUS leadership and the Labour Party to direct students’ ire at the LibDems without much public discussion of their own alternatives to fees. That is one reason why the argument for free education is yet to be won, as this demo showed.

LibDem betrayal mocked

These were some personal and incomplete thoughts concerning today’s events. I have not here attempted to map out any strategy for the student “movement.” One thing that resurfaced today, after many years of drab Stop the War marches, was the idea that protests can themselves be sites for political debate. There was, at times, not much chanting (someone needs to invest in some more megaphones) but there was discussion. Contrary to the familiar narrative being built up in the mainstream media, the broken windows and wall graffiti can be seen as part of this discussion, not as opposed to it.

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Could fees destroy the Liberal Democrats?

by Edd Mustill

The coalition government has so far proved stronger than many on the left hoped or wished. The fall out from Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding, which has recommended the removal of the cap on tuition fees, may present the biggest challenge yet to the coalition agreement.

Fees: More ammo for anti-Clegg LibDems

Higher Education is a big issue for the Liberal Democrats. In recent years their successes have come in university towns, like Cambridge. Nick Clegg’s own constituency of Sheffield Hallam has a concentration of students. All their MPs, while running for election, signed an NUS pledge to vote against higher fees.

The Liberal Democrat leadership’s arguments justifying their U-turn are incredibly weak. They are trying to plead ignorance, saying they did not know how bad the economic situation was until after the election. This is a strange attitude to take to a protracted economic crisis that has so far lasted for over two years, and also ignores economic indicators just after the election pointing to a smaller budget deficit than had been feared.

Even this is beside the point. The pledge was not “to vote against higher fees unless we decide that it’s not economically reasonable.”

“Politician breaks promises” is hardly headline news, and the public are well used to it. But party activists will be annoyed that the move comes just weeks after the party conference, which is supposedly the sovereign policy-making body, voted for a campaign to replace fees with a graduate tax.

The leadership know this, but it would be too embarrassing for Clegg and Cable to climbdown after accepting the substance of the Browne Review. A U-turn for the sake of power is good political sense, but a U-turn for the sake of principle would be one they cannot afford to undertake.

The parliamentary party is already in disarray as some MPs openly state their willingness to break the pledge, while others affirm their anti-fees position. The party’s youth wing, which has its conference next weekend, has urged MPs to vote against any fee rises.

Although outrage has exploded in the light of Lord Browne’s recommendations, the reality is that the coalition agreement, formed days after the general election, already effective broke the Liberal Democrat’s pledge. It allows for LibDem MPs to abstain on raising fees, but not to vote against.

Given that this has therefore not come as a bolt from the blue, one wonders why the membership did not make more of an issue of fees at the recent party conference, where the coalition agreement was endorsed with minor grumbling. Will a fight develop inside the LibDems as the young people who joined as anti-fees, or anti-war, activists in the last few years finally tire of an agreement that has systematically shut out what they regarded as their flagship policies?

This will rely on an organised force emerging. It will depend on whether MPs see that their party is heading towards an electoral catastrophe, and whether they and Liberal Youth want to risk a confrontation with the leadership that could increase the possibility of a general split in the party, between its pro-Tory and anti-Tory elements.

In this sense, the emergence of LibDem senior figures like Simon Hughues and Ming Campbell publicly disagreeing with government policy is potentially significant. I should stress that I see this as important not because the LibDems could provide us with a “better” alternative to the Browne Review. They can’t. Opposition will come from the organised left, and from angry students. In fact, it already is.

Rather, it is important if the government is politically weakened at a time when the spending review is about to unleash battles all over society. Student opposition to the government has the potential to be much more powerful than it has been for years, partly because the issue of fees could cause cracks in the LibDems more than any other issue, but mostly because what universities face is part of a generalised and ferocious attack on the public sector.

In 2004 I watched the Higher Education Act that brought in top-up fees pass through the Commons by five votes on television. Those of us who have spent a lot of time in the years since then arguing that this was the thin end of the wedge, and would lead to indefinite fees and a marketised university system, have now been vindicated. The era of students joining the Liberal Democrats as a right-on “progressive” group is dead and gone. Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats were amusingly (tragically?) out on the lash at the same time as a meeting was being held in the town to discuss the Browne Review.

The Liberal Democrats will disintegrate as a political force on campus. As discontent spreads on campuses and in workplaces, they could easily disintegrate as a party entirely.

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