Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/972/26521
Lively student demonstration for free education could have been much bigger
Theo Sharieff, Socialist Students national chair
Around 1,000 students took to the streets of London in demand of free education on 15 November. Students gathered at Malet Street and marched to Parliament Square to demand the scrapping of tuition fees, the reintroduction of student grants and a cancellation of all outstanding student debt.
At the Socialist Students stage, students and young workers repeatedly made the point that after the general election, not only is it possible for us to win free education but furthermore to get rid of the Tories altogether and to pave the way for a radical left led Corbyn government to enter power.
A lively atmosphere could be felt that afternoon, contributed significantly to by a loud and bold Socialist Students contingent.
Yet inevitably, some students will raise questions concerning the relatively smaller turnout as compared to previous student demonstrations in the past.
However, we think it would be a mistake to argue that the modest turnout in London on 15 November is an accurate reflection of the mood which exists amongst students to fight.
Much of the blame must fall to the leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) who not only refused to publicly support the demonstration, but who actually blocked a motion in support of the demonstration being heard by the NUS national executive council earlier this year.
Another factor that must be appraised is the role of the Labour Party leadership. Despite Jeremy Corbyn publicly coming out in support of the demonstration, this support was of an extremely limited fashion and only announced a week ahead of 15 November.
After the massive enthusiasm which was generated at the general election for the policies of free education around Corbyn's manifesto, the opportunity for the Labour leadership to translate an electoral revolt at the ballot box into a wider reaching movement by calling and leading a campaign for free education was missed.
Socialist Students previously wrote an open letter to both Angela Rayner and John McDonnell, the shadow education secretary and the shadow chancellor respectively, requesting that the Labour leadership table amendments in parliament to the chancellor's budget calling for the scrapping of tuition fees and cancellation of student debt, as well as publicly supporting direct action being taken by students on budget day.
Unfortunately it appears that at this stage, the Labour leadership have no plans to table such amendments.
Unfortunately, responsibility also lies with the organisation which organised the demonstration, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).
Socialist Students called a day of action on Budget Day, 22 November. Subsequent to this, NCAFC called a national student demonstration for the week before, 15 November.
So in the run-up to the 15 November demo, on 6 September, Socialist Students wrote an open letter to the NCAFC national committee requesting that the two organisations meet in order to discuss the possibility of democratically opening up the planning of the demonstration to other groups and student forces on the left in order to make 15 November as successful as possible.
In the context of the criminal moves by the NUS, we wrote: "Without NUS, a national demonstration on 15 November - if it goes ahead - will need to be organised democratically by all capable forces within the student movement."
"Organising a successful national demonstration, especially in the absence of the leadership of the NUS, will take the involvement of Socialist Students and other organisations which have a national presence on university campuses."
Socialist Students believes that such an approach could have at least somewhat counteracted the negative role played by the NUS leadership.
Unfortunately, despite being informally told that a reply was being prepared by the NCAFC national committee, Socialist Students never received a response to this letter.
We believe this was a serious error, and that the modest turnout on the day could have been much higher had a more open, and ultimately less sectarian approach to the planning and execution of the demonstration been taken by the leadership of NCAFC.
Simultaneously to this, in multiple areas of the country (including Leeds and Birmingham), leading members of NCAFC locally requested that Socialist Students groups and societies host their speaking tour in promotion of the demonstration on 15 November. They were apparently unaware that they had previously ignored the open letter and our request for our organisations to cooperate, following the elevated political mood which has developed since the general election, which opened up fresh possibilities for the student movement.
This contradictory approach to our organisation, we believe, is ultimately a reflection of what has so far been a sectarian approach to Socialist Students by the NCAFC leadership, and at the same time the lack of forces the NCAFC organisation has on the ground at many campuses.
Despite having a national profile, 15 November demonstrated the vital importance for serious political organisations to carefully and attentively build their forces on the local level, something which NCAFC has clearly failed to do.
The unwillingness to allow other organisations to participate in the planning of 15 November also presented easily avoidable problems on the day itself.
For example, NCAFC organisers raised unnecessary logistical disagreements with Socialist Students during the set-up for the demonstration.
This counterproductive approach by NCAFC was taken to an absurd degree when, later in the day, NCAFC's sound system at the main stage failed.
NCAFC organisers requested the use of the Socialist Students sound system. When we said we would be happy for our sound system to be borrowed, provided Socialist Students be allowed a speaker on the platform, our reasonable request was called "petty factionalism."
Socialist Students took a completely different approach to our stage. We had a list of speakers prepared, but simultaneously ran an open microphone and invited anyone from the crowd up to speak, even welcoming speakers to put across differing perspectives to those offered by Socialist Students.
We believe our approach speaks of the confidence Socialist Students holds in its political programme, and our eagerness to debate the ideas needed to take forward the student movement in a positive manner with other groups.
NCAFC, by contrast, seems to think the only way to maintain the prominence of its ideas within the student movement is to keep a tight and undemocratic grip on the formal leadership, preventing fellow organisations from challenging its politics - and thereby cutting across this chance to build a mass, democratic student movement.
Despite NCAFC's unhelpful approach, Socialist Students decided to suspend use of our louder system for a time in order to allow speakers on the NCAFC stage to be heard by the crowd.
Remarkably, a threat towards our comrades of a court injunction was made with regards to the setting up of a gazebo. After attempting to prevent Socialist Students from setting up a gazebo, when it was raised with the NCAFC organisers that we had previously written to them and that such a disagreement could have been avoided had they involved Socialist Students in the planning process, we were told that the matter of the open letter was irrelevant and we needed to do what we were told!
And all this is without going into the detail of other instances of NCAFC organisers and stewards attempting to throw young Socialist Party members off the demonstration - one just because he wasn't a student!
The contrast is stark with the approach Socialist Students has taken to planning our national day of action on Budget Day, 22 November, which we have sought to build democratically alongside other local student groups.
In our open letter to NCAFC, we wrote that combined action "could potentially be received very enthusiastically and pull new layers of students into struggle, especially if built cooperatively and democratically alongside other groups"
We note, however, that instead of seeking to work with us on building for Budget Day, NCAFC has instead decided to call a very similar day of action on campuses on the Wednesday following Budget Day, 29 November.
Given our previous attempted correspondence with NCAFC, and the modest results of its approach on 15 November, we believe its decision to ignore actions already planned by students by calling a separate day of action is yet another mistake by the NCAFC leadership, who at this stage risk cutting their nose off to spite their face.
It is a shame the NCAFC leadership has - so far - acted this way. However, Socialist Students remains positive about the opportunities which exist for the future of the student movement.
Although NCAFC's approach on the matter has again been unhelpful, we do believe further action is necessary after 22 November. This should include follow-up meetings on every campus about what to do after the budget to win free education - and to plan further, escalated protest actions into the new year.
As part of this, Socialist Students would like to take the opportunity to once again invite the leadership of NCAFC to meet with us to democratically build for a successful student movement beyond Budget Day and into the future.
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