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No one expected what came this week, not the right, not the left and maybe not even those who brought the fight themselves. We have got used to hearing “we’re not like the French” who take their fight to where it hurts, and force all eyes on them until they have been heard.
But what could have been a march by students and lecturers within the confines set by those they are meant to be marching against, may prove to be the first protest of this generation that will not just send shivers through the halls of power but also expresses an acknowledgement that it is not possible to have your voice heard through the instruments of the state.
In an effective vote of no confidence of Aaron Porter, the careerist president of the long discredited National Union of Students (NUS), who co-organised today’s demonstration against the cuts and tripling of tuition fees, hundreds of students broke away from his protest and charged into the Tory headquarters in Millbank chanting Tory “die Tory scum”.
Police were absolutely out of their depth and outnumbered as protesters smashed windows, threw computers out of windows, set off fire extinguishers and even threw one from the roof.
But today also showed just how far removed progressive institutions, like the NUS, are from the people they claim to represent as the fact that they had not dreamt of what unravelled, showed they have not an inkling of the depth of the anger felt by those who are really being hurt by the cuts.
While they talk every day of a “lost generation”, with youth unemployment double the national average at 17 per cent (rising to almost 50 per cent for young black people), a crippling rise in university fees, mass cuts to youth recreational, health training and employment services – there has been no change of approach within these institutions to oppose these changes. They urge people to “fight back” and then propose that that fight takes the forms of demonstrations, lobbying and letter writing to plead with the enemy to treat them with kid gloves.
Aggrieved workers can demonstrate, but their real power lies in their right to unionise and withdraw their labour – however limited that right is and there is some recongition that workers need to take the law into their own hands. But when people are angry because of issues not related to employers, like today, people have absolutely no power to challenge that within the law. This generation learnt that from the inability of the 3 million strong march to stop the war in Iraq in 2003, or have any impact on it, and no amount of insistence otherwise from unrepresentative progressive institutions can change that belief.
Furthermore if such institutions were representative of the young people they speak for, they would have been able to anticipate the events of today to make it more effective – not least because the consequences of the police crackdown could have be anticipated and mitigated against.
It is the failure of the leadership of progressive institutions that has lead to the arrests of 32 and counting young people who stormed the Tory headquarters which accommodates those who cooked up the mass assault on their generation. Instead of standing with those who are now being criminalised, to show at least an understanding of their anger, Mr Porter has condemned them as “despicable” and UCU general secretary Sally Hunt has described the events as “regrettable”.
Finally, those who say that this kind of action jeopardises public support for their cause, miss the point that the public do not see the point of supporting actions that fail to even get noticed, let alone have an impact. And claims, from the right and left, that those who lead the occupation of the Tory HQ were not students, again shows just how far removed institutionalised political forces are.