|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 211 September 2017
Students: a time to fight back
Students in the new term face record debt, fee hikes and further education cut-backs. They also face a weak and divided Tory minority government. All the conditions are there for a new mass student movement to erupt. THEO SHARIEFF-WINSTON reports.
Plenty has been written about the internal mayhem in the Conservative Party following this year’s general election. With the Tories only able to cling on to power through a political stitch up involving the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, MPs in both parties are acutely aware that their confidence-and-supply deal could collapse under the weight of events at any stage.
On the other hand, while weakening the position of the Tories, the result has done more to raise the confidence of students and young workers in their ability to win decisive political victories for themselves than any election in living memory. A whole host of pro-capitalist commentators have recognised the political earthquake the 8 June election represented among young people. One article in the Financial Times, citing an Ipsos MORI poll, admitted that the election "ended two decades of disproportionately low turnout among younger voters", with 64% of 18 to 24 year-olds casting a vote, just as many as those aged between 25 and 45.
A separate poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft, which estimated that approximately 67% of 18 to 24 year-olds and 58% of 25 to 45 year-olds voted for Jeremy Corbyn, indicates a significant break from the previous situation. Policies such as the abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants for students at universities, alongside policies to abolish fees for students in further education and the restoration of the education maintenance allowance for 16 to 18 year-olds, clearly did more than simply inspire millions of young voters to head to the polls. They also raised the sights of thousands of young people currently unable to vote. For many, it is the first time in their lives that they have been offered a positive alternative to what will seem like a lifetime of austerity and cuts. An alternative to the chaos of the capitalist system which, moreover, was attacked from different political quarters for being ‘socialist’.
Given the inherent instability of the situation in parliament, this politicisation of a whole new layer of youth (some still too young to vote) represents a new threat to the British ruling class. In the period following the collapse of Stalinism, the right-wing shift of the Labour Party (along with the rest of European social democracy) left millions of young voters and workers effectively disenfranchised at the voting booth. As their voices within their traditional political parties were firstly side-lined, and then eventually silenced outright, the low youth turnout at elections became an important factor in enabling the capitalist class to maintain its grip on government and the political levers of power.
Organising mass action
In addition to this phenomenon behind Labour’s late poll surge, which commentators dubbed a ‘youthquake’, wider processes have begun to develop. While the media have been keen to portray a generational divide, data in the Ashcroft poll indicated that, while only 30% of 35 to 44 year-olds voted Conservative, 50% of 35 to 44 year-olds voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto, and only 1% fewer 45 to 54 year-olds voted for Corbyn instead of the Tories. The general election, in addition to causing a headache for the ruling class around the potential of a revitalised youth and student movement, has demonstrated how even a modest left-wing programme has the potential to convince students and the wider working class that their interests are bound together in a common movement.
A stronger socialist programme, fighting enthusiastically for reforms while raising the necessity for mass struggle and the fundamental transformation of society, has the potential to create a unified mass movement which would see workers and students standing shoulder to shoulder to face down the forces of capitalism. Despite the success of the manifesto in breaking fresh political ground for socialist ideas, however, the task of the student movement now is not to wait for Corbyn to be elected, as the sole vehicle for social change in Britain. Rather, that through waging their own independent struggle they can lead themselves to victory against an already wounded Tory government.
Organising for a mass movement could win huge concessions for students and workers alike, and would be a sign that the government was well and truly on the ropes. Governments in times of desperation, when they sense that a mood of anger is growing to such a level that their rule is threatened, will often grant large concessions to movements in a bid to retain power. A powerful and fighting student movement then could not only win decisive victories around the banner of free education but, following the disastrous election result for the Tories, could also help to create the conditions for kicking their rotten government out altogether.
This combination of an elevated mood among students and young workers, along with the objective weakening of the Tories, is why Socialist Students is calling for mass student walkouts, occupations and demonstrations on campuses up and down the country on budget day this year. Under the banner of an education shutdown, students can seize on the opportunities presented by the raised level of political consciousness, escalating their initiatives beyond the boundaries of the relative inaction which has come to prevail since 2010 – itself largely the consequence of failed strategies adopted by successive leaderships of the National Union of Students (NUS).
The election of Malia Bouattia as NUS president in 2016 represented a step forward for the student movement. It gave rise to fresh opportunities to establish a more fighting and democratic NUS which could take concrete steps towards organising around the demand for free education. Bouattia’s victory was a defeat for the right wing of the student movement and, in particular, of the Labour Students organisation which had dominated the NUS leadership for years. The student Blairites responded as such.
The determination of the right wing, primarily based around Labour Students, to regain control of the NUS was reflected in a brutal smear campaign against Malia Bouattia, and against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in the Labour Party, extending at times to the Socialist Party. Charges were levelled against Bouattia and the wider left in an attempt to conflate legitimate criticism of Israeli state policy with anti-semitism, as a way of smearing Bouattia and blocking the left’s attempts at building a more militant and democratic NUS.
Unfortunately, this was a major contribution to the defeat of Malia Bouattia by Shakira Martin, by 402 votes to 272, in the presidential election at the 2017 NUS conference. While Martin had previously voiced support for Corbyn when he won the Labour leadership in September 2015, and discussed breaking down ‘class barriers’ to further and higher education, she told the Guardian in her post-victory interview that "she was undecided who she would vote for in the general election". (26 April 2017) While Shakira
Martin maintains her ability to dress herself in the language of the left, her victory has been and will be used by the right wing of the NUS to bolster its forces.
The right wing mobilised to win a series of local victories in delegate elections to the conference. So why was it that left-wing candidates failed to gain the ear of students? The answer lies in the strategy of the left leadership of the NUS over the past year. The centrepiece of the NUS’s campaign work during Malia Bouattia’s tenure was a nationwide boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS). This is an end-of-course undergraduate survey which is being used by the government to implement the teaching excellence framework linked to the further increase of university tuition fees. The Socialist Party and Socialist Students supported the boycott, arguing that it could find a basis among students angry at the prospect of fees being increased once again. However, we also argued that it needed to be backed up with more concrete action that built a mass movement behind the boycott.
A series of student walkouts, occupations and national demonstrations, mobilised behind the banner of the fight for free education, should have been called by the NUS leadership to hold the government’s feet to the fire and to give substance to a mass boycott of the NSS. If this had been organised, students would have had the chance to experience the potential of a truly fighting student union, winning over fresh layers to the methods of militant struggle and giving momentum to the further transformation of NUS itself.
In the end the opportunity to consolidate the position of the union’s short-lived left leadership was missed, allowing Shakira Martin and her right-wing backers to pitch Malia Bouattia’s leadership as ‘an inwardly facing talking shop’. Bouattia’s defeat is an important lesson of the urgent need for the left to build within the student movement, and to use its elected positions to demonstrate the effectiveness of militant methods of organisation and tactics, in order to bolster support for those tactics in the wider movement.
A new 2010 movement?
Fortunately, the struggle will not be confined to the limits set by the national leadership of the NUS. With fees set to rise yet again this year, and as student debt climbs well above the £100 billion watershed, the conditions exist for an explosion of anger and for students to get organised – with or without the leadership of the national union.
Since the colossal student movement of 2010, the understanding among students that through struggle they could successfully push back government attacks on education slowly dwindled over the course of seven long years. Yet, in the course of three short weeks, between the release of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto and the general election, the idea that free education could be won entered political consciousness as the election campaign played out.
Alongside this, the conditions for wider struggles outside of the schools, colleges and universities are ripe. Up and down the country there exists a mood of anger at the Tory government, but also anger at local councils, many of them controlled by right-wing Labour councillors. Ten years on from the global economic collapse of 2007/08, the era of austerity, as opposed to being a temporary aberration, has consolidated itself into its own epoch. As the crisis drags on, and the ruling class continues to attack wider and wider sections of the working class to protect their profits, capitalism by the day is less able to draw on social reserves of support for itself as a system.
While it took two weeks for the Tories to find £1 billion to bribe the DUP, the continued public-sector pay freeze, the squeeze on schools and hospitals, and new attacks by local government on council workers, have all demonstrated a blatant hypocrisy. This is particularly dangerous for a government which only recently came close to losing a general election.
There is the potential for a student movement that not only matches the magnitude of 2010 but surpasses it. Militant student action in today’s circumstances could act as the spark which ignites a much larger working-class movement. That, in turn, would add to the pressure on even the right-wing of the trade union leaderships to take action far beyond that which has been previously witnessed, which could sweep away the Tory government and see a Corbyn-led government taking its place. A fighting NUS which not only mobilised the student population but worked towards forging political links with the unions could play a critical role in this process.
Reflecting all these possibilities, Socialist Students is calling for an education shutdown, a series of walkouts and occupations in the new autumn term, as well as local and national demonstrations. Not only would such action act as a lever on the right-wing leadership of the NUS, it would be part of the battle between the Blairites and those who support Jeremy Corbyn’s policies in the Labour Party
Scrap fees, cancel the debt
A critical battle will be over tuition fees, including the scrapping of graduate debt. A key feature of current global politics and prolonged economic stagnation is the increased inability of capitalism to grant far-reaching concessions. The cancellation of the accumulated student debt, for example, would cost £100 billion. Meanwhile, even the limited ‘costed pledges’ laid out in Labour’s 2017 manifesto amount to £48.6 billion over a parliamentary term. None of that would be easily accepted by the capitalist class.
It is essential therefore that, while enthusiastically supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s policies around education, we must be acutely aware of the inevitability that a Corbyn government, in the face of a run on the pound by the financiers and other attempted sabotage, would come under enormous pressure from the capitalists to abandon its commitments. That could only be effectively countered by a clear socialist programme of democratic public ownership of the banks, financial institutions and major companies.
In such a scenario, the limits of the capitalist system will need to be confronted by a confident and united mass movement willing to challenge its power. Although the sights of millions of young workers and students have been raised by the success of Corbyn’s election manifesto, it is crucial that students are convinced that they need not wait for the next general election before moving into action.
In this new political landscape it is more than possible for students to win decisive victories against the Tory government, and add to the conditions for its collapse, through their own initiative. By organising independent action, students and young workers who are no longer prepared to wait on the leaders of the NUS can mobilise themselves along a militant programme for decisive change. The new period opened up by the election rebellion of young people can see a fresh and revitalised student movement which is no longer prepared to accept the limits of the capitalist system, and is more willing than ever to take the fight for free education and the cancellation of the student debt right to the end.