Monday 15 November 2010

Lecturers and students did themselves proud last Wednesday with an excellent demonstration against the Con-Dem fee hike.

It was a resounding success and a credit to both organisations.

However the day has been largely remembered for the occupation of the Tory HQ at Millbank Tower.

Twitter, TV and the general mass media were alive all day with comment and opinion on the day's events.

All the focus has now drifted to "why weren't the police ready?" "How do we clamp down on dissent?" and naming and shaming the "organisers" for the Millbank occupation.

In the myriad of spin from the right-wing media outlets in this country, the facts of the day's events and the reasons why people felt compelled to protest were almost lost.



Although in itself the smashing of windows at Millbank will achieve little for the anti-fees fight, it was truly gut-wrenching to watch the NUS president Aaron Porter sounding more like a Sky pundit than the democratically elected leader of a mass student body when he spent more time condemning a minority action than on refocusing the debate on the 50,000-plus who had marched peacefully delivering a clear message.

It is quite right to distance yourself from violence and focus on the positives of peaceful protest, but don't end up doing Murdoch's work for him and attempt to demoralise students and workers so they won't turn up next time.

Why is no-one assessing why over 2,000 people chose to protest outside Tory HQ Millbank and then 300 decided to occupy the building?

People are beginning to make the connections between the different cuts, concluding that it is part of an overall agenda.

And the frustration that people feel, the hopelessness, the fear of what the cuts will do to their lives, all gets bundled up together in a moment when you are in a position to do something about it.

This leads to spontaneous, sometimes mindless acts where people are just going with the flow of unfolding events.

For instance throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof of Millbank tower not only endangered the lives of supporters below but it was a gift to the right-wing media machine.

Despite four hours of appalling one-sided propaganda from Sky News on that day, one impromptu interview revealed that even though most of the student protesters were against violence - several quoted Gandhi - they insisted that they would have supported the occupation if it had been done peacefully.

This is the nub of the matter and what people should take out of last Wednesday.

Organised peaceful civil disobedience - a call made by RMT general secretary Bob Crow at the TUC this year and successfully practised by bus workers earlier this year at the offices of Transport for London - is the way forward.

When you have democratically accountable bodies practising strong discipline among members with clear shared objectives, successful actions can be achieved which can bring on new people to a particular cause.

Working-class and dispossessed people are not ready or prepared to engage in violent acts en masse.

But with the proper organisation and encouragement, there are opportunities for peace civil disobedience alongside marching and campaigning in local communities.

Another aspect of the anti-cuts fight, which was highlighted by the Young Communist League last Wednesday on the march, is the role of the EU.

The cuts and fee rises being implemented in this country are a direct result of EU-driven economic liberalisation.

To ignore it or not understand it is akin to burying one's head in the sand.

Member states will be fined and face other sanctions if they do not implement massive cuts in public-sector budgets.

Our anti-cuts resistance is therefore not just against the Con-Dem government but also against the neoliberal EU.

Removing ourselves from this big-business club is one of the conditions for our success in resisting the austerity drive.

However to begin with we need to rid ourselves of this vicious Con-Dem government.

In Britain, despite the impact of the Lisbon Treaty and EU directives, we have a limited democracy. We have to use the mechanisms at our disposal to resist the cuts, defend our class and unite the labour movement.

Criticisms of the UCU leadership's response to the demonstration from some students and some of the union's branches have been unfair.

The UCU recently affiliated to the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group - a collection of smaller specialist and industrial unions including PCS and RMT.

The group is chaired in Parliament by Labour MP John McDonnell and in some senses is ahead of TUC in terms of organising resistance to the cuts and calling for co-ordinated industrial action to that end.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt herself made the call for co-ordinated industrial action at this year's Tolpuddle event saying: "We are still one of the most powerful trade union movements in the world. If we can't defeat this poxy Con-Dem government then we should give up and go home. But I won't go home and I won't give up."

Her reference to the violent acts at Millbank being "regrettable" was measured.

But whatever her personal opinion she represents members in a democratic federation where she and her executive committee are held to account.

It is doubtful that the UCU had a policy passed at its last AGM which advocates no-strings-attached acts of vandalism on private property or fighting the police in the street.

In any mass movement there are always agent provocateurs, people with their own sectarian agenda or people with the misguided belief that the revolution can be tomorrow if "we all just get on the barricades."

But the best way to ensure fringe elements don't derail the main thrust of the mass movement's message is to show strong principled leadership, trying to keep one step in front of those you are leading.

It's a delicate balance. If you set the bar too high for the working class and its allies, they will fail to reach their goals and become disgruntled and disillusioned.

But equally if you hold people back too much, allow fringe elements or state forces to engender negative ideas that marching and peaceful campaigning is pointless, people will stay at home.

Resisting the cuts is a process. There will be fits and starts - huge rushes forward in consciousness but also moments of uncertainty.

Is the working-class movement strong enough to deal with that and a rampant right-wing media machine?

The capitalist state will not be worried by a few smashed windows at Millbank. But if hundreds of thousands can be organised around opposing the cuts during the next two to three years using a range of peaceful tactics, including industrial action and occupations, we might be in with a chance of stopping the cuts and making the country ungovernable.