Thursday, 11 November 2010

A Day At The Demo: Students Will Need A Resit

I presume he had a hammer because he was planning on doing some manual work in London yesterday afternoon?

Keir watched events in London yesterday closely. From Trafalgar Square right down to Millbank Tower, with a few stop-offs and diversions in between, he cast his beady eye over the protest which started with so much potential and ended in utter disorganised chaos.

The nation seems to have graded the protest as a fail. Keir agrees.

The NUS has tried to distance itself from the unlawful acts of some of the protesters. Indeed, the speeches by UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt and NUS President Aaron Porter were very good and had a clear, non-violent, non-partisan message. These were, however, rare instances when the message was clear.

Keir was at Trafalgar Square at 11:30am and the crowd that had amassed the length of Whitehall by 12:30pm was impressive. A feeling of the seemingly boundless potential of this demo suddenly descended over this observer. That feeling was very quickly extinguished. The futility of tens of thousands of people, when poorly organised, became very apparent.

The message of this demo was to fight increases in tuition fees. It was only 1pm when I began hearing "Nick's a prick" chants as well as some particularly vulgar chants about Tories. Now, I despise both Clegg and the Conservatives, but on a march intended to halt tuition fee increases this sort of nasty partisan chanting is totally ineffectual; even counter-productive. Party politics was not the issue here. Students should have been trying to make the people in power hear them and listen to their argument. Calling them a "prick" probably isn't going to do that.

"Surely these people have been briefed?" Keir wondered. Turns out they hadn't. Sources close to Keir confirmed that the NUS had given no sort of briefing to University Union branches as to what the focus of this protest should have been. The NUS should have clearly briefed all Students' Union heads from every participating University that this march was about tuition fee increases and nothing else. Each of these people should have then gone back to their campuses and relayed this message to all of their attendees. With energy focused on one explicit issue the message would have been much clearer to the onlooking nation and would have also presented the students in an organised, powerful light. As it happened, "Fuck Off Tories" chants and placards suggesting Nick Clegg and David Cameron have engaged in penetrative homosexual activities with each other made even me, a student, think, "bloody students".

Keir then took a short-cut around the back end of Parliament Square, behind Westminster Abbey and around onto Millbank; thus getting ahead of the bulk of the crowd. Whilst on this route, it became apparent that Keir's lovely winter coat that his Nan had bought him last year was yet to be adorned by a Remembrance Day poppy. A quiet, reflective walk through the poppy vigil in the front garden of Westminster Abbey was a nice retreat from the loud protest and the £2 donation to the British Legion was worth not only the poppy, but also the lovely conversation with the fellow Welshman who was manning the poppy stand at the time. Then, whilst on my way out of the Abbey, some students decided to walk through the poppy vigil, waving their placards and singing their songs. After being given a negative impression of the protest so far already, this did nothing to help. I've lived on campus, but it's not that far removed from reality that you begin to lose all perception of what is acceptable behaviour in the eyes of anyone with an ounce of sanity and sensitivity. About 15 solemn mourners had their moments of remembrance disturbed by a few half-cut students. Utter disgrace. Although one person thinks there's a perfectly good reason why those protesters were doing nothing wrong. This particular person appears to be a former Officer at a Students' Union. I should add that these students marching through the vigil were clad in NUS gear, with UCU placards.

So how distant was the NUS from some of the more distasteful scenes?

Anyway, back to the events of the day. Keir arrived at Conservative Party HQ just after a small crowd had gathered. The very united chant of "no ifs, no buts, no education cuts" started to restore my faith that this protest could achieve something. That was until a colleague pointed out that David Cameron was in China. "Who's the target at CPHQ then?"

Said colleague just shrugged his shoulders. Indeed.

As we turned the corner into the courtyard of the targetless building that the protesters had gathered at, it then became clear that something else odd was happening. Fire.

Fine. "Could be fun. What are they burning? Effigies? Some sort of metaphor for the broken dreams of ordinary kids?"

Nope. They were burning their own placards. I became confused. Did this mean they were burning their message? One placard said "Not in my name". It was now burning. Did that mean the previous owner of that placard now wanted it all to be in his name? "Stop Education Cuts" placards were also being burned. Had the protesters performed a dramatic u-turn and decided their message was worthy only of being thrown into a fire; reduced to ash?

Nope. They just wanted to see some fire.

The window smashing, fire-extinguisher throwing, building-storming and roof-mounting that followed just rounded things off really. The message and the purpose had begun to descend into fragmented chaos from 1pm when the chants turned nasty and personal. Still, some people have even said that all of this was justified. A mystery person called Emmeline took part in a BBC 5Live debate to say that she felt this was the only thing that could force the government to make a change.

One protester, on a video at the Telegraph website earlier in the day, said of the destructive acts, "It's probably not the best way but it's the only way." So students have exhausted every route to a peaceful resolution in the month since the Browne Report have they? The irony is indescribable: I wonder how many of those people think we should have given Saddam more chances for peaceful resolution before we invaded Iraq?

The videos, apart from showing how many identityless morons we have in this country who just think that acting like Cook from Skins will give them meaning in life, are a damning indictment of the epic failure that was this protest. They also have UCU and NUS placards and banners all over them. I think it's time to accept that this was badly organised.

Every Labour MP asked to comment on what could have been a powerful protest will now have to begin their answer by condemning the violence. That immediately softens the blow of the anti-fees message.

Keir is 100% in support of the fight to stop this ugly coalition ending aspiration for poorer families with these fee increases. But there was so much wrong with yesterday's protest.

Even more than the things mentioned above.

Why attack Tories? Lib Dems should surely have been the targets.

Why attack a building? Does a building have a vote in parliament?

And if you really, really have to attack a building, surely go for the building where the power to make the change you want is represented?

I could go on for a lot longer. But I shall save you; dear, patient reader.

Needless to say, if it turns out to have been successful and the Coalition ends the fee increase because of this protest, Keir will happily eat his words.


UPDATE: Fresh from Guido, it seems that elected NUS Officials are condoning and associating themselves with the actions of those who occupied Millbank. Keir will ask again: how distant was the NUS from some of the more distasteful scenes?


  1. The first time someone said: "This is how we start a revolution! With violence!" He should have been punched, very hard, twice, and then, perhaps, hit on the head with a fire extinguisher.

    He could then have been told: "That is what violence and being hit with a fire extinguisher feels like. We did this for your own good, so you will know what your future victims would feel like. After all, no pain no gain, old chap!"

  2. Did Gandhi throw any fire extinguishers? Smash any buildings up?

  3. Going by the high viz waistcoat is that a union steward with the metal bar?

  4. Clue is in the word "socialist" - "national socialist" "soviet socialist" all the same murderous nut jobs.
    Cherchez le drapeau rouge as they say on the left bank

  5. I like your realism (and props on the poppy) but remember that labour were already going to be altering the fees structure upwards.
    Theres not much choice when the UK overspends 162 billion a year... and no, soaking the rich for every penny they have wont do much good. There arent enough of them to do any good as Denis Healy found out in the 70's when he tried a top tax rate of 83% and revenues fell.

  6. The protest showed the so called 'Students' to be a bunch of Nazi thugs. It was the Labour Party who imposed tuition fees and set up the Browne Review. One notes that the Fascist thugs didn't go round and try to burn Labour Party HQ to the ground.

    According to Guido Fawkes there were plenty of NUS officials and officers in the thick of things, so their denials ring very hollow indeed. One hopes the owners of the Millbank building will pursue the NUS for criminal damage through the courts. The NUS have assets so let them pay for repairing the damage their members have done.

    And why should those on very modest incomes have to support these so called 'students' in their self-indulgent and selfish lives ?

  7. Pit Pony - though I was critical of their actions, I wouldn't say they were behaving like "murderous nut jobs." Bit of perspective maybe?

    Rh - Surely there is scope to recoup more from tax revenue? The Coalition is proposing, what was it, 78%-22% (cuts-tax revenue). Even the Lamont administration went for 50&-50%. They don't need to be this brutal to public services. And where is that brutality when it comes to clamping down on tax avoidance? Where's the payback from the banks?

    Anonymous (the last one) - I don't think, on the whole, students live "self-indulgent and selfish lives" on the tax payer. They fund their lives with a loan which they repay and part-time (or full-time) jobs. The fees are nothing to do with their living costs.

    I don't think it's fair to say the NUS should pay for damages. Though I'm critical of the NUS for the organising, which could have been better, and for the lack of responsibility they have taken since, they cannot be held accountable in the eyes of the law for the actions of those people. The NUS didn't direct people to do those things (unless you believe Mad Nad).

  8. So you'd be happy to see the formal procedure followed of the building's owners claiming for the damages from the police, with the result that all Metropolitan Police area households (apart from students, who have an exemption from the police rate) paying extra tax next year? The NUS may not endorse the behaviour of its members, but there is no better way of expressing its official disapprobation than by making an ex gratia payment for the damage they caused, then impose sanctions on those members it knows to be responsible to recoup its costs.

  9. I love the comment about the invasion of on.

    Just a thought though. Is it significant that participation in higher education has steadily increased at the same time as first loans came in, then fees, then top up used to be said of Stella Artois, reassuringly expensive, maybe that's what happended to education?

  10. It just came down to deciding what we wanted as a society. More people at Uni meant we would have to contribute something. The first level of fees, really, were acceptable. I opposed it at the time but more out of principle than the actual cost. I've probably got a return on that investment already (well, my parents paid, but you get the point!).

    But since those first fees the increases have been unacceptable. And to now be at the point where they could be £9,000 is crazy; especially at a time when the jobs at the other end of the courses are few.

  11. Let me state from the start that students should be paying tuition fees. When will people realise that we end up with very similar systems as America eventually....anyway I digress.
    I'm appalled and embarrassed by the actions of the demonstrators. The point of their march has been lost and now the majority of the populace, the 'Sun Readers' as I like to call them, now think even less about Uni students than they did before.
    They've given the powers that be an excuse to carry on as planned now and made it even harder for any decent dialogue to take place.
    What's the point. Basically they were total idiots!