Wider and deeper

On Sunday January 12 around 150 student activists attended the fifth London Student Assembly at the University of London Union. Ben Lewis reports

Numerous interventions came from seasoned left activists belonging to groups like Counterfire, the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Workers Power - and also newer comrades who have been drawn into the inspiring struggles of the last few months. Most encouraging in this sense was the militant enthusiasm witnessed in speeches from the floor. Many spoke of the need to step up the struggle, to link up with sections of the organised workers’ movement and to bring down the coalition government. All good stuff.

Also positive was that the London Student Assembly, which was formed in November last year, actually votes on proposals coming from the floor and takes majority decisions. This is in favourable contrast to the emphasis on (anti-democratic) ‘consensus’ decision-making, which has been all too prevalent on the left in recent times. In a meeting of this size proceedings can occasionally get out of hand. But with an able chair this is a necessary price to pay for an open exchange of ideas, and certainly preferable to hiving people off into separate ‘workshops’.

Presidium volunteer Simon Hardy of Workers Power introduced the meeting by talking about the need for a discussion on “what the movement is about and where it is going” - a more than necessary starting point for what promises to be an exciting year ahead. The problem, however, was that the lively and animated discussion largely restricted itself to simply organising actions, interspersed with personal impressions and/or reports. This meant there was far too much focus on uncontroversial organisational details - meeting points for demos, leafleting for such actions, canvassing union branches, etc - which could be finalised by an accountable leadership. Thus “where the movement is going” often amounted to discussing the logistics of events such as the ‘Save the education maintenance allowance’ day of action on January 26 or the national demonstrations against cuts in Manchester and London on January 29.

What was lacking above all was a strategy to win backing in schools and colleges and imbue these with politics. There certainly was talk of the necessity of broadening our support, but this tended to oscillate between the left’s view of winning over “organised sections of the class” (Daniel Randall, AWL) or “the unions and the NUS” (Fiona Edwards, Student Broad Left) and a more anarchistic focus on ‘direct action’ (banner drops, ‘teach-outs’ at train stations, etc). I was not called in the discussion due to the sheer number of people wanting to speak, but it strikes me that the development of a plan for London-wide mass leafleting of students and the organisation of meetings and branches in colleges and universities between stunts and demos is of some urgency. Perhaps without any effective leadership (see below) this is currently impossible. Yet with such a coordinated plan there is no reason why the assembly could not strike deeper roots and perhaps soon move towards delegated meetings and sessions.

For now though, the SWP and Counterfire in particular (I initially thought one SWP activist actually was an anarchist!) seem to be focussing on ‘marching on parliament’ and bringing ‘the spirit of May 1968’ to Britain - all of which was pretty much ‘common sense’ for most of those in attendance.

Some controversy did surface, however. It appears that the January 29 cuts demonstration in London, initially called by the AWL/WP-backed Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, clashes with a demonstration in Manchester called by the Trades Union Congress Young Members and the National Union of Students.

Members of SPEW (not that they deemed it necessary to declare their affiliations) argued that the TUC had been dragged “kicking and screaming” into action through the hard work of activists in the PCS and other unions. We should use this demo, they argued, to gradually build for a general strike. One SPEW comrade said it was problematic to canvass branches of the RMT or CWU for a London demonstration when the TUC would be simultaneously mobilising members to go to Manchester. A good point, of course. But she then rather sloppily declared that the TUC was an “official structure, a massive force who we cannot argue with”, which elicited some amusement amongst those present.

Michael Chessum, Education and Campaigns Officer at the University College of London and a leading light in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, pointed out that it was “absolutely feasible” to have two demonstrations at the same time - having a London demonstration was not opposed to one in Manchester. Pointing out its hideous role in the fight against cuts, he suspected ulterior motives on the part of the NUS leadership. Comrade Randall also alleged that the “national bureaucracy is hardly mobilising” for the Manchester demo. University of London Union president Clare Solomon then suggested a compromise: that the LSA send a “delegation” of “one or two buses” to Manchester under the slogan of ‘Bring Millbank to Manchester’. This was narrowly passed.

The only other potential source of controversy was avoided. SPEW had issued an unsigned motion calling for the election of an LSA steering committee to “coordinate motions going to the student assembly, help to organise meetings, etc, as well as give a direction”.

In addition to the call for this committee to be composed of 10 directly elected people from the assembly, it also called for two representatives from the national anti-cuts campaigns - Youth Fight for Education (the recently renamed SPEW front that was formerly Youth Fight for Jobs), Education Activist Network (SWP) and NCAFC. No mention of other campaigns like the Coalition of Resistance, Communist Students or the Student Broad Left’s Progressive Students. But it got worse, with the motion also calling for the committee to be composed of those “with elected positions in the student movement, NUS NEC, LGBT and other liberation campaigns, local students unions and ULU”.

Clearly this would be a block on the ongoing dynamism of the student revolt. A rather crude attempt to put SPEW into a leading position, from where it can do backroom deals with its beloved left trade union officialdom. No, instead of looking to the past, to bureaucratic fronts and people elected to routine positions, we must look to the energy, creativity and anger of the student revolt itself. For the moment then we must avoid premature institutionalisation.

As it was, this SPEW motion was deferred until the next meeting - not the first time this has happened either. As this motion had fallen off the agenda again, controversy then ensued about when precisely it would be tabled during the next meeting. In the end we were assured that it would be the first item on the agenda. This is only appropriate. Effective action on the part of the LSA requires a thorough discussion of how it should organise. Clare Solomon was sceptical though: “Whether we agree with the motion or not,” she warned of the danger of people being scared off by such discussions. Highlighting the dwindling numbers towards the end of the meeting, she questioned whether tabling such a motion first would lead to more people disappearing even earlier.

She is not wrong. Getting 150 activists along on a Sunday is good. But that surely also shows the huge task we have in front of us. Winning the majority, not just the militant minority. Ad hoc working groups or committees for this or that particular job will surely work perfectly well at this stage. Meanwhile the LSA needs to be kept open for all who want to fight the cuts and the coalition. Students, schools students, teachers, trade unionists ... everyone should be welcomed. Indeed one key task must be to spread the example of the LSA downwards and outwards. Each college,  each campus, each school needs its assembly. Then we can begin to talk about elected and recallable delegates (not automatic places for this group, that front, etc).

Parallel but separate to this should be the fight for the unity of the student left. The CPGB and Communist Students have consistently argued that the student left, or at least the student left that considers itself Marxist, should unite as Marxists. So it is patently obvious that, as well as helping to organise actions, we also need to be having a serious debate about where the student left is going. How do we bring down the coalition? What should we aim to replace it by? Are we content to remain disorganised in numerous small groups? Can we form a single student Marxist left? Can we unite on a pro-partyist basis?

Anyhow, it was an inspiration to see a real organisational expression - however embryonic - of the anger that exploded on to streets last year. Communists look to build on that anger and link it with the working class movement. To that end students must be mobilised from across the country to support the TUC’s March 26 demonstration in London against the cuts. We must want to see it mass, we want to see it militant.