Mobilise the majority

Ben Lewis reports on the lack of ambition witnessed at the seventh London Student Assembly

Around 40 comrades attended the February 6 London Student Assembly. The majority of them were far-left activists from groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, Counterfire and Workers Power, together with several anarchists and one comrade from the Socialist Party in England and Wales. The disappointing attendance (just last month around 200 had been present) set the rather downbeat tone.

Nonetheless, proceedings got off to a very positive start with an extensive political discussion. Naturally this tended to focus on the current state of play within the student movement and the reaction to the London and Manchester demonstrations on January 29.

Mark Bergfeld, SWP student leader and challenger to current National Union of Students president Aaron Porter at this year's NUS conference, was in good form. For him, having two separate demonstrations on the same day had been vindicated, embodying the approach of "working with the union bureaucracy when it is good, and against it when it is bad". Like most of us in the room, he was glad that the demonstrators' anger prevented Porter from addressing the crowds. Apparently last week's NUS executive meeting was full of jokes about vice-president for further education Shane Chowen 'over-egging a point' or 'putting all his eggs in one basket' - he actually managed to speak to the demonstration in Manchester, but had to dodge the occasional aborted chicken offspring hurled at the platform.

However, comrades from Counterfire had a different view of the clash of activities last weekend. James Meadway thought it was very positive that the NUS had organised a demonstration and that it was "wrong" for another event to then have been called for the same day. His assessment was that the demos were thus smaller and less effective - which seemed to downplay their bold, disciplined and militant nature. But other Counterfire comrades agreed. Ellie Badcock said that the fact that students chased Porter away looked "quite bad" and could have been seen as "divisive". After all, added University of London Union president Clare Solomon, it is not as if Aaron Porter is a fascist.

Well of course he is not. But, as James Turley of Communist Students pointed out, there are good reasons why people sent him scurrying away: his record in defending students from the Con-Dem onslaught has been despicable. From the chair, Sean Rillo-Raczka (mature students representative on the NUS NEC) backed him up by pointing out how difficult it was to get NUS support for anything vaguely leftwing or progressive: the majority of the executive views groups like the LSA, Education Activists Network or the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts as "inherently unsafe" and are already making it clear they will not support any industrial action by the University and College Union, whose members are being balloted this week. There was a slight sense of déjà vu when comrade Badcock in particular spoke about the movement being as "big and broad as possible". Agreed. But broad enough to include those like Porter who are actually in favour of 'necessary' cuts and who have echoed the sentiments of the gutter press in seeking to undermine the student movement?

I made the point that, whilst those like comrades Rillo-Raczka and Bergfeld should use their positions to move motions to the NUS NEC in support of actions and protests, what we should collectively be concentrating on now is building support amongst the mass of students: coordinated leafleting, the establishment of student assemblies, organising alongside workers in dispute and gaining momentum for the March 26 TUC demonstration. I also suggested that we do not draw premature conclusions from the current numbers at the LSA - there is still enormous potential support and we must look to mobilise it.

There were many sympathetic nods in the room. But, as we shall see, it does appear that the left is currently not taking these basic tasks seriously enough.

Back to 2003?

The discussion then turned to some of the actions being planned in the coming weeks: building support for the UCU dispute, picketing the Universities UK gathering of vice-chancellors in London on February 24 and 'marching on Eton' - an SWP-backed stunt at the Old Etonians' Association open day on Thursday February 17. This session could have actually been a lot shorter, which would have ensured more discussion about plans for the LSA to build support and broaden its base. Many of the proposals were identical to those made at the SWP-inspired National Assembly for Education the week before, and many speakers simply repeated each other's points about the importance of the UCU dispute and keeping up the pressure with action at the UUK gathering.

When it came to discussing March 26, however, some political disagreements surfaced once again. An anarchist comrade pointed out that the danger with simply building for a 'massive demonstration' was that we could see a rerun of February 15 2003, where a million marched against the invasion of Iraq, but then simply went home without having achieved their aims. The comrade wondered whether there would have been more of an impact if there had been "slightly less people who actually did something" and whether this time we could do "something different which creates a focus".

Doubtless such a sentiment will be widespread. Those who view marching from A to B as pointless will look to break off from the official march and cause greater disruption for the authorities. But stunts cannot substitute for mass consciousness, organisation and politics. Demonstrations, pickets, well-timed stunts, etc must be subordinate to the development of a working class political strategy, which in turn can build confidence and combativity. Thus communists wish to see millions on a militant demonstration on March 26. We want to see them return to their local anti-cuts groups, trade unions, student assemblies, etc with fresh ideas and purpose. As an 18-year-old kid in 2003, I know I certainly did! The problem of the anti-war protests was not the fact that the million people on the streets simply marched and listened to speeches, but the fact that the Stop the War Coalition leadership deliberately prevented any attempt to inspire them with a strategic alternative - after all, the important thing was the movement itself and the mobilisation of the greatest possible numbers, not arming it with a political programme.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I got the distinct impression that some of the Counterfire comrades were arguing along such 'movementist', STWC-inspired lines. Yet we must also guard against the immature leftist view expressed by a comrade from Movement for Justice, who argued that on previous student demonstrations there was "not enough violence, not enough social unrest".

Efforts must now be redoubled to mobilise students for March 26. Encouragingly, a feeder march for education is currently being organised which will join the main march after picking up students across London universities. A working group was also established to plan to build for this on London campuses. But unfortunately it will not meet until Friday, February 18. Quite clearly we will need to draw up a battle plan to leaflet every London campus and hall of residence - March 26 will soon be upon us.

Stepping up

Unfortunately however, instead of increasing the LSA's activity and vigour, both Counterfire and the SWP seemed quite keen on winding it down. Initially Clare Solomon, who is obviously snowed under with numerous commitments, proposed that the assembly meet once a month from now on. I pointed out that we would then only meet once before March 26 - effectively leaving everything to the working group and reducing our ability to draw in more people to build for it on campus. After a few speeches for and against it was decided that we would decide on the frequency of the LSAs at the next meeting. Fair enough. But the next meeting will be on ... February 27!

This was all rather disappointing, given the tasks ahead. Comrades are quite rightly a little frustrated with the turnout and other political work is obviously taking its toll. But even taking some rather modest measures could easily boost the numbers turning up to the LSA on a regular basis.

After all, it is nigh on impossible to find out details of LSAs - there is no dedicated website, little to no publicity on campuses and no group of comrades currently devoting their time to working on it. My proposals to set up a website and prioritise some of these basic tasks were effectively buried, meaning that until February 26 we will be stuck with this totally unacceptable situation of having to publicise assemblies by word of mouth or via Facebook.

Comrade Rillo-Raczka claimed that taking on such tasks required elaborate structures and bureaucratic organisation - a course correctly rejected by the sixth LSA. But this is untrue. There is nothing stopping ad hoc groups or individuals taking up tasks in between regular LSAs - nothing, perhaps, except for attempts to gain narrow sect advantage. Frustratingly, many on the left seem happy to carry on with 'business as usual'. They see the LSA as a place where the various groups and fronts can at best avoid stepping on each other's toes - not where they can actually come together to jointly build student assemblies and organise more effectively.

The student movement will clearly ebb and flow. But the recent demonstrations and the current occupations in Glasgow and Hull show that its radicalism has not gone away. March 26 must be seen as a springboard to further militancy. And, with the will to build them, student assemblies and delegate-based national gatherings could become organising hubs of mass student-led resistance.