Build student assemblies

Both before and after March 26, the London Student Assembly can serve as a broad model for organising on campus, writes Ben Lewis

Those looking forward to what will surely be a huge, exciting, colourful and militant demonstration against the Con-Dem cuts onslaught on March 26 cannot but seek to draw inspiration from the recent past. The spontaneous outburst of protests, walkouts and occupations by school, college and university students over the winter took everyone by surprise - not least the Metropolitan Police and the dumbfounded National Union of Students president, Aaron Porter. The witty slogans, imaginative use of social media and undoubted militancy of the students can help provide a breath of fresh air for the workers’ movement too.

Notwithstanding the rather desperate attempts of Mr Porter and the gutter press to portray the movement as a gaggle of self-seeking anti-Semites, or the crass scare tactics of the police and the courts, the demonstrations tapped into a vast range of support across society.

Now that the dust has settled and the kettles have been cleared, what has become of the student movement, and what role can it play in broadening and deepening the resistance to the coalition? As I have noted in previous articles, the passing of legislation to triple university fees and scrap the education maintenance allowance have undoubtedly taken the wind out of our sails somewhat. This is particularly palpable amongst many brave young militants mobilised at last September’s freshers fairs on the basis that - if they organised enough action and sold enough copies of Socialist Worker - the coalition would fall, almost by Christmas.

The demoralising and demobilising effects such short-termism invariably bring with it must be countered by more informed, more serious, longer-term perspectives - perspectives which not only seek to bring down this government, but to articulate a viable alternative to it beyond Ed Miliband’s ‘nice’ cuts. Indeed, without such perspectives we are more likely to be disorientated by the dynamics peculiar to student politics (holidays, exams, coursework, etc).

In terms of the movement, we are certainly not in the position we were a couple of months ago, when young people would turn out in their thousands on an almost weekly basis at the drop of a hat. What matters now is organising, winning the arguments on campus about capitalism and the cuts drive, and moving from a position of minority activism to majority support - and mass action, shoulder to shoulder with the working class movement.

There are, indeed, grounds for optimism. Tyrants are falling across the Middle East. The head of one of Britain’s most prestigious universities has resigned for taking money from Libya. Inspirational scenes of popular democracy and self-organisation from Wisconsin to Cairo have captured the imagination. These are not ‘normal’ times. At a much lower level, even recent machinations in the NUS bear witness to the impact of recent militancy. Rightly no longer considered a safe pair of hands by the bureaucracy, Aaron Porter will not stand for a second term as NUS president. A not insignificant event, given that the last time this happened was in 1969! Now seeking employment (and touting his wares in various bourgeois papers), we can only hope that Porter faces a career of bureaucratic insignificance befitting his dreary and lacklustre misleadership.

It is surely also only a matter of time before we see more eruptions of anger on campus. Increasingly starved of much-needed funding, university departments across the board face unprecedented closures, drives to ‘voluntary redundancies’, the cutting back of teaching time and an ever greater reliance on postgraduate teaching. Whilst those from Eton or other centres of privilege might actually see £9,000 per year fees as perfectly acceptable (far less of a sum than their parents pay for a good public school) it is undeniably the case that the quality of education will also fall. In all likelihood universities will be forced into accepting ever greater amounts of largesse from big business, crazy billionaires and dictators and other luminaries of enlightened discourse, progress and reason.

Crucially though, the March 26 demonstration called by the TUC must be seen as a springboard for further radicalisation. We want a huge, militant demonstration which brings the spirit of Tahrir to Hyde Park. There are already signs of students seeking to establish permanent organisations of struggle, which can do the hard yards on campus, link up with sections of the class going into struggle and widen anti-cuts sentiment.

Established in November 2010, the London Student Assembly is a regular democratic forum open to all who want to organise against the cuts. Numbers attending have fluctuated in line with the ups and downs of student protests, but it is an excellent place for people to come together and organise. Usually beginning with a political discussion about the current state of play within the movement, the assembly then goes on to organise actions, stunts and demonstrations.

The last LSA, the eighth thus far, met on Sunday February 27 and was attended by about 40 comrades. University of London Union president Clare Solomon was in the chair, alongside representatives from Counterfire, the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power, Communist Students and others. Although some ‘autonomists’ and groups like the Socialist Party now appear to be less keen on attending, even when numbers are low the LSA provides a near unrivalled opportunity to bring together the manifold left fronts and cuts campaigns in a comradely and spirited environment. Indeed, although differing opinions are thrashed out on how best to mobilise and how to make the LSA as effective as possible, the discussions are held in a very productive and comradely fashion.

The February 27 meeting took some excellent steps forward in planning to promote both March 26 and the LSA more generally. The website has now been updated and publicity is becoming more of a priority. The LSA is supporting the budget day demonstration organised jointly by the Coalition of Resistance and Right to Work, and in the run-up to March 26 it has called for more student occupations across the city. In order to build for the education bloc starting off from ULU at 10am on the day of the big demonstration we have produced LSA posters and leaflets which will be distributed across London as part of the ’18-day countdown’. This will see leafleting, banner drops and other publicity stunts across London campuses.

The education bloc will show that the student movement has not gone away, and that students recognise the class nature of this assault and the need to unite with public sector workers, the disabled, pensioners, etc to form the greatest possible resistance. In a positive move, LSA publicity for March 26 has details of the following LSA to be held at ULU on Sunday April 3, where we will address the way forward after the demo. This is imperative because we not only need demonstrations, occupations and stunts, but permanent forms of organisation which can provide both continuity and endurance.

For its part, Communist Students will argue that students returning to their campuses, colleges and schools should build on the impetus of March 26 by setting up local student assemblies, which should draw in all those committed to fighting the cuts. Though it has not been without its limitations and faults, we in CS think that the LSA can certainly serve as a model. On the basis of local assemblies we can move onto delegated regional, national and even international bodies - a Europe-wide coordination meeting will come to London this summer, for example (more details soon). Given the tasks ahead, these organisational forms will be indispensable.

Separate from, but parallel to the organisation of assemblies, there must also be a patient and protracted struggle to overcome the left’s debilitating division into a myriad of sect projects. Moves towards partyist unity on the basis of an inspiring, revolutionary vision of an alternative society can hopefully be facilitated by the comradely spirit of organising together in regular, productive forums. The raw material is certainly there to take big steps forward, and a bold initiative towards serious unity in the student movement could provide a stimulus for unity in the working class movement more generally.