Sunday, November 28, 2010

Students lead, NUS follows

As the occupations continue across the country, we've started to see a shift in the political leadership of the labour movement in this country in response to student militancy. Trade unionists have openly endorsed direct action, and Ed Miliband has already felt the need to declare that he was 'tempted' to speak at the student protests - which, lame as it is, makes a change from the 'invisible man' act he's being doing amid all this. But far more notably NUS president Aaron Porter has apologised to students at the UCL occupation for being "too spineless", supported occupations, and pledged the NUS' support for this Tuesday's action:

Don't underestimate this. When a Labour leader of the NUS, which is traditionally not given to militancy, comes out and endorses occupations (in however qualified a fashion), and feels compelled to support actions that it has previously 'distanced' itself from, and then apologises for being spineless, that means the most militant students are setting the pace. They are leading, and the official leadership is trying to catch up. Of course, there's no guarantee that the NUS will put resources behind Tuesday, but even their supporting it makes a difference. Aside from all this, I see that the Lib Dems are talking about 'abstaining' on the vote on tuition fees, thus remarkably finding a cowardly way to sell out. If Tuesday will be big, I'm confident. Maybe not as big as last week, maybe bigger, but it will show that the momentum is continuing. But because things are moving so fast, it now becomes imperative to act hastily.

There is an old saying on the left, about sudden upsurges of militancy - "up like the rocket, down like the stick". It's a warning not to assume that these explosions will sustain themselves indefinitely, and to work as fast as possible to build an infrastructure to keep the movement going. We have a profuse array of networks, we have anti-cuts coalitions (too goddam many of them), and we have political anger over the cuts that can generalise very quickly into a wider critique of society. But what is urgently needed is the material involvement of the organised labour movement. I know that there will be motions passed in union branches calling for support for the students, and the new leader of Britain's biggest union has declared his support for a wide campaign against cuts involving strikes. But really, the best chance this movement has is if the student strike becomes a general strike.

I know. That's asking an awful lot. But there could at least be a start in that direction. Think about what's happening to council workers, with section 188 notices being handed out everywhere. Think about the threat to teachers, with 40,000 jobs on the way out (meanwhile, Gove wants to bring bankers and ex-squaddies into the classroom). Think about the fate of lecturers under this hyper-neoliberalised higher education sector, with 80% of teaching funding cut. Think about the civil servants, whose jobs are already being shredded. The firefighters and rail workers are also facing cuts, which is one reason why the fights with Johnson and the Tories in London are so important. Even the supposedly protected NHS is shedding staff. There isn't actually any part of the public sector that isn't threatened by these cuts, and strike action isn't avoidable for most of them. They have an interest in finding and uniting with allies in this fight. If any one of these groups of workers were to step out with the students, they would get tremendous support. And the whole created by a combined student-worker campaign would be much greater than the sum of its parts.