Thursday, December 09, 2010

Day X 3

20,000 protesters surrounded Wesminster today, according to the media reports. Tens of thousands protested across the country. I'm afraid that I, despite my promise earlier, was unable to do my usual service for the Twitterati today, due to a problem with my phone. But I've just narrowly averted being kettle in Parliament Square where thousands of others are about to have a long night behind a colossal phalanx of helmeted riot cops and mounties. Mounted police have been charging at protesters, and the police vans are being driven down Whitehall to close the space in which the protesters are allowed to stay. There have been injuries, though most of coverage has been concerned with coppers suffering from psychological trauma and hurt feelings. And the police lines have been periodically broken throughout the day - in fact, hundreds broke through in Whitehall moments ago, and the rumour has it that police are now the ones being kettled. Of course, thousands of other protesters have deliberately drifted away from the kettle, and if experience is any guide then they'll be reappearing with ad hoc protests elsewhere in the centre. In fact, I understand the National Gallery is still being occupied as I write. And that seems weirdly normal these days.

Today's protests have been notable again for their unpredictability, sudden surges here, rushes there (down Pall Mall), police altercations (at Adlwych and Kingsway), and finally an enormous, noisy gathering outside Parliament. Three enterprising students reportedly got into the House of Commons and staged a loud protest, that was heard by all within. It would certainly be difficult not to hear the protesters outside, who are making as much noise as they can. They've re-decorated the square, as you'll see from the photographs. In fact, riot police and vans seem to have been re-decorated as well, having been sprayed with a rainbow of paint balls.

Also noticeable was the proliferation of union banners from the UCU, GMB and others. Of course the NUS staged a separate candle-lit vigil by the Thames which the UCU was formally supporting (or so I understand), but every report I've heard about that says that essentially no one turned up. Most of the trade unionists joined the students, which is as it should be. There was also, to my mild surprise, a London Young Labour banner there. I also see that Labour List, which usually leans toward Blairism, was being quite supportive of the protests on Twitter today. The fact that Labour feels compelled to support the students, however tentatively and however opportunistically, is important. Blair never felt compelled to support a protest in his whole premiership - indeed, a report today by Kevin Maguire suggests that Blair has gone to Tea Party doo lally land these days, declaring that Obama is "a socialist".

I think we're probably moving into a new phase of protest after tonight. The anarchic spontaneity that has been evident in protests is going to give way to some extent to a more focused, planned approach. I say this because when you're trying to raise consciousness, get media attention, shake things up and put the frighteners on MPs before a vote, then a bit of calculated chaos makes sense. But if the vote goes the government's way, then there's an urgent need to escalate and broaden the struggle. And just as there has been an awareness of the need to build links with workers in a broader cuts movement, so I think there's been a widespread awareness of the need to build some sort of cohesive, national framework. The different occupations need to be coordinating with one another, and they need to work out some agreed perspectives. We can't go on having a situation where small groups of activists call protests and just rely on people mobilising spontaneously. We need a structure that is genuinely rooted in the student body, and particularly in the most militant layers of the student body. A student coordinating committee based in the occupations would be an obvious focus for organising protests, for working out strategy and propaganda, and for relating to wider groups of people, especially trade unionists.

The vote in parliament is due to take place in the early evening. In fact, I understand it should come through quite soon. And while I wouldn't want to deviate from my strict policy of dampening expectations, I have heard some interesting noises of unexpected resignations. The latest rumour is that Jenny Willott MP has resigned from the government. It's looking like it could be very bad for the government. Not that they will lose the vote, necessarily. In fact, they'll be doing badly to have a majority of less than 20. But there's a strong chance that the victory will be unpersuasive, and that internal divisions will intensify as a result. The raw anger and bitterness that will be left if the vote goes the government's way will mortally cleave the Liberals' base, hurt the Tories, and leave the government in a far weaker position for the coming fight with the trade unions. And that's why it is going to be so important to escalate the students' rebellion in the coming months and link it up with every other force of resistance in the country.

Update: The government won the vote with a majority of 21. Their actual majority in the House of Commons is 84, so the student movement cut that down to a quarter. That's what mass protests can do, and it's useful to know. We now need to think about what it will take to bring this government down.