Monday, December 06, 2010

Student movement is prising apart the coalition... but it will take time.

This weak and nasty government is looking flimsier by the day. The opportunism of the Liberal Democrats has been much commented on. But it has also been pointed out that such opportunism is advantageous to us if we are the ones applying pressure. The Liberals are fragmenting. Charles Kennedy, Menzies Campbell and others are voting against fee increases. The Lib Dem president is voting against. Norman Baker may resign from the cabinet rather than vote for the trebling of fees. Simon Hughes has rather pathetically been pushing the idea that the Liberals collectively abstain, in one giant gesture of unanimous redundancy. It seems he will only manage to persuade a minority to do that, but that will further weaken the 'yes' vote.

Still, I would expect there to be enough outright Liberal support to push the policy through. There would have to be at least 25 Liberal rebels to defeat the fees motion given current parliamentary arithmetic, and that assumes that smaller parties take an anti-fees stance, which some - like the DUP - may not. There probably aren't 40% of Liberal MPs prepared to rebel, even over a suicide pact like this. It's extremely important to grasp why this is. Ruling classes across Europe, the Americas and beyond are determined to force through a general decline in living standards in order to resolve the crisis of capitalism. It's a calculated attempt to repeat the 'austerity' policies following from the Volcker shock, which - by redistributing wealth from labour and the poor to capital - stimulated a new wave of investment and growth. This transformation of the higher education system is one part of that attack, and this government cannot allow the precedent to be set that such policies can actually be reversed. Their mantra is that these policies are forced on them by necessity - which to an extent they actually believe. The pressure to force such policies through is coming on a global level, and the most powerful institutions in the land - including, as we recently learned to no one's surprise, the Bank of England - have been directing the pressure at all the major political parties. (Parenthetically, this pressure will only be increased as China's unsustainable public investment boom crunches against the barrier of soaring inflation, with the result that China, having added to global overcapacity, must now join in global de-leveraging and spending cutbacks.) States and governing parties have incredible powers of persuasion and patronage at their disposal, as well as ways of disciplining those who prove insusceptible to flattery and bribes. Every last resource of cajolery and coercion, seduction and instruction, will be being deployed over this policy. Given that, and given the calibre of most of our representatives, the education vandals will get their votes.

However, it won't be enough for Clegg to just about pull through. I reckon Clegg wants the Liberals' role in supporting the policy to be substantial enough for the party's ongoing participation in the coalition to be credible. This is the first of potentially many crises for this coalition, and my guess is that he is determined to prove himself a reliable ally who can continue to deliver his party, especially his parliamentary party, whenever it is needed. This is why Vince Cable has been scrabbling to find some sort of bribe to win over the dissidents within his shabby crew, including a fund to pay the fees of 18,000 of the poorest students each year (out of a total annual intake of just under half a million). Another encouraging possibility is that even a number of Tory MPs may come out of the woodwork and oppose the fee rises, as they've spent more than a decade making political capital out of Labour's imposition of fees. David Davis MP has been the first Tory to say he will oppose the increases. Another three made explicit pledges to oppose the fees before the 2010 election. The Liberals remain the weak link in this coalition, however, so it continues to make tactical sense to apply special pressure to them - without, of course, losing sight of the fact that this is a Tory administration and it is the Tories we are mainly up against. We shouldn't expect instant gratification. The coalition is already shaken, but it isn't going to collapse yet - and that's what it would mean if it couldn't force this policy through parliament. The struggle before this Thursday will be about how much we weaken the coalition, shake them up, blunt their future attacks, and soften them up for future fights. Bringing down the government is the right aim, and a realistic goal, but it will require a much longer war of attrition, and the intervention of much larger social forces on our side - to wit, the organised labour movement and those combined forces of the left and civil society which stand opposed to these cuts.

Meanwhile, we have another task: to reclaim the NUS machinery for the student rank and file. The NUS leadership has announced that it will not be supporting the march on the day of the tuition fees vote, but will instead be organising a separate candlelit vigil on the banks of the Thames. I haven't spoken to any student or teacher who doesn't find this completely laughable. Aaron Porter's apology to students for his spineless dithering, itself an example of the upside of opportunism, evidently didn't imply a promise to stop his spineless dithering. No wonder occupying students are calling for Porter to go. But it's not just Porter - it's the whole rotten executive, who need to be ousted at the earliest convenience. The NUS is a potentially powerful machinery, when it's not being used as a careers service for future politicos. It has to have its democracy restored after last year's stitch-up, and it has to be put back in the hands of a participatory student body. This is not to say that all our organisational efforts should be expended on 'taking back' the NUS. I think it's far more important to build up grassroots alliances at the moment, to unite all those militant layers of students who are occupying, protesting, and so on - as I'm writing, I've heard that student protesters took over the Tate Awards, and occupations began in Goldsmiths, Camberwell and Bradford. A durable grassroots alliance can provide an alternative locus to the NUS bureaucracy when it fails to speak up for students, as it will tend to do. But that still doesn't mean we can put up with an executive that wants to put the resources of the national student body anywhere apart from where students are actually going to be next Thursday.