Tuesday, 14 December 2010

BBC's coverage of student demo's hits new low

What's worse: the police dragging a disabled person from a wheelchair or the attempts of the BBC to justify it?

If anyone is in any doubt about the bias of the media, this clip of the interview of the BBC with Jody McIntyre, whom has cerebal palsey and is in a wheelchair, will settle any doubts.

My personal favourite lines were those where the interviewer accused Jody of provoking fully kitted out riot police by "rolling towards them" and that as he described himself as a revolutionary, he was surely worthy of a beating for being a trouble maker. Hats off to Jody who not only manages to deal with this blatant attempt at smearing him but also respond to raise the wider political points.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Are the NUS leadership finished? And is there anything capable of replacing it?

The NUS pro-Labour leadership have lost all credibility and are powerless in the face of the revolting student masses. But can the left fill the vacuum and help channel the masses of students into the wider political struggle?

As the student movement has developed over the past month, the one thing that has become increasingly apparent is that the National Union of Students (NUS) leadership has, at best, had no role in its development and at worst been playing an active role to undermine it.

Having called the first national demo back on November 10th in response to grass roots pressure, they were completely overwhelmed and unprepared for the 50,000 that took to the streets. Since then they have failed to mobilise for anything, actively distanced themselves from their own members actions whilst desperately still trying to look relevant and in control to the media. The only tactics they have mentioned are the need for graduate tax and to deselect Liberal Democrats who vote for tuition fees, both have which have gone almost completely ignored by the student movement. The only action they have called or even supported since the original one was there own “glow stick vigil”, which attracted less than 200 people (and cost them a £10,000s apparently). Already, you can imagine the Government quaking in its boots.

NUS Aaron Porter's position seems to shift on an almost daily basis as on the one hand he tries to act as the “voice of reason” and head of the student movement, whilst occasionally being forced to back track in the face of the reality of events. So far, all he has done is dither and .He condemns occupations and then offers support to them, then withdraws the support. He condemns the student demonstrations, whilst trade unions line up to support them. Whilst everyone criticises the police violence, Aaron is too busy blaming the students for the violence and how they should be banned from protests.

After all this, not to mention the fact that the fact they've had nothing to do with the 100,000+ students out protesting, is it any wonder that instead of Mr Porter the media is increasingly going to figures like Clare Solomn, President of ULU, leftwinger and leading student activist and other representatives from the newly emerged student campaign groups (see below).

However, though they may have been sidelined for now, the student movement still lacks a cohesive leadership that can replace it. The main groups that have emerged are the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and the Education Activist Network (run by the AWL and SWP youth sections respectively) who have links amongst the more militant universities and Youth Fight for Jobs/Socialist Students (Socialist Party youth) which has more focus on school and college students.These campaigns though are simply not big enough to form an effective leadership at this stage.

NCAFC is mainly a facebook group, but can put a message or call out rapidly and has played a role in mobilising for the national demos. EDA (as an SWP front) has more activists in the universities and so has more of a base on the ground to build for events and so has been more involved in building occupations and local events. Youth fight for Jobs has been targeting schools and colleges and has a had success in helping to coordinate local walkouts and demonstrations. All three have been working together within the General Assemblies that have been appearing, but no organisation has begun to occur past these mass meetings. Though they are quite big, they generally represent lefty student activists rather than the new layer who have been politicised. To keep pushing these, alongside repeated calls for more national demos, will have decreasing returns in the long run. There needs to be a consolidation of the movement, to build networks on the ground and prepare for the New Year.

What will be critical is the potential NUT and UCU (teachers and lecturers unions) coordinated strike action over pensions in the New Year, potentially with the PCS, its vital that we begin making the links between the students and unions. We (by which I mean the Trade Unions and activists) need to be helping students organise in their schools and colleges, to be holding meetings and electing reps who can attend and link up with anti-cuts groups and speak at trade councils. We need students to be on picket lines and on anti-cuts demos, we need them talking about benefit cuts and unemployment, we need to draw them into the bigger battles that we are facing. To do this, we need local student committees with activists from every school and college, that can link up to a bigger student leadership.

If we don't do this in the long term, we run the risk of the students becoming demoralised, the left becoming isolated in its occupations and the likes of Aaron Porter stepping back in to reassert his ruinous tactics

Monday, 22 November 2010

A Guide to Quantitative Easing (or why printing money is a really stupid idea)

Here's a genius video that in simple terms explains what printing money ("quantitative easing" as the politicians call it) does to an economy, why they're doing it and who really benefits. It's in terms of the U.S economy and the Federal Bank, but its the same principles and you don't need an economics degree to understand it. Enjoy!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

PCS to begin ballot over attacks to redundancy payments

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has announced this week to start a consultative ballot on whether its members should take industrial action over changes to civil service redundancy pay. The Conservatives and Lib Dems are currently trying to push through proposals that will slash redundancy pay the (Civil Service Compensation Scheme, or CSCS. We do love our acronyms) by up to a third. Why are doing this? As a prelude to sacking thousands of public sector workers, these proposals will make it a lot cheaper for them.   

This isn't new and has been an ongoing dispute. The previous Labour Govt tried to change the redundancy pay on two occasions and the PCS have rejected them both, as it was (and still is) a breach of its members contracts. On both occasions, a High Court supported the PCS and declared such a move illegal, forcing the government to back down. Now not being able to unilaterally change workers terms and conditions legally, they're changing the law to make it so they can. The PCS have tried to negotiate on this issue time and time again, however the Govt is not willing to listen and is pushing ahead regardless. One of many examples of this is using emergency legislation to force the law through (usually reserved for wars and emergencies). Even now, the PCS are still giving the Govt time to come back to the table by merely doing a consultative vote of its members (to go on strike, there will have to be a second ballot).

"Gold Plated" civil service jobs? Hardly.

Public sector workers have faced consecutive below inflation pay rises over the last few years, with the average pay of PCS member being roughly around £22,000 a year. This year, with inflation at just over 3%, we're likely to get less than 1% and will also face a further proposed 7% pay cut in real terms from increased pension contributions (for a worse pension deal). And this is only for those who managed to keep their jobs after the 20-40% job cuts.

And counter the next inevitable points that "we've all got to make sacrifices, its a recession" or "we need to cut the deficit", read the following:
  1.  The PCS, the TUC and other unions have already set out how we can control the deficit without cutting jobs and vital services. Namely by going after the £120 billion tax avoided/dodged every year, cutting the PFI debt, ending the war in Afghanistan, cutting tax breaks to the richest, increasing corporation tax to its pre-1997 level of around 50% (its now at around 23%, one of the lowest in Europe).
  2. Economic theory clearly states that you do not cut government spending during a recession and that you should in fact spend. Cutting government spending these cuts to public sector will only make the economy worse, not better.. Just look at Greece and Ireland, their economies are doing great!
  3. And just how are we all in this together? Executive pay is up by 55% and bankers bonuses are going to total £7 billion this Xmas, exactly how are the rich paying for this crisis? In fact, many banks are actually bet off as corporation tax has been cut. Inequality has risen dramatically over the last decade and now working people are being made to pay for a crisis we never caused.

The PCS are fighting for a fair redundancy package and against Govt plans to be able to sack thousands of civil servants on the cheap. The PCS NEC are recommending voting to support industrial action, and all trade unionists should support them in doing so.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Vive La Republique!

I had hoped my first contribution to a blog would be something insightful and politically awe inspiring.

Instead I have decided to post my favourite Anti-Royal song to mark the deficit increasing drain on public resources that Windsor and Middleton's wedding will be.

In summary, I hope it all goes badly for them.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Where next for the student movement?

Can the NUS leadership's tactics beat education cuts? Short Answer: No.

After the massive turnout of 52,000 students and lecturers on the NUS and UCU called “Demo-lition” demo in London (see the post below) there is a lot of momentum and potential for a mass student movement. However, as the Stop the War movement showed, massive demonstrations aren't enough to change Government policy. This begs the question then, what now?

The Current Genius NUS Plan to defeat
The Labour student's controlled National Union of Student's (NUS) answer is to mobilise students to “lobby” MPs who signed a pledge against the proposed raising of the cap. Currently, if every MP who signed the pledge before the election votes this way, then any attempts in Parliament will be voted down. Not a bad idea eh? Well yes, yes it is.

The problem with this tactic is that 1) it has failed on the two previous occasions it was tried, when fees were first introduced and then again when tuition fees. In both cases, they already had a parliamentary majority, its just that most of the MPs didn't stick to their promises. Not a good start. 2) Even more worryingly, this strategy fails to actually combat the massive cuts to lecturing staff and university and research funding. The NUS offers no real critique of the actual plans, offering such a narrow vision of "Fight the fees", that even if they do defeat the votes against raising the cap, university's are still screwed as the projected 40% cuts hit home (not to mention privatisation, cuts to EMA and attacks on teaching and researching standards). Funding to institutions has been cut effectively year on year for some time now and has been edging higher education towards the abyss. One of the reasons so many vice-chancellors have been calling to raise the cap is because they are desperate for the income, otherwise their institutions will be forced to make swinging cuts, merge with other institutions or simply go to the wall.  But judging by the NUS leadership's campaign, this is all hardly a footnote.

And if this fails? Well, the next step is to de-seat all the Liberal Democrats and show the voting power of students. But how do we do that I hear you cry? Well, we all go out and mobilise operation student vote/vote for Labour! And so then we beat the Tories and Lib Dems, get a Labour Government and then we've .... oh no wait, they're just as likely to cut funding and raise the cap. Maybe next time we should vote Lib Dems because they'll probably rediscover that free education is great idea once in opposition.

Why are they doing this?  Well, this is most likely down to the fact that the Labour Student's dominated NUS leadership aren't really against tuition fees, nor actually against the cuts to higher education. Aaron Porter, the current President of NUS and Labour Party member, before becoming President was one of the leading members of the right wing Organised Independents. He has previously condemned UCU strike action, was supportive of privatisation (it brought uni's more funding is his eyes) and as Higher Education officer he did nothing against the Labour Govt's cuts to university funding and brainchilded “graduate tax” to replace fees, a system which UCU has said will cost students up to £10,000 more than the current system (plus the fact its utterly unworkable, but that's another blog for another time). And recently, we have seen him falling over himself to condemn and sell out student's involved in the Milibank incident. Under his leadership, the student movement will not develop into the mass moment the we need to defeat the cuts.
Aaron Porter, President of the NUS, more concerned with condemning his own members than building an anti cuts movement
A genuine anti-cuts fightback
We need to be linking up students with lecturers and university workers (a process that's already starting on the ground, with or without student unions) to support them on picket lines and co-ordinate joint action. Occupations, student strikes, walkouts and marches are already being planned without the NUS official involvement, however much of this still remains isolated and with a definite lack of leadership. This inspirational movement of young people needs to be brought on board with the wider anti-cuts movement, to get them supporting other strikes and other workers in dispute, getting them to picket lines and helping to build the broader movement. People talk about how we should be more like Greece and France, well, in order to get to this point we need be developing these links. This obviously works both ways, and the union movement needs to approach students, offer their support, invite them to speak at branch meetings and make the links themselves.

This is important as another critical issue is that we just can't let students get involved, graduate and then see all this as a "phase". With so many young people questioning the political status quo, now is perfect to be educating them and bringing them into the trade union movement. We want young people to not just talking about tuition fees, but cuts to education, their public services, making the connection to attacks in their work places and on their terms and conditions. And most importantly, we need to show young people that they are not powerless, that united we can win and the best way to achieve this is through organised labour and mass movements. Finally, we have to bring up the issue of political representation. As I've stated before, if none of the mainstream parties are going to represent student demands, then we need to involve them to help build an alternative. This is a long game we're playing and we can't allow such an opportunity to be squandered by those who want to cripple the movement before it can grow. 

The planned day of action on Nov 24th, which should see waves of occupations, demos, walkouts and student strikes, should be seen as the perfect opportunity for workers and trade unions to get involved and offer their support, drawing together the arguments and uniting the anti-cuts campaign. This will be the real test of the movement, as right now much it is reliant on ordinary students in schools and colleges to co-ordinate, people who aren't normally political active.

Without this strategy, the student movement will either dissipate to nothingness as its focus becomes the “have a cup of tea with your MP” (the failed NUS tactic of the last 4 years) or we'll see more outbursts of anger in its purest form as reflected in the occupation of the Milibank tower.

On a final note, word is that the PCS (the militant public sector workers union) were blocked from speaking on the platform at the end of the demo, by the TUC and the NUS. Maybe it was because they would have proposed exactly the kind of tactics the movement needs....

Saturday, 13 November 2010

52,000 students, a lot of anger and one hell of a media frenzy

A brilliant, vibrant demonstration marred only by some poor organisation, weak political leadership and the media thinking that someone smashing a window is the equivalent of a riot.

- This was originally one large post. However, there were so many issues to cover, I've decided to split into two (and it's still massive). For more on tactics and where next for the student movement, see the next post. 

As I'm sure you would have heard by now, on Wednesday over 52,000 students and lecturers marched through London against proposed cuts to education and the increasing of the level of tuition fees to up to £9000 a year. As a bit of a serial lefty, this was definitely one of the biggest, most vibrant demos I've seen in a long while, with a lot of energy reflecting the outright anger of young people at the Coalition's plans for higher education. The mood was militant, with home made placards and banners galore alongside a strong turnout from lecturers and workers wielding their UCU equivalents. Also of note, a not insignificant amount of trade union banners were scattered throughout the march.

As for the political content and message of the demo, it was definitely mixed. From what I've heard, there are differences in the political line between the NUS and the UCU, which is leading to some tensions. On the one hand, the lecturers union UCU is fighting back against cuts to education, both colleges and universities, whilst calling for free education in support of students. The Labour Party led National Union of Students (NUS) on the other hand is calling not to raise the cap on tuition fees, whilst half heartedly arguing for a graduate tax. This was reflected in the rally at the end of the march (in fairness, I didn't catch all of it) which consisted mainly of “Raising tuition fees is bad” and the “Lib Dems lied to us”, with very little on what to do next or linking up with the wider anti cuts movement. This is because the leadership's ties to Labour Party mean they aren't against cuts to education funding nor for the abolishing of tuition fees. Nor do they want to remind students that it was in fact the Labour Party who introduced fees, increased them, want to increase them further still whilst making massive cuts to education funding. Thankfully, this definitely was not the mood of the demo or of students themselves. Judging by the chants, the anger and the placards, many are already making the links with their lecturers and teachers, not content to just fight back against tuition fee rises, but against cuts to EMA, their institutions and generally to public sector cuts. This is a mood that the NUS cannot control and if they continue to try and ignore them, will only serve to weaken their own position (and their future career prospects). 

Another serious problem was the clear lack of organisation. The stewarding was almost non-existent and those there were completely unequipped to handle their roles, partly leading to the events that happened later at Milibank (see below). A demo that was meant to take about an hour turned into about four as it was held up by some students blocking the road in a sit down protest outside parliament. Instead of walking around them or trying to move them on, the stewards just looked on wistfully whilst the demo grinded to a halt. This led to only a small percentage actually getting to the rally at the end (not that they really missed out) and even if they did, there was clearly no room for anyone to see what was going on as the area was clearly too small for even a few thousand.

This lack of organisation on the day may have been down to the fact that even up to the day before the NUS were still thinking 15,000 (the police were briefing that they expected even less, even accusing the NUS of inflating figures). This is partly down to the leadership's disconnect from its membership (in part down to many of its officers being open careerists and hacks, an issue made worse by its new constitution consolidating union officers dominance over student participation in the union). It was quite clear that when some student unions were booking five to six coaches at a time and selling out tickets for transport in days that this wasn't some run of the mill march. Though few predicated 50k, it was easily going to be 25-30,000 plus. Another factor may have been that the current leadership have little experience of organising demos or coordinating mass movements. Some have gone further to say that the NUS may have purposely tried to play down the demo and not organise it, though this sounds a bit too much even for them. Regardless, one thing was clear: the NUS leadership were forced to call this demo in response to mass student anger and if they didn't call something, someone else might of.

One of the major other features was that a lot of the home made placards and sentiment were anti Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. Before the election, the Lib Dems had promised to abolish tuition fees as a key campaign promise and part of positioning themselves as a Labour alternative, clearly courting the youth and student vote. However, the moment they even tasted power, this policy will dropped alongside so many others. Surprisingly, all those students who voted for them on this basis are a bit cheesed off. If this demo was saying anything, it was surely that the Lib Dems are a party finished amongst this generation of young people. How this issue plays out internally amongst the Lib Dems will be interesting in itself, though given that at there latest conference, the discontent was limited.

Finally, I have to mention the big who-har around Milibank. Of course, I couldn't write a report of the demo without mentioning this, which has driven the media into a blood frenzy. From the media's coverage of this demonstration, you would have thought it was a riot. Really? I've seen bigger bar brawls. A couple of hundred throwing sticks made of balsa wood, a few flares and fire extinguisher really isn't a riot. Though the initial occupation was definitely led by a minority of student anarchists, it would be lying to say a lot of ordinary students weren't involved. This was clearly a reflection of the genuine anger students felt and given the opportunity to vent where police and stewards did nothing whilst a hoard of photographers egged them on, many took it. Though not a conducive tactic to building a wider mass movement, nor one that is effective in isolation, I imagine a lot of workers and students gave a smile when they saw the Tory HQ being smashed up. As a side note, given such an obvious target as well, one does have to ask the question as to why there was no police presence? Considering you can't get near a Starbucks on most demos, the Tory HQ should have really been a no-brainer. 

Either way, this incident is but a distraction from the bigger movement and is an attempt to belittle students and divide us. So what next? With such a massive potential movement, how is the campaign to be taken forward? So far all the NUS leadership can do is condemn the Milibank incident and call for students to unseat Lib Dems (which indirectly means vote Labour).  With the 24th of November called for as a day of action and the next focus to fight back, we will see just what students are thinking: that we need to have a meeting with our MP like the NUS tell us too, or for strikes, occupations and demos? Time will tell.....