On turning points, resistance and the fight against the right

Michael Chessum writes about the protest outside Parliament nine years ago today which saw thousands of students fight pitched battles with the police as they demonstrated to oppose the trippling of tuition fees

Nine years ago today, a pitched battle was fought in Parliament Square. About thirty thousand students, school pupils and supporters marched from Bloomsbury to Westminster as MPs voted to triple university tuition fees.

The protest marked the crescendo of, probably, the biggest student movement in Britain’s history – with dozens and dozens of campuses occupied, several days of walkouts, and the occupation of Millbank Tower. Hundreds of thousands of people were involved, many of whom went on to form a significant proportion of the now-resurgent Labour left.

This was an era of utter institutional failure and disdain for the usual methods. The banks failed, the press had hacked dead children’s phones, politics had failed (Labour was a right wing mess, the Lib Dems had somehow managed to *more than* sell out their main election pledge), and the movement was horizontal. Those of us branded “leaders” at the time were, in truth, little more than spokespeople.

And the police were rioters. This moment also marked a high point in the use of police violence on protests. After kettling the entire protest in the freezing cold (as they had numerous others), they charged horses into the crowds of school students and ran baton charges through the mass of people trapped inside. At least one almost died, and many were injured. Eventually, they herded the entire protest onto Westminster bridge and held it there until everyone gave their names and addresses.

(My bizarre experience of the kettle was that I escaped it because – as a fulltime SU officer and chief steward of the protest – I decided I should go and buy as many provisions as possible before it happened to distribute. But when I got back from the shop, the police lines had already descended, so all I could do was stand on a high wall and throw sandwiches into the crowd. I then went over to the BBC for what seemed like hours and live-narrated the kettle to footage, of all of my freezing comrades, shot from a helicopter. One friend texted me while on air to say he’d been hit – it later transpired he’d had his ribs broken by a baton charge while pausing to tie his laces).

Anyway, what strikes me most about the 9 December 2010 was that it was a tipping point in this country’s slide to the right. We talked about it at the time, that if the government could get away with marketising education then students would become less easy to mobilise as their experience became more consumerised and alienated. Lo and behold, since the reforms took effect, the student movement has gone into seemingly terminal decline.

Like all tipping points – like the Miners’ Strike, the fights throughout the 1980s, the post-crash austerity moment – it was contradictory. It produced mass movements, unshakable narratives and deeply rooted subcultures that cut against the main outcome of the process. But the overall trend, in my whole lifetime, has been clear. This country has become meaner, more unequal, and less human. And it’s no good thinking that the pendulum will automatically swing back the other way, because reactionary policies beget reactionary mindsets – they create their own reality, their own conditions of possibility, their own momentum.

This Thursday, we will find out about another tipping point. Is the Brexit moment – and the resistance we have built against it – a long awaited moment of redemption in which we not only stop the rot, but open the floodgates to a better future, enacted by a Labour left we could never have dreamed of in 2010? Or will the Tories win and make us a satellite of Trump’s America? If they do, the scary thing to realise is that the worst parts of their agenda may eventually just seem normal.

Anyway, vote Labour.

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