Monday, 29 November 2010

Leave those kids alone!

There's something quite delicious about an NUS president apologising for 'spineless dithering'. It's not like it was in my day of course. I was at university a decade ago, when NUS presidents declined even to call demonstrations. And when I was involved in an occupation at UCL, the student union executive rushed to condemn us, while the university management quickly got an injunction and called the baliffs to drag us out.

So what's changed? In the case of UCL, there is one big difference, in that they're occupying the Jeremy Bentham Room, a strategically unimportant space which the management can live with. We occupied the finance corridor, which was an administrative hub. This is not necessarily a criticism. After all, we were aiming to be part of a wave of occupations against fees around the country, but we were not really in there for long enough for something like that to happen. We certainly didn't have time to get comedians to come down and do a turn for us.

But fundamentally, the whole political atmosphere is different too. Increases in fees are part of a wholesale attack on our public services. The NUS, having had a much bigger response to its demonstration than they were expecting, was put on the back foot, and lost the leadership of the movement. The fact that it launched a ludicrous attack on those who occupied Millbank Tower didn't help. The wave of university occupations, and the school student walkouts were in part inspired by the more militant action at Millbank – had that not happened, even with the huge turnout to the demo, I suspect we would not be seeing a real movement developing.

Moreover, it is a movement which has a real element of spontaneity to it. Although every left-wing group with anything resembling a youth wing is scurrying to claim some part of it, the school student walkouts in particular have been led by nobody, and without wishing to overplay it, have at least something to do with the leaderless organising potential of Facebook.

In this situation, it can be tempting for those of us with organising experience to get excited by the spontaneity, but then step in with lessons, proposals of national school students organisations and so on. This is the wrong approach. No, perhaps 16 year olds don't have a strategic understanding of the best way to defeat capitalism. But letting them make their own mistakes, and at the same time get a sense of their own autonomy in a world where choices amount to which model of mobile phone you have, will make a more long-lasting impression.

Instead we should get excited by the spontaneity, and go organise in our own workplaces and communities. There's a palpable sense of excitement about the student revolt which goes far beyond the organised left - we're not the only ones being inspired. We should offer our solidarity to students and school students of course, especially those of us who are teachers and lecturers, but as far as interfering goes, I say leave those kids alone!

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