A year prior to the election, the Tories appointed a committee of the great and the good to look into the funding of higher education. The Dearing Report (as it became known) made its recommendations in July, arguing the status quo of free education backed by a maintenance grant for the poorest and the availability of low-interest student loans be replaced by the abolition of the grant, the introduction of up front £1,000/year fees and targeted support for the least well-off. Unlike today, the report didn't try and pretend its recommendations were "progressive", and the government adopted them lock, stock and barrel.
At the time I had managed to scrimp and save enough so that I didn't have to work over the summer. I spent my holidays reading a ton of books a sozzled lefty lecturer had lent me, working on my undergraduate dissertation, and knocking about with Workers' Power. Coincidentally I was reading around the US student movement of the 60s and 70s when the government announced its intention to abolish free higher education. The changes wouldn't have effected me or those who were in the year below, but I was outraged. I could not believe that a Labour government, even if it was the most right wing and cravenly pro-business outfit the labour movement had ever produced, was going to do in one fell swoop what the Tories had been working towards piecemeal over the Thatcher and Major years. But not only was I angry, I earnestly believed others would be too. My girlfriend was angry. A handful of my mates who had a passing acquaintance with politics were narked. And even my over-the-top Tory mate was pissed off. I believed university would be a seething mass of discontent on my return and students would once again be party to scenes of occupations, demonstrations and militancy. I was hoping for a different kind of 60s revival.
The one thing more shocking than the government's plans was the near indifference that greeted it. There was nothing in the student rag, no sense of anger or injustice among my wider circles of friends and acquaintances, and even some quiet support for the proposals (after all, they didn't have to pay). Eventually we managed to corner our union's president and he came across as clueless and seemingly unaware that he and the sabbatical team should be doing something about it. It wasn't entirely his fault, the noises coming from the NUS itself were already tantamount to capitulation. Then president and Labour Students' place man Doug Trainer said they were happy to see the grant go but were concerned about the introduction of fees. With a leadership who flies the white flag at half mast before a single shot had been fired what hope did we ever have of beating off the government's attack?
Two sabs were eventually given the responsibility to organise anti-tuition fees stuff. A small campaign group consisting of my house and a couple of other union hacks met regularly with them to plan local actions. The first was a lobby of then Stoke Central MP Mark Fisher, who was a junior culture minister at the time. I went out with Brother A of Stoke Socialist Party and a friend I dragged along to leaflet one of the local FE colleges to get a good turn out for Mark's surgery. In all about a dozen turned up to lobby him. Three of us went in and sat on a hard bench for about half an hour before being informed that Mark refused to see us as he'll make a brief address outside. We mingled on the Town Hall steps and when he finally emerged he refused to answer questions beyond a statement committing him to supporting the government's position. A month or so later the protest group managed to get him to agree to a debate in one of the union's bars. But that wasn't to be. He came to take questions all right, but none were from the floor: he insisted on their all being pre-screened! It was a truly shameful performance as he stuck to the script and trotted out the same arguments we're hearing today to justify the Tory/LibDem plans for higher education. (NB, after Mark was dropped from the ministerial payroll he once again found a left wing conscience and came out against fees, among other things).
Meanwhile we were working towards the 1st November day of action against fees. For reasons never fully explained the NUS leadership had decided to hold separate demonstrations in 14 different cities instead of concentrating our forces and maximising our impact down in London. For our part we designed branded t-shirts and badges, coined slogans (my housemate Nikki and I came up with 'Merit Not Money, Debt Isn't Funny') for campaign material, and canvassed halls of residence to get bums on the seats of the two coaches we were taking down to Birmingham. Of all our activities this was the most depressing. Speaking to dozens of first years, who were facing a halving of the grant the following year and then its abolition, it was very difficult to find many takers for tickets. We had to resort to selling them off the back of a free night in the union in many cases. Other friends of ours, who didn't have a political bone in their bodies, had to be encouraged onto the demo in the name of the amorphous 'student experience' ("how can you go to uni and not be involved in a protest?")
The demo itself was probably the most dispiriting I've ever been on, and I say that as someone who's attended a march of 17 people since. The Brum demo attracted around 4,000 - 6,000 participants and we set off on a tour that seemingly took in all the second city's backstreets. It was as if the NUS went cap in hand to West Midlands plod and begged to be allowed to march the least disruptive route possible. At the end I don't recall any speeches, just an opportunity to do some shopping and have a post-demo pint. Politics were supplied by the ubiquitous SWSS signs and the odd paper seller - I can't even remember if the NUS bothered to put out its own leaflets and material beyond its own 'say no to tuition fees' placards.
After that the campaign more or less fizzled out. The message came from on high that the NUS were busily lobbying their Lordships. They believed some constitutional shenanigans in the Lords would delay it and might, on the off-chance, encourage the government to have a rethink. It was a forlorn hope. The movement revived again at the beginning of the 1998 semester, resulting in a few handfuls of students refusing to pay and some occupations, but by then the NUS had given up.
This was the first time I'd been involved in a "proper" campaign and found it completely dispiriting - it was a few years before I took up activity again, that time as a shop steward with the T&G. I knew from all the Trot and anarchist material I'd read in the years previously that a leadership body like the NUS tops were only good for leading people up the garden path, but it's something else to go through that experience yourself. It seemed to me they were not interested in leading a decent campaign and were more interested in one-on-one lobbying with sympathetic MPs and peers over coffee and croissants. Failing to call a national demo and scattering your limited forces across 14 different sites on a day of action has to take pride of place as the most serious tactical error, but if you subscribe to the view they didn't want to give the new government a hard time this all makes perfect sense.
But a decent leadership can only go so far. Contrary to what some on the left still think, the crisis of the moment, then and now, cannot be reduced to the question of working class leadership. Blair announced his plans to scrap free higher education right at the start of New Labour's long honeymoon. There was no one else at that time the student movement could link up with to prosecute its agenda. Combine this with the political weakness of the labour movement (of which New Labour was a symptom and later a contributing factor), the common sense acceptance of neoliberal consumer capitalism, the disappearance of socialist ideas from the political mainstream, and the thousand and one other processes contributing to a period of working class political quietude, it was no wonder only a minority of students were exercised by the introduction of fees (though, of course, I didn't realise that at the time). So Matt Bolton, writing on Liberal Conspiracy about the struggle against top-up fees in 2002-3 is too hard on himself and his cohort of students ("My generation was mollycoddled, complacent and, ultimately, complicit"). You can't short-circuit popular consciousness if neither the will, the anger, the belief, the organisation, and the opportunities to beat off a government attack aren't there.
But Matt is also spot on. There is something different about today's student movement that the campaigns against fees, top-up fees, and the lifting of the cap lacked. And unlike previously, students now will find ready allies among other workers and sectors of society facing the thin end of a very large cuts wedge the Tories and LibDems are determined to batter us with. As the Tories are fond of saying, we really are all in it together, but not in the sense they understand it.
(Also at Socialist Unity)