Monday 15 November 2010

Merit Not Money, Debt Isn't Funny

Back in 1997 I had few illusions when it came to Tony Blair and New Labour, but that didn't stop me from sitting up with my housemates late into the night cheering as Tory seat after Tory seat tumbled to the red tide sweeping the land. To paraphrase Blair's words a new day may have broken, but politically speaking it looked little different to the neoliberal yesterdays of the previous 18 years. Sure, the New Life for Britain pledge card that committed New Labour to cutting class sizes, cutting NHS waiting lists, cutting the number of under 25s on the dole were the kind of cuts lefties would like to have seen more of, but the clear distancing from anything redolent of traditional social democratic policies, let alone socialist ones, said all I needed to know about New Labour's trajectory over the coming years. Nevertheless Blair's key announcement on higher education that summer came as a bombshell.

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.

If only.

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)


Socialist V said...

The NUS leadership is leading up the garden path all over again and is utterly unwilling to build any kind of mass movement to defeat fees. They hardly even mention cuts to universities or even any kind of real action apart from lobby your MPs.

Thankfully, this isn't the mood of ordinary students. The demo last week though showed a real energy and the mood for a fight back. The November 24th day of action I think will really show the direction of the student movement. Its up to us as socialists and trade unionists to intervene and draw them into the wider anti-cuts and trade union movement. We need to be offering solidarity and support, building the links like we've seen in Europe in France and Greece. Already this is happening with between staff and students.

I've written a bit more about it here (shameless plug):

Phil said...

Shameless plug very welcome :)

As I said over at Socialist Unity the official NUS leadership are making a rod for their own back in refusing to participate in the events planned for November 24th. They are giving space to the alternative student leadership that has started to emerge in the aftermath of last Wednesday to increase their legitimacy and build an organising core of pissed off and militant students. For the fight against tuition fees this is welcome news.

Aaron Porter et al also misunderstand the mechanics of the powers of recall. It is designed, on the basis of a constituent referendum, to only remove those MPs guilty of breaking parliamentary rules. No powers for the electorate exist (or will exist) to remove someone for voting the wrong way.

Boffy said...


I'm not sure about the title of the piece. As I've written previously the idea of merit as a basis of access seems more equitable, but is it? If the State decides that funds are limited for secondary education, would we argue for selection on the basis of merit as a lesser-evil to having to pay for secondary education? If two people are due to get a life-saving operation are we to say that because one has slightly more merit than the other that one should get it, but there is not enough resources for the other?

The problem here is also that we know for a fact that kids from better off backgrounds have a massive advantage when it comes to educational achievement. Access based on merit whether it is to Grammar Schools or to Higher Education can only exaggerate the advantages the better off already enjoy. The same is actually true in relation to healthcare too, because there is more provision and fewer demands on health services in more affluent areas.

As I've pointed out previously a socialist society would have to address this problem, because as Marx pointed out that inequality would not immediately disapear. But, here and now under Capitalism we should not get into the business of making chocies between lesser-evils. We should point out that Capitalism cannot provide decent healthcare and education, and that only a socialist society can provide the solution. Between now and then we can build a workers alternative based on Co-operative provision. When we get to that stage, we can have a sensible discussion about how to fund that education and healthcare, and the choices we have to make.

Boffy said...


You are right about the nature of the proposals on recall. However, I think the NUS are right to raise it, because we should not simply accept the limits that the Liberal-Tories want to place on it, or on any other aspect of democracy. On the contrary, we should point out the lunacy of a right of recall that does not allow electors the most important right - the right to recall those who have reneged on their election pledges, those who no longer represent the views of their electors.

Phil said...

Boffy, the title comes not from what I think now but a slogan we coined back then. As far as I'm concerned HE should be open to anyone who wants to do it.

Gary Elsby said...

Phil, the CLPs have every right to issue a 'no confidence' motion on their offspring, just as MPs do all over the place.

We did the same on our useless Labour Councillors who attempted to shut our schools with the backing of the Tories.

All ruled out of order by Riley.

We ignored him, and they were all sacked by the electorate, maybe because we didn't support them in their hour of need.

Listening to our electorate is against party rules, apparently.

Phil said...

I know that's the case - it's just that the recall legislation the government wants to introduce only allows it on tightly circumscribed occasions. That said once it's in place pressure could build to extend the power of recall, which is no bad thing in my opinion.

Btw, are you going to be on the December 4th march from Burslem to Hanley?

Boffy said...

Doesn't the demo go from outside Hanley Town Hall?