By Alan Clarke
So close - for this Labour government, with its huge majority and addiction to control-freakery, to come within five votes of being defeated on a flagship policy was indeed humiliating. The rousing of the normally comatose Parliamentary Labour Party to destroy Blair's 160-plus majority is a reflection of massive hostility to top-up fees among students, in the general public and throughout the labour movement; but in politics organisation is everything, and Blair's victory is impossible to understand in isolation from the weakness, both organisational and political, of the anti-top up rebellion.
In any case, only one conclusion is possible - we can beat Blair, so keep fighting!
The campaign in Parliament
The parliamentary battle over top-up fees took place against the same background as every previous anti-Blairite rebellion: lack of a working-class alternative. The Government's arguments, and its ability to win over wavering Labour MPs, relied on the fact that the immediate and most publicly visible alternative to the Higher Education Bill was not a socialist programme for free education, but the Tories cynical, ultra-elitist plan to scrap fees by limiting access to university. A House of Commons where the best organised "left-wing" force was the Liberal Democrats - who essentially want a return to 1998 (no fees, with a means-tested grant of less than £2,000) - was not exactly the best environment for taking on the Blairites' arguments.
Without playing down the scale of the rebellion, we should remember that the bulk of the "rebel" Labour MPs have a position much close to the Government's than to socialists'. They accept that "the country" cannot "afford" free education and that, if Higher Education is to expand, students "must pay something" towards the cost. This political weakness accounts in large part for the "softness" of the rebellion. A small group of Labour MPs - basically the left of the Campaign Group - did work with the Campaign for Free Education (CFE) to win the ideological battle by demanding that the Government fund education by taxing business and the rich. This "hard" rebellion needs to be built on in the coming weeks and months.
The real-world campaign
As the Government struggled to contain even this relatively weak rebellion against top-up fees, it could not have asked for better helpers than the National Union of Students leadership.
At last year's NUS conference, the CFE defeated the national executive majority to restore the funding policy which Labour Students and their "independent" allies overturned in 1996 - no fees and no graduate repayment, with all tuition and a living, universal maintenance grant funded by progressive taxation. Watching NUS president Mandy Telford and her cronies go out of their way to avoid making the case for this policy over the last few months has been equal parts comedy and horror. If the leadership had spent even half as much energy organising action as they did avoiding the words "tax the rich", top-up fees would certainly have been defeated.
On the day of the Commons vote, NUS called a lobby of Parliament - get out your best suit, no shouting or placard-waving and everyone leave by 1pm, six hours before the vote took place. When the student left called for a mass demonstration outside the vote, NUS not only failed to throw its resources behind it, but issued a circular telling its members not to demonstrate for fear of scaring Labour MPs!
The result was that only about 400 students, mainly the organised left and its contacts, turned up to protest - an important initiative, but a wasted opportunity thanks to Blair's friends in the student movement.
By and large, the organised labour movement did not actively oppose top-up fees - perhaps unsurprisingly, given the failure of NUS to provide a clear and militant pole of attraction. That the Government came to the abyss despite this is a clear indication that the top-up fees battle is one we can win.
Blair's victory on 27 January was a defeat for the student movement and the left, but not a conclusive one. The Higher Education Bill is not yet law; it can still be defeated at its third reading in March or, failing that, stopped from being implemented before 2006. If students are to regain the initiative, however, we need to clarify our ideas.
What is required to defeat the Government is a set of campaigning demands and slogans that goes beyond the "Fuck fees, fuck capitalism" approach pioneered by the SWP. If "free education" means anything different from what the Tories are advocating, it has to mean rejecting the equation of education with training, and the notion that Higher Education exists to boost corporate profits and the "earning power" of individuals in the market place. In place of a system which will force the majority of students into low-paid, non-unionised jobs so they can be better-trained workers at the end of an under-funded degree, we need to demand social provision for human need, with a quality education open to all and not just those who can afford it. That means:
- No tuition fees, no graduate repayment - free education for all.
- A living, non-means-tested grant for every student.
- No more "business involvement" - fund education by taxing corporate profits and the rich.
We also need to get organised. Students should organise a free education campaign group in their school, college or university in order to discuss alternatives, take action and lobby their MP in the run-up to the next Commons vote. The NUS week of action from 23 February provides a perfect opportunity to organise action, and to link our campaigns with those of the AUT and other education unions. Lastly, all activists should get themselves delegated to this year's NUS conference, to help remove the NUS leadership, which has - so far at least - snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Solidarity spoke to activists protesting outside Parliament on 27 January
Sandy Hale is doing A-levels at Camden School for Girls
In some ways this was a defeat, in some ways not. I'm sorry we came so close to beating the Government and failed; but I'm glad we didn't hand a victory to the Tories, who terrify me. Sorry, I know that's contradictory.
I suppose I'm saying that we need to defeat the Government but also win something better. The fight isn't over yet; we need to organise outside Westminster, at college and on the streets, to make sure top-up fees are never implemented. We've got till 2006 - if we don't win, I'll be in the first year paying top-up fees. We should look at a non-payment campaign, but that might be difficult since they're scrapping upfront fees. At the universities charging higher fees, I'm sure there will be big campaigns.
More generally, we need to challenge the crawling and careerism which allowed Blair to get away with this - in the Labour Party and in the student movement.
Robin Sivapalan is studying English and education at Homerton College
Given the softness of the Labour rebellion, I was actually surprised it was that close. The Government was very effective at scaremongering, pretending that the only alternative to top-up fees was the Tories. I don't know what will happen on the third reading; I can't see many more concessions coming from Charles Clarke.
If NUS had put its weight behind the demo outside, instead of trying to put people off, I think it would have made the difference. Similarly, an NUS which had spent the last year actually promoting an alternative and advocating free education would have much more effective in counter government propaganda. What we need now is sustained pressure on Labour MPs to tip the Government's majority over the edge.
I find the argument which we heard from [NUS Vice-President-Education] Chris Weavers that too much militancy would make us look "anti-Blair" bizarre. A Prime Minister who introduces policies like top-up fees doesn't deserve to survive. At the same time that we were working with the Labour left trying to put forward a progressive alternative, NUS was basically saying "Ditch fees or we'll vote Tory". They're not only weak, they're incoherent.
Helena Puig Larrauri is president of Oxford University Students' Union and co-author of OUSU's "Alternative White Paper"
We all knew the Government's majority would be decimated - but I was pleased that it was so close (obviously, even closer would have been better!). Given the lack of free debate in the Labour Party and the immense pressure which the Government can bring to bear on backbench MPs, I'm pleased so many stood firm.
I was taken aback that NUS limited itself to lobbying politely and rejected direct action on the day of the vote. Obviously there's a place for lobbying, but without direct action it's ultimately ineffective. That's what's needed over the next month to put counter-pressure on MPs - a combination of lobbying with action, like occupations, which can involve students on a mass scale.
United left challenge to NUS leaders
The Campaign for Free Education and Student Broad Left have agreed a joint challenge to the NUS leadership in the elections at this year's NUS conference. Four candidates from the CFE (including Workers' Liberty supporter Alan Clarke) and two from Student Broad Left will be contesting the six full-time NUS positions under the title "United for Free Education", on a programme of militant action to beat top-up fees and win free education. The CFE will also be standing three candidates for the part-time executive elections.
Unfortunately, the SWP's student wing SWSS, which in previous years has taken part in similar united left initiatives, has refused to participate, instead running its own candidates for President and one other position.
NUS conference will take place in Blackpool from 29 March to 1 April. Make sure you're there - and if you need help getting there, contact the CFE!
- tel 07968 984358;
As Solidarity goes to press, members of the Association of University Teachers are waiting for their executive to confirm the linking of strike action over pay to the question of top-up fees.
An AUT ballot on strike action, the results of which are due out on Thursday's plan to coincide strikes with the student "national shutdown" on 25 February, which will act as the focus for the anti-top up fees week of action called by the National Union of Students (NUS).
Since 1979, most lecturers' pay has fallen massively behind even that of teachers. Now, as part of its drive to "modernise" Higher Education, the Government wants to end national pay bargaining for lecturers, instead allowing each university to negotiate its own salary levels. The link with top-up fees could not be clearer. The marketisation of production in education which the AUT is opposing is the flip-side of the marketisation of consumption represented by variable fees. That's why the union is right to describe the Government's attempt to introduce local pay bargaining as "the other side of the top-up fees coin".
The desperate financial situation of many universities has, unfortunately, led some lecturers to side with their university hierarchies and support the introduction of top-up fees in the hope of unlocking new resources. Joint action by students and lecturers for a properly funded education system is the only way to deal with this problem, and to begin the slow process of mobilising the trade union movement against Blair on this issue. Student union officers and activists should approach their local AUT now to begin organising for the 25th.