In London, on Wednesday 26 November, thousands of students will march, alongside workers and other campaigners, against Labour’s plans to scrap student grants and introduce tuition fees in higher education.
In 1984-5 Tory Minister Keith Joseph tried to scrap grants but was forced to back down by a militant campaign that mobilised students and workers. At the time, the Tories did not want striking miners to have a “second front” formed against their government.
What the Tories did not dare cut, Labour has cut with enthusiasm. If Labour gets away with scrapping grants and introducing tuition fees they will feel confident enough to introduce NHS charges, compulsory second pensions and privatise social services.
The November 26th demonstration will be the first big demonstration against the Labour government. A victory for students in this fight would give a huge boost to everyone facing attacks by this government now, and in the future.
What will Blair and Blunkett’s attacks on students’ funding mean?
Their plans will make the price of a degree somewhere between £15-20,000. There were no votes on this inside the party nor were the proposals on fees included in the election manifesto. Back in April, Blair explicitly said fees would not be introduced. However, Labour indicated that it would support the Dearing Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education, which in July, recommended introducing tuition fees. As the Campaign for Free Education pointed out before the election, the Dearing Commission was always going to be a cover for whoever won the election — Tories or Labour — to bring in fees without having to take the flak.
However, Dearing did not recommend scrapping the grant. It was left to David Blunkett to propose this — barely three hours after the Dearing Commission had reported. Clearly Blair and Blunkett had their plans sorted out well in advance of the report. The only thing they didn’t have sorted was a mandate!
Why did Blair and Blunkett think they could get away with it?
These plans are opposed by the vast majority of students. And it is the anger of hundreds of thousands of ordinary students which NUS’s Labour leaders fear. The Blairites of Labour Students needed to prepare the National Union of Students for this sell-out well in advance.
In March 1995, NUS Conference voted for a “review” of its funding policy. Alliance for Workers’ Liberty student members immediately saw that this was an attempt to drop NUS’ commitment to free education. Along with other activists at that conference we launched the Campaign for Free Education. Within two months, NUS had indeed attempted to drop free education policy but were roundly beaten by the CFE at an Emergency NUS Conference held in Derby. It took them a full year to overturn the free education policy.
How did they sell the turn-around to the members? It was sold as “realistic”, and enabling NUS to “get a seat at the negotiating table”. We were told we had to concentrate on stopping fees. We were also told that it was selfish of students to demand grants when there are people homeless on the streets and an NHS in need of repair — although NUS did not launch any campaigns to defend the welfare state that year!
We argued that, by accepting the principle of paying for education, and dropping the commitment to grants, the door would be opened to tuition fees. We were right!
Under pressure from the CFE and student activists, NUS was forced to organise a series of regional demonstrations against fees (but not against the scrapping of grants) on 1 November. The regional demonstrations were timed to disrupt the NUS Women’s Campaign march to commemorate 30 years of legal abortion on 29 October and the Newcastle University Union/Tyne Tees Area NUS/CFE demonstration in Newcastle on 5 November, which had already been called.
After the regional demonstrations NUS is under pressure to support a national demonstration. But it has decided to hold a week of action which encourages students’ unions to, “write to up to 2 local school sixth forms,” and to, “put No to Fees screen savers on the student union’s computers.” A truly devastating campaigning strategy indeed! The CFE had already called our national march for 26 November.
Over the last 18 years the student movement, affected by Thatcherite victories over the labour movement, has become increasingly gutted and de-politicised. This has helped Labour Students to get away with their pathetic, doing-nothing strategy.
So how can we stop Blair and Blunkett? First we need an active campaign. The CFE advocates a campaign of demonstrations, pickets and occupations. These are the activities that students can play a part in and play a role in directing.
We need to give people the feeling that they can fight for change. Highly visible activity gives those who get involved some confidence and a feeling that there are thousands of others across the country who are just as angry as them.
We need to use every opportunity available to us to mobilise. If the NUS leaders say they are against fees we should use their “opposition” to help us mobilise.
In the long run we need to transform the student movement into the sort of movement that will take genuine independent action against the Government, will seriously defend its members’ interests and the right to high quality education and decent living standards. We need a union that does not fear to organise militant action in order to win its demands. We are a long way away from that goal.
That is why the AWL takes working in the student movement seriously.
We do not want to base our campaign on winning over a layer of bureaucrats (by watering down our politics.) Nor will we snipe from the fringes. We will stand for elected positions to spread our ideas and demonstrate in action what can be achieved with a different kind of leadership. When NUS fails to act, we believe the responsibility lies with us and the socialist left to organise the fight. That is why we work with activists inside the CFE to build activity like the coming national demonstration. This is why we help to build broad, democratic campaigns like the CFE. It is why we tenaciously fight for our ideas through thick and thin. Unlike the SWP, for example, we will not set up “fronts” (with no democratic structures) when an issue like fees is a bit “sexy” in order to recruit a few people, only to disband the front when the next fashion comes along.
What kind of politics do we need to transform NUS and stop the Blairites?
This fight is about more than grants and fees. To win what we need we must insist, against all the lies, that human rights and needs should come before profits — the right to an education, the right to housing, to a job, to state of the art healthcare… It is about asking what the economy should be geared to: should it be to satisfying the needs of the many or, instead, to the greed and profit of the few?
These are the principles that we must reassert, against the NUS leadership, but also in order to convince rank-and-file activists that there are realistic and convincing answers to the right-wing propaganda which says “we can’t afford it.” We must say: we need a government which will tax the rich to pay for the services we need.
Our campaign must be for unity. We need to link up with education workers facing attacks — in sixth form colleges, schools and nurseries. We must make links with those campaigning for the defence of the rest of the welfare state. That is why the CFE demonstration on 26 November will be addressed by the Liverpool dockers, and why there will be delegations on the march from trade union branches and all the major on-going disputes. We also need unity on the left. We can and should unite to “stop tuition fees” but can only do this if our campaigns are open and democratic.
If the proposals go through, Labour will go a long way to completing the Tories’ ambition of making education once more about enforcing ideological control, about teaching people to “know their place.” We can stop them if we organise an active democratic, united campaign based on socialist ideas.