What can we learn from the failure of the student protests?

Although I suspect I may be preaching to the damned here, if (and that’s a big IF) Labour’s opposition isn’t purely political and the student protesters aren’t simply aiming to rage against the machine, there’s a lot that we could learn what NOT to do by looking at the campaign to fight the coalition’s rise in tuition fees – if you can call it a campaign.

What went wrong?

1. Lack of a clear objective: there was no clear argument being made by protesters and those who supported them. I heard people saying the demonstrations were against high increases in tuition fees, any increase in tuition fees, the existence of tuition fees, the scrapping of EMA, the extreme cuts to university funding, any cuts on principle, the pace and/or extent of the coalition’s cuts, the haste with which the vote went into the commons, and the broken promises of the Liberal Democrats. With such fragmentation of purpose it’s difficult to achieve anything.

2. No real alternative was pitched against the coalition’s plans. Subsequently, the Tories have emerged from this ordeal virtually unscathed. Without the challenge of a fairer, more agreeable alternative, no real pressure was put on the government.

3. No command structure: nobody took responsibility for organising the opposition to the fees increase. This resulted in mixed messages and chaos in the streets. To their credit, the NUS seems to be attempting to tie everything together, but their efforts are clearly not enough. Maybe mass demonstrations would have been better concentrated in key constituencies to sway floating Liberals and, indeed, Conservatives? Maybe the Tories would have been more reluctant to drive this forward if, instead of students, their traditional middle-class supporters were the ones doing the complaining (as we saw during the child benefit fiasco)? The point is the passion of those involved could’ve and should’ve been used more strategically.

4. The campaign was misdirected. I never felt the protesters really hit the government where it hurts. For starters, the attempt to gain the sympathies of the police against a common enemy was destroyed when people started throwing rocks at them. Hopes of attracting wider public support was damaged when people started defacing national monuments. In terms of trying to halt the cuts, George Osborne may still prove to be a weak link in terms of embarrassing the coalition, but he’s clearly intransigent with regards his economic plan (at least overtly). There was no way he would back down. Similarly, Nick Clegg and his fellow Liberal ministers were determined not to retreat on this (although the effectiveness of getting Clegg ‘on side’ by burning an effigy of him has to be questioned). Arguably, given the right leverage, Tory backbenchers are the weakest link of the coalition. Regardless, no attempts were made to go for the jugular. Time, effort and blood was wasted.

What would I have done differently?

Firstly, my chosen objective would have been the lowest-hanging fruit: the hasty nature of taking this vote to parliament before Christmas. Labour would’ve needed to take the lead and request the vote to be held off for a few months. This request could’ve been made to appeal to all parties: it would have given Labour more time to develop a saleable alternative, it would have given the Tories more time to convince the voters their policy is the fairest one, and it would have given the Liberals a stay of execution. A reprieve would also have given protest groups greater opportunity to rally wider public support around their cause.

If students, politicians and media were united behind the same purpose, it would have seemed extremely unreasonable for the government to refuse. If they did, Labour could have justifiably blamed the riots on the government’s arrogance. Still, Labour could have argued a Nay vote would not have reflected a total rejection of the coalition’s proposal; merely a desire for a longer period of public discussion and the chance to consider other options.

This would’ve given loyal Liberals cover to vote against and found sympathy amongst Tory backbenchers (remember, the Tories also had an anti-tuition fees stance until relatively recently).

Whether the vote is postponed or not, Labour and those opposing the coalition cuts are seen to have achieved a small victory. The image is one of a hasty, reckless government ignorant of the social turmoil their policies are causing, against a considerate and cautious union of politicians and public, aiming to reach a consensus.

Of course, the onus is then on Labour to work with student organisations to develop a viable, preferred alternative and sell it to the public. If they can’t… well, that would be pretty damn embarrassing and I guess they’d have no choice but to stop their whining and support the coalition’s plans.

So that’s what I reckon, but I may be speaking shit. I would love to hear what you think could’ve been done differently.

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