The continuing wave of student protests against increased fees and education cuts is highlighting a deepening crisis within the British state, one that presents opportunities as well as threats.
Plans for more demonstrations, including today’s against the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, show the real concern not only of students but also parents and teachers about how education is increasingly run along business lines.
It has emerged that Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson almost quit over the incident last Thursday when Prince Charles and Camilla’s vehicle came under attack from protesters. The episode made it evident that 3,000 officers failed to seal off streets in central London, once demonstrators had got wise to their kettling tactics.
Stephenson and his ilk are still smarting from being caught off their guard by protesters at Tory party headquarters in Millbank Tower during the protest organised by the National Union of Students last month. In revenge attacks for November, last Thursday’s operations saw massed ranks of police deployed around Parliament Square.
A police cavalry charge was used as a terror tactic. Police used truncheons indiscriminately on defenceless students such as 20-year-old Alfie Meadows, who is recovering from a three-hour brain operation. Officers pulled Jody McIntyre, who suffers from cerebral palsy, from his wheelchair. So far around 180 people have been arrested and the Met is preparing criminal prosecutions against them.
So now Home Secretary Theresa May says she does not exclude the possibility of the police deploying water cannon to curb further student protests. Recent citizen protests in Stuttgart saw serious injuries as a result of their use. That won’t bother the Coalition and no doubt tear gas and para-military riot units won’t be far behind.
Behind the continuing protest movement there is a deeper current of disaffection.
Today’s publication of the British Social Attitudes Survey shows that trust in politicians has reached an all-time low.
This groundswell of distrust indicates that there is a breakdown in the relationship between the state and the mass of the population, especially young people. This is fuelling their evident desire to go beyond and outside the worn-out parliamentary channels of protest and pressure politics.
In doing so they are moving politically ahead the mass of workers who are being held back by the Labour Party and trade union bureaucrats. Young people are not as trapped the those who seek to place a safe cap on things and keep the status quo. They are not hanging around for the feeble stroll around the park being organised by the Trades Union Congress in over three months time.
But today local councils up and down the country are being told how much to cut - how many jobs and services are to disappear, leaving a trail of devastation and misery. Most councillors – whatever their political affiliation – will be voting through the cuts. Ordinary people, not only public service workers, will now be drawn into a wider movement.
So the urgent issue is to continue to explore and develop new political forms outside and beyond local government, the conservative trade union leadership and parliament.
Last Friday a student meeting at the London School of Economics, called to discuss the way forward in the battle against education cuts, proposed that assemblies should embrace not only the national student movement, but also those fighting against the cuts more widely.
And the momentum for building People's Asssemblies took a step forward at the “Liberation beyond resistance” meeting in London on Saturday. There was a wide-ranging discussion on the nature and purpose of People's Assemblies and many proposals made for concrete actions in 2011. Assemblies have the potential to challenge the state for power itself in order to create a truly democratic society, in terms of politics and the control of resources. They are the way to go in 2011.
A World to Win secretary