Meet Britain’s New Generation of Pissed Off Student Radicals | VICE

 

(Photo by Oscar Webb)

(Photo by Oscar Webb)

“I knew paying £9,000 fees is bullshit and I knew I was prepared to do something about it,” says Angus O’Brien, who’s studying European Social and Political Studies at UCL. “It isn’t simplistic to say that universities should be a free and open space for learning, but when students are forced to act as consumers the purpose of education is lost.”

To be a fresher, in 2015, the consensus is that you can’t idealise. Putting it mildly, it’s a complicated time to be undertaking a degree in Britain. Admissions may be at a record high but graduate prospects are, for most, rapidly fading. George Osborne, amongst other things, intends to abolish the maintenance grant and a further rise in tuition fees is widely anticipated. Many students are feeling monumentally screwed over, and some are yet to even set foot in a lecture theatre. Today, students are holding a national demonstration ambitiously titled: “Free education and living grants for all – no barriers, no borders no business!” But who are the new crop of campus lefties, railing against a government that wishes students looked less like Rick from The Young Ones and more like the cast of the Young Apprentice?

Ele is 18 and started her Law degree at The London School of Economics in September. She has just joined the Free University of London; the campaign group that received backing from David Graeber and Russell Brand after it occupied an LSE building for six weeks earlier this year. “Most of us are going to graduate in tens of thousands of pounds of debt, we’ll then be pointed towards unpaid internships in a desperate scramble for jobs,” she explains.

“It’s a certainty that direct action will be an increasingly regular occurrence under this government,” says Ele who, before moving to London, was part of the successful anti-Farage campaign in South Thanet where the UKIP leader contested the general election. “There can be a tendency to give up hope and acquiesce, but if we organise in even greater numbers and resume occupations and demos, we will be a force too large to ignore.”

Five years have past since activists stormed the Conservative Party’s Millbank HQ, and now a new generation of student radicals is taking shape. In an evolving political landscape the student movement could find itself at a strategic advantage. Recent occupations have already brought worldwide attention to the fight for British universities, and following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn – propelled to leadership by the enthusiasm of the young – there is an expanding pool of primed and practiced activists converging on campuses across the country.

“I volunteered on Corbyn’s leadership campaign – it’s one of the reasons I’ve become more politically active this year,” says Demaine Boocock, a new recruit at The Free University of Sheffield, whose favourite bands include The Smiths and The Clash owing to the social message ingrained in their lyrics. “The atmosphere around the campaign was really special, and it’s so invigorating to now have a Labour leader unashamedly supporting free education.”

Of the 13,000 people who volunteered on his campaign a vast amount were students. Huge swathes of the allegedly apathetic youth flocked to his rallies; the average age of a Labour member dropped by 11 years over the summer, and “Team Corbyn” t-shirts are now being sported around campuses by left-wing students almost as much as keffiyehs.

What this really means for the student movement is simple: some tactical barriers have, at least temporarily, been lifted. The events of this summer could present an opportunity for the latest cohort to multiply its efforts.

O’Brien, who was briefly a Labour member under Ed Miliband until “he said something terrible about immigration”, believes that Corbyn’s election means that for the first time in a generation there is an opposition leader around which a movement can be built.

“Currently I devote a lot of my time to the fight against extortionate accommodation fees on campus,” explains O’Brien, “now can you imagine what would happen should students at a London university go on a rent strike and win?”

And just a few weeks after speaking to O’Brien, the UCL rent-strikers – campaigning against what they saw as “unbearable” living conditions – did win. Despite unlawful threats of academic sanctions, and even expulsion, the campaign triumphed. These are activists who know their politics, their aims, and – most importantly – their rights.

Campaigners today feel equipped to aid those challenging exorbitant rents throughout the capital and beyond. The forging of links with wider social movements is well under way. For example: in Manchester a growing coalition of activists has emerged in defence of the city’s rising homeless population. Such co-ordination, on both a local and national scale, is symptomatic of a breakout from the isolation of student politics.

The building of momentum will be dependent on resilience to any backlash, though. Stuart McMillan, 19, concedes that press coverage can often be “damaging and depressing”, however, he insists, “we should remember that it is slowly losing its grip on public consciousness.” McMillan, who was influenced by the Situationist International and its role in the Paris uprisings of 1968, after taking an Art Foundation course prior to university, strongly identifies with their ideas of decentralised power, syndicalism and spontaneous action.

“This, right now, is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to change the political narrative,” explains 18-year-old Rebecca Easton, in her strong Leeds accent. “After the election result in May, I thought optimism had been written off for our generation, but things have changed so quickly,” says Easton, who has been part of local anti-hunger campaigns since her mid-teens. And that mood of resurgence is at the epicentre of this fresh group of student radicals, and a summer of re-awakening for the British Left has provided focus.

“We will win – the rules are changing fast, and power can’t keep up,” declares Dan Mulroy, another fresher and a self-described anti-consumerist with a penchant for charity shop attire and home-brewed cider, whose timetable is far more taken up by public meetings than lectures. “People are rightly incensed and it’s great, because they’re all coming together. If this keeps growing, who knows where we’ll be in a few years?”

For those who, soon enough, will lead this fight, their future is one of uncertainty. They don’t know what sort of Britain they’ll graduate into, nor what sort of university they’ll leave behind. But their resolve is unwavering, their experience is authentic, and their motivation runs deep.

Originally published by VICE

Corbynmania comes to Manchester

(Report for manchestermule.com – originally published on 01/09/2015)

Enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign keeps on soaring after almost 2,000 people gathered to hear the Labour leadership favourite speak in Manchester last night as he continued to outline his vision for a fair, thriving and more equal Britain. Corbyn, who was holding his fourth rally of the day, was joined by a panel that included left-wing Labour MP’s Cat Smith and Rebecca Long-Bailey, actor Julie Hesmondhalgh and Tameside councillor Leigh Drennan.

After an evening of rousing speeches, punctuated by standing ovations and rapturous applause, some seasoned activists described this as the biggest meeting of the Left they had ever seen in the city. Tickets had sold out within nine hours of the event being publicised and the Sheridan Suite was full to capacity. As crowds of eager supporters gathered outside there was genuine excitement in the air. “Corbyn isn’t just different in that he’s a sincere person, he’s actually got ideas about how to make this country a more democratic and better place for all,” said Katy, a twenty-five year old office administrator from Salford. “Critics focus on his ‘un-electability’ because they’re incapable of challenging his policies – yet they are the people who have lost two general elections and are failing to oppose a brutal and extreme government.”

Corbyn was described by Long-Bailey – who alongside Smith masterminded his last minute entry into the contest, as “everything a stereotypical careerist politician isn’t.” Indeed, after finally taking to the podium, Corbyn reiterated his desire to avoid anything that smacks of personal abuse. “Whatever abuse is thrown, we ain’t replying. We’re doing politics of our own, putting forward ideas,” he insisted.

In a broad, powerful and engaging speech, Corbyn spoke of regulating the private rental sector, building more social housing, giving greater support to metal health services, approaching the blight of refugees with “humanity and decency” and eradicating homelessness – an issue of particular significance in Manchester after a week in which the City Council served papers to the homeless camp now situated on Oxford Road.

Deafening applause filled the room when the veteran socialist vowed that the first thing he would do in opposition is challenge the austerity agenda. “Austerity is a political decision. You cannot cut your way to prosperity,” he stated. Corbyn implored his supporters to meet and engage others from across the region and to welcome them into the movement. “When you campaign together, you never know where those dreams will go. The enthusiasm of so many is powerful.” It is undeniable, with Corbyn’s campaign now boasting over 13,000 volunteers, that this is a huge social movement – akin to the Independence campaign that politicised a generation in Scotland last summer.

“It’s great to be a part of something that is going to change the way that people in this country think,” said Richard from Stockport. Some of Corbyn’s critics within Labour have claimed that he is only interested in changing the conversation and not in winning power, however, the feeling amongst his backers is that by challenging the dominant narrative of the tabloid press – with ideas and a message of optimism – profound change is achievable.

As September 12th approaches, the day on which the leadership result is announced, attacks on the Corbyn campaign will continue to intensify, yet this doesn’t seem to bother him or his supporters. “Whatever happens in two weeks time we will still be here – that is what is so exciting,” proclaimed Corbyn. “This is a movement. It is a release of imagination. It’s about community.”

Warning of deepening crisis at Housing Conference protest

Protesters gathered outside Manchester Central conference centre yesterday to express their anger at the government’s housing policy. While Tory housing minister Brandon Lewis was delivering the keynote speech at the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), campaigners warned of the ongoing disastrous impact of the bedroom tax and the deepening homelessness crisis.

Organised by the Anti Bedroom Tax Federation for Greater Manchester (ABTF), and supported by the Manchester branch of the People’s Assembly alongside trade unionists from around the region, and anti-bedroom tax campaigners from Bolton, Halifax and Leeds, the protest sought to highlight mounting risk to struggling families of a government strategy that is seen as deeply harmful. Activists argue that an alternative to further cuts and austerity-driven reform is desperately needed.

Mark Krantz, ABFT secretary, said: “Our message to Brandon Lewis is: your party’s policies will lead to even more people being rendered destitute in Greater Manchester and beyond.” Amid government plans to sell off social housing and implement further benefit sanctions, and the continuation of the bedroom tax in England, campaigners are concerned that thousands could be left homeless.

Following proposals to lower the household benefit cap, housing associations forecast a sharp increase in rent arrears and evictions last month. The Department for Work and Pensions has defended its plans, claiming they will provide incentive for people to “change behavior” and seek employment, but an internal government report has stated a further 40,000 children could drop below the official poverty line if parents fail to secure extra work.

Campaigners are alarmed at the impact on those worst hit by the housing crisis. Tess Simpson from Bolton Against The Bedroom Tax said: “Communities are being torn apart, mental health and suicide rates are going up, people are suffering. Families have to make a choice between heating their homes and feeding their kids.”

The Bolton group offers support and guidance to residents affected by the bedroom tax. “We help people ranging from the elderly and sick to those in full-time work”, said campaigner Len Taylor. “We are fighting isolation – we visit people at home, accompany them to court, put them in touch with a solicitor. We have seen adults reduced to tears at public meetings, people who never thought they would face eviction.”

According to government figures, the number of tenants evicted for rent arrears soared by 19 per cent in the first year of the bedroom tax alone while court bailiffs were called to almost 7,000 local authority tenants in the same period. Councils have reported that there are now 1,500 homes with more than one bedroom they are unable to let. “Houses are standing empty because people are scared to take them. They know that any change in circumstances means they will be punished by this tax”, said Taylor.

In 2014, the United Nations called for the ‘spare room subsidy’, the official term for the bedroom tax, to be immediately suspended. Inspectors concluded that the policy was disproportionately affecting the “most vulnerable and fragile.” This verdict was dismissed by the then housing minister Kris Hopkins as “misleading Marxist diatribe.”

Campaigners hope to open a dialogue with conference delegates and local politicians. “People need professionally managed, secure, decent and affordable private rented homes in sustainable communities”, said Pollyanna Steiner from tenant advocacy group Generation Rent. But fears are that another five years of Conservative rule and the rising number of homeless in Manchester will only worsen the crisis.

This article first appeared at manchestermule.com

Review: We Are Many

“The rallies followed the sun – from the South Pacific and beyond.” Amir Amirani’s stirring re-telling of February 15th 2003, the day that the world joined hands and took to the streets to march against the imminent invasion of Iraq, offers a rousing and timely antidote to post-election apathy and despondence.

From the outset Amirani had faced a difficult task: in spite of the greatest display of mass eloquence in human history, bombs still rained down on Baghdad just thirty-three days later. Iraq is a country disintegrated. It is estimated that 600,000 civilians were killed; 1.25 million children orphaned, and 4 million people forced into refuge.

Yet, We Are Many – a piece of work that condemns deceptive governance and recalls the suffering of an entire nation – succeeds as a beacon of faith in people power. The thirty million people, who mobilized in almost eight hundred cities around the globe, inspired a flourishing of organization and aspiration.

The Stop the War Coalition would prompt a surge in global dissent; Egyptian activists recall observing the powerful energy of shared civil resistance – less than a decade later Mubarak would be overthrown. Amirani places the march in its fuller context and underlines its lasting legacy. It was, as the late Tony Benn remarks, “the future of humanity.”

From the tears of Stephen Hawking, to Robin Cooke’s impassioned resignation speech in the House of Commons, the forebodings of the great and the good are chronicled. A burning light is shone upon the greatest deception of our time; the hollow core of our political democracy is denounced. We Are Many speaks with power – a documentary that joins the dots like an epic-saga; a patchwork of authentic and angry voices.

For a generation engaged in frustrated struggle, Amirani’s film provides hope. The preservation of a movement’s history and acclaim for its feats are crucial – a thirst for reality, for examples that inspire and rouse, can be quenched. The legacy of the millions who marched on February 15th 2003 has been sealed – it is for all to inherit.

This review first appeared at manchestermule.com

On Ferguson, Black Culture and Media Racism

Even when there’s a man lay dead on the pavement, nobody wants impartiality. Not where race and murder is concerned. The New York Times observed this mantra of mainstream reporting when profiling the late Mike Brown. A lurid epitaph – ‘no angel’ – for a defenceless youth, with no criminal record, shot six times by a police officer. The NYT has since apologized for its ‘blunder’, but any display of regret is irrelevant. A family and a community have been scarred; the justification craved by the vicious and ignorant has been provided, and the assailment of black culture endures.

Whilst the scenes on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, could well have been mistaken for a contemporary re-telling of “Bull” Connor’s brutal repression of Civil Rights activists in 1960’s Alabama, much commentary has hung upon the character of the deceased. Brown has been portrayed as a violent criminal and a habitual drug-user who had taken to writing ‘vulgar’ Rap lyrics. Fox News perpetuated these contrived descriptions by claiming that Brown was ‘high on drugs’ when he was killed – the salient fact that he was unarmed was almost entirely ignored. The focus, instead, was on molding a public perception of Brown which slotted neatly into the typical stereotype of a dead-black-youth.

Bombardment of the US public with depictions of black immorality and violence, in both film and print media, goes back to the early 1980’s. After the emergence (in the consciousness of America’s white population) of the nation’s underclass as a social ill, the systematic demonization of black youths started. The dark ghettos, devoid of hope, left behind in the post-industrial cities, were vilified by muckraking reporters for the monstrous black minority that were trapped within. The exploitative elites blamed black inner-city problems on federal welfare dependency, and the right-wing media happily continued to launder racial propaganda.

In a situation like Ferguson where people are scared and angry and demanding answers, public reaction can be reversed if only it can be persuaded that the victim, in any way, deserved to die. Following the Tottenham riot, in 2011, Mark Duggan was described as a thug and a gangster. Whilst the police execute the man, the press set about annihilating his reputation. In the immediate aftermath of the London Riots, whilst appearing on BBC2’s Newsnight, David Starkey – after smugly harping back to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – declared that “the problem is that the whites have become black”. For right-wingers, like Starkey, it was easier to attach the pandemonium to a “nihilistic” black subculture. Racist bile of this sort only compounds disaffection and alienation and fury. What are these young people to do? The spread of ignorance – by right-wing news – means that they are continually lambasted for reacting against a twisted system. When bricks were thrown through windows and bottles hurled at riot police on those frenzied August nights in 2011, politicians, and conservative hacks alike, were petrified of asking the necessary questions.

Was it really “pure criminality” by a bunch of yobs with hatred in their hearts, as David Cameron put it, or was it a reflection of the upper echelons of society? That economic elite which relentlessly perpetuates and consolidates its own personal wealth, whilst imposing austerity measures on the poorest. Those kids who looted and destroyed, what example did they have – what was the world that they saw outside? They saw feral politicians cheating their expenses and feral bankers ransacking the public purse, mugging a generation of any aspirations it may have dared to hold.

But none of that mattered. No. It was those black kids – or those white kids acting black – refusing to obey ‘British values’. When things go wrong, when a cop murders a teenager, when the marginalized and bullied lash out, people get scared. The state’s answer is to blame the victim. To continually scapegoat the same group of people; to not allow black culture to be understood, to make it frightening and alien to a morally outraged public. The race card is kept in the oppressor’s top-pocket – ready to be deployed whenever things get serious.

Manchester Historian: Benefits Street isn’t anything new; the poor have been demonized for centuries

‘The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feelings of stagnant meaningless decay.’ Those were the words of George Orwell in his hugely influential social survey, The Road to Wigan Pier, when recounting the bleak realities of life amongst the industrial working class, in 1930’s Britain.

Over the past month, in light of Channel 4’s Benefits Street, similar language has dominated the nation’s press and social media. However, whilst Orwell’s objective was to enumerate the unjust squalor and deprivation suffered by the impoverished, the James Turner Street documentary has largely perpetuated modern day ridicule of the poor – a derision which is evident throughout history.      

Mass repression of the lower classes can be traced back so far as the High Middle Ages. The expansion of population in Europe – from around 35 million to 80 million – between the years 1000 and 1347, witnessed the growth of a rural peasantry which accounted for 90% of the continent’s inhabitants. Due to the developments in agricultural techniques, most peasants were no longer located in isolated farms, but had assembled in small communities.

However, as subjects to the nobility, commoners were obliged to pay rents and labour services – this quickly evolved into a system of exploitation. Despite not owning the land outright, the feudal system ensured that the nobility were granted rights of income – hence preserving their own position and continuing to confine those below.

As a result, economic and political tensions gripped England, culminating in the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt – often referred to as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. Attempts, by royal officials, to collect unpaid poll taxes led to widespread violent confrontation across rural society. The rebels pursued a reduction in taxation, the cessation of serfdom, and elimination of the King’s senior officials and law courts. In June of that year, the dissenters, upon entering London, attacked the gaols, destroyed the Savoy Palace and the Temple Inns of Court, set law books alight, and killed any person allied with the royal government.    

Manifestations of cynicism, toward brutally exclusive institutions, in Medieval England, were promptly stifled in the way of military overpowering. By the end of June 1381, over four-thousand troops were deployed to restore order and quash resistance from below. Historian Michael Postan describes the uprising as a “passing episode” – the restoration of the normal processes of government, soon after, illustrated the preservation of control over a peasantry which was rendered feral and unknowing. 

Throughout the ages, the lower classes have found human progress, and social betterment, to be two very distinct processes. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution, whist transforming Britain in the mid-eighteenth-century, encompassed dramatic social and economic changes for enormous sections of the populace. Mass-production methods demanded the migration of thousands from the countryside to new industrial cities – colossal changes in lifestyle ensued.

Textile factories, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were characterised by the deplorable conditions, long working hours, and low pay, which were enforced upon the labourers. Children, many as young as five-years-old, were made to work shifts of up to sixteen hours per day; earning as little as four shillings per week. Moreover, the squalid living conditions of the workforce, who were left in crude shanties and shacks, were in stark paradox to the splendour of the homes of the industry owners.

The backstreets of Manchester, and other mill towns, were documented by Friedrich Engels, in his 1844 study, The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels observed that the industrial workers had lower incomes that their pre-industrial peers; and were forced to live in graver conditions – noting that mortality rates, in English industrial cities, were four times higher than in the surrounding countryside.

Ninety years on, from Engels’ writings on the slums of the Industrial Revolution, Orwell was in search of Wigan Pier. Of course, the great writer knew, as he trudged the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the ‘pier’ had never existed. A coal jetty, once mistaken, in the blotted landscape, for ‘Wigan Pier’, had become local folklore. For Orwell, it was a metaphor: for the decay of British society in its abandonment of the poor.

Over the past month, at 9pm on Monday evenings, the 21st century incarnation of poverty in Britain, has been played out to millions. Yet, today, prejudice towards the deprived is extensive – shows, like Benefits Street, follow a predictable formula. In a stampede for scapegoats, modern day Britain has left the impoverished isolated and marginalised. How they could do with an Orwell, or an Engels, now. 

The Student Journals: Can the university Left be a force again? Yes, by engaging working class students

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In 2009, a joint study published by Cambridge and Sunderland universities, entitled Strangers in Paradise, examined the experiences of forty undergraduate students at an elite university. In terms of hometown, ethnicity, and religious belief, the sample offered a broad demographic. However, the participants did possess one unifying characteristic: they were all working class.

The study found that those students from lower-level social backgrounds encountered dilemmas not shared by their middle class peers.  A need for self-affirmation amongst their more cultured counterparts; desire to keep in touch with their social background; and maintenance of familial loyalties were common themes amongst those observed and interviewed. Yet, the paper claimed, in spite of these struggles, the working class students developed an ability to comfortably drift between their modest home lives and a top academic institution. It is this versatility that the student Left has failed, in its attempt to combat the effects of austerity on UK towns and cities, to utilise fully.

Currently, Britain is experiencing its longest fall in living standards since the 1870’s. Whilst energy companies continue to hike up tariffs, household income is shrinking; disabled people are seeing their benefits slashed; whilst cuts of £20bn to the NHS are to be implemented by 2015. Moreover, owing to the failure of successive governments, there are currently five million people on council house waiting lists. Working class, deindustrialised communities, north and south, continue to experience the same marginalisation and alienation which has arguably come to define a generation.

Mainstream political neglect, economic hardship, and social upheaval: intertwined and palpable – these are the processes which have left hundreds of communities isolated. In the midst of the angst and frustration spawned from their continued struggles, and the in-effectiveness of a London-based liberal Labour party to represent them, the poorest in society have turned to parties that wish to manipulate the anxieties of the underprivileged.

Ukip, led by the former stockbroker Nigel Farage, wish to abolish inheritance tax and charge people to see a doctor. The party’s rhetoric is plentiful in scapegoats: yet devoid of explanations or solutions for the poor and disillusioned. Whether a protest vote; a cry for help; or a floundering of working class arms as they are consumed further into a whirlpool of debt and suffering, the accrual of support for right-wing groups, such as Farage’s and the BNP, is reactionary, and dangerously so.

The engagement of students, who originate from these hard- hit areas, by leftist movements, could alter this trend and reinstate a political voice for the disadvantaged via an insightful and informed grassroots movement. The immersion in the difficulties and processes which exist in these constrained regions, experienced by working class students, could bring real understanding of grave issues affecting millions of Britons to the forefront of the university Left.

Indeed, with greater input from those disadvantaged students, leftist societies would find themselves making greater strides by digressing from the university bubble. Former industrial heartlands such as Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds – home to some of the largest student populations in the UK, are surrounded by inner-city suburbs and smaller towns: which are exemplars of the savage extent of the austerity programme. Moreover, London, with over 300,000 student inhabitants, is one of the most unequal cities on earth. Communication and co-operation with the wider community could help to see a new type of class politics formed: one which is not reliant on the condemning of the unemployed, immigrants, and the disabled.

The prospect of greater political participation from working class students, in the university Left, is dependent upon a clear commitment to tackling social inequality in Britain. Whilst demonstrations concerning international issues, such as Palestine, are highly credible in their motives, these can seem rather abstract and somewhat irrelevant to those students who derive from tough social circumstances.

The passion and rage, supplied by a group which embodies the sense of desertion felt in impoverished communities like their own, could prove vital to repealing the grasp which far right groups have over sections of struggling towns and cities. By arousing a sense of hope and greater understanding in a time of increasing political disenchantment, the student Left could prove to be a vital force in aiding the most deprived in British society.  Not a force of cruel manipulation which perpetuates existing problems – but a force of empowerment.