Britain: Occupations - The music of the future?

In response to the 10th November demonstration, students across the country decided to go into occupation. Before Christmas there were 30 of such occupations. Coupled with the increasingly militant demonstrations against the Government’s attacks on education, these university occupations are hugely significant in so far as they have radicalised not only students at the occupied universities but also school students and even people outside of education.

These occupations sprung up spontaneously without any sort of outside, centralised co-ordination. In this exciting and rapidly changing environment, both experienced activists and newly active students have learned in weeks of practice the worth of years of theory.

With the new university term, a new wave of student occupations is entirely possible as students move into struggle with the Coalition government. What kind of lessons can be drawn from our experience in last year’s occupations?

What is the point of occupations?

Clearly, an occupation is much more than seizing a building and issuing demands. For many this is a new experience, where our demands can rally students and offer a new stage in the struggle. It must be recognised that in most, if not all of the occupations held so far, the university management has either ignored, or refused outright to seriously consider our demands. If seen in this light, then it could be argued that little has been gained. But this really misses the point. The experience has transformed the lives of those who have participated in these occupations.

For two months we have seen constant media coverage burgeoning and demonising the student movement; both of the landmark protests and of the occupations. But this has not stopped us. The idea of student occupations is recognised by those inside and outside universities as a legitimate and attractive form of protest.

The occupations of November and December have had a massive ‘politicising’ effect on those taking part. The university campuses are, and will continue to be, a hive of discussion as a result of the sharp jolt given by these occupations. Even student bodies that had hitherto seemed quite inert and uninterested in politics have been lit up by the movement with the University College London, a prime example of this, having been thrust to the forefront of the movement.

To occupy your university is a bold statement in itself. A common theme running through all of the occupations so far is the firm belief that the traditional institutions of ‘democracy’ and of the National Union of Students have failed them. They have been left without a voice or means to defend themselves and therefore have had to take action from below. This inspiring message of militant struggle has found a resounding echo in the wider labour movement. Countless representatives of trade unions ranging from Unison to the RMT visited the occupations, bringing donations of food and messages of support. After years of disillusionment and inactivity in both the trade union and student movement, this wave of occupations was just what was needed to show everyone that they too can make a difference; that workers and students fighting together can take on this government! It is here that the success of the occupations can clearly be seen.

The political nature of occupations

All occupations are based around immediate, concrete demands that need to be put to management. They become a focal point and offer a sense of focus and unity. However, an occupation is an ongoing process, and more importantly a political process, which should be reflected in the formulation and presentation of its demands.

Left-wing Labour MP, John McDonnell, addresses the UCL occupation. Photo: blog.ucloccupation.comLeft-wing Labour MP, John McDonnell, addresses the UCL occupation. Photo: There are of course many things going on at any one time even in a relatively small occupation and therefore many organisational and administrative matters to attend to. In general, the decision making during occupations are usually dealt with in two ways: in large general meetings (which are open to all and held at least once a day) and in small working groups that function continuously.

The daily general meeting is obviously the most important and democratic decision making body in an occupation. Every student is welcome to participate and present his or her own view and perspective of the situation. They can present new demands or issues that are then voted on by the meeting.

Our task is to help draw out the political issues facing the occupation and the student struggle generally. Without the general political discussions, the danger is that the occupation can become dominated by “housekeeping” organisational issues. Regular fraternal discussions on the occupation’s political aims should take place in order to keep up with events inside and outside the occupation.

Another important question is that of the nature of the demands themselves. At UCL, it was argued early on that the occupation’s demands should remain “concrete,” addressed to the management of the university, and sufficiently realistic to have a chance of success. More general political points about the education cuts unfortunatly tended to be sidelined. A small working group then formulated these demands which were voted on but rarely discussed in meetings.
Nevertheless, throughout the occupation, there was constant, informal discussions and debates with many students becoming much more politically confident in the process.

In these occupations, we need to be bold and help politicise things. The actions of the students help in this regard. An occupation shakes things up and forces students to look at things in a new way. The question of the cuts in education and the need for an alternative is ever present. Motions on these lines should be debated at the general meetings.

This was the case in Cambridge, where after an open and lively discussion, it was decided by a vote of the general meeting that “education should be free; a social good which benefits everyone, not a commodity that is marketised, outsourced to corporations, and out of the reach of ordinary people”, but also that “a mass movement is needed to bring down the coalition government, which has no democratic mandate to carry out these austerity measures.” The call for the nationalisation of the banks was also discussed and voted for by the majority of students present.

Unfortunately, the objections of those who favoured a more ‘consensus’ approach led to the demand being kept out of the official statement. Even so, the demand, having been discussed had an influence on the thinking of all the students attending the meeting. It was for many their first taste of genuine political debate and involvement. One lesson that must be learned from this experience is that students under present conditions are wide open to socialist ideas and the alternative to capitalism.

Occupations in the future

It is certain that the future will see another wave of student occupations. Although the current occupations have ended, they have set an example which will be taken up by new radicalised students in the coming months. Our recent experiences will help overcome past weaknesses and lay the way for more effective action. In 30 or so campuses across Britain there are many students who have been affected by these experiences and have acquired a new confidence, as well as new ideas. The occupations have helped transform the outlook of students and underlined the need for them to get involved and fight for their future. It is down to us. No one else will do it for us!

Such a struggle must include the campaign for a democratic, fighting NUS. Such a body, in conjunction with the trade unions, can take on the government and become part of a wider struggle to change society. Only on this basis can we build a better society for all!

Source: Socialist Appeal (Britain)