British students: The rebellion of the youth marks a new stage

Thursday, 20 January 2011
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School students took to the streets of London against coalition education reforms again yesterday, this time to demonstrate against the abolition of a grant, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a weekly payment for 16- to 18-year-olds whose household income is under £30,800 to encourage them to stay in education. Students travelled from as far away as Sunderland and Cornwall to protest against the scrapping of the EMA. The allowance had already been closed to new applicants.

Protest against the scrapping of EMA. Photo: City College NorwichProtest against the scrapping of EMA. Photo: City College Norwich Students from both universities and local sixth form colleges protested by staging a teach-in in Kings Cross station. The protesters gathered in front of the departure boards, and announced that they were staging a public lecture shortly after 5pm. They were greeted warmly by commuters with rounds of applause and cheers after the speeches. Many of the speakers pointed to the recent increase in train fares as yet another example of the private sector being paid for out of the pockets of the public.

Station security then informed students that they were breaking the law by being there. At first police attempted to remove the banners the students had brought with them, but later backed down. An eyewitness told me that the conduct of the police was correct and even friendly to the youth. Were they following orders of the authorities, fearful of the impact of clashes between police and young students on public opinion? Or did it reflect a genuine sympathy with a struggle against government cuts, which will also affect the police? Either way, the police stood aside and allowed the demonstration to run its course. In the end, the students left peacefully.

Other campaigners organized a demonstration outside parliament in the morning and lobbied MPs in the House of Commons in the afternoon. Teenagers from two London colleges held a meeting in one of parliament's committee rooms. The subject was the importance of trust in politics. Others handed commuters biscuits stamped with "Save EMA" in icing sugar on them.

Meanwhile MPs debated what to do about the allowance. Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow education secretary, told parliament that the abolition of the EMA represented a double betrayal of young people from poor backgrounds, who had already been hit by the increase in tuition fees. It risked throwing into reverse the incredible human and social progress made since the 1980s, he said.

In a reply, the content of which could have been predicted in advance, Michael Gove, the education secretary, repeated the usual dreary litany of the coalition, blaming everything on the dire economic situation that Labour had left behind. Gove added that current arrangements to help the most disadvantaged young people were "poorly targeted". Yes, indeed! The Tories and their Lib-Dem hangers on can be relied on to target their vicious cuts on every section of society – except their friends in the City of London.

The nauseating hypocrisy of this government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich was exposed only days earlier by their failure to tackle the scandal of the obscene bonuses, amounting to billions of pounds, which the bankers have decided to award themselves. This is a very literal application of the Biblical text: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”

The protests and debate came as statistics revealed youth unemployment had hit a record figure. The total number of adults under 25 who are out of work moved close to the one million mark in the three months to November, rising by 32,000 to 951,000. This pushed the youth unemployment rate up to 20.3%, which is also the highest level since records began in 1992.

There was a particularly sharp rise in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds classed as unemployed, rather than in employment or education, up to 204,000 from 177,000 in the previous quarter. The meaning of this is very clear. A young person leaving school, even with good qualifications, will find it extremely difficult to find work in Britain.

With the road to the labour market practically blocked, many young people have decided to stay at school and try to improve their chances by going to university. Now, however, the Tories and Lib-Dems have adopted measures to block this avenue also. First, they raised tuition fees to a level that would make higher education prohibitively expensive for most working class students. This regressive measure will turn British universities into what they always were in the past: the privileged preserves of the rich. It sparked off violent demonstrations at the end of last year.

Now they have followed through with an even more vicious measure, directly aimed at poor working class youth. James Mills, head of the Save EMA campaign, said England was going back to the 1930s in terms of limiting the chances of young people from working-class homes:

"I'm scared about the opportunities that are decreasing all the time for my generation. The effect of higher tuition fees, the abolition of the EMA, and youth unemployment means that this coalition government has put class background back into the classroom."

The mendacious propaganda of the government alleges that many young people who receive assistance do not need it. This lie was answered by 17 year old Tyrone Wassell, who had had travelled from Blackpool to lobby his Conservative M.P. on the EMA issue: "I receive the full £30 and it gives me food for the week. It has also made me realize how important education is. It's like an incentive to attend college. If I hadn't had it, I would have gone straight into work."

There is just one problem with this. With one young person in five out of work, it is not at all easy to find employment. Vivien Kintu, 18 and from Hackney, a very deprived working class area in east London, has applied for more than 60 part-time jobs this summer and has been unsuccessful every time:

"I'm competing against people in their thirties,” she said, “It's doesn't seem fair. It feels as if my generation has always been the guinea pigs of new government initiatives. I don't believe that ministers have to scrap the EMA. They could find the money; they could have cancelled the Olympics and found it."

Leon Psyzora, 17, from Crouch End in north London, said he felt MPs were launching "an attack on my generation". "They are keeping the money to one side and making the poor poorer and the rich richer." This lesson is being learned the hard way by the new generation, who are rapidly becoming class conscious and increasingly revolutionary in their outlook.

The youth of today are showing a true revolutionary spirit. They are reacting to the attacks of the ruling class with a resolute and fearless militancy. It is something every class-conscious worker should be proud of. A teacher who had accompanied his pupils to the demonstration drew the conclusion that this was “a generational issue.” This is undoubtedly true.

The spirited actions of the youth are in striking contrast to the miserable, mean-spirited skepticism of those sorry members of the self-styled “vanguard”, who for years have been stewing in their own juice and are fit for nothing. They are so obsessed with the defeats of the past that when the situation has changed and struggle is on the order of the day do nothing but moan and complain and spread despondency and despair.

Yes, indeed, it is a “generational issue”! The period that started with May 1968 in France and lasted for most of the 1970s was a period of capitalist crisis and revolutionary movements in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Britain, and other countries. To this list we can add Pakistan, Chile, Argentina and many other countries.

But in the absence of a genuinely revolutionary leadership, in every case the movement was derailed and defeated. In Europe, the counterrevolution took place under the flag of bourgeois democracy, but it was a counterrevolution nonetheless. In Chile, Pakistan, Argentina and other countries, the defeat was even more severe. But everywhere it had a marked effect on the consciousness of the active layer.

The way in which society changes - and consciousness with it - offers interesting parallels with geology. A volcanic eruption causes lava to flow. The molten rock blasts its way forward, brushing aside all obstacles in its path. But when lava cools it forms a hard crust that serves to hold back the elemental forces that lie beneath the earth’s surface.

The last three decades in Europe may be characterized as a period of mild reaction (the formula is not original – it was put forward by Ted Grant). The lava of past revolutionary movements has long since cooled and that layer which ought to be in the vanguard has become transformed into its opposite. Instead of providing leadership to the movement, it has become a solid crust of conservatism that is only good for holding the revolutionary element in check.

Routinism, skepticism, cynicism, conservatism, tiredness: all this plays a negative role. But history shows that the power of the apparatus is never enough to hold back the movement for long. The contradictions are too strong. The tensions are too unbearable. The forces that have been building up, silently and unnoticed beneath the earth’s crust will sooner or later find a weak spot and burst forth with unimaginable power.

The rapid transformation in the consciousness of the youth was graphically revealed in last night’s BBC Newsnight programme, which interviewed the protestors. One of those interviewed, Sophie Burge, Sixth Form, Camden School for Girls, said that she had campaigned for the Lib-Dems in the general election, even though she was too young to vote. Now she describes herself as “radical left wing”.

The movement of the youth that has emerged with explosive force in one country after another is the equivalent of this elemental force of nature. It recognizes no laws and knows no boundaries. All attempts to halt it are in vain. Conservatives (on both the right and the “left”) complain about this “anarchy”. They see it as an aberration and a threat.

But those members of the older generation who have kept the flame alive will be revived and inspired by the movement of the youth. The Marxists greet it with every possible enthusiasm. We embrace it. Here is life, bubbling through the dead mass. It is like someone opening a widow in a stale and airless room. Here is light and air that one can breathe. Here is a real movement at last. Here is the future!

20th January 2011