more than 1300 people came from all over the country to yesterday's COALITION OF RESISTANCE (CoR) conference at the camden centre. it is clear that students have kick-started a game-changing new era in british politics and there is a real sense that the cuts can be defeated and a new order may just be possible. my only reservations are about the inevitable manouevreings of the old left who hope to gain power and control out of the current troubles. i offer a report on the parts of the conference i saw, and in my comment at the end, a few thoughts and observations about the role of anarchism in this movement.
the conference was so over-subscribed that organisers were caught out, and contingency plans had to be hurriedly put together to cope with the massive attendance.
the main hall was overflowing for the original opening plenary, with addresses from politicians, union officials. students, and others. as the situation became untenable, some of the speakers agreed to address groups in other rooms and in the school opposite the camden centre.
YOUTH, STUDENTS & EDUCATION WORKSHOP
i attended the 'youth, students and education' workshop, which was one of six taking place in various parts of the two buildings.
after introductions, the workshop was addressed first by 'kieran' a 6th form student from westminster kingsway college. he told us he felt emancipated by last wednesday's protest, despite being kettled for hours in the cold by police. the experience had broken down many misconceptions about protests for him, and he realised that protest was not just for peaceniks, eccentrics, single-issue groups, or indeed anarchists.
he spoke about the importance of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) which the government intends to scrap. this allowance helps under-privileged people to attend courses because it provides help for fares and lunch money. he defended the right to protest in any way necessary, and spoke of the violence of the tory cuts on the lives of the poorest and dispossessed.
he told us how students had suddenly become very politically engaged, and told of how councillors had been invited to a meeting at the college and that 120 students turned up. also that students were making links with unions and how he had accompanied a group of students on a visit to speak to train drivers at euston.
finally, he acknowledged the role of new media like facebook and twitter in the planning and organisation of effectively leaderless protests, something which the authorities were finding hard to keep up with.
next on the mic was alex kenny, speaking for the 'socialist teachers alliance'. he admired the fact that the students had lit a beacon and had exploded the myth that they were apolitical.
he also spoke with deep concern about the way that michael gove had used seldom-used and undemocratic parliamentary processes to avoid all discussion of his announcement to allow schools to break away from councils and be set up by almost anyone. this, alex warned, will deepen privatisation of education and destroy local authority influence. he said that this is not just a fight about fees, or about the accountability of the new 'academies', but that all these issues and more are linked. he described it as a capitalist-led assault on education, because an idle but well-educated population is a dangerous one to the rich and powerful.
jean-baptiste tondu spoke about the french student struggle and talked of the importance of solidarity, not just between students internationally, but also between students, unions, workers and the unemployed. he made the point that student occupations don't directly affect the economy (although he forgot to mention the sometimes acute problem to the personal economy of precarity-paid part-time teaching staff), but that worker's strikes and occupations do.
'barnaby' then spoke as a school student against the cuts. he was an inspiration - clearly from a privileged background and a pupil at the 'westminster school', he had a great grasp of oratory, and an even clearer analysis of the current system. he was funny too, speaking of the kettled protests last week and telling us he'd learnt what a university education was for - "to stop us from ending up in a police uniform". he also said that students in the kettle realised that they were not being held because of any threat to the public, but as a punishment designed to stop them from coming again, but that this realisation had given them an even greater motive to resist, organise and protest.
barnaby said that students were no longer a 'post-ideological generation', and that they were not just angry about fees and EMA but were joining the dots. as an example he told how hundreds of students had just signed up to a facebook group to support the RMT union.
the chair, 'clare solomon' from london NUS, and a socialist, then opened up the workshop to the floor, and a string of people came to the microphone suggesting proposals for the conference.
a student from leeds described that more than 3000 protestors had come out there on wednesday, and that 7 colleges or universities were occupied, a leeds-wide general assembly was forming to include students, unions and other groups, and that there was a plan to surround banks in future protests.
a young NUT member spoke of the new white paper on education and described it as devastating. she mentioned in horror the idea of bringing newly-returned troops from the front line into teaching "to instil discipline in the classroom"! she also said there was a big fight looming over teacher's pensions, and that it was so important to link and promote solidarity between students and teachers at this early stage.
this call was taken up by a UCU activist from yourkshire who said it was imperative that the teachers support and come out nationwide to back the students. he realised that teacher's unions were scared by thatcher's anti-union laws, but that if they all walk out together they would be safe and that the union executives must be given the confidence to let that happen.
another UCL/UCU activist took this point further, saying the moment was critical, that staff are inspired by the students but that more pressure was needed and so a walk-out by teachers was a priority. he called for the UCU and NUT executives to join the students.
the next speaker from the more revolutionary 'national campaign against fees cuts' (NCAFC) said that the student protests were a game changer, and that they were making history.
speaking about millbank, he pointed out that looking back, no-one nowadays condems the poll tax rioters, and that millbank would be seen in the same light in years to come. he warned of the manouevring of some left-wing groups, and called for general assemblies to be built from 'education assemblies' formed during a total education strike.
picking up on the condemnation of protestors, a further education lecturer spoke about the real violence of a million unemployed and said millbank was just but a drop compared to this.
a retired teacher from birmingham told of her years working with children in care. she said that the EMA was absolutely vital and was the only way in which any of them ever managed to go into further education and improve their prospects. she also warned that the new academies would take money away from local authority schools and accountability away from local control.
alex kenny then mentioned two more cuts proposed. first, that the guaranteed right of under five-year-olds to qualified teachers was being removed. and second, that the £160 million school sports fund was being completely cut. however, on a positive note he said that PE teachers, parents and sports celebrities had already built a 20,000 strong facebook group and that their lobbying and pressure was apparently splitting the cabinet over this issue.
returning once more to the importance and power of solidarity, a student from SOAS told how the university authorities had backed down from using bailiffs against the occupation once academics became involved to support the students, and staff had demanded negotiation rather than repression.
she also reported how students had formed assembies to make decisions about future protests and that anyone could get involved, with birkbeck college hosting a national student assembly this afternoon, and a london assembly from 5pm.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE CRISIS
after a short lunch break, six more workshops took place, and i decided to attend 'alternatives to the crisis' which took place in the school canteen over the road. this was a large room overflowing with a couple of hundred people.
the first speaker, ozlem onaran, a senior economics lecturer and researcher, spoke about the simple alternatives to cuts available to the government.
first, make those responsible for the crisis pay! tax the corporations, tax financial trading, and close tax loopholes.
next, stop the war, a huge drain on public economy for an ill-defined and unwinnable purpose.
finally, cut the trident nuclear weapon programme, a useless deterrent in a time of assymetrical warfare.
she spoke about the illegitimacy of the current debt, and how public finance could be freed from the burden of debt if the debt were audited openly, and then paid off by those that owed it. this process would inevitably lead to the bankcruptcy of the banks, so that they could be properly nationalised under the control of workers and local assemblies.
she also said we must look at the bigger picture. that continuing economic growth is simply an unsustainable premise from a climate justice and ecological viewpoint. without growth, people would have to lessen their working weeks, but that the liberated time could be put to use by involvement in truly democratic processes to decide openly how money could be freed up.
next on the mic was richard bremmer. he is the author of 'credit crunch - the crisis is capitalism'. he described how as the rate of return goes down at the end of each economic cycle, the controllers find ways to destroy and shed the less productive parts of the system. this is what is happening in the current 'credit crunch'. his suggestion was that the only alternative to capitalism is communism. i kind of lost concentration for a while then.
the third speaker was john hilary from 'war on want'.
he told us that the idea that there is no alternative to cuts is in fact a huge media con. the cuts are a political and ideological choice, and in fact there are many and varied ways to ease the debt outside of the kneejerk keynesian paradigm.
as a first example, he gave us the estimated figures for lost, unpaid or missing corporation tax. the combination of tax avoidance, tax loopholes and havens, and the amounts simply owed but discounted by inland revenue (including the recent disclosures about vodaphone for instance), add up to a staggering £120 billion. just half that amount would completley plug the current crisis.
on the subject of tax havens he pointed out that a large proportion of them are british dependencies.
however, instead of tackling this huge corporate avoidance of tax, the current government is actually closing tax offices as part of the cuts.
again, the meeting was opened up to the floor, but while a lot of good points were made, there seemed to be an unchallenged consensus that the 'only alternative' is socialism or communism. i got a little depressed by this having read 'animal farm', and went off for a cup of fairtrade coffee.
FINAL SESSION, NOMINATIONS, DECLARATION & CLOSING SPEECHES
the final session brought everyone back into the main hall, which was packed to overflowing, with people left standing in the two large balconies as well as in the main downstairs area.
paul mackney (a retired teacher's union leader and socialist labour activist) announced that there had been 122 nominations for the coalition of resistance national council, and andrew burgin (a socialist bookseller and prominent figure in the 'stop the war coalition') added that 37% of the nominees were women. he said that the coalition's 'declaration of purpose' had had dozens of suggested amendments, but rather than go through them all that afternoon, he asked the floor to remit them and trust the steering committee to consider them all in due course.
the chair then announced tony benn (notorious socialist labourite and president of the 'stop the war coalition') the president of the coalition. perhaps i missed the vote for this, but whatever, it seemed to receive an overwhelmingly positive response and standing ovation for the 88 year old activist.
the coalition, while supporting the students' struggle in words, seems more concerned in building a mass movement leading to a national march next year on 26th march.
a pensions campaigner, dot gibson, said that the march should be against ALL cuts, reminding us that the labour party had consistently stated that some cuts were necessary.
she reminisced about how in 1945, the labour welfare programme arose form a desire not to return to pre-war unemployment, and offered a genuine hope of free education and health to all. she contrasted those times with now, and the fact that her grandchildren have no idea whether they will be able to get jobs or whether they will be able to afford a home.
she complained that while the welfare state was formed in a principle of universalism, it had always been compromised by the existence of a mixed economy, with as just one example, the pharmaceutical industry making vast profits from the health service. over the years, the private sector was always waiting in the wings to profit from or take over the public sector, and currently private companies have over £100 billion worth of contracts within public sector, directly profiting from public money.
next chris banbury (socialist worker, union steward, and 'right to work' campaigner) called for total unity. in an impassioned speech which got the hall cheering, he said the time for games was over, and he called for everyone to be on the streets next tuesday, but recognising the difficulties faced by unions given thatcher's laws, he suggested they do this in their lunchtime so they didn't get into trouble.
lee jasper ('black activist rising against cuts' BARAC) called the cuts a declaration of class war. with cuts to public services he predicted a rise in racism, with the EDL and NF already brushing up their beguiling arguments to blame immigrants for the pain. he called for us all to stand in anti-racist unity against the cuts.
alf filer (business lecturer and socialist) then asked for large donations of money for the coalition to continue its campaign. in a remarkably honest declaration of intent he said the coalition wanted to build a real alternative to the current political parties - he asked for notes rather than coins, and standing orders rather than one-off payments.
jeremy corbyn (labour socialist MP) referred to naomi klein's book 'the shock doctrine' which outlines the process of debt slavery applied in the third world, where welfare was destroyed and blanket privatisation installed, leading to tiny minorities of unfeasably rich people and vast numbers of dispossessed poor in abject conditions.
he compared that process to the methods used once again by the IMF, the world bank, and now including the european central bank, this time against european countries, starting with greece and ireland, and now the UK. he said that while the poorest are faced with swingeing cuts, money is being invested on a colossal scale in new nuclear weapons and military funding for unwinnable wars.
he spoke of the history of attempts by the central banks to apply the process in latin america, and noted that in the countries where the people fought back, some gains were made, resistance built, and progressive governments resulted.
he called on people to defend the absolute principles of welfare (free education and free healthcare).
he said there was a major debate on fees cuts this week in parliament, and a final vote before christmas, and he reported that parliament has been rattled by the scale and intensity of the students' fightback. he made the observation that if we could win on student fees, it would show the possibility of fighting and winning against ALL the cuts.
john rees (CoR founding member, socialist activist, and 'stop the war coalition' national officer) said he didn't want to be told by 'eton boys' that 'you can be a hairdresser, but you can't be an artist or a philosopher'. he commented that cameron had wanted 'the big society' - looking round the hall he said 'well this is it, and we're coming to get you'. he promised that the colaition would bring down this government.
rapper 'lowkey' then took the mic and supported corbyn's observations about the 'shock doctrine'. he suggested the current politicians who had received free education should all pay £9000 back for the free education they'd had.
on nick clegg's reversal of promises, he reminded us that before the election clegg had called for an arms embargo on israel, but that last week the liberal democrat had made a speech in which he said maybe he'd been wrong about israel. lowkey wanted to tie the struggle over cuts with the ongoing war in afghanistan and the problems in the middle east.
he ended with a quote from frederick douglas that "power concedes nothing without demand, so we must always demand demand demand demand demand".
kate hudson (CND) reminded us of the huge costs of nuclear programmes and asked in whose interests our economy is currently run. she asked whether it was for the majority who use it, or for the minority that run it.
tony benn (new president of CoR) spoke about how he remembered (he's 88 you know) the time when the welfare state was being built after the war. he described current cuts as possibly the biggest attack yet.
he reminded us of the principle of universality that inspired the welfare state, and of the importance of solidarity in the struggle. the role of the coalition, he said, was not just to resist, but also to educate.
he said that lies are told to excuse the dismantling of the welfare state, to turn the banker's crisis into a broader economic crisis, and to make working people pay for the mistakes and greed of the ruling classes.
he agreed with kate hudson that the first economy should be the dropping of the trident replacement, and he reminded us that in 1945, the highest tax level affecting the richest in a time of crisis was 95%. he said the country needed the money then, and it was fair that everyone should share the burden.
he finished by saying it was a great honour to be the president of the coalition and that he was at the coalition's disposal at all times.
PERSONAL COMMENT ON THE CONFERENCE
so there we are, the birth of a new national movement.
at a time when we need people to come together to fight a government controlled by the evidently psychopathic interests of big business and financiers, i don't like to be unhelpfully cynical or suspicious, but after seeing a welcome, unexpected and possibly "game-changing" surge of resistance and activism from young people on city streets throughout the nation, i have some concerns about the appearance of the 'coalition of resistance' and its direction, structure, and motives.
so many of the organisers and speakers have unashamed affiliation with socialist worker roots, that their claim to be a broad alliance has to be questioned. this, along with their undisguised aspiration to bring down the government and seize power, does little to inspire me with confidence.
additionally, many of the leading lights are the same people who ran the 'stop the war coalition'. this organisation, despite poll-backing by a majority of the british people and a mobilisation of millions on the street, conspicuously failed to stop the war.
they have since steadily disempowered the british public with their traditional and soul-destroying tactics of 'A to B' marching, to the extent that recently only 3000 turned up to an anti-afghanistan war rally despite the fact that pollsters regularly find that upwards of 70% of the british public want the troops home.
their president, tony benn, who is now the president of the 'coalition of resistance', has privately admitted that he didn't push for a criminal investigation of blair et al, because one of the "al" might well be his own son, hilary. well, i guess that blood is thicker than justice.
i think the real problem with both coalitions was alluded to by chris banbury at the conference when he called for a national stoppage next tuesday, but only in the lunch hour so as not to break any laws.
so why don't these socialists support civil disobedience?
the answer lies in their real agenda, a seizure of power within the current pseudo-democratic system, and the installation of a socialist government while leaving the structure of power and control in place.
if they were to advocate the civil disobedience that might be truly necessary in the face of the devastating declaration of ideological war that the con-dem government has instigated, then they would lose the establishment legitimacy that, in order to seize power, they need to retain.
having said that, i don't want this piece to come over as a typically futile indymedia 'more ideologically pure than thou' anarchist diatribe against the socialist worker party.
if you believe in the 'animal farm'/"whoever you vote for, the government gets in" critique of socialism, then now, more than ever is the moment for anarchists to engage with unions, students, pensioners, unemployed and under-privileged people and educate, inform and inspire. there was no reason why there could not have been an anarchist presence in every one of the workshops at this conference. the anarchists can't blame the socialists for their lack of engagement.
with so many new activists seeking solutions, inspiration and ideas, it is a shame to allow the same tired traditionalists to hijack and dampen the creative, passionate exuberance of the students and other street protestors. now is the time to get out there to student assemblies and anti-cuts groups and teach them about non-hierarchical co-operation, syndicalism, truly participatory democracy, and consensus.
the students want free education - get out there and give it to them!