Monday, 15 December 2008

National Free Education Demo Planning Meeting Report

On Sunday I was in Manchester for the second Open Planning meeting for this demo (provisionally the 25th February in London). I reckon there were between 40-45 people in the meeting, with quite a few from ENS, about 7 from Socialist Students, 5 or so SWP and then some people from Manchester's Reclaim the Uni (RTU) and some other. I of course was there delegated by Bangor Socialist Students Society.

Before I discuss the actual content, I want to talk a little about the way the meeting was run. RTU decided they wanted the meeting to use concensus decision making and after a short debate and vote it was decided to use it. I found it incredibly confusing as there were various different gestures and stuff we had to do and i found you couldn't tell if a decision had been made or not. Also, i found it potentially undemocratic as the facilitators have an awful lot of power to shape discussions and put forward their own proposals (or accept others without real debate such as changing the order of the agenda). As it was I felt the system began to break down towards the end under the size of the meeting and i think some people's growing frustrations with it.

The meeting started off with the organisation of the demo itself. I have to say i thought it was very clear that the SWP/Another Education is Possible(AEP) were very clear about their own plans for what they want to happen - they want their own rally at the end of the demo. (although they were less blunt than their leaflet in the meeting)
The meeting agreed a short rally before we set off (with speakers from various groups - my impression was at a minimum one person from AEP, one from ENS and one from Socialist Students)
There were suggestions of organising Direct Action heavily pushed by RTU. Personally I think direct action has its place as part of a wider, mass struggle as a tactic - not a stunt or an end in itself. What seemed to be discussed was a sort of conspiratorial thing with a keyword and the reason to do it would be to get lots of press. I think however, this would be press for the stunt and not the mass movement and would detract from it. There was also later on talk about 'creating a confrontation' as a way of 'energising' the movement (speakers from ENS and SWP suggested this). I think such talk is a little childish. Whilst we ought to be aware that the police have attacked demos in the past and could attack this one, we shouldn't try and create a provocation. That said we should organise proper stewarding to defend ourselves (this wasn't discussed - i think it was postponed to the next meeting)
Finally the preferred route of the march was discussed from Malet Street to Parliament Square which needed negotiating withe the police (to get a SOCPA permit etc.) and a committee was elected to do that.

The next thing discused was how to mobilise for the demo. There seemed to be an assumption that SU's who have declared their support for the demo will actively mobilise for it - however, from talking to some people at those Uni's this won't be the case with quite a few of them - as ever it will probably be up to the activists to mobilise for it (i guess thats why we're called activitis though!)
There was some discussion about publicity - most groups will produce their own leaflets, but there will be a very basic centrally produced leaflet with the just the three main demands (not to marketisation of education, no to fees, living grants for all students - perhaps the wording is slightly off but you get the gist) and the details of the demo, mostly for the use of any smaller groups who want to use it locally and add to it.
There was also some discussion of building for it outside of universities (i think everyone there was a university student (or left student group organiser)). There was mentioned the support the demo had received from the UK Youth Parliament. Then came the contentious bit.
During the discussion Matt Dobson raised how the fact that many FE students hadn't been paid EMA on time was a source of much anger their and would be something that FE students would be more than willing to campaign on. I backed this up with my experience in Bangor (see september posts on this blog) and suggested it be added to the demo's aims/slogans. This was opposed both by ENS and SWP. Their argument was that by adding it it would mean potentially adding an avalanche of other demands reagrding sections of students. However, in countering that I argued that EMA affects a huge proportion of all FE students and thus cannot be compared to International Students, Postgraduate Students, Part-Time Students etc. (which aren't small groups either). Also they said that it was covered under the slogan of a living grant (which is technically true, but saying EMA makes it a lot clearer to FE students I have found) Needless to say, that addition was blocked. I think that was a big mistake and I actually wish I'd been a bit sharper and forceful on this question as I think it is something that could have mobilised more FE students to join in the demo and link the questions of FE and HE funding and living costs together. (especially because it would show up NUS a bit that we do care about FE students, seeing how they always bang on about FE students).

And on that note the meeting, sort of ended, but actually carried on for another five minutes discussing the NUS extraordinary conference in January. Points were made about how the timing of it will exclude ordinary students who will be doing exams, and also how the turnout could probably be lower than the last one. What response we should have to it was discussed briefly but was still open at the end, so wait and see.

And then I had a 2 1/2 hour journey back to Bangor turn into a 5 hour one. Thanks privatised railway network!

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