November the 4th was the day of the “Free Education & Living Grants for all” student demonstration in London. The red paint dried quick on my freezing cheek, the air cool even for an early November morning. Everyone who was crammed into the students’ union bar had brought coats, scarves, gloves and fiery enthusiasm – supplemented by steaming cups of tea and coffee.
Up early on little sleep, I was grateful to have no responsibility as I wove between flustered organisers and union officers brandishing megaphones. From where I was sitting I could see the whole bar, uncharacteristically full of students for 7:30 in the morning. The signs and banners, creative in their denouncement of the Tory government’s new plans to cut higher education funds were propped against the walls and held above heads, before being carefully loaded into the bottom of the coach.
Picture: My demo sign.
The excitement and energy in the air was as thick as the slowly descending fog, and was equally immovable. No one could get to Westminster fast enough, and similar scenes were seen in student unions across the UK. The unions in Sheffield had brought the most students to the demonstration on London’s Malet Street, outside UCL – 162 in total. We were told this as we got onto the coach and it lifted our spirits for the four hour journey ahead.
Picture: One of three Sheffield coaches to London.
This student protest was set to be the largest since 2010 and 2011 when plans were initially announced to lift the cap on tuition fees to £9000 and to abolish college student’s weekly allowances. With the added recent announcement of Theresa May’s new immigration rules making it much harder for international students to study in the UK, the leap from college to university is becoming more perilous without extra personal funding. But there was hope: demonstrations in Pretoria were successful in causing a halt to increasing fees. Other efforts by new Labour’s shadow vice-chancellor, John McDonnell, halted Tory plans to cut tax credits for working people. Everyone on that coach wanted to emulate and further these successes – maybe these cuts could be stopped.
I stepped off my coach and straight into the fervor of the many thousands in attendance on Malet Street. The March itself was a thing of beauty. People were chanting, singing and cheering to the tune of the event organisers. Posters and signs waved furiously in the tumult of protesters – I held mine up with them as the wind brought the burning smell of lit flares to my nose. Larger than life piggy bank creations were held up by groups, delivering a double entendre to the prime minister in a deliciously apt manner.
Photo: Getty images.
I also met Natalie Bennett outside Westminster.
Picture: Natalie Bennett (Green party leader) and I.
As we congregated on the narrow street outside the department of business, skills and innovation McDonnell took his small and humble stage to reinforce the goals of the march. He fanned the passionate flames we all felt inside as a collective while simultaneously calling for a peaceful protest. His Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who had supported the demonstration with multiple statements, had revealed months earlier his administration’s first full policy plans to tackle tuition fees and fund maintenance grants; pledging 10bn – 7bn for tuition fees and 3bn for grants. Everyone, including McDonnell, knew this would be an excellent time for his party to pick up some young hearts and minds, to show the current government there is power in fairness. It’s worth mentioning, however, that this wouldn’t automatically become policy if labour was elected.
After a brief period of more chanting, we started to notice people running on either side of the road toward the front of the building. Some protesters who had covered themselves in all black and marched as a solid group had made their way to the front. As the police attempted to ‘kettle’ and contain some of these individuals, tempers snapped, and a few shoves started a few small scuffles. A large group high tailed it away from the incident, equally fearful of protesters and police alike.
Around 12 people were arrested. Some – mostly students – say the police were at fault, and others blame the protesters whole heartedly – see The Guardian, Independent and Evening Standard. This is a chicken and egg scenario: Police typically aren’t violent without provocation, and people typically aren’t anti-police unless they’re overbearing. In this case, people were forced together with high tempers and very different goals, and nothing good comes from that. It’s worth remembering that Police budgets are also being slashed by the Conservatives. What I can confirm without a doubt is that these more violent protesters were a minority, and overall the protest was good-natured and peaceful.
Our group was calmly ushered away from the building, and reconvened there 40 minutes later, making calls to gather together our large Sheffield numbers. The street was immaculate; no-one would be able to tell whether a protest had been there, or a quaint food market. The active and swift removing of our mark on London felt poignant – only time would tell what impact we would have on the government’s plans.
Picture: Where the rally started and finished. Westminster Abbey, Victoria Street.
As our fires and energy withered, we climbed onto our coaches and settled in for the long journey home, with intermittent exclamations of pride and disgust heard over soft snoring: the headlines were now rolling in. The focus of the news bulletins blurted such over-inflations such as “students lay siege to London” and “protests turn nasty”. This gave the false impression that we had brought catapults and battering rams to the doors of Westminster or resurrected Guy Fawkes in time for bonfire night. The calm, polite interviews some of our party had done earlier in the day, along with the photos taken of our well-mannered protest, were forgone by media outlets in favour of the more dramatic shots of protestors pinned to the ground. But are we surprised?
There’s not a student in the UK, at least that I’ve found, who thinks they should be paying more than £9000 a year for their education, and I know of no-one who thinks we should be taking the grants away from those who need them. You are no more or less deserving of your education, of pursuing your dreams for your future, if your parents earned less money than the average Tory. Who are we, as a country, if we ask students to sink into up to 60k of debt to educate themselves? Who are we if we send away those who can’t afford to live while studying on the loan they’re offered – who won’t make it to graduation once their maintenance grants disappear? We must take a long hard look at ourselves and decide who we want to be, then make our voices heard.