‘Demo2012: Education, Employ, Empower’; or, anger, rain and factionalism

On Wednesday 21 November, 10,000 students from all parts of the UK congregated in the capital to protest the Government’s ongoing cuts to education spending. The demonstration, dubbed ‘Demo2012’ by its organisers, the National Union of Students (NUS), marked the two-year anniversary of the large NUS protest in 2010, which is now mostly-remembered for the attack on the Conservative Party HQ at Milbank. However, ‘Demo2012’ saw significantly less violence and lower attendance than the 50,000 person demo in 2010.

The march was generally marked by high spirits, and some students from as far as Aberdeen were present in high numbers, but protestors could not ignore dishearteningly cold, wet weather and significant political-infighting amongst student organisations.

Many universities and colleges, including RHUL, met outside ULU on Malet Street in Bloomsbury, and other protestors gathered to make ‘feeder marches’ in various parts of central London before all eventually merging on the main route down Victoria Embankment along to Westminster and then, somewhat controversially, over two miles’ walk south of the Thames to The Oval at Kennington.

Although masked, ‘black bloc’ protestors formed a notable presence, the day passed largely peacefully. Minor scuffles were most notably seen when protestors attempted to gain entrance to Parliament Square, but police presence was immovably heavy, as was the case at all stages of the march. The Met appears to have taken lessons learned from Milbank to heart.

The route, organised by the NUS, has come under much criticism both before and since the march from other student organisations such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) for being insufficiently disruptive, in what they see as a move to placate authorities. Their website states: ‘We are…extremely disappointed with the proposed route for the demonstration. It marches along Embankment, one of the least visible and effective routes possible.’ The statement, which is notably signed by several of the NUS’s own National Executive Committee, including ULU President Michael Chessum and Vice President Daniel Cooper, goes on: ‘Both the slogan (Education, Employ, Empower) and the route for #demo2012 are a long way from what conference voted for, and neither seemed to have involved any meaningful consultation.’

These critics, however responsible for the infighting, may ultimately be vindicated by the poor response the post-Westminster route received from all sides. In response to the first speaker at the end rally, the London Student tweeted: ‘”It’s too easy to be ignored in parks in the rain”. The question may then arise as to why we’re here.’ Some students also unsuccessfully tried to start a human blockade on Westminster bridge, and others allegedly tried to ‘kettle’ fellow students into staying at Westminster, before crowd-consent finally reestablished the route to The Oval.

In the end, ‘Demo2012’ may be remembered more for its factionalism than for its solidarity.

Several members of the ULU contingent were seen to be marching with a large ‘Smash the NUS’ banner. Later, at the conclusion of the march, NUS President Liam Burns was booed and heckled off stage, before being replaced on the Kennington rally stage by anti-NUS protestors. Burns attempted to finish his speech amongst protestors on the wet field with a megaphone.

As well as struggling with the left – including a distractingly large and vocal contingent marching against the occupation of Gaza as opposed to education cuts – the march also faced student dissent from the other side online, under the parodic right-wing twitter hashtag ‘#deluded2012’. However, unlike the anti-NUS protestors, these partisans were nowhere to be seen during the rainy march.

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