The students aren't just angry about education cuts - they see themselves as a vanguard for a much wider protest campaign, writes Polly Toynbee
“When I was asked to speak at University College London's campaign for a living wage for college cleaners, a couple of months back, I was not expecting that many students to turn up – but things turned out differently.
“On Thursday, the day of the meeting, a student occupation was in full swing. The epicentre in the Jeremy Bentham room – where protesters are still camped out – was packed to bursting. A living wage, with the outsourced cleaners brought back in-house, had become one of their key demands. Here, as elsewhere, what started as protests about tuition fees accelerated into a political movement against cuts of all kinds. Inequality, poverty, the shredding of public services, unemployment, bankers and boardroom bonuses had become part of the protest. One fight, one struggle, they said, as if 40 years had suddenly fallen away. Not exactly Paris 1968, but in their sit-in meetings they were beginning to see themselves as the vanguard for a wider campaign. Thatcher's children, selfish, materialist, apathetic? Not at all.
“The scandalous abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA), which gives £30 a week to sixth-formers from the poorest families, is as central to their protest as their tripled fees. I read out a heartbreaking email I had just received from a Hackney sixth-former: she and her twin brother live with their disabled mother. Together they will lose £60 a week in allowance and wonder if they can stay on. She went on her first march on Wednesday, peacefully, far from any violence, and was horrified at being kettled by the police for five hours. Are police and government conspiring to turn peaceful young people into outraged militants?
“By Friday morning the UCL students had won a living wage of £7.80 for their cleaners, joining 11 other London universities and colleges that have now signed up. This is part of the Citizens UK rolling campaign to raise poverty pay for cleaners, security guards, hotel chambermaids and others.
“How will protest develop over the next 18 months, as the speed and scale of the cuts are felt? Every day more stories of cuts pour into my inbox, many never reported in the press. Five council youth centres are shutting in Haringey, north London, more elsewhere. Education for Choice – a small charity that arranges balanced debates in schools about abortion – is losing its grant and may fold. Here is a particularly mean-minded one: abolishing the mobility part of the disability living allowance means young and old in residential care will be trapped indoors, losing the money to hire a taxi to go out. Meanwhile, this week's official report on stricter health tests for incapacity benefit revealed widespread cruelty and error.
“Another eye-opener: the coalition has U-turned to shelve its pledge to protect public sector workers who blow the whistle on dangerous, corrupt or incompetent practices. Why? Ministers just realised it would also protect anyone revealing damage done to services by their own cuts.
“Nothing, though, will shield the public from discovering how slap-happy Eric Pickles has arranged his budget: the Local Government Chronicle just reported his department in a state of panic as they realise, as predicted, their plans mean huge sums taken from the most deprived areas such as Barrow-in-Furness will be redistributed to the likes of Tunbridge Wells: the cabinet secretary is conducting an urgent review of how many more jobs will be cut by poor councils than by rich ones.
“And how about this? The Speaker has just declared every bill with a cut in it as a "money bill", and not eligible for Lords debate, amendment or vote. This week the bill cutting the child trust funds, health in pregnancy grant and the savings gateway for low-income families was deemed a money bill – although the Lords voted on it when Labour originally introduced it.
“As there is no appeal against a Speaker's diktat, Labour is seeking to protect the right of the Lords to debate and scrutinise these bills that have deep social implications. If they can't, no cuts stand a chance of scrutiny, and the second chamber becomes virtually redundant when cutting is the government's business. For the first time a coalition of two parties gives the government a majority in the Lords, yet Cameron is stacking in another 67 on their side. Those Lords resisting an elected chamber had better prove their vaunted independence by kicking up an almighty stink at being denied any voice in the main cuts legislation whizzing through Westminster.
“So when the Metropolitan police commissioner talks of a new era of civil unrest, he may not know which way to look for the next wave. Will it be the cavalcade of wheelchairs that so alarmed politicians last time their users tipped themselves on to the pavement outside No10? More school pupils, losing not just EMA but by next year teaching assistants and teachers, along with libraries, swimming pools, school sports and youth clubs? Or mothers with prams, since women are the great losers in income, childcare, nurseries and other services? Or nurses from closed wards? The "squeezed middle" will be angry, the £12,000 to £30,000 earners about to lose £720 a year, as identified by the Resolution Foundation this week. The same middle saw the decade of GDP growth pass them by, with most new wealth sucked upwards to the top few percentiles.
“No doubt the government secretly hopes violent protest by striking public sector unions will alienate popular support. The unions need to be cleverer than that, standing on the side of the public and never against them. Striking teachers sending children home so parents lose days of work will lose sympathy that would otherwise be guaranteed by more creative action.
“The recklessness in coalition assaults on the NHS, benefits and council services, with the pain distributed so unjustly, suggests a high-risk government speeding without seatbelts. With so many candidates, it's hard to tell what will erupt as iconic "poll tax" issues. Students are always first – energy, time and lack of children make protest easy. But the class of 68 may not be far behind, an older generation dusting down its memories and equally free of family to make its voice heard, the generation who had it all supporting the recession generations, growing up debt-laden with shrunken services, too few jobs and years away from owning a home.”
Polly Toynbee writes for the Guardian