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Students should learn the value of leadership

The popular opposition to rising tuition fees and education cuts is hamstrung by a lack of clear purpose.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics UK

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‘It’s probably a bad idea to have a leader. Leaders tend to be dicks, and also make people far more culpable to the authorities.’

This sentiment, expressed in a newly-published book on the recent tuition fees demonstrations, is commonplace among student protesters. So it’s hardly surprising that the two most prominent student representatives have now both been unceremoniously rejected by their fellow students.

Actually, the National Union of Students (NUS) leader Aaron Porter was so unpopular that he decided that fighting for re-election would have been a fruitless struggle, choosing to fall on his sword and becoming the first NUS president not to stand for a second term in office since 1969. This is hardly surprising – a careerist from the outset, he unashamedly distanced himself from the student protests and disowned students protesting at Parliament Square on the day of the tuition fees vote last December, opting for a ‘candlelit vigil’ across town instead. Moreover, leaked documents showed that Porter had been prepared to offer much larger concessions to government officials on student finance than he’d made out in public. When he was booed off stage at a demo earlier this year, he opportunistically capitalised on claims – since cast into serious doubt – that anti-Semitic comments were thrown at him along with eggs, by penning an opinion piece for The Times (London) condemning the revolting students.

There were good reasons to be cynical about Porter’s leadership. However, last week’s rejection of University of London Union (ULU) president Clare Solomon, who stood for another term against a relatively unknown, middle-of-the road candidate, is more conclusive. Whether or not you agree with her – and there is much to disagree with her on – Solomon is a bolshie, strident individual with a talent for organisation and getting things done. She certainly delivered on her 2010 campaign promise to turn ULU into a ‘hub of activity’ that went beyond a focus on gym memberships and drink prices.

If there were a face of the militant student protesters last year, it was Solomon, who appeared on Newsnight, BBC Radio 4’s Today and was recently the subject of a Guardian weekend feature. As that feature pointed out, the election was ‘in many ways a referendum on her specifically, and on what she represents’. And the fact that she lost to a no-mark candidate by a couple of hundred votes apparently due to a ‘right-wing’ backlash, was less striking than the meagre turnout – less than 2,500 students voted out of over 100,000 who were eligible.

The result, and the turnout, puts paid to the idea that anything but a small proportion of London students cared sufficiently about the future of student protests to cast their ballot. Moreover, the rejection of Solomon is telling because, since the start of the protests, activists have celebrated the leaderless and spontaneous nature of the protests as a virtue. Laurie Penny, the New Statesman-appointed ‘voice of a generation’, lavished praise on the ‘hydra-headed youth movement’, arguing, ‘the young people of Britain do not need leaders’. Another writer, celebrating the ‘post-modern’ nature of the protests, argues: ‘What binds these groups internally? What prevents them – leaderless, and in part, self-defining – from a confusion of agendas? Nothing so crude as an ideology, but collective experiences, affections and trust.’

That wishful thinking on behalf of the author was typified by the experience of what may prove to be the last in this series of student protests, in January this year. The demonstration reached the agreed end-point at Millbank and a number of police moved in to instruct the students to stop marching. The students shrugged, saying ‘I’m not in charge’, and kept walking, leaving a few, who had tried to address the crowd with megaphones, behind. The lack of leadership was then made worse by the fact there was a ‘spontaneous’ decision to switch aims and march to the Egyptian embassy to express solidarity with the uprisings against President Mubarak. ‘Free education for Egyptians!’, one protester shouted ironically, encapsulating the confusion and frustration that abounded.

It’s perfectly natural for leaders in any emerging protest movement to take time to establish themselves, as individuals jostle to see who can best articulate and direct the concerns of protesters. But the student movement – alongside many other contemporary protest groups from UK Uncut to the recently disbanded Climate Camp – has celebrated the freedom from the ‘tyranny’ of leadership as a defining strength. In the short-term, this may have tactical advantages – making it harder for police to identify ringleaders and ‘make people more culpable to the authorities’ – but this also means there is no one to assume responsibility for the direction of the protests.

Ultimately, the conscious rejection of leaders and the ‘crudity’ of ideology reflects the lack of a clear sense of what protests are trying to achieve, a shared way understanding what the problem actually is, and a unifying language in which to discuss the issues. The fetishisation of ‘collective experience’ over thrashing out a common outlook and strategy is a testament to the lack of debate around what the protests are for. This is reflected in the celebration of the ‘diversity’ of messages on demonstrations and the fact that any semblance of ‘solidarity’ on a demo only really emerges once students have the shared experience of being kettled and can collectively chant ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ against charging policemen on horseback.

It’s this lack of serious debate to establish a clear vision of what the protests are for, and the people best placed to offer the direction necessary to achieve these aims, that goes someway to explain why, as has been observed previously on spiked, the curious phenomenon has emerged of students’ parents beginning to play a role in what are actually very popular protests. By prioritising the ‘fluidity’ of spontaneous protest over a collective critique, most of the concerns that students voice on the demonstrations – far from being radical – are actually those they have internalised from their parents and teachers.

The championing of the leaderless nature of the demonstrations is a desperate – or at best naive – effort to rationalise the absence of shared, coherent political aims. The result of this lack of direction and leadership is that protests are unable to mature beyond simply being a fleeting channel through which a particular mood, or moment of angst, is expressed. Having effective leaders is by no means a guarantee of a movement’s success. But one certain outcome of the conscious rejection of leaders is that any nascent political movement is doomed to fail.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. He will be speaking alongside Laurie Penny in the debate New Culture of Protest – What Do We Want? at the Brighton Salon on Tuesday 22 March.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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