How to lose supporters and alienate people

Student radicals slam universities for outsourcing jobs, yet they outsource their protests to the dinosaurial politics of the past.

Joel Cohen

Topics Politics

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On Monday, several hundred student activists from across Britain descended upon Sussex University campus in Brighton in the south of England. Their purpose? To demonstrate against management plans to outsource certain jobs, mainly in catering and estates management.

But if a report from the local student newspaper is any indication, many actual Sussex students were more than a little confused: ‘A survey conducted by The Badger has discovered that over half of respondents said they did not understand, or understood only “a little bit” about the university’s plans to outsource 235 members of staff.’ 

Protesters on the roof of university admin building.

Not that a lack of clarity among Sussex’s student body bothered the activists. They seemed keener on showing off their own protesting credentials, and bashing ‘the sins of capitalism’, than winning over others to the cause. Their version of ‘activism’ has turned political dissent into little more than a branded fashion accessory.  

Hence many on the Sussex protest sported yellow patches of fabric, a visual echo of the Canadian students who last year wore squares of largely red fabric as part of a tuition fees protest. One student at the demo even admitted that the scarf covering his face was more a political fashion statement than a way to keep warm. ‘It’s to show that I am protesting’, he said. Others used a similar fashion statement to conceal their identities while damaging and briefly occupying Sussex House, the offices housing the university’s management staff. 

Protesters burn university files.

The point of the day’s protest was supposedly to unite students and workers against university management. Yet the indiscriminate ransacking and burning of university files also destroyed records of staff expenses, which didn’t really do much for worker-student solidarity. The fact that few took objection to these ‘black block’ tactics is understandable, given the broad, vacuous anti-capitalism which characterised the day. In fact, so focused were the chants on ‘money for the bosses’, and the speeches on ‘putting up a fight’, that many seemed to forget about the 235 workers whose jobs and working conditions are under threat.

For Michael De Meera, a first-year economics student at Sussex, the displays of resistance seemed to alienate more than engage. ‘I don’t know what they want. Their ideals are ridiculous. Do they actually want Communism?’ He gestured to the many leftist groups whose banners waved unchallenged above the crowds. It is certainly revealing that despite the much-hyped re-politicisation of students during the protests and riots of recent years, few young people have been able to articulate their outrage at the Lib-Con government’s plans for public-sector reform using anything but a parodic old-left lexicon. 

Though the bark of this ‘radicalism’ is certainly worse than its bite, the idea that these opinions are edgy or genuinely radical is laughable. Much to the delight of Sussex Against Privatisation, which organised Monday’s protest, the actions at Sussex actually found support in parliament through an early day motion proposed by Brighton’s own MP and former Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas. A list of celebrity signatories, including many recognisable left-wing throwbacks such as Tariq Ali, also support the activists’ efforts. If this is out-there radicalism, it has friends in high places. 

A crowd gathers to  listen to assorted speakers.

Those protesters currently trying to turn the now-stagnant student movement of three years back into a national crusade miss the irony of their own position. The rabble of dissidents who hoped to stop the outsourcing of a university’s services to private businesses have themselves outsourced the meaning and purpose of their protests – they have outsourced those things to a past era and its surviving representatives. All that’s left is a small community of self-defined ‘activists’ pumping out the political sound of the Eighties, complete with period rhetoric and grievances. Moreover, calls to form a ‘national movement’ to join up all the small-scale actions ignore the fact that nowhere have these occupy-and-chant tactics been able to secure the things protesters demanded. 

While there are legitimate reasons to question the effect of recent reforms in parts of Britain’s public sector, the shallowness of the response evident at Sussex was disspiriting. It seems that a generation is being led to believe that making a spectacle of one’s outrage, no matter how incoherent, is protest enough. Yet ‘occupying’ space on campuses, or in any other public place, like wearing a keffiyeh or yellow-coloured patch, offers a superficial makeover where considered political dissent is needed.  

Joel Cohen is an undergraduate student of politics at SOAS and a former spiked intern.

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Topics Politics


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