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The student movement evolves: why Laurie Penny has never felt prouder of her generation

In Trafalgar Square, the worst November snowstorms in decades are pummelling thousands of teenage protesters more effectively than any police kettle. The cops are there anyway, of course, clotting every exit from the square like rotten yellow scabs, sealing off the social dissidence from the more compliant tissue of the body politic. Right now Her Majesty's Finest are being reasonable, but earlier in the day, when these young protestors abandoned the planned route for their march after a tip-off that police planned to detain them again in the freezing sleet, it was a different matter altogether.

Videos are already emerging of police officers repeatedly punching children in the face, as one girl describes how her friend narrowly escaped death. "Some people had already gone through the kettlle, and Sarah screamed for people to come through. A policeman shoved her in the chest, and she fell into the road in front of a truck, which stopped about two feet away from her." Other witnesses later confirm this account.

I am leaning on a set of railings because my feet, frozen through from a seven-mile spontaneous rampage round central London, will no longer support me. Kids are still piling into the square from all directions, exhausted but undefeated, having walked out of school and university occupations across the city and come to join the shakedown. Now they are gathering in one corner of the square, screaming and hugging each other despite the howling wind. In the gusts of snow and debris, over the drone of police helicopters, the indefatigable samba band begins to play and a ragged cheer goes up. Britain's children's crusade has not been cowed by police brutality: they are dancing in the snow. Some of them quite obscenely.

The march from which they are returning has been a wild, rampant charge, two thousand protesters careering up Piccadilly, past the Ritz and the Trocadero, letting off smokebombs and chanting "no ifs, no buts, no education cuts!" under the corporate-sponsored Christmas lights of Oxford Street. To the bewildered tourists and salarymen snapping pictures from shopfronts this probably looks like chaos - but the chaos is terribly organised.

"I have no idea where we're going," says Melissa, 22. "Nobody does, and that's why it works." "If we don't know where we're going the police don't either," says her friend, "and that means they can't kettle us or catch us. It's perfect."

"These strategies for avoiding police brutality have been around since 2001," says the writer Shiv Malik, who is also at the protest, "but nobody actually sat down and thought about how to put them into action before. This is very clever - these kids learn fast," he pants as he tries to keep up with the mach. "Well, they are students, I suppose."

Before long, it's a cat-and-mouse game as police try to head off the march at various street exits; the young protesters simply veer off in the other direction, laughing and jeering. Sirens scream in the distance, but the police can't keep up with the pace of the march. It could be a Benny Hill sketch if it weren't for the bitter cold and the police meat wagons gathering on street corners.

As we go past Topshop, the students begin to shout about Topshop owner Sir Philip Green, one of many billionaires to benefit from this administration's generosity towards big business. "Philip Green - tax avoider!" they yell. Avoider, not evader. With a start, I realise that these young people have taken time out from smashing windows to share information on how to avoid being sued for libel.

Britain's new youth movement has evolved. The white-hot energy that exploded at Millbank three weeks ago has cooled into a hard-edged organising tool, making links with Trade Unions and anti-cuts groups up and down the country. What started as a riot has become a movement. At UCL, one of the movement's strategic hubs, serious-faced teenagers take detailed notes and man the phones to liaise with the media whilst others are already at their laptops, getting the word out via Twitter and Facebook about what's happening on the streets. These young people have been underestimated - by their parents, by their teachers and lecturers, and by successive neoliberal administrations -and that underestimation may yet shake this government to its core.

Evenings in the occupied lecture halls across the country are a jumble of joyful anti-establishment clichés, all twee improvised sing-songery and communal cooking and belting out the Internationale whilst someone presses more beer into your hands - but these are not the hedonists of 1968, and there is a strict divide between business and pleasure. There's a cleaning rota, booze is rationed to prevent rowdiness, and nobody is allowed to drink whilst decision-making meetings are taking place.

The interminable meetings are based on a complicated consensus system involving wiggly hand-signals. At times it all descends into Pythonesque farce as the students discuss the exact legal status of chalking messages on the pavements - but there's a point to it all. "The process is meant to prevent leaders emerging," one student informs me. "It's important to make sure everyone's voice is equally heard."

These young people are sick of leaders, even leaders our own age. They won't be told what to do, but that sentiment is more of a honed manifesto than a collective teenage door-slamming strop. When the meeting is over and consensus reached, the collective slams back into action, planning an escalation in the protests leading up to the crucial vote on tuition fees later this month.

These protesters have a honed protestant work ethic, a coherent ideological framework, stunning technological facility and absolutely nothing to lose. No wonder the administration is getting worried. The students at UCL are now desperately mustering plans to defend their organising space, which may soon be forcibly evicted by police who are no longer quite the friendly bobbies from children's telly. In fact, the police seem more determined to punish these protesters extra-judicially for their defiance the clearer it becomes how little actual crime they are committing.

As night falls on the makeshift rally in Trafalgar square and I begin to feel faint from the chill, someone directs me past the stamping crowd on Nelson's column to the tea-stand. The students from SOAS have brought hot tea and homemade cookies and are selling them for pennies as a "gesture of solidarity." "It's a new world order!" says a girl behind me in the queue.

Sitting on a fountain in Trafalgar square, slurping a nice hot cup of tea in the freezing rain and snow, watching the children's crusade brave the elements and police lines to chant for the downfall of a government it sees as corrupt and illegitimate, I have never felt prouder of my generation.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.