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26 January 2011updated 28 Jan 2013 2:27pm

No sex. No drugs. And no leaders

Life on the front line of student activism.

By Laurie Penny

“No sex. No drugs. And no leaders”, the New Statesman‘s cover story this week, tells the intimate story of the winter student uprisings of 2010, putting human faces to the mob that has so terrified the right-wing press. It is the longest and most high-profile feature I’ve worked on to date, but that’s not the only reason it’s been so difficult to write.

Over the past few months I have become, and remain, deeply embedded in the student movement in the UK and Europe. Many of the young people who feature in the piece – on whose activities I’ve been keeping meticulous notes, and who are of a similar age and political attitude to myself – have since become as close to personal friends as observational subjects ever can be. It’s not so much a question of going native as finding that all the other natives have suddenly come out of the forest to take on the invaders. This has stretched my objectivity to its limits. I have had to work and rework the article to make sure I was constructing an accurate portrait.

The trajectory of journalistic dispassion is fraught with misunderstanding and lies. Even if utterly dispassionate, objective journalism were an obtainable or desirable standard, I would gladly set that standard aside until such time as I found myself no longer working in a world that contains the dangerous reactionary partiality of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the rest of the Murdoch empire. It is, nonetheless, important for liberal writers to retain distance where corporate flunkies refuse to, lest our romanticism – and left-wing politics are, at heart, always romantic – be mistaken for propaganda.

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This movement is deeply romantic. It is desperately idealistic and shocks with its undercurrent of seriousness and cynicism, but it is not without flaws. These young people have been radicalised at great speed, and they have made mistakes as well as winning victories. One thing they are not, however, is children playing games. For them, the political situation, with new cuts to public services announced every day, is too desperate to brook any useless high jinks.

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I believe, from what I have seen, that the energy of the student movements will persist, but it would be obtuse to predict with any certainty when or how this storm of resistance will disperse. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen next, which is why it’s such an exciting time to be a political journalist. All I’ve tried to do here is tell the stories that aren’t getting told.

The people who appear in this article are not the leaders of the movement. They are just some of an estimated 5,000 dedicated student activists – young people who have devoted themselves fully to building a resistance movement that links in with trade unions and community groups across the country. Millions of students and workers stand behind them, every one of them with an unique background and agenda, all sharing the same objective: to halt the destruction of welfare, public education and civic society in the UK and across the world as ideological austerity programmes begin to bite.

I know which side I’m on. We’ve got a long fight ahead of us.