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“This time they need us to win”: how student fees protests have changed since 2010

In 2010, MPs felt they could ignore students. They may not feel the same way in 2017. 

As the demonstration is in full swing through London’s fashionable West End, one passer-by walking down the streets with his toddler shouts to no-one in particular: “Bloody generation who wants something for nothing.”

Earlier that Wednesday, on a grey autumnal day in central London, off a side street by the majestic British Museum, about 700 students had gathered, clad in thick coats. 

They had all huddled together for the annual Free Education protests. These events have been a mainstay in the student activist's calendar since the massive tuition fee protests in 2010. Back then, when the word “millennial” was still associated with apocalypse-watchers, the fury of students took the Coalition government by surprise. With fires burning in Parliament Square, MPs voted to raise tuition fees to £9,000 a year. 

At first, the consequences seemed minimal. But in 2015, the Liberal Democrats - swept into the Coalition on a promise of ending student fees - lost most of their seats, including former liberal stronghold university towns like Cambridge. Two years later, a Labour party promising an end to tuition fees captured even more student-heavy constituencies, from Canterbury to Sheffield Hallam. 

At the march six years after that fateful autumn, drums play in various beats every few minutes as students strain to hear a speech by one of the demonstration’s organisers. As the protest begins the move, they begin to chant “Theresa May has to go” followed by: “Tories, Tories, Tories, Out, Out, Out”. 

Now, after a snap election that robbed the Tories of majority rule and left the Lib Dems still out cold, intergenerational inequality is a buzzword round Westminster. Labour, though, is doing the most to capitalise on it. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn used a speech at the Association of Colleges Conference to outline a plan to introduce a “National Education Service”, in a similar vein to the NHS. Labour will promise free education from “cradle to grave”. He used the same slogan when he endorsed the free education demonstration earlier last week. 

Mark Crawford, one of the organisers of the demonstration, and a students union sabbatical officer at UCL, tells me that “We now have a Labour party that is fundamentally interested in redistributing wealth in this country- It’s about funding free education with taxation on the rich.”

While the 2010 demonstrations focused mainly on the tuition fees themselves, today's students frame their demands in terms of the wider problems of their generation. "Chopping fees would be a good start," Crawford said, before adding his next aim: “Living rents, so everyone can afford to study without having to work part-time jobs."

Joe Cotton, a sociology masters student at Cambridge University, is hanging at the back of the procession. He says what annoys him the most is that “education is viewed as an investment now instead of a social good” and says the blame lies with the Conservative government: “they are ruining our education system”.

Cotton was at the major student protests in 2010, as a 17 year old. He notes that “The last election saw a massive rise in student activism. Young people are a lot more motivated now, a lot more politically engaged. I really hope it’s a long term sustainable thing, because if it is - the Tories are trouble.”

As the protest continues through central London, banners are unfurled which can only be read from above. Actors in their dressing rooms above West End theatres salute the protests, while office-goers, and people staying in expensive hotels stare from their windows and take pictures. 

Students keep beating their drums, throw brightly coloured smoke canisters, continuing to chant. It feels like a carnival. Protestors seem to be making a point of smiling at onlookers. Tourists with their children, stop to take videos. 

The protest goes past the cinema, Picturehouse Central, where someone makes a speech in solidarity with the Picturehouse workers who are fighting for the London living wage. 

People chant "students and workers unite and fight". As I leave Cotton, he adds: "I just want the world to be a fairer place."

Zoe Salanitro, a student at the University of Birmingham, is handing out newsletters specifically created for the demonstration to members of the public. She is jovial and upbeat. She says she’s had “loads of great reactions” and adds that the demo “has been super vibrant. So much energy. Everyone is here to win”. 

She says she remembers watching the 2010 protests on TV as a school student and being “transfixed”.

The protest is on its way to Parliament Hill, and though Salanitro notes that Corbyn could always renege on his pledge once in power, as the Liberal Democrats did, she argues that “the point of demonstrations is to make sure it remains on the agenda, to make sure they [Labour] need us to win. All of these people will go out and campaign for them at election time”.

She continues: “Nick Clegg didn’t have a movement behind him. Ed Miliband didn’t have a movement behind him. Corbyn does and I think that’s the difference.”

Is this, then, the difference between 2010 and 2017? The reactions from the public seem to reflect the students' optimism. They see a common cause.

The man with the toddler is now the exception. 

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.