On the last day of November, as police on horses muster outside Downing Street to wage war on the angry children of Britain, everything is quiet at one of the many impromptu strategic hub of Britain’s new youth movement. In occupied UCL, as reports come in about thousands of students and schoolchildren breaking free from a police kettle in the snow, others are trying a different, but co-ordinated tactic to strike at the political system from within.
“We’re going to play the Milibands against each other,” they tell me, “and see which one will listen to the voice of the people first. If neither of them will, then Labour is finished — it’s got nothing to offer us any more.”
These young people desperately wanted to believe that mainstream politics could work for them. Many of the thousands of kids currently occupying their schools and universities and disseminating bust cards in case they get arrested later today spent the summer campaigning for one or other of the Miliband brothers, dutifully stuffing envelopes, re-tweeting bland slogans and hoping against hope that all the promises of meaningful change were more than empty rhetoric.
Most of the protesters have never been in trouble before, but now, reluctantly, they have decided that the time for deference is done. “The government has no mandate for public-sector cuts on this scale,” says Aaron, 26, one of many student spokespeople, “So there’s nothing else for it. We’re going to demand a new way of doing politics. Ed Miliband talks about a new generation — well, we ARE that new generation.”
The students at UCL, who are a striking cross section of age and race, inform me that they are building a movement together, a movement without leaders that will change British politics forever.
They have sent a message to David Miliband on behalf of the new student movement as a whole, appealing to him to exert influence on his brother and on the Labour Party to defend the rights of what the protesters are calling “the real movement for change”.
“We no longer have any faith in the Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties,” they say, “and we can barely maintain any semblance of faith in Labour while Ed Miliband says that he ‘might have been doing something else’ when he could have been coming out in support of one of the most dynamic, democratic movements this country has seen in decades.”
It’s certainly ambitious — but ambition has been inculcated in Thatcher’s children since we teethed on the death of society.
These young people come from all political backgrounds and none. Most have no time for the Conservatives but many voted Liberal Democrat, and their sense of betrayal by Nick Clegg, who once seemed to represent the last hope for a moral alternative to blithe neoliberal equivocation, is furious and focused. “We voted Lib Dem, look at what we got from them!” is a chant that repeats, pattering out the hasty orisons of the British centre-right. “Cuts, job losses! Money for the bosses!”
What is intriguing is that those young people who once voted or volunteered for the Labour Party are equally sceptical about the ability of mainstream politics to deliver the change they want. All they are asking is that the Labour leadership take their demands for a new settlement seriously. If Ed Miliband won’t hear them, they are quite prepared to go to his brother.
“Ed Miliband has made a few overtures to the student movement in the national press today but if he wants us to take these for more than mere gestures to gain political capital, he will need to come and speak to us directly and engage with our demands,” says Ben, 21, one of many sometime-leaders of this Hydra-headed student movement. Former members of the campaign teams for both Ed and David Miliband have been calling the brothers’ offices to demand that one or other of them comes out to the marches and occupations to meet the young demonstrators.
“What the young people of Britain need today is a leader who is brave enough to put people before profit,” says Ben.”If Ed Miliband is not prepared to step up to the plate, we will ask his brother to be that leader.”
The children of Britain have been direly underestimated by the power generation. This new strategy is a deliberate attempt to throw the Labour Party into chaos and demand a serious and radical new politics of opposition.
“This isn’t just a protest about university fees,” says Aaron, “It’s a protest against the entire political class. I had the pleasure of working on David Miliband’s campaign, and now, if his brother won’t give us the wholehearted support we need from a leader of a left-wing opposition, we will ask David to stand up for us.”
The speed and subtlety with which these young people are working is breathtaking, throwing over every thuggish, window-smashing stereotype currently being peddled in the press.
Their demands to the Labour party and to the Miliband brothers in particular, are clear: take our side or we will attempt to take the country back.
But should either Miliband care? That depends on whether they or any member of parliament care more about leading a parliamentary party than leading the people of Britain.