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Building a revolutionary youth organisation in Britain

 

By KD Tait

The Revolutionary Socialists, formed around a core of former Socialist Worker Student Societies (SWSS) groups, have hit the ground running with successful interventions during Freshers’ Fairs at universities in Leicester, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Sheffield.

With meetings of up to 50 students, three local zines launched, and a large presence on the 29 September TUC demonstration in Manchester, members of RevSoc, working alongside Manchester Anticapitalist Students, have shown that an independent organisation of young socialists is not only possible – it is a process which has sparked a surge of creativity and engagement with revolutionary ideas and activity.

Despite the defeat over tuition fees and EMA in 2010, despite the crackdown following the 2011 riots, and despite the poverty and insecurity for young people created by mass unemployment, the threat of worse to come means we need the organisation and political strategy to fight back more than ever.

An independent socialist youth organisation will be able to develop its own methods of working to challenge the specific forms of oppression faced by young people. From poverty pay and zero-hour contracts to racist harassment, sexual abuse and legal discrimination, there are huge fields of struggle where, as yet, the far left and socialist ideas are absent.

Students

Since the Tory-Liberal coalition came to power in 2010, it has waged a systematic attack on the living conditions and opportunities of young people.

Predictably education was the first area to come under attack. After slashing the funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, the government unveiled plans to triple tuition fees.

The trashing of the Tory HQ at Millbank on 10 November 2010 inspired walkouts by 100,000 students on 24 November. Student assemblies were created across the country, and the break with the tame NUS leaders was vital to a strategy of mobilising on the streets in the face of violent police repression. Day after day, in bitter weather, students battled the police and besieged parliament.

However, inspiring as it was, the movement proved unable to consolidate the assemblies into a long-lasting structure, one capable of challenging the NUS for leadership on the basis of “what parliament does, the street can undo”.

Although, on the streets the movement had become increasingly a movement of school and college students, its leadership was based in competing student campaigns. After the vote on 9 December, these leaders were in no position to fight the scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance, which was rushed through during the Christmas break.

With the exception of a few universities, the campus anti-cuts groups withered, as demoralisation and disorganisation set in.

Universities in crisis

Many universities face financial collapse as a result of the predictable decline in student numbers as young people shied away from the prospect of a crippling £30,000 debt. Some have seen a drop of up to 20 per cent.

The government’s attack on London Met was part of a wider crackdown on international students, with a massive cut in visas granted and an escalation in police harassment of foreign students.

The privatisation that has followed, as the necessary and intentional consequence of the cut in public funding, has seen sporadic and localised resistance at some universities. Sussex, with its militant tradition of direct action and occupation continues to act as a beacon for students fighting course closures and job cuts on their own campuses.

The Coalition’s trail of destruction in education is shocking and its impact will be felt for decades to come – if we fail to turn the tide and reverse the damage now.

But we have to recognise that the student struggle in education must be rebuilt from a low base. The failure to have anything more than weak national campaigns with tenuous links to campuses comes down above all to the sectarian behaviour that has plagued the student movement.

The existence of three competing student oriented campaigns – Youth Fight for Jobs and Education (Socialist Party), Education Activist Network (SWP) and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (over which the AWL has established hegemony) has proved a barrier to united action and must be overcome.

Student Assembly

The Student Assembly Against Austerity on 2 November is a welcome step, providing the potential basis for a united and democratic student movement. If it to become a catalyst for unity then it needs to achieve two things:

1. It must agree a democratic basis for creating local and regional student assemblies, which elect delegates to a national coordination.

2. It must be able to take democratic decisions. It should not close with a simple invitation to struggle, but with a mandate to launch a national campaign in defence of education at every level.

But the Student Assembly itself faces the continued problem of an almost exclusive orientation to university students and the limited potential for wider social action around campus issues.

In education more generally, school and college students in Britain have very few rights to organise in their place of study, to take part in shaping their education or to oppose the bullying and racist, sexist and homophobic abuse and discrimination endured daily by thousands of students.

School and college students make up the majority of the young people who are at the sharp end of unemployment, police harassment and financial insecurity.

The NUS has failed these students; in schools there is no right to democratic representation, and, with a few exceptions, the NUS in colleges is a toothless entity with little relevance to students.

Where the NUS can be pressured into investing more resources into these areas, good. Where it can’t then we must develop student assemblies that are credible and concerned with the issues faced by younger people. The rise in the school leaving age to 18 with no financial support will drive thousands more young people and their families into poverty.

The relative autonomy and financial independence that university education provides is the basis for student radicalism. But this basis is a transient one which can only be overcome by involving large numbers of school and college age youth.

Youth

The important fact about young people’s struggles is that new generations of fighters can emerge quite rapidly after even serious defeats. And today there is plenty for them to fight over.

The Tories used their Party conference in Manchester to launch another spiteful attack on young people. They announced that there would be no housing benefit or JSA available for the under-25s if they refused to spend 35 hours a week in a Job Centre, using broken computers to look for unpaid internships. This is their vision for a Tory Britain after the 2015 general election.

Already things are bad enough. Twenty per cent of 16-24 year olds are out of work or education. This rises to 50 per cent among young black people. In 2010, police carried out 140,000 drug-related stop and searches on under-21s – a massive and systematic persecution in which black people are six times more likely to be searched on flimsy pretexts.

Funding for youth services in many inner cities has been slashed by up to 70 per cent. This isn’t just youth centres; it affects drug rehabilitation, sports facilities, and policies to reduce gang violence.

The academies programme has been the flagship policy of the government’s ambition to privatise education. And the result? In two years almost half of primary school districts will have more students than places; in some areas the crisis will mean a shortage of 20 per cent. Attacks on teachers’ pay, pensions and working conditions means many schools are struggling to recruit enough teachers. Instead of providing the resources to improve educational achievement, the government fiddles exam grade boundaries – denying thousands of students the chance for higher qualifications.

What is to be done?

Today’s graduates are competing with school leavers for minimum wage jobs. Between graduates, who won’t get professional jobs, and school leavers, who can’t afford university, the spectre of a lost generation hangs over the political landscape.

At a time when the revolutionary left has failed to grow out of resistance to austerity, the role that can be played by revolutionary youth in Britain is central to the task of developing a credible alternative strategy to overcome the capitalist crisis.

Guarding our political and organisational independence, but allying with those revolutionary forces we agree with – the militants in the trade unions and the women’s movement, for example – the youth of the RevSoc groups are determined to build a growing and vibrant force.

Our message is simple. Capitalism offers no future for young people; a socialist alternative is the only solution; alongside militant workers, youth can rebuild the revolutionary movement.

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