The old cancer at the heart of the student riot

by Luke Akehurst

THE SAD lesson of the hijacking of part of Wednesday’s NUS demo – by a small minority who turned it into a mini-riot – is that some of the iron laws of left politics from the last time there was a Tory PM still hold true.

The mainstream left, whether that’s the Labour party, its affiliated trade unions, NUS or other organisations campaigning against the cuts needs to know that the bad guys are not all to our right on the political spectrum.

Idealistically, we might have thought that the sheer horror of the cuts being proposed by the Tory-Lib Dem government would mean all forces on the left in Britain could unite to protest and fight to protect key public services and benefits.

Wednesday’s behaviour killed that idealistic dream as it probably killed the political enthusiasm of some of the 50,000 ordinary students on the march.

On the plus side 49,000+ of them marched peacefully. By any stretch that’s a remarkable political mobilisation. The entire membership of all the student political organisations in the UK plus non-student supporters and non-partisan student union activists does not get anywhere near 10,000 people. So 80% or more of the marchers were “real people” driven to political protest by the government, not long-term political activists.

This should therefore have been a marvellous opportunity to get an entire new generation involved in politics, inspired by participation in a powerful protest that would have got their case all over the media and put fear in the hearts of the Lib Dem MPs who betrayed their erstwhile student voters. This should have been the start of a campaign that would have seen those 50,000 marchers go back to their colleges and work to either stop a government policy in its tracks or failing that contribute to mobilising their fellow students to evict Tory and Lib Dem MPs in university seats in the next general election.

Unfortunately, the enemies of the NUS and of the interests of ordinary students and indeed ordinary working people don’t all sit in Cowley Street, Millbank or in ministerial offices in Whitehall.

Another set of enemies of progressive politics were actually on the march. As the events at Millbank showed, culminating in the nihilistic barbarism of some idiot throwing a fire extinguisher off a tall building at police officers, there was an enemy within. 2% or fewer of the people on the march helped totally obscure the worthy case and sully the reputation of the other 98%. I’m not convinced they were all even students – I’m sure there were a good few rent-a-Trots and anarchists there who just came along for the scrap and wouldn’t have cared what the issue was.

When I was in NUS in the early ‘90s we earnestly debated not having demos at all because of this type of hijacking by extremists, and instead focusing on one-on-one lobbying and advocacy and a huge electoral registration drive amongst students.

I’m surprised the police were caught out by the riot – they could have just dug out the file on the 1980s “Battle of Westminster Bridge” and it even would have told them which far left factions would have started which escalatory tactics at which point in the demo. Probably the same grizzled veterans of the struggle for dictatorship of the proletariat planned this little jape, updating their efforts only to employ social media as an organising tool.

Trots and anarchists have been sabotaging NUS demos and trade union pickets for 40 years and no doubt will be for another 40.

When we tried and succeeded in temporarily not having an “annual demo” (you didn’t even need a policy to protest against back then, it was just an annual ritual) in the 1990s it took us a while to understand why the howls of protest from the extremists were so great.

To understand why they need mainstream organised demos, funded by mainstream movements and full of mainstream marchers, you need to understand the essential parasitical organisational dynamics of the extreme left, particularly the Leninist groups:

  • They have to sell newspapers. This is not a joke about “paper-sellers”. They literally feel they have to because Lenin wrote that every communist party must publish a weekly newspaper. It’s a struggle to shift copies of Socialist Worker in a shopping centre on a Saturday morning to uninterested shoppers. It’s comparatively easy to sell them to 50,000 people in one place who by definition are interested in left politics.
  • They have to recruit. It’s so unpleasant being a Trot – even more endless meetings than being a Labour activist, and you have to sell newspapers, and you have to split off and start a new party every time you disagree with the edicts of the central committee – that they need hundreds of new naive recruits each year to replace the ones they burn out and discard like political fag ends. What better place to find such recruits than on a demo attended by loads of young people who are passionate about politics? They can sidle up to them and tell them the big picture, the heavy stuff about the inevitable overthrow of capitalism – an enticing dream if you are an idealistic kid. Just sell these papers and nirvana is just around the corner … They charmingly refer to the new recruits as “fodder” as in cannon fodder. One or two might be unlucky enough not to drop out and to get sucked into life as an otherwise unemployable full-time revolutionary “cadre”.
  • Violence is fairly intrinsic to the ideology of both revolutionary Leninists and anarchists. If you believe that the only way to improve human society is by the violent overthrow of the state and the economic system, you need to prove you mean business with the occasional practice run trashing a Tory office somewhere. Similarly if you preach revolution you will attract as members the kind of mindless thugs who get off on trying to beat up policemen and indulge fantasies about their post-revolution roles as the UK’s Trotsky, Beria or Dzerzhinsky.
  • Transitional demands are central to revolutionary politics too. You demand something unobtainable within the current political system but on the face of it reasonable – for instance “free education” – then you explain to people you need a revolution to achieve it.

Unfortunately as the Tory-Lib Dem government pushes more and more repellent policies there will be more and more angry young people for these political hyenas and vultures to get their claws into.

The extremists don’t actually want to stop Tory-Lib Dem policies on higher education or on any other issue. A more moderate government or a Labour one pursuing progressive policies would end their flow of recruits. They need the human misery caused by the government as a recruiting sergeant pushing the desperate towards their bonkers brand of politics.

The tragedy of Wednesday is that many of the 50,000 may be disillusioned or afraid to go on another demo or get more involved in politics.

Mainstream progressives have to be there to offer them a political response to the government that does not involve violence or riot. It is a boring offer. It is a slow and painstaking offer. “Join us for a long march of five years canvassing, leafleting, petitioning, compromise and careful social democratic policy development” is not as attractive as the quick fix of kicking in the windows of Millbank Tower. But we know from the last time round that it’s the only way to do it, and the images on Wednesday actually increase the chances of a Tory victory in 2015. They will not have played well in middle England marginals.

We have been here before. Neil Kinnock had to fight battles on his left against Militant, Ted Knight, Scargill et al to get the Labour party into shape to take on the Tories effectively.

Ed Miliband should take the lesson from Wednesday that the progressive centre-left has dangerous enemies to its left who must be put back in their box if we are not to be undermined in our fight against the real enemy, the Tory-Lib Dem government.

Luke Akehurst was national secretary of Labour Students between 1995-6 is a Labour councillor and CLP rep on the NEC . You can read more from Luke here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

25 Responses to “The old cancer at the heart of the student riot”

  1. Where these really trots and anarchists, Luke?  I’m not so sure any ideology was on display during yesterday’s violence.   Just a lot of testosterone-charged, mainly young men who took the opportunity provided to them by their sheer number, and the absence of sufficient numbers of police to deal with them, to vent spleen.

    Whoever commanded the police operation yesterday put the lives of their officers in jeopardy, as well as those within the Millbank building. 

    They grossly misjudged the potential consequences of there being so many, and justifiably angry young people, gathered in one place. 

    That said, I hope the extreme elements we endured in the 80’s aren’t in the ascendency once more. I especially hope they aren’t persuaded to join (perhaps ‘infiltrate’ is a better word), the Labour party, which they may attempt to utilise as a convenient platform of expression. If I was one of them, that’s what I would be attempting to do.       

  2. Ed says:

    Great Article Luke

    Yep the SWP at al have been at it for years. Piggy back off anything genuine and subvert it to their own sad agenda.

    God help us if any of these types ever get into power. Stalin / Hitler take your pick.

  3. Tom Miller says:

    Ah good, I’m disagreeing with Luke again, mostly on two points.

    Firstly, on this:

    “You demand something unobtainable within the current political system but on the face of it reasonable – for instance “free education” – then you explain to people you need a revolution to achieve it.”

    We had free taxpayer funded education, i.e. free to users, until very recently. When Luke was in the student movement he was defending that policy.

    It’s a rubbish example of something unobtainable. They have it in Scotland!

    Secondly, on trot recruitment – since Labour has dropped out of Government, I’m not sure what has happened to trot levels, but the highest recruitment I have ever seen for them in student politics was over Iraq.

    On the other hand, since not being in Government, our youth membership has exploded, as memory of *us* being the anti-student/pro-war/anti-freedom party begins to fade, aided by Ed Miliband and the recent success of the moderate, social-democratic centre of the party just as much as opposition itself.

    Labour governments. The last one caused a trot explosion, to the point where my Labour club, which had historically dominated our unions, was electorally wiped out for half a decade, and eventually could not run candidates as openly Labour for fear of annihilation.

    It’s not Labour governments which stop recruitment to trot parties.

    It’s ones that idealistic young people can still identify with.

    What we need is one of those that can get into power.

    And if that’s impossible, well, the trots are probably right?

  4. Wilf Garnett says:

    My Grand Son is a PCSO at Waterloo, he said there was no trouble on the March and he was cheering them on!

    Is this the same Tory anti working class media hyping up a little disruptive element and making it all seem out of proportion?

  5. Skiamakhos says:

    Don’t tar anarchists with the same brush as the SWP (or even the WRP or their offshoots). I’ve been a Trotskyist back in the day, 20 years ago, & an anarchist ever since, & I can tell you we never got involved in violence or mindless vandalism. OK, fair enough, some mind*ful* vandalism at the odd road protest, but sometimes you gotta smash a few diggers to stop them vandalising the land: that’s just self-defence – but honestly, have you ever heard of Noam Chomsky smashing a copper’s face in? Me neither.

  6. Colm says:

    Also, how ridiculous was it for people complaining about the cuts to attack one group (the Met) affected by the cuts, and the offices of another organisation (the Audit Commission) which is being closed down in “The Bonfire of the Quangos”?

  7. Dan says:

    Reminds me of the great line in GBH (nearly 20 years ago, now) about dealing with extremist politics being like the Green Cross Code: look left, look right, look left again.

  8. vitoria_e_certa says:

    This article is breathtaking in its stupidity.

  9. Paul says:

    What a snide article. I was there yesterday. I saw what happened. Yes, there were anarchists involved. What do you expect- anarchists believe in direct action, what would they have to gain in listening to boring careerists lecturing students about “getting active”, when they could actually be getting active. It’s pretty much Daily-Mail level reporting to equate “anarchists” with bomb-throwing nihilists. But at Millbank what I saw wasn’t anarchists. It was young people who realise that the mainstream left- the NUS and the political parties from Labour, all the way to the SWP, were only trying to use them as springboards for their own careers and successes. I don’t think there was an aim behind the violence we saw (violence almost exclusively against property). I think it was a symbolic rejection of the march itself, in the idea that political action can be anything like representative of students needs.

    We’re seeing a crisis of legitimation for “political” politics, if you will, amongst the students. You can write off yesterday as the actions of a minority of trouble-makers, but in doing so you’re writing off the fact that actually the violence yesterday had more support than the NUS, and represented the mass will of the majority of the crowd. Until you can actually act as part of the student body, you’ll get nowhere.

  10. @Peter C Johnson

    Yes, it is a pretty damned certainty that these were anarchists and SWP trots. Look at the pictures of the windows being kicked in, those people were very careful to cover their faces. They knew what they were doing.

    Yes there were some vicious idiots throwing stuff from the roof. But the nutters who posted here trying to make out that one idiot characterises all the 50,000 is just plain daft. Anyone who has ever been on a demonstration will tell you that the vast majority of the march is good natured almost to the point of a carnival atmosphere. This is understandable because the marchers feel elated that there are other people who think the way they do.

    But all marches are open. Anyone can join them. This is a freedom that we have (although, I suspect that May is looking at how to change that). The anarchists who smashed the windows and threw stuff from the roof are the usual suspects. Usually the police are competent enough to handle them. Yesterday the police showed their incompetence.

    Let me give you an example. On Oct 3rd there was the Right to Work march in protest of the Tory conference in Brum. The West Midlands police had created a “security zone” around the ICC. This was nothing to do with “terrorism” and was there solely because of the march. (Later that day I walked along Broad Street right through the “security zone” and saw not a single police officer and was not stopped.) There were about 100 anarchists in a group on the march. They were intimidating because of the abuse they were shouting and because they all had their faces covered (I noticed that from the TV pictures there were many people with their faces covered smashing windows). I moved away from the anarchists towards the front of the march.

    After the march I retraced my steps to get back to New Street station and saw what had happened to the anarchists. They had tried to move off the prescribed route (just like yesterday) but the competent West Midlands police had stopped this and “kettled” them, surrounding the group with police officers and police dogs.

    Any march will have anarchists. By their nature, anarchists will try to cause trouble. It is the responsibility of the police to take action – as and when needed – to stop them causing trouble. Clearly the Met Police have a lot to learn from the West Midlands police. Incidentally, I talked to a police officer and found him very sympathetic to the Right to Work march: Theresa May’s cuts means that one in ten police officers will lose their jobs in the West Midlands.

  11. Tom

    you are wrong. When I was in the student movement I didn’t defend “free education”.

    I chaired the session of NOLS Conference in 1996 that voted – after a year long intensive policy debate – in favour of a policy that in order to fund the subsequent massive expansion of higher education students as well as employers and the state had to make a contribution.

    However, as a parliamentary candidate I opposed Tony Blair’s introduction of Top-Up Fees which came in in 2006.

  12. william says:

    We only polled 29 percent at the election, and the idea that the Libdem vote was anything other than say 1million student voters is fanciful.For Labour to be associated with the mob is just a rerun of the 1980s and years in opposition.

  13. Chris says:


    Bit of a snotty article, the breaking of windows and graffiti is hardly the end of the world. The fire extinguisher was very dangerous though. If there hadn’t been a couple of smashed windows would the media have actually given the march as much air time? Sure the news would have shown a few clips, mentioned the NUS estimate of the size of the crowd then given the much lower police estimate, a VT with a few students.

  14. James says:

    you might have been voting against a nationaol demonstration in the min 1990’s Luke but what you don’t mention is that you were also voting to abolish free education and to introduce tuition fees in exactly the same motions.

    We told you then that it would be the thin edge of the wedge and we told you then that this would lead to US style fees and students leaving university with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. We told you then that it would be the National Union of Turkeys voting for Christmas – but you got it your way.

    The legacy I am most fearful of isn’t the far left, the Trots of Tankies infultrating anything, they only got anywhere because we were so far removed from our working class routes…it’s what your lot started and the Condems are finishing.

    Instead of demonising young people and suggesting this was anything other than a group of hardcore, p*ssed off young people try and understand why it happened and why they are angry. Middle England is behind the students on this one and more worringly for you, the youth of today are behind the students and it is they who will get Labour elected in 2015, or not as will probably be the case…

  15. Tom Miller says:


    I stand corrected.

    However NOLS did revert for a brief period to a Free Education policy some time after the initial introduction of fees.

    I personally believe that public services should be free to users even if not everybody uses the service or all it has to offer. But that’s me. I raise you a Bevan to your Gaitskell.

    On the way there I am happy to endorse a progressive graduate tax and business education tax.

  16. Rex Lemmington says:

    The trouble is Labour are half Tory anyway or wet fish, so people are going to get frustrated and need to be heard, but their voices are never represented in parliament,. Many struggles have been won with violence I hope this one can be put to victory in a peaceful way, but can’t see it.

  17. George says:

    @Paul “you’re writing off the fact that actually the violence yesterday had more support than the NUS, and represented the mass will of the majority of the crowd”

    If that’s true, then presumably you’ll stop parasiting off marches like the one organised by the NUS, and you’ll organise your own demo. It’ll be interesting to see how many attend a demo that believes in violence. By your logic, there should be at least 25,000. I reckon you’d be lucky to get a hundred.

    @Chris “If there hadn’t been a couple of smashed windows would the media have actually given the march as much air time?”

    While the violence made the demo the lead story in the news, it also associated the student case with louts who risked killing a policeman when they threw a fire extinguisher from the top of a building. Do you seriously think that didn’t damage public sympathy?

  18. pasolinid says:

    This article is a real idiotic piece of red baiting. Members of far-left groups have been among the best trade unionists around for years on end, their millitancy have helped keep the traditions of the Labour movement alive in this country. Unlike the leadership of your party which has done fuck all for trade unions for a generation or more. It’s Labour’s dreadful record under Blair and Brown has led to the Tories and Liberals to do what they are doing with no mandate for it.

    And on the rest if you cant understand that Stalinism was a terrible reaction to the destruction of the russian economy and working class 1914 – 1921, the backyard agricultural nature of the russian empire, the fear of german invasion and the failure of the western europe revolutionary movement to take their oppotunities you dont understand anything about the period at all. Stalin killed all but a couple of the revolutions of 1917, thats a counterevolution.

    And the quote about Beria – the famous murderer of trotskyists, destroyer of the georgian left opposition – just shows your intellectual poverty. And you’ve got a bloody cheek bringing that bastard up in relation to the anti-stalinist left – especially as a member of a party led by the war criminals of iraq. A leadership that supported the IMF while it smashed up the third world on behalf of major corporations. The leadership that never said a bad word about the Saudi royals (but was happy to sell them arms), Uribe, the Egyptian dictatorship, Yeltsin and Putin’s destruction of Chechnya, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and many more mass crimes. But we’re the violent ones, huh?

  19. Gerard Killoran says:


    ‘Luke Akehurst is a Director at Weber Shandwick Public Affairs and has been with the company for ten years. He was awarded “Consultant of the Year 2008” by Public Affairs News. He specialises in advising local authorities and companies in the aerospace and defence sector.’

    Obviously Luke’s distaste for violence doesn’t prevent him lining his pockets with dosh from the merchants of death.

  20. dsquared says:

    Presumably he advises the 98% of sensible and responsible aerospace and defence companies, and deplores the violent 2% who give the others a bad name.

  21. Chris says:


    “While the violence made the demo the lead story in the news, it also associated the student case with louts who risked killing a policeman when they threw a fire extinguisher from the top of a building. Do you seriously think that didn’t damage public sympathy?”

    It gave the daily mail reading boneheads something to latch on too but I doubt they’d have much sympathy in the first place. While the fire extinguisher was very dangerous and I imagine the person who did it is feeling rather guilty, we don’t actually know if they did throw it or dropped it by accident.

    I doubt smashing up tory HQ dented public sympathy much, they aren’t liked by large parts of the country. Rather than going along with the right wing narrative of hard left thugs, etc I view this as an almost reasonable response on the part of students who have been betrayed in the most disgusting fashion by Clegg. And the tories in CCHQ were apparently baiting the marchers.

  22. stephen says:

    Absolutely right Luke.

    Just look at the democratic credentials of the ULU president who admitted to being inside the building during the riot. Elected by less than 1% of the electorate and her only opponent got slightly more votes but was disqualified.

  23. Alan Ji says:

    Tom Miller says:
    November 12, 2010 at 12:50 am

    “I personally believe that public services should be free to users ”

    Higher Education institutions are not public services. They’re all voluntary sector institutions, registered as Charities.

  24. Henry E. Mitchell says:

    Luke Akehurst underestimates the intelligence of 99% of the students on the anti-student loan demonstration, who will not be diverted from participation in further protest events and political activism, just because a handful of hotheads resorted to vandalism. Criticising the far-let for “selling newspapers” or “recruiting members” is ridiculous, in a democracy every party propagandises and recruits! And if the LP leadership (which supported the idea of student loans when last in Office) listens carefully it may well sell a few polcy documents, recruit a few students, and even gain their votes at the next General Election ! It sounds as if Luke is a wallflower when it comes to our democratic right to demonstrate !

  25. Stephen says:

    Higher Education institutions are not public services. They’re all voluntary sector institutions, registered as Charities

    They are in receipt of very large sums of public money. That makes them de facto public services. Post 18 education should be funded in the same way as pre-18 education. Free at the point of delivery and the costs recovered through general taxation, with the wealthiest paying proportionately more. As for the argument, “what about those who didn’t go to university paying for those who did?” Well, that’s no different from healthy people paying for the ill to receive treatment on the NHS, or childless people paying for the child benefit and education of those who have children. If we are going to divide everything by sectional interest, what’s the point of having any public services at all?

Leave a Reply