Students at nearly 20 universities across the UK have staged occupations in protest at Israel’s war on Gaza.
Some, such as LSE and Essex, have already ended successfully, with key demands (such as official university statements of condemnation of the war and support for scholarships for Palestinian students) being met by university management. Others, such as Sussex and Cambridge, are ongoing at the time of writing.
Many occupations have been important spaces for political debate, with discussions taking place about the politics of the Middle Eastern conflict and issues facing the movement, such as the efficacy (or otherwise) of tactics such as a boycott.
AWL members, and supporters of the anti-capitalist student network Education Not for Sale (that we helped launch), have been active in building for and supporting the occupations wherever we have been able to. Because of the role of our comrades, the Cambridge occupation was addressed by Muyad Ahmed of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq and by two AWL members.
Workers’ Liberty supporters in the student movement have been arguing for some time that it is vital to rediscover and reclaim the radical, direct action tactics that student movement right-wingers dismiss as “relics of 1968.” AWL members were central to the organisation of the UK’s first occupation in protest against top-up fees, which took place in Cambridge in October 2006.
Even leftists in the student movement are wary of such tactics and the invariably hostile response they illicit from the majority of fellow students. This wariness is understandable, given that it is has been a generation since the activist confidence to organise such actions — and the activist knowledge about how — was anything like widespread. Although the current wave does not, sadly, represent a stepping-up of Britain's student activist culture to continental levels, it does represent a significant step forward.
There is a note of historical irony in the fact that these occupations have coincided with the hammering in of the final nail in the coffin of official student movement democracy. A National Union of Students Extraordinary Conference on January 20 passed a new constitution that transforms the organisation from a union into something more closely resembling an NGO or lobbying group, a move which was justified by many of its supporters by the claim that the sort of activist culture which had required more traditional union-type organisation in the past was now dead.
If the only thing these occupations achieve is to convince a wider layer of student activists that radical direct action is possible in this country, they will have been extremely worthwhile.