The below article originally appeared on LibDemVoice.
There is a rather American saying which runs along the lines of “We have four boxes with which to defend our freedom: the soap box, the ballot box, the jury box, and the ammo box. In that order”. It becomes a good way of putting Wednesday’s violence in context, particularly for those that are trying to argue some similarity between the suffragette movement and student fees. That movement had no choice but to resort to violent occupation because the very thing it’s members were campaigning for was access to the ballot box.
But rather than the entire NUS executive distancing themselves from the action and denouncing it as the work of a few extremists, one NUS National Executive member is calling for even more of the same and a letter is circulating, signed by various NUS and Student Union figures, claiming that the occupation was not just a small group of extremists. The letter tries to claim that it was a “good natured” occupation, but Laurie Penny was there and described it in the New Statesman blog as a riot.
Yes, there was anger at fees but the anger about “betrayal” of those that voted for the LibDems was manufactured by the National Union of Students and as LibDem canvassers will have realised quite quickly, an accusation of “betrayal” on the doorstep is code for “I voted Labour”. It was, as we know, the Unions that elevated Ed Milliband to the leadership of the Labour Party, someone whose policy is not to attack the Conservatives but rather make the LibDems extinct.
And yes, there was anger at fees but there was anger at Blair’s Wars too. Up to 2,000,000 people marched over Iraq, but there was no violent occupation and few arrests despite being over ten times larger than the NUS march.
Where was this anger when Labour introduced fees and then president of the NUS (future Labour Councillor, special advisor to Labour Deputy Mayor of London and Labour PPC for Milton Keynes North in 2010) called on the Labour government to conduct an independent review? Hardly strong stuff.
And where was the anger when Labour increased fees to £3,000? That time, the NUS President managed a little better, getting between 10,000 and 31,000 at a rally and calling on Labour ministers to “do the honourable thing”. She went on to become special advisor to Labour MP Tessa Jowell and perhaps the lack of appropriate humility in the face of a Labour government then cost her a shot at the parliamentary seat granted to 7 of her 8 labour predecessors.
Returning to the ballot box from our opening and to quote a line that’s starting to get a little tired: If you wanted Liberal Democrat policies, you should have voted Liberal Democrat and not, as your cries of “betrayal” reveal, for Labour. There may be debate within the party on the topic of fees and I, along with many, disagree with the current position of the parliamentary party leadership on this. But this only came about because we’re junior partner in a coalition. I have no doubt that if we were in power on our own, this would not be happening.
The only winners from the march are those planning on going on to future political careers. Many students stand to gain anyway, as the proposals will actually reduce fees for many. But for those who really wanted to campaign for fees, the partisan rhetoric that was such a major part of the march will just have served to alienate wavering MPs from the one party that might have done something about it: the LibDems.