In my last blog I expressed my concern by saying:
‘My worry is that the vast majority of those protesting (and those watching at home) do not understand enough of the complex detail to have an informed opinion. I’m concerned that the decision to protest has been built on a foundation of emotive language gleaned from activists and the headlines which were ultimately based on Browne’s recommendation rather than what the coalition has actually said.’YouGov released a poll and found that since the NUS ‘riots’ (as they shall now forever be known), 65% of people said that they has some sympathy with the demonstrations, but the vast majority of those disapproved of the damage to 30 Milbank.
‘Only 13% of respondents said they had sympathy with the direct action against the Conservative party headquarters. Asked if the violent scenes had helped or hindered the protesters’ cause, 69% thought it had damaged their cause, 11% that it had helped it (16% think it did neither).'More generally, YouGov asked if people thought violent protest was ever acceptable in a democracy. 19% thought it was, 75% thought it was not.
So here we see the crux of the issue: the NUS had previously struggled to get this issue out into the open media forum for the world to see the ‘injustice’ and to have a transparent debate about what these fees will mean for the future of Britain. Now they've got what they wanted, but at a price.
The demonstration spun out of control and was apparently taken hostage by aggressive factions largely from non-NUS pressure groups wanting to muscle in on the action. The NUS has since taken the brunt of the flack with NUS President Aaron Porter seemingly being hauled onto every media outlet imaginable to answer for these few rogue protesters. (As an aside where is the practically dormant UCU in all this?)
Today we have a been made privy to a letter from Ivor Gaber Associates to the NUS with stark warnings and recommendations about how they can take hold of this wild horse of a campaign and direct it to a conclusion that this particular groups of activists would like. Demonstrations are good for demonstrating unity of expression – but as the letter says:
‘The current message about tuition fees is coming over as rather one-dimensional. The message the public is hearing - although not necessarily the only one being sent - is: "The fees increase is not fair. Students feel betrayed, particularly by Liberal Democrat MPs who conned them into voting for them at the last election. Now they want revenge."The message is not getting across to the public, the media or indeed the MPs who control the fate of the proposal in their lobby-treading feet. The NUS’ previous Blueprint campaign was relatively successful through the private lobbying MPs but was not high profile in the media. And MPs listened, even if they disagreed.
The NUS has always been good at privately lobbying for the benefit of their students – it is one of their biggest strengths. It shows that they are serious and deserve a space at the grown up table of political debate and policy discussion. Anyone can organise a rally (as demonstrated by yesterday) but for the NUS to be truly effective as a political organisation they must dispense with the rabble-rousing and focus on genuinely making a difference to the lives of their membership by applying their accumulated knowledge of the political process effectively.
When the riots broke out at Demo2010 I was at a policy discussion hosted by The Bridge Group in Victoria. The topic: improving social mobility in Higher Education (for an excellent summary see Monday 15 November). When the news slowly started filtering through there was a noticeable change in the mood in the room. Here was a disparate bunch of people - including those from the Helena Kennedy Foundation, Pure Potential, Sutton Trust, Brightside/Uniaid and national bodies including UCAS, HEFCE and SPA – the phrase on the face of the many and the tongues of the few was: “why are they being so counterproductive?”
They are right.