Six lessons from the student riotsPosted on December 12, 2010
In the aftermath of the tuition fees vote, what are the lessons we can learn now that the blood has been mopped up, the flares have sputtered out and the Ayes and Noes have been counted?
2) Police communication still leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. The reputation of the police has been shielded somewhat by the appalling behaviour of the rioters they are fighting against. Their failure to communicate why they employ particular tactics, such as cavalry charges or pulling individuals from the crowd, is a serious problem that stirs up future trouble. While the first student riot began peacefully and kicked off later, apparently yesterday’s march saw protesters attacking the police from the get-go – they need to try to defuse that tension, not fuel it through further confusion.
3) The rioters themselves don’t really know what their movement is. I don’t buy this NUS line that the troublemakers are all Socialist Worker infiltrators. The entire SWP membership could fit into a camper van with room to spare, while the rioters yesterday filled Parliament square to the brim. Plenty of those interviewed at the protests have indeed been students or at college. However, the mob is a confused one.
Some claim to be anarchists, but are campaigning for more state power. Others claim to be socialists, but spend their time destroying public property. Others are just “Gap Yah” kids who are doing what everyone else is doing because it’s fun (though take it from me, being kettled is mostly boring). They have a broad anti-cuts dogma, but there is little to no coherence so far.
4) The Government has failed to communicate its key messages. The amount of misinformation and misunderstanding about the fees proposals is massive. Even protesters interviewed in the kettle yesterday were largely unaware of the fact that no-one will pay anything back until they earn £21,000 a year, for example. The battle to discuss these as graduate fees rather than student fees was lost early on, too.
The launch of the Facts on Fees site on Wednesday showed that Ministers belatedly realised and acknowledged all this, but by then it was far too late. For many political campaigns the battle is fought in terms of perceptions with language as the weapon – just having a good policy is not enough to win.
5) Violence gets you noticed but it doesn’t get you listened to. The riots have certainly made headlines, and there are plenty of good-looking photos from each event, but ultimately MPs still voted in favour of the plans.
I feel sorry for those students who did the right thing and actually argued with their brains rather than their fists. Those debating with MPs in central lobby were contaminated by the knuckleheads out attacking the Cenotaph on Whitehall through no fault of their own. In fact, I know that some MPs shifted from No to abstention or from abstention to Yes because they actively did not want to be seen to be giving in to thugs. At minimum violence is irrelevant, and at most it is totally discrediting to their case.
6) This is war. These riots have set a precedent – we can expect more and more protests to turn out this way in future. The half-baked ideology of “No cuts to anything” that many of those in attendance were espousing gives an incredibly wide range of topics to fight on, and they clearly have acquired a taste for violence and arson. I wish that wasn’t the case, although strategically it would be stupid not to acknowledge that it’s quite helpful to have the Left building themselves such an unpleasant reputation. There will be more blood and fire in the next few years of spending cuts – but the worse the deficit deniers behave, the stronger and more dedicated to pushing ahead the Government must become.