Thursday was probably a good day for the publicans of Kennington. Less so perhaps for Liam Burns, the NUS President who orated over a highly depleted group of student protesters in a soggy Kennington Park before fleeing the stage pelted with eggs. They say there’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy but the end to Demo 2012 seemed to tread it well. The march that had set off from Temple Place on Victoria Embankment gradually lost its way when rain sent many of the protesters into the pubs and cafes of Kennington once it hit its last leg. “Where’s everyone gone? Have we missed it?” remarked one female student to another when they entered the park to see organisers dismantling the stage well before the scheduled 6pm rally finish time.
Organised by the NUS, the student protest was billed as Educate, Employ and Empower. And it wasn’t a bad message. At a time when we’ve seen young people and students take a disproportionate battering from the austerity cuts and the economic downturn there’s plenty for young protesters to be angry about. Recent research from the EU’s research centre Eurofund warned that huge levels of unemployment and underemployment (both in the UK and the EU as a whole) risk creating a “lost generation”. Loss of EMA; trebling of tuition fees and cuts to public services such as Connexions have all impacted on the lives of young people.
Speaking to students at the start point of the march there were a number of reasons for participation cited. “I’m here to march against the Coalition and the fact Nick Clegg broke his promises. As a young voter who voted for him, to see him break his promises just to get into power is hugely disheartening,” said Sam, a 20 year old student from the University of Bath. “I don’t think it’s fair that generations from now will be paying nine grand for the same course as me.”
The introduction of tuition fees, which came into force this term, was one common concern. But others were there for war wider reasons. “I think that the issue of women is hugely important,” explained Natasha, a design student at Goldsmiths. “We live in a society we consider to be developed but women are still underpaid. Domestic violence is also a huge issue for me. I mean look at the cuts to services that deal with that. They’re all reasons why I’m here.”
Unpaid internships; lack of jobs for graduates; a profound dislike of the Tories: all of these were mentioned. Signs varied from “Say no to sky high fees!” to the more ideological “Dear Santa, for Christmas I would like full communism”. Meanwhile a large group of protesters carried the Palestinian flag and chanted for an end to the war in Gaza.
And perhaps herein lies the problem. The student movement has become too disparate. In 2010 it was easier to rally support around one key issue: tuition fees. Stopping their introduction was a clear and focused aim to act upon. Now, when I spoke to Wednesday’s protesters many of them weren’t sure what exact policy changes would equate to success in their fight. Although some were optimistic about what difference marching though the city would make others felt that it might go largely unacknowledged.
“What we should be doing is focusing on definite, core issues,” said Ikram, a History and Politics student at Queen Mary. “I think that so often on the left there is so much division; people don’t know who to align themselves with. There are people here saying “Lets smash apart capitalism” down to people who have more moderate, socially democratic views. This should be part of a wider movement but it needs to be more specific and together.”
It certainly seemed to be the case yesterday. What had started as a collected group at 11am had broken up by the afternoon; the side streets of Kennington littered with abandoned placards under wet leaves like a bad metaphor.