The ever-escalating dispute over tuition fees has caused ructions and divisions in every area, from the public response (divided between proud support and angry condemnation), to media coverage. With students portrayed across the spectrum from rioting yobs to moral heroes, nobody seems quite sure what to think.
National Union of Students President Aaron Porter held emergency meetings with protesters this week to apologise for his “dithering” and failure to support peaceful active protests such as occupations. At several universities across the country, including SOAS and UCL, students have taken over lecture halls and university rooms, demanding government response and urging the administrations of their own universities to fight back against the planned education cuts and fee rises.
After protesters occupying part of University College London called for a vote of no confidence in Porter as NUS President, he held crisis talks with them, urging that a “civil war” within the student movement was exactly what their “enemies” would want. An agreement was reached after Porter apologised for being “spineless” by failing to publicly support last Thursday’s national day of action, and promised to get behind all future peaceful protests, including today’s planned ‘second wave’.
Porter’s refusal to support the activism followed his condemnation of what he described as “despicable” acts of violence at the first student protest, when the Conservative party headquarters at Millbank were broken into. Yet many students and activists have since criticised Porter for distancing himself and the NUS from other student protests in a desperate attempt to keep their noses clean and clearly separate them from any arrests and rioting.
With accusations rife that the media, police and politicians are firmly spinning the news cycles to smear a largely peaceful protest movement with false labels of vandalism and violence, the pressure is on Porter to come back to the helm and prevent the protesters from splitting into disparate, anarchist factions.
Liberal Democrats Divided
Meanwhile in the Liberal Democrat party too significant and serious divisions have been caused by the row. A group of more than 100 important party members, who were all parliamentary candidates in the last election, have publicly drawn up a petition urging Nick Clegg and the MPs of their party to vote against the rise in tuition fees. Under the coalition agreement the Liberal Democrats will be allowed to abstain from the tuition fees vote, but there is increasing pressure on them from both sides, with the Conservatives expecting cabinet members to support the legislation they have helped to create, and their own party calling on them to remain true to their principles and vote against it.
According to the activists, Nick Clegg has forgotten one of the most basic principles of their entire campaign and the philosophy for which they stand, and is at risk of losing control of his own party. They say it is “important that the parliamentary party knows the strength of feeling in the party, as a whole, that we should keep to what is the policy of the party as decided in various conferences – namely that we should abolish tuition fees.”
This loss of backing and unity from within his own party must come as a blow to Clegg, who has already lost public support and been condemned by students; probably the largest demographic of voters who enabled him to come to office in the first place.
Now prominent members of his own party have begun to echo what media commentators have been warning for some time – that his complete U-turn on tuition fees, one of his most important election promises, risks losing the party all credibility and stranding it once again in the “political wilderness”. With voters up in arms, students taking to the streets, and his own party begging him to stay true to their values, how long will Clegg continue to stubbornly support Cameron’s policies?