The biggest student uprising in a decade is forming. Where is Labour?

Ben McGowan
© UoM Rentstrike

Across the country, the biggest student uprising in a decade is forming – but so far the Labour Party has been almost completely absent from the fight. At the University of Manchester, we’re proud to have just won our first major victory, with a 30% rent cut in the first semester for all students in halls, making it the biggest rent strike victory at a university in history.

Organising began within weeks of us moving into halls. Fallowfield, the largest student halls at the university had become the top Covid hotspot in the entirety of the UK, and persistent flooding, break-ins, leaks and rat infestations plagued us. By the time the first instalment of rent was due, hundreds simply refused to pay.

Any pretence that the university cared about students beyond their £16,000 of tuition and rent was exposed as a facade. After weeks of ignoring our calls for discourse and compromise, we decided to occupy the tallest building on campus, the Owen’s Park Tower. With donations and support from students, staff and the wider Manchester community, we managed to hold out for two weeks until the university conceded. It has now promised to pay out millions to students in rent rebates.

Throughout it all, the university’s attitude only worsened, fuelled by arrogance and incompetence, later epitomised by vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell’s car-crash appearance on BBC Newsnight where she lied about having spoken to a student who was the victim of racial profiling by university security. The reputation of the university has undoubtedly been tarnished by the disgraceful actions of Rothwell and her management.

This movement is not led by the student’s union or by experienced student activists, but almost entirely comprised of first-year undergraduates. For most, this is their first experience of direct and collective action. They have been radicalised by the A-Level fiasco of the summer and the cattle-like herding of thousands of students into unsafe and inadequate accommodation in the midst of a global pandemic. At Manchester, it was the erection of steel fencing around our homes that saw frustration boil over into a campus-wide movement against the university and the government’s exploitative and deplorable treatment of students.

For years, universities have used their monopoly on first-year accommodation to charge extortionate rents for crumbling and cramped halls. Now, they’re finally faced with a student body unwilling to accept these circumstances. The win at Manchester will hopefully be the turning point that ensures every student in the country can fight back and secure similar victories.

This environment seems to have all the perfect conditions for Labour to stand in solidarity with the student movement in their fight: unfiltered rage towards a Tory government, successful strike action, support from the trade union movement, thousands of young voters calling for a better standard of living. Yet the party feels invisible at the moment.

In Manchester, we are lucky enough to have the incredible support of our local MP, Afzal Khan, meeting regularly with students and acting as a productive conduit between protestors and the university. Every time an issue has arisen, he has been ready to fight the student’s corner, from excessive police presence on campus to the authoritarian response of the university towards a peaceful occupation. Afzal has embodied the very best of what the Labour Party means – solidarity in the fight against the violence of greed.

Trade unions such as the UCU, UNISON and PCS have given unwavering and vital support to the protests, creating a powerful alliance of students and staff enough to scare any fat-cat vice-chancellor.

If the Labour Party wants to stay true to its values and original purpose, now more than ever it must start to take a leading role in this fight nationally, helping to organise students through its youth wings and ensuring all its MPs are vocal and unrelenting in their support for students over profit-driven university managements. 

If the party chooses not to do so, it risks losing an entire generation of politicised and radical students. Where Labour is not proactive, there will always be another left-wing organisation ready to seize the opportunity – and such complacency is a gift to groups such as the SWP.

The party has now gone over a year without an organised student wing. Whatever comes of Labour Students, if done effectively its replacement has the potential to give much-needed energy, funding and coordination to Labour clubs everywhere. It would put our party where it should rightly be: at the forefront of profoundly socialist student struggles.

We cannot turn our back on student movements, especially not one that can, with support, change the face of our higher education system for the better even before the next Labour government. Being in opposition only makes these wins more imperative. With millions of young voters in 2024 who are too young to remember what a Labour government can do, Labour owes it to them to prove that they’re by their side if we’re to win the next election.

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