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The Corbyn Generation

The 2010 student protests in the UK seemed to end in failure. But they foreshadowed Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable rise to the top of the Labour Party.

Protests against tuition fees in London, England on November 30, 2010. Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images

In the late autumn of 2010, shot through with hope, fueled by anger, hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets all over the United Kingdom, uniting in protest against the new coalition government’s plans to triple university fees and scrap the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a small grant for poorer school students. For many, it was their first taste of political activism. In the end — or at least in what seemed like “the end” at the time — it felt like little more than a lesson in political failure.

Despite the mass mobilization of students, an infamous occupation of Conservative Party headquarters, and violent clashes with police, Parliament voted in early December to raise the ceiling on annual tuition fees in England to £9,000. And while the government insisted that this amount would only be levied in “exceptional circumstances,” nearly every university introduced fees at that rate.

Demonstrations and occupations against the new policy continued into the new year, but they attracted smaller crowds and even less attention. In the next general election, in 2015, the Liberal Democrats were punished for partnering with the Tories — a toxic alliance that entailed reneging on an electoral pledge to vote against any tuition fee increase — and saw their seats in Parliament plummet from fifty-seven to a historic low of eight. But the Conservatives were rewarded for their work: they won re-election with a working majority, and David Cameron became one of the only prime ministers in history to re-enter Number 10 with a larger share of the vote.

And that, until recently, looked to be the unfortunate, twisted legacy of the 2010 student revolt.

Today, those frustrated hopes and freezing afternoons appear in a different light — as the first signs of the generational divide that has come to define the country. After Labour’s humiliating defeat in the 2015 election, many of those involved in the student protests went on to support Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the party. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, three-quarters of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds voted Remain, while two-thirds of over-sixty-fives favored Brexit. Then, when a snap election was called in June 2017, Corbyn made abolishing tuition fees a flagship policy of the party’s manifesto, and Labour defied expectations to bring about a hung Parliament. Youth turnout climbed to a twenty-five-year-high; the generation gap was the widest since polling records began.

In Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation, Matt Myers draws an important line connecting the events in late 2010 to the revival of radical politics in Britain today. “Young voters in 2017,” Myers writes, “like the protesters in 2010, refused to believe that there was no alternative to austerity.” And in many cases, they were the same set of people. Students who played pivotal roles in the protests could later be found either in Momentum, Labour’s new pro-Corbyn campaigning wing, or in mainstream and alternative left media. James Schneider, for example, left the Lib Dems in 2010 and joined Labour in 2015. He is now Corbyn’s head of strategic communications. Aaron Bastani went on to cofound Novara Media, an important new voice on Britain’s left.

Myers’s book is an oral history of the movement. He interviews first-time protesters, seasoned student activists, and two of the politicians behind the tuition fee legislation, David Willets and Vince Cable. Willets was universities minister at the time; Cable, now leader of the Lib Dems, was business secretary. Because Mills conducted the interviews before January 2017, prior to Corbyn’s surprise ascent, there are times when the tone is more melancholic than it might otherwise be. “A legacy of defeat hangs over the movement,” Myers writes. But there nevertheless remains a sense among all of Myers’s interlocutors — Willets and Cable included — that the legacy of the 2010 protests was always more than just defeat.

The irony of the demonstrations is that they offered young people an education they would never have otherwise received. As Paul Mason writes in the introduction, these protests “radicalised students in a wholly new way.” A generation labelled as lazy, apathetic, and disengaged — lacking the radicalism of earlier eras — suddenly started organizing mass protests, walking out of classes, mobilizing in the streets, and occupying universities.

One of the most powerful aspects of the movement was that most participants were not personally affected by the legislation. This display of solidarity was a striking riposte to the government’s agenda of individualizing education, which sought to turn education into a private good and students into consumers.

Myers chronicles the trajectory of this privatization push, which began with Tony Blair’s New Labour government — a period in which fees rose to £3,000 and private-sector activity in higher education grew from 32 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2007 (the EU average is 20 percent). The tripling of fees in 2010,” Myers writes, “did not emerge from nowhere.” Now, UK students are saddled with more debt on average — £50,800 — than in any other country in the world, partly thanks to extortionate interest rates that can be raised retrospectively at will. As one of the government’s own advisers on student finance remarked, if a company possessed similar terms they might attract sanctions, perhaps even prosecution. (In the United States, although the cost of tuition varies far more, the average debt burden on students is much lower at $36,000, or £27,900.)

Yet if 2010 was the year a new generation became politicized, it also pointed to a new kind of politics at play. Many of these students were irreverent — sometimes simply ignorant — to traditional norms. Huw Lemmey, one of those interviewed, recalls seeing footage of students throwing trade-union placards onto a bonfire, much to the despair of some of the university lecturers around him. “They don’t know what they’re doing!” one of them cried. “I can’t believe they’ve done that.” But as Lemmey reflects, “the students had no idea what these placards were; they just wanted to make a statement [with the bonfire].” Another participant describes seeing one socialist group singing the Internationale while, alongside them, another group of younger people cried: “Let’s go fucking mental, la la la.” Looking back, it was like a precursor to the “Ohhh Jeremy Corbyn” chant, which would bring election excitement into everywhere from football grounds to raves and festivals.

Most significantly, however, the demographic of these protests was different. Like the French student protests in 2005, the 2010 movement brought together a cross-section of poorer city youth — ethnically diverse and more disillusioned — with wealthier, middle-class students. These disparate groups had distinct motivations, but they had a shared feeling of being held in contempt.

In one of the book’s best contributions, Shareen Prasad, a student at the time, explains why her school friends in Hackney attended a march despite having no intentions of going to university. “It was never about education,” she says, “as the education system just never worked for them. They hated the police, not because they were beating up protesters, but because they had beaten up their friends . . . For them it was like: ‘Let’s go and get one up on these people. This is our time to do it.’”

Again, this new alliance would endure after the collapse of the 2010 protests, helping fuel Corbyn’s ascendance to the top of the Labour Party. Support for Labour among black and minority voters rose by six points in the 2017 election, while turnout increased to a high of 64 percent. These communities have been disproportionately punished by austerity. Like students, they were asked to bear the burden of an economic crisis not of their making. As early as 2010 the Institute for Public Policy Research found that “mixed ethnic groups had seen the biggest increases in youth unemployment since the recession began, rising from 21 percent to 35 percent in the period.”

All this filtered into the student protests. Grime and dubstep often soundtracked the marches through the streets. In 2017, the Grime4Corbyn movement — supported by the likes of Stormzy and JME — would be one of the elections most unprecedented aspects. “Corbyn gets what the ethnic minorities are going through,” Stormzy said in 2016.

Students had a similar feeling about Corbyn. When the protests were taking place —  and students were being charged down by horses and “kettled” by police  — most politicians treated them with contempt. Cameron called them a “feral” mob. Theresa May, then the home secretary, expressed her “gratitude to those police officers and commanders who put themselves in harm’s way.” Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said that “All Labour members also share the home secretary’s anger and outrage.”

Corbyn was the notable exception. On the day of the final debate, on December 9, Myers recounts how “the only voice raised to make a direct case for the students was that of the MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn.” Corbyn pressed the home secretary to have “a serious discussion with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner about the use of kettling tactics and corralling people against their will when they wish only demonstrate peacefully against what they see as — and I agree with them — the monstrous imposition of a fees increase.”

Labour’s leader at the time, Ed Miliband, had thought about coming to the occupation at University College London but in the end opted against it. “I think I was doing something else at the time actually,” he said. Corbyn ally John McDonnell, by contrast, did attend. More than that, he launched himself right into the fray. As one of the participants interviewed recalls, students had formed a line on the ground to deter the horse charges when suddenly, “John McDonnell came over to where we were, sat there right in the middle of a row of people, and linked his elbows with those around him . . . That’s our current shadow chancellor.”

Such moments resonate beyond the empty words of support that students — like so many other sections of society — have come to expect from politicians. The coalition government carried out its punishing reforms while insisting that it would “champion” students and put them “at the heart of the system.” A rising number of people see an authenticity and commitment in Corbyn that previous politicians have lacked: a consistency borne of conviction.

In some ways the surprise is not so much Corbyn’s relative success but the fact that it took so long. At the party’s conference last September, Corbyn declared, “2017 may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008.” As Myers’s book shows, perhaps we could also say that 2017 was the year when politics finally caught up with the 2010 protests.