Down at Thirty Millbank beside the grey and misty Thames, they’re still cleaning up the glass and metal, sprayed all around by last week’s demonstration against tuition fees. The protest drew about fifty thousand to Conservative Party HQ, most of whom were peaceful or piss weak, depending on your politics. There were about a dozen hardcore anarchists, and another forty or so who came along for the ride — through the front doors and up the stairs to the roof, indeed.

There they cheered and taunted the police from above — and filmed each other on cameras and phones, which were then confiscated as they came down stairs, making it easier for the police to pin charges that would stick. That they may not have been the straight-A types was further confirmed by the fact that Thirty Millbank isn’t Tory party HQ at all. It’s the near-vacated Conservative Campaign HQ from the election. The advance guard had apparently been steered away from the actual HQ by the genius ruse of someone saying “no, it’s uh down the road.”

Despite the black-bloc argy-bargy, the students gained a great deal more sympathy from the general public, as it always does where middle-class welfare is concerned — in this case, the proposed escalation of tuition fees, from their current level of around £3,000 a year maximum, to up to around £9,000, with universities having a greater flexibility to set their own rates.

The police meanwhile got no respect at all, principally because they had under policed the demonstration so egregiously, with the blue line so thin that the marauding students had no more than half a dozen officers to break through to get into the building. Police shook their heads and said there were lessons to be learned — the chief one being that you shouldn’t talk about across-the-board cuts and fail to exempt police services, weeks before a season of demonstrations kicks off.

Two years ago, the police had effortlessly ‘kettled’ — ie. constrained in small groups — the G20 demonstration in the centre of London (causing the death of one bypasser), and there is no question that they would have been able to police this one properly — not least because half the attendees were signed up via social network sites. No, they undoubtedly let this one through to the keeper.

The student demo has been seen as the kick-off to a concerted season of protests, as the Lib-Con alliance start to roll out the specific cuts they have been talking about for months — although how aggressive these will be is yet to be seen. A key part of this will be the forthcoming election for the head of UNITE, the UK’s largest super-union, covering a vast range of service, transport and process work — which is being run-off between moderate Len Bayliss, and his rival ‘Red’ Len McCluskey, a former footsoldier with the ‘Militant’ faction of Labour. McCluskey favours a campaign of rolling strikes; Bayliss favours nothing much at all.

The people at the centre of the gunsights are not the Tories, but the Lib-Dems who campaigned heavily on holding down tuition fees, and even signed a pre-election pledge to that effect. Lib-Dem Simon Hughes, asked whether he would vote to put the fee increases through, on a news broadcast, said he was keeping an open mind — a position undercut by a placard behind him showing his signed copy of the ‘no-fees’ pledge.

Students are now targeting key Lib-Dem seats, such as leader Nick Clegg’s student-heavy Sheffield Hallam constituency, in a ‘decapitation’ strategy, aimed at punishing the leadership for their betrayal — which betrayal, it has subsequently been revealed, was something they had planned to do since before the election. Should that fail to work, they’ll probably return to the fire extinguisher strategy.

Peter Fray

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