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A speech on the frontline: Owen Jones supports student activists

A speech on the frontline: Owen Jones supports student activists

Owen Jones delivers a speech outside the UCL Provost’s Office showing support for academics on strike

Last Thursday, author, journalist, and prominent activist Owen Jones delivered a speech and a Q&A session outside the Provost’s Office. Following an appearance at SOAS last week, he was welcomed by the UCU Solidarity Occupation to show support for academics currently striking against pension cuts; on the office door hanged a banner reading ‘UCL DEFEND EDUCATION, FREE EDUCATION, TAX THE RICH’. Jones’s speech rallied against these cuts, the marketisation of education as a symptom of the Conservative government, as well as the importance of collective action in the struggle against economic inequality.

The surrounding area, fenced by tables littered with food supplies and campaign leaflets, is where student activists have been camping since Monday this week. It was here that, prior to Jones’s arrival, the UCL Free Education group hosted a banner making workshop and a ‘Fund Our Mental Health Services’ demonstration. By the time of the scheduled talk, a crowd of over 100 people had gathered, some amongst a scattering of pillows at Jones’s feet. Meanwhile, a few meters away, UCL sports teams assembled to take photos in preparation for London Varsity. Despite the noisy conditions, Jones remained engaging and impassioned throughout.

Notably, multiple candidates for this year’s SU UCL Leadership Elections were present, including current Women’s Officer Justine Canady. Matthew Lee (running for Education Officer) and Dominique Hua (running for Welfare and International Officer), chaired the event. Hua, who defined the occupation as a symbolic reclamation of university space, drew criticism to Provost Michael Arthur’s “unacceptable” statement released the previous evening, in which he did not “openly condemn” the reformed pension scheme.

Speaking against a backdrop which read ‘Stop the Pension Cuts’, Jones recalled his own participation in campus struggle at UCL. Looking back at the mass demonstration of November 2010 against the trebling of tuition fees, Jones referenced the “iconic occupation of Millbank” which “detonated a national movement of about 85 universities undergoing occupation.” It was a moment when, Jones stated, “people were aware of their power for the first time”, later adding that the UCL occupation was “probably the biggest and most influential” of the movement.

In his view, student activism pushed resistance against the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The momentum weathered the years following and “brought hundreds of thousands of young people into politics, many of whom would later join the Labour Party, and were very much part of the seismic struggle there.” Jones continued to hammer home what he considers the “critical” role of these protests in the “dramatic shift to the left” and the “politicisation of so many people” seen in recent years. “These sorts of things are historic, and they help lay the foundations as well for other struggles.”

Later on, Jones addressed the central issue of the day in stating, “We’re seeing a whole layer of university workers and academics driven into precocity.” Anger towards staff arising out of the strike was characterized by Jones as a form of scapegoating, as he emphasized academics’ opposition to tuition fee hikes and active support for the 2010 backlash. Nevertheless, recent figures on the consensus amongst students have proven to be heartening; a recent YouGov poll showing that 61% of students back the strike and 19% oppose it was described by Jones as “an absolutely fantastic show of solidarity.”

Speaking more broadly, Jones railed against the divide between the rich and the poor in the UK, driven by “the privatisation of public services, the slashing of taxes on the rich, the destruction of the trade union movement, and the general dominance of market ideology at every layer of society.” At this juncture Jones grew visibly angered, his every word further pronounced in surmising the wider calculation of social and economic inequality. “We’ve seen disabled people being forced to pay for a crisis they had absolutely nothing to do with, their social security shredded. We’ve seen a housing crisis because of market ideology and a refusal to build the housing this country needs.” Shifting focus to young people in particular, he notes the emergence of a “precarious private renting sector” and the “increasing disappearance of secure full-time work.” Jones also addressed the disproportionate impact of economic cuts to the public sector on minorities, women, and the LGBT community.

For Jones, the Grenfell disaster “epitomises the breakdown” of the social order that has allowed these crises to flourish. “That is a damning indictment of this entire rotten society. We can’t tinker it. We can’t reform it. We’ve got to replace it altogether, and that means linking together all of our struggles.” In its place, Jones advocates a socialist system which prioritises decent living wages and affordable housing, public utilities and accountable government. He later commented, “The university sector should be funded on the basis of progressive taxation. We have to fight for that.”

In making this a reality, Jones stressed the importance of collective, unified action across social divides, including that between staff and students at universities: “Every time we have these struggles, whether it be cleaners, whether it be students saddled with tuition fees and debt and marketisation, or academics and the attack on pensions – we all stand together.” The mention of cleaners’ strike action, in particular, received applause from the audience. The consequences of failing to do so are projected to be dire: “We’ve got to join the dots, otherwise they will pick us off one by one.”

In rounding off the 13-minute speech, Jones affirmed that the current government is “rattled” by the backlash, proven by its attempts to vilify its opponents. He then finished with the bold call to action, met with rapturous applause, “We’ll build a different society, a different social order, and that’s what this is all about”.

The Q&A session then went ahead. On Lee’s question of how student activists should channel and mobilise their political energy, Jones again emphasised the importance of “collective power” – joining together separate campaigns for social progress – to increase pressure from below on decision-makers. He stated: “That lived experience we all go through when we have those sorts of struggles, that is something that we transfer elsewhere. So many campaigns, so many struggles were led by many of the veterans of the occupation movement of 2010.” He advocated “applying that principle” to activism on a wide scale: “What we need to do is transfer this peaceful civil disobedience not just on campus but elsewhere as well.” Additionally, Jones argued that activists should “call for even more radical demands to shift the debate even further” and influence the national agenda.

Pi Media questioned Jones on his stance regarding some students’ calls for tuition refunds due to lost contact hours caused by the strike:

“It’s not something that I support,” he said. “The argument that was advanced was that in a normal strike, it leaves the business out of pocket and that’s actually how you end up advancing your demands. It assumes that will make victory more likely. I don’t agree with that. I think it accepts that students are consumers, which you’re not and shouldn’t be. That’s not how education works. I think that the fact that the Tories are calling for it, that Tory ministers are encouraging students to do that – that itself should probably be a bit of a wake up call. It’s used to show somehow that these academics and university lecturers are leaving students out of pocket.  I do understand there may well be a debate here, and I’m not a student so it’s not really my right to just dictate that, but I personally wouldn’t support it for those reasons.”

Student solidarity, in Jones’s opinion, should not pander to the establishment’s agenda: “I don’t think it should be done on the basis of accepting the premise of the marketisation of education and feeding into a Tory and media mantra which is about divide and rule. But I understand the other argument and I’m not really going to condemn it.

After reaffirming his pride in speaking at the UCL occupation, Owen’s final words to the audience were yet again met with enthusiastic applause: “This is the frontline. This is the frontline of the new society we’re going to build. It’s critical, it’s historic. Together, united, as one movement, we will build a new democratic, equal, just society. Solidarity!”

Featured image: Zimbio

Georgina Bartlett
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