By Max Anderson
LONDON — Thirty thousand university students marched in the pouring rain from Battersea Park in South London to Hyde Park on November 9, to protest against cuts in student grants and university budgets.
Not content with having reduced the value of the student grant by a quarter in real terms since the "mad monk", Keith Joseph, became secretary of state in 1983, the government is now planning to cut it by 30% over three years.
The aim of these cuts, as with others expected in the budget on November 29, is to take Lstg5 billion off government spending and thus facilitate the tax cuts which the Conservatives hope will win them the next election. However, as chants like "Kenneth Clarke [the chancellor] is a fat bastard" rang around the plush areas of London through which the march proceeded, it was obvious that this is a strategy not likely to win the student vote.
Neither, though, are the plans outlined in the report by the Labour Party's Commission on Social Justice to abolish the grants scheme altogether and replace it with a system of loans, and charge tuition fees. This is in line with other changes in the welfare state proposed by the commission which, in the words of MP Diane Abbott, would "mean us joining the left of the Tory Party in advocating so-called 'social market' economics".
Concern about the future policies of a potential Labour government was evident at the rally, as student union officers held a meeting at Speakers' Corner which asked "Is Blair about to sell out students?". Students, along with other sections of society which Labour ought to represent, might well be trampled in the leadership's stampede to the right.
In his response to the commission's report, published in both the Morning Star and a Transport Workers' Union pamphlet, Professor Peter Townsend wrote that "the peremptory dismissal of the welfare inheritance from post-war Labour governments is shameful and shocking ... the most serious gap in the report is its failure to tackle the issue of distribution and redistribution of wealth."
Failure to tackle student poverty and debt will produce a strong response against whichever party is in government, and Labour might do well to implement the "back to the future strategy" advocated by its left wing. As MP Jeremy Corbyn observed in his comments on the commission, "Labour after the war brought in the grants system to give working class students the opportunities denied by the scholarship system. Why in 1996 should Labour start charging for higher education and call it progress?"