A year ago, I couldn’t tell you what was going on in the world of politics, but I could tell you who was snogging/marrying/avoiding who on Eastenders. This year, I’ve been thrown into the stuff head first. I’m not sure of the exact point when I pricked up my ears and began taking a keen interest in politics, but a vague interest intensified ten-fold just before all the pomp and circumstance of the general election. At uni I joined a society, found a bunch of like minded people and vented about the world’s injustices until the small hours.
In regards to politics, 2010 was the year that catastrophically let young people down. Ed Miliband and the Labour party’s 1p membership offer isn’t quite enough to entice us into party politics. The leaders debates earlier this year were exciting and infused a breath of fresh air into politics. Even then there was pressure to choose a camp and stick with it, but now many young political people I know keep themselves deliberately and cautiously unaligned. We watch, we observe, and we comment. We teeter on the edge, but we don’t dare take the plunge into a particular political party- not just yet.
During those historical televised debates, there was an uncharacteristic swell of optimism amongst students, and facebook birthed a thousand and one pro Lib Dem groups. Everyone agreed with Nick. But, just as we’d been warned by the world weary generation before us, reasonable, amiable Nick Cleg proved himself not to be trusted. That blanket of disillusion found itself comfortably wrapped around our shoulders again.
In 2010, young people learnt about politics the hard way. This is truly a case of once bitten, twice shy. Now, Miliband’s attempt to persuade sceptical young people to join the Labour Party just reeks party political broken promises. Whilst Labour has opportunistically jumped on anti-fees bandwagon, they were the party to introduce top up fees in 2003. We haven’t forgotten.
Contrary to popular opinion, we’re not naïve, and we’re certainly not expecting to get everything that we campaign for. The purpose of November 10th , and the subsequent student protests, was to get someone to listen and someone, anyone, to take us seriously. We descended upon Westminster in our droves. Tons of us had never been to a protest before, didn’t know how they worked or what actually happened in them. Bustling in the heart of those crowds was defiance, optimism and drive- as well as the belief that united, we could take on the world.
Then we were all kettled. Police brutality reared its ugly head. Fellow protesters were dragged out of their wheelchairs and others endured serious injuries from the end of a totalitarian police baton. Initially, the mainstream media didn’t seem to care much for the kettled and beaten- instead, much was made over accusations that protesters may or may not have poked Charles and Camilla with a stick. Students sloped home, bruised, battered, and near defeat, wondering if that was what democracy looked like.
2010 was also the year when young people learnt that the media was not always on our side. After a good few years of being demonised and portrayed as hoodies, hoodlums and generally apathetic, we naively expected praise as we all found a cause we believed in. Being part of a united cause was (and still is) truly liberating. We didn’t expect everyone to agree with us, but we had significant support from parents and lecturers alike, and that provided an element of buoyancy.
In Preston, I and 150 others started the 12 hour round trip to London and back by coach to join in with the first student demo. After a day of peaceful and fun protesting, the long journey back was met with distressed calls from worried parents. We were fine, but the press coverage wasn’t. And so sparked a debate regarding what was ‘newsworthy’ and what wasn’t- it seemed the majority of those marching peacefully weren’t as interesting as those who smashed up Tory HQ. We got so much negative press that we had to take our activism on campus, explaining to our fellow students in unions and lecture halls just why protesting was significant. The debate raged on and students were so concerned that consequential meetings actually pondered the idea of protest PR. Public approval plummeted, and there were days that I had to convince myself that this was in fact the right thing to do. There were a couple of Orwellian moments – after watching countless videos from mobile phones and reading first-hand accounts, I’d stumble across a right leaning article or interview and think ‘maybe it is the students inciting this violence…!’
Student protestors quickly learnt which news outlets to trust and which ones to dismiss. We carried on protesting both online and off, still to fierce opposition – one Tory blogger informed me that myself and my ‘scummy student comrades’ deserved to be ‘tear gassed’.
In 2010, social media leapfrogged traditional media outlets. If you were keen to get involved with a protest, or curious to get an inside look at any occupation happening across the country, Twitter held the answers. We lacked strong leadership- NUS president Aaron Porter was excellent at representing students, but as soon as he was questioned on the violence of November 10th, he was less so. Whilst some students poured vitriol on his dithering and planned to unseat him, others looked on in dismay as they foresaw the student movement veering towards damaging splits. Porter worked incredibly hard, and there were weeks when it felt like he was on every screen and in every newspaper, ferociously defending us. However, he needed to act quickly when occupations began cropping up all over the country. Those occupying students needed his support, and, by his own admission, he was reluctant to give it. It wasn’t in his job description to visit occupations, but with the passion he had reserved for the BBC , you’d think he would have backed any incident of peaceful student protest straight away.
Then December 9th came- the big one, the day of the tuition fee vote. Students who opposed the proposals were out on the streets of London, and those who couldn’t be there due to distance or circumstance were glued to their television and laptop screens. I was in the latter camp, watching what didn’t really look like democracy play out in slow motion in my bedroom. Whilst ministers were debating the issue in the House of Commons, thousands upon thousands of young people- as well as those who supported us -were behind the (metaphorical as well as physical) barriers. As the TV switched from scenes in green and cosy parliament to scenes depicting crowds of people being kettled in the cold, those members of parliament (regardless of whether they were arguing for or against the rise) couldn’t look more detached from reality if they tried.
As 2010 wraps up to an icy close, the student movement is gaining momentum and although the vote has been passed, dissent and discontent are still rife. The tuition fee debacle has given us all a taste of political activism that we needed. This year mattered, and 2011, the year when the cuts will begin to bite, will matter even more so.