The 2010 student protests were vilified – but their warnings of austerity Britain were proved right

Though the students lost their battle, the lessons of those protests still reverberate today

Protesters clash with police at 30 Millbank, Conservative party HQ, on 10 November 2010.
Protesters clash with police at 30 Millbank, Conservative party HQ, on 10 November 2010. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters clash with police at 30 Millbank, Conservative party HQ, on 10 November 2010. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 13.08 EST

As political metaphors go, the shattering of the glass frontage of 30 Millbank by student protesters on 10 November 2010 takes some beating. That day, a peaceful 50,000-strong march against tuition fees and the coalition government’s new austerity regime took a spontaneous detour to the Conservatives HQ, and all hell broke loose. The clashes and occupation of the building that followed were a profound shock to the police, the government and the moderate NUS leadership alike.

But this was also a historic rupture: the broken glass marked the cracks in the idea that there was no alternative to austerity, or that young people had been lulled into political apathy. It signalled the eruption of an intense, freezing few months of wildcat protests and occupations that seemed to emerge from nowhere. The students’ ostensible target was the tripling of the tuition fees to £9,000 a year, and the cancellation of Educational Maintenance Allowance, the £30-a-week payment to sixth formers that made it possible for many poorer students to stay in post-16 education.

Over the winter of 2010 and spring 2011, the horizons of the protests broadened far beyond education, to the pain inflicted by the government’s austerity regime, the closed youth clubs and libraries, cuts to the NHS and public sector pay, and the new regime of benefit caps and sanctions. They were met with the dangerous and antagonistic kettling, near-fatal police violence, “punishment by arrest” on spurious charges and libellous press coverage that would later result in five-figure payouts.

This may all feel like ancient history – but the potential of extra-parliamentary action to shift the limits of political possibility is now a question of paramount importance. Indeed, there is a direct resonance with the Black Lives Matter protesters in Whitehall this summer, who were charged by police horses and kettled by riot police, with the climate school strikers’ restless energy and DIY placards, with Manchester University students protests last week at a university administration “profiting from our misery”, and with the rent strikes that have begun at several other universities, reportedly now involving more than 1,000 students at Bristol.

For a radical left once again shut out from institutional politics, the creativity, exuberance and grassroots energy of the student protests are a reminder that shifting the Overton window is not an activity that takes place in Westminster alone. A dazzling and varied arsenal of techniques, online innovations and offline perspiration emerged in the weeks and months that followed the Millbank protest. UK Uncut – with their peaceful high-street sit-ins staged to protest against corporate tax avoidance at shops such as Boots, Topshop and Vodafone – had their arguments smuggled into the Daily Mail. Police surveillance and kettling prompted the creation of a bespoke anti-kettling app, Sukey. For many, the protests were radicalising in themselves, a physical education that ran alongside an intellectual one.

One unexpected consequence was that a generation of mostly white undergraduates came to better understand the physical contours of the police violence that was already a fact of life for many of the sixth-form and FE students joining the fray to fight for their EMA. “£30 a week lets me eat” read one placard I photographed at the time. These younger protesters couldn’t get a hearing in parliament – the government wouldn’t even let the cancellation of EMA go to a vote – and they were written out of the narrative completely by most media outlets, who dismissed the protesters as middle-class dilettantes.

Perhaps it was little surprise when, nine months later, the government was met with some of the worst riots in English history. A 2010 Guardian video following protesters from a London FE college culminates in the plaintive moment when a teenager pleads with a line of riot police to let him out of the kettle: “I’ve got homework to do.”

The protesters were ahead of their time, demanding the abandonment of New Labour’s spending orthodoxies that were still present in Ed Balls’ weak triangulation over austerity. It’s not hard to connect the dots between the student and anti-cuts protests, and the eruption of Corbynism and Momentum five years later (three guesses for which lone backbench Labour MPs supported them in 2010) – and some of the student activists went on to work for the latter.

Scrapping tuition fees became Labour party policy at the 2017 and 2019 elections for the first time (Ed Miliband had proposed a small cut in the 2015 manifesto). But the neoliberal assault on the university continued both for students – the normalisation of £9,000-a-year tuition fees that the students predicted happened almost overnight – and for staff: last week, the University of East London was accused of forcing redundancies on union organisers who have fought against job cuts.

And yet the protesters were denounced and mischaracterised almost across the board by pundits and politicians at the time, which is exactly why most of the press didn’t know what to do with Corbynism and Momentum when it arrived. Deborah Orr called the 2010 protests “silly” and “pointless” – objecting to austerity was “like protesting against water’s stubborn habit of flowing downwards”. These young people were, in Nick Clegg’s words, “living in dream world” if they thought there was any alternative to austerity. By November 2018, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was condemning the “great misery” inflicted by the coalition’s austerity policies, which had been “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous”, leaving 14 million Brits living in poverty.

Future historians will look back on the 2010 protests as a harbinger, a first wave of youthful radicalism that was echoed in the wildly asymmetric age breakdowns of recent general election votes – in 2019, in spite of a heavy overall defeat, 62% of 18-24s voted Labour versus the Tories 19%. (And it was not ever thus: in 1983, 42% of 18-24 year olds voted for Margaret Thatcher against 33% for Labour.) The most radical politics is still found among the young – in the teenage-led BLM protests, and the school strikes for climate.

The student protesters lost their battle, both against the tuition fees bill and against austerity; and vindication by history (not to mention the UN) is scant consolation. But theirs is a lesson in the law of unintended consequences, and the echoes of Millbank reverberate loudly to this day. Far from living in a dream world, the students’ modest proposal that education should be a right not a privilege, and their opposition to the grim degradation of the public sphere – and the Britain of foodbanks, benefit sanctions and Brexit that would follow in the 2010s – was an awakening.

• Dan Hancox is a freelance journalist and writer. He is the author of Inner City Pressure: the story of Grime and Kettled Youth, on the 2010 student protests

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