Rent Strike: The new wave of student radicalism in London

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Rent Strike Demo. Source: UCL CTR

Student rent strikes have become something of a phenomenon in London. Starting with University College London and now encompassing three other universities, including Goldsmiths and the Courtauld Institute, around 1500 are withholding at least £1.2 million from university administrators in protest of rising accommodation costs and shoddy maintenance of student halls.The rent strike is the new predominant vehicle of student radicalism within London and has superseded rising tuition fees and police presence on campus as the issue for student radicals to organise around.

It might be said that the rent strike represents a scaling back of student militancy in so far as the street presence of the campaign has so far not lived up to previous movements. However this view ignores the situations in which past student campaigns arose, and the potential for the rent strike to ignite more action in the coming academic year.

The tuition fee protests of 2010 coalesced around a specific action of the Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition government of the time, a raising of the cap on tuition from 3000 to 9000 pounds a year. The immediacy and shocking nature of the measure was compounded by a very personal betrayal of students by a Liberal Democrat party breaking a widely publicised pledge not to raise tuition fees if they found themselves in government. This was also the first Conservative led government in thirteen years and severely weakened the Labour moderates within the Nation Union of Students who for years had sold themselves as having a direct line to a Labour government and therefore the ability to substantially impact policy in favour of students.

With this taken into account the 2010 protests represented a unique political moment, resulting in large demonstrations and serious disorder leading up to the vote in parliament on the 9th of December. Unfortunately by building towards one key date and expecting momentum to remain after the Christmas holidays student organisers failed to capitalise on the wave of student anger and the protests quickly fizzled out after the vote passed.

The Cops off Campus actions similarly came about under a specific set of circumstances. A Cops off Campus demonstration had been called for a date in late November, backed by a series of arty stickers and calls to action on Tumblr. Organisational effort had certainly been put into the demonstration, particularly with the preparation of hefty book bloc shields. The protest, however, wouldn’t have had either the numbers or the militancy if it wasn’t for the violent eviction of an occupation of a University of London management corridor carried out the night before by the Metropolitan Police.

The events of the night before resulted in a highly charged political atmosphere which was exacerbated by aggressive policing by the Met. There were around 40 arrests on the day and protesters were eventually released from police stations as far away as Croydon. Students put in the organisational effort, and all arrestees were met out of police stations and helped home.

A nationwide protest called for the next week failed to materialise a similar level of militancy. The police had learned from their mistakes and were content with monitoring the protest from a distance, not responding to obvious provocations like breaking through the gates of Senate House or setting fire to a bin. Police aversion to aggressive action gave the semblance of a victory to the protesters and took much of the urgency out of the campaign, which again fizzled out come the second term.

I give these examples of previous student actions to illustrate some of the organisational problems the Cut the Rent campaign could potentially have faced:

  1. A reliance on an organic wave of anger as a reaction to a coincidence of external events to mobilise people.

  2. Escalations in response to public order strategies employed by the police on the day of demonstrations and an inability to maintain militancy without this.

  3. A failure to sustain a mass campaign after the initial wave of protests.

UCL CTR flares

Smoke canisters. Source: UCL CTR

There is every possibility that the rent strike will go the same way of the previously discussed campaigns. It’s not even a bad thing if it does. Sometimes campaigns and movements meet the needs of their moment and then recede once the objective is no longer practically possible to attain. However there still a legacy that is left behind by past campaigns that mould the movements to come. We can see an echo of cops off campus in the smoke canisters that were recently used on a rent strike demonstration. The tuition fee protests showed the potential for mass action. Both movements gifted today’s student activists with an increased awareness of arrestee welfare and legal support.

As an idea the rent strike is simple, and it’s catching. The movement has grown and spread throughout the year, not peaking at the traditional cut off point for student protest. It has an easy point of entry, students are not being asked to punch a cop, burn a bin or even just go out on the street. Instead they are simply being asked to collectively withhold their rent, a political subversive act. This initial step is making it easier to involve students in political activities related to the rent strike, and in political actions outside of the campaign. The strike can be repeated every year, unless London universities suddenly decide to offer free accommodation to all their students.

The rent strikers show no signs of letting up. UCL Cut the Rent have called a ‘manifestation’ on the 18th of June to coincide with a UCL open day. Check out the UCL Cut the Rent facebook page for details and sign up to the event here.