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16th May 2023

Rent Strikers and University alike fail to learn from history

The 1968’s student protest has a history to be learnt from. However, rent strikers and the university have failed to appreciate those lessons
Rent Strikers and University alike fail to learn from history
Photo: Shikhar Talwar @ The Mancunion

Both University and Rent Strike protestors have failed to learn from history. A simple history lesson for either side could have resulted in a positive outcome for them, and away from the current stalemate in the ongoing crisis.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known for his student protests in 1968, claimed that by providing education to students on rights and methods of exercising them, “The University continually creates its opposition.” Add to that a city like Manchester that’s known for left-wing revolutionaries, and you get the most prone-to-protest students.

In a worsening cost-of-living crisis where students are unable to afford rent, anxieties have constantly kept growing. The University’s cost of living support, particularly the £170 payment (recently followed up with an additional cost of living payment for 10,000 students), was described by one student as “providing a band-aid for a broken leg.”

As winter set in, the situation for students got worse, as almost every student house debated whether or not to turn on the heating. Hence, once university life was back in January, Manchester students stuck to what they knew and began protesting against the University.

In early January they began withholding rent. Tom Hayden, another student from the 1968 protests would have told the University that it is to their benefit to negotiate directly with students, or they risk escalation of angst amongst them. But there was no response from the University and in February, the students began occupying University buildings.

The support for the occupation dwindled during this time. A protest held on March 1, only saw a maxim of 100 students. The University and rent strikers fought over the claim of how many were withholding rent, with one claiming 44 and the other 350.

However, while support dwindled, disruption remained constant. A sign that in this case, they were learning from the past. As once again, Hayden would have claimed as he has done many times before that the only way to make any protest movement successful was to do it constantly.

Similar to the protestors, Hayden in 1968 believed that for the protests from the “New Left,” a term created for the protests in 1968, constant disruption will be necessary. He believed that at some point if you annoy the person you are protesting against enough then a chink will appear in their armour, and suddenly public opinion will change in the favour of protestors.

The University chink soon became evident. They probably felt that the students who weren’t ending occupations were never going to. Hence, the University felt compelled to take legal action against the occupiers, and the court ruled in the University’s favour.

A decision celebrated by the University was soon going to lead to their worst mistake. With occupiers resisting leaving, bailiffs forcibly evicted them at 5 am on March 22. The arrogance of the University’s action turned the people’s opinion against them.

Like the 1968 protests, Cohn-Bendit claimed that their protest gained traction once force was used against students. He showed how when student protests in Paris were occupying University buildings only regional publications would report on them and they garnered minimal support from politicians.

However, once police entered the campus to evict the students from the buildings, opinions changed. Paris protests garnered support from neutral students and got the attention of national politicians and publications. Soon the protests joined hands with workers who were protesting and began occupying streets and making barricades.

In present-day Manchester too, the protests used to only get recognition from student and local news outlets, with minimal presence in national outlets. But on the day of the eviction, it all changed. Recording of students being dragged out of the building spread like wildfire across the country. The likes of BBC, Guardian, ITV, and more began writing their reports on the story.

The next day a referendum at the Students’ Union was due to announce its results, with the question claiming whether the SU should support or resist the occupations. 11,000 students voted, resulting in a mighty 97% of students supporting the occupations.

In the next few days, there was support from the University and College Union, Afzal Khan MP, and Jeremy Corbyn MP, amongst many others grew.

While the University’s decision was approved by the court of law, it has been lost in the court of public opinion. With the newly found momentum of support, chances of escalation by students are increasingly high.

This escalation was what the rent strikers would need for their demands to have been met. Tom Hayden, at least, would claim so. In his works, it was evident that once there is room for escalation during a change in public opinion the protestors must seize it, or their movement would be forgotten and any growth till not will be made irrelevant.

This is the mistake that the rent strikers have made since. It has been over a month, yet there have been no protests. There have been no movements to continue the cause they were fighting for. The break that they took from exams may result in a break taken for the movement as a whole.

It is evident in the outcome of the number of people who withheld rent from the University again. In April, students were to pay rent again, and the rent strikers had campaigned to encourage students to withhold it.

A month ago the rent strikers expected that 1,000 people would withhold their rent from the University. However, in their statement, the number is closer to 650, far less than what they expected.

As a result, both parties have now failed to take any learnings from history. They both sit ideally by stuck in a stale mate with a fight that seems to be going nowhere.

Shikhar Talwar

Shikhar Talwar

Hello! I am the MMG News Producer. My job is to ensure collaboration between all 3 wings of MMG, namely Mancunion, Fuse TV and Fuse FM. I also write for the news section at the Mancunion, with topics ranging from elections to protests.

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