The untold story of the 2010 student protests

The untold story of the 2010 student protests

A decade on — This month ten years ago, protests against the rise in tuition fees under the austerity ushered in by the Cameron-Clegg coalition erupted in London. Those who attended remember what happened that day.

It was a sunny, crisp day in London on the date that for many, a revolution came. 10 November 2010 will be remembered by history as the day the student movement reignited after years of stasis, forming much of the foundations of political resistance against the coalition Government and, arguably, the very beginnings of the movement that would become Corbynism.

Much has been written about the events of that day, but for those that were there and at the sharpest edges of the kickback – and those that used it to create, innovate and build – their stories remain largely untold.

The seeds of this movement were sown a year and a day prior, on 9 November 2009, when the Browne review into University funding – commissioned by then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown – was launched. According to Peter Mandelson, then First Secretary of State, the review would consider the “balance of contributions to universities by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers” to University finances. It came in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which had plunged the UK into a recession.

In the General Election of 2010, as the Browne review was ongoing, then Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg signed a pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees, with student organisers worried such an increase would be on the horizon. The election, in May of that year, delivered a hung parliament, with the Liberal Democrats eventually forming a coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservative party.

The Browne review published its findings on 12 October 2010, recommending the removal of the £3,290 cap on tuition fees. On 3 November 2010, then Minister for Education David Willets announced coalition plans to triple tuition fees to around £9,000 a year.

On that day, temperatures in the city peaked at seven degrees centigrade as around 52,000 students, workers and demonstrators descended to demonstrate against the planned tripling of tuition fees and the cuts to student grants. MPs joined the march, including John Mcdonnell, who would go on to be Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow chancellor from 2015 to 2020. At the time, he’s quoted as saying: “This is the biggest workers’ and students’ demonstration in decades. It just shows what can be done when people get angry. We must build on this.”

For many, the march came from nowhere. The outpouring of rage was levelled at the newly instated coalition, which had begun to implement an austerity regime that some studies claim led to more than 130,000 deaths.

The reality, however, is slightly more complicated. Many had consigned the student movement heyday – which saw campaigns against atrocities such as the Vietnam war – to history. But action and activism within this demographic was, in fact, alive and well.

“I think it’s relevant to contextualise these protests in the student movement that was growing the year before,” says Emma* who was present on that day and is now a solicitor. “I was based at Sussex university and I was actually suspended indefinitely before these national protests, alongside five others. The campus protests were becoming really big – hundreds of students – and effective.”

In the run-up to the demonstration, the movement pulled in activists, campaigners, students and young people who had not been active within it before. Shelly Asquith was a fresher at UAL during the protests. “I put posters up in my halls and posted flyers under doors,” she remembers. “I was active in the Labour Party at the time – rather than the student movement – and some of us organised to get young members along.”

On the morning of the march, it was clear that this was far from the average demonstration. People came from across the country to demonstrate and the numbers attending far surpassed anything those in charge of organising the protest expected. “It was HUGE,” Emma recalls. “Certainly the biggest student-led protest I have ever been on.”

Shelly remembers it being “vibrant and diverse,” adding: “I was struck by the number of school students, in uniform too, not just that day but in the following demos on EMA [Educational maintenance Allowance] too.”

Photographer Marc Vallée was also on the march that day. “Leading up to 2010 I had been covering political protests in the UK for many years for newspapers and magazines, so it was a regular working day. The protest was big and lively, I remember it being a sunny day, with a positive mood: loud, noisy, but angry at the government,” he recalls.

The march followed a route, pre-agreed with the Metropolitan Police Force, which saw it pass Downing Street, Parliament, and then along Millbank on the south side of the river Thames towards Tate Britain, where a rally was due to be held.

As the thousands marched passed Parliament shouting chants like “No if’s, no buts, no education cuts” they passed Millbank tower, which had been the site of the Conservative party campaign headquarters in the general election six-months prior.

It was a symbolic building. One that represented the policies which tens of thousands in attendance had come to fight against. At around one PM, protestors stormed the reception.

“As the protest was moving along the river on Millbank, I noticed a sizable chunk of students and protesters split off from the main demo towards the base of Millbank Tower,” says Vallee. “I knew that the Conservative party HQ was there, so I followed to see what was happening.”

Emma recalls being part of a crowd outside of Millbank, who quickly made it their mission to enter the building. “I remember shouts of, ‘push!’ and we were quickly pushed through [the doors of the building] and then, once we were inside, I expected a rush of people behind me, only to quickly realise there were probably about ten to twelve of us.”

“Inside there were a lot of overzealous, confrontational police officers, who immediately attacked us with police batons. I was hit around the legs, I remember seeing friends smacked around the legs and another friend, a woman, struck really forcefully across the lower abdomen and simultaneously pushed to the ground repeatedly until she stayed down.”

As the demonstration escalated, the media caught wind of what was happening and descended on the protests. Before long, images of angry students smashing the windows of the tower would be broadcast across the world.

“I remember we were pretty scared once we were inside” Emma remembers.  “We were alone and the officers lined us up against the wall of the lobby area, with batons raised. We were facing the windows outwardly as the officers then began to face the crowd outside, while detaining us.” She believes that the demonstrators outside began to smash windows in response to seeing her and the other protesters trapped by police inside.

“I photographed pretty much from the start,” says Vallée, who’s photobook Millbank and that Van documents much of the action from that day and the following demos. “[I photographed it all], from the first police line of panicked officers, the storming of the building, the windows being smashed and the windows collapsing, the confrontation between the police and the protesters, the whole day and the noise of the fire extinguisher hitting the ground.” The fire extinguisher, thrown from the roof of the tower by 18-year-old Edward Woollard narrowly missed those below and saw Woollard sentenced to 32 months in jail.

“The political headquarters of the ruling party of government being invaded was significant,” says Vallée. “It was an expression of the anger and frustrations the students and protesters were feeling. It was a profoundly important moment in British political history.”

The press painted those at Millbank as seasoned activists and anarchists, but, in most cases, the reality was very different. The people on the ground had found themselves radicalised by the injustice. Furious at having to bear the financial cost and burden of the, at best, negligence, of the city of London. This was not a demonstration of career activists. It was an explosion of outrage and desperation.

What happened next has been well-recorded. An ill-prepared and then, latterly, overzealous police force. A swell of angry demonstrators invading and occupying Millbank tower. Protestors on the roof. Hundreds in the square outside, kettled for hours. Bonfires, chants, fights.

The police were caught off-guard by the passion and the fury of the demonstrators. Then commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Paul Stephenson, referred to the policing of the demonstration as an “embarrassment”, telling press at the time that officers on the ground had not planned for the “violence”.

According to a 2016 briefing from campaigning group Defend The Right To Protest, there were 14 injuries on the day, with seven police officers and seven demonstrators making up that number.

Reports differ, but there were around 200 demonstrators inside, with a further 100 on the lower roof of the tower, with around 1,000 more demonstrators in the courtyard outside. Having first been surprised, the Territorial Support Group (riot police) arrived and utilised the controversial tactic of kettling in an attempt to gain control of the situation. In the demonstrations that followed Millbank, kettling became a regular feature of the tactics of police forces across the country.

A kettle is a form of containment, in which police surround a specific area and refuse to allow those within it to leave. Most often, they last for many hours, and the release of those within it is usually prolonged, with the police detaining, questioning or arresting those they suspect to have committed a crime upon their exit.

It would be hours after the sun had set before those in the kettle outside Millbank were let go, with the first demonstrators being released around 6:30 PM.

Later that night, Aaron Porter, president of the NUS, who had alongside the UCU jointly organised the demonstration, tweeted: “Disgusted that the actions of a minority of idiots are trying to undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest”, further condemning the actions of those “who are here to cause trouble”.

Meanwhile, student leaders including University of London Union president Clare Solomon and elected NUS officials released a competing statement, saying: “We reject any attempt to characterise the Millbank protest as small, ‘extremist’ or unrepresentative of our movement. We celebrate the fact that thousands of students were willing to send a message to the Tories that we will fight to win.”

It was the beginning of a schism between the establishment NUS and the more radical elements of the movement who began to organise independently around banners such as “National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts”.

For many of those there on the ground, however, they were unaware of the politicking taking place. “That night there were lots of phone calls to each other and lawyers,” says Emma, “There was an expectation and general panic that there were going to be a number of arrests. I think this feeling may have been isolated to those of us who had recently been victimised – I imagine for a lot of people who attended this as their first political protest – there was probably just a general feeling of exhilaration.”

54 people were arrested during or in the aftermath of the Millbank demonstration, Met police figures at the time reported that 10 of those were under 18. According to stats compiled by Defend The Right to Protest, 18 of those arrested were charged with violent disorder, which carried a five-year prison sentence and was the most serious public order offence, second only to riot.

Of those, 10 pleaded guilty, two were convicted after pleading not guilty, two had their charges lowered and the remaining four were either acquitted or had their case discontinued. In many cases, however, the severity of the charges do not reflect the reality of what happened on the ground.

“Millbank is the only protest I went on that people so freely and confidently threw placard sticks which bounced off police officer gear,” says Emma, who was involved in much of the support of those charged in the aftermath of the demonstrations. “It was the throwing of placard sticks that later saw dozens of activists charged with violent disorder. Some people served custodial sentences of nine-plus months for waving or throwing placard sticks.”

“The vast majority of those who went to prison had given comment interviews, got duty solicitors and pled guilty,” says Emma, who helped set up Defend The Right To Protest in reaction to the demonstrations. “There was one particularly awful day in the aftermath where a judge gave three or four people convicted of violent disorder custodial sentences of between nine to 15 months.”

“I remember the barrister arguing that violent disorder couldn’t have been committed, as no reasonable bystander was in fear, pointing to the press taking photos… I’ve never seen a judge look so remorseful,” says Emma. “Wishful thinking perhaps, but I really hope she thought of all those kids she’d sent to prison the week before.”

Overall, 393 people were arrested for their part in the London student demonstrations across November and December 2010, with 109 of those being charged with offences. Of those, 60 per cent were charged with violent disorder.

In the aftermath groups such as Defend The Right To Protest warned of the draconian charging and sentencing of demonstrators. They pointed to the example of one 18-year-old female college student who was sentenced to 10 months for “waving a placard stick aggressively at police lines”.

Another protester, who was a GP, was convicted for throwing a flimsy placard stick towards police lines after it had landed near him from behind and was struck off the register for life – left unable to continue his profession.

As well spurring on the creation of groups like Defend The Right To Protest, the protests also led to the formation of Green and Black Cross – a group started in the direct aftermath of Millbank who now provide legal observers and support at demonstrations and movements across the country, including Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. The legal observers you see taking notes, handing out bust cards, those outside of police stations waiting to collect those released and those you don’t see, helping people mount defences against erroneous and disproportionate charges, are a direct result of what happened at Millbank.

“I think the legacy of the 2010 movement is a generation of people in this country learning to distrust the political class and trust the potential of our own power,” says Shelly. “It paved the way for some of us”

“For many more of us, it meant throwing support behind Jeremy Corbyn as someone who had, for decades, supported student struggles among so many other causes, and represented almost the opposite of the Lib Dem coalition.”

Millbank sparked four weeks of demonstrations, but it created so much more. Not only did the events of that day form the basis of an integral legal support network – it radicalised a whole generation of people.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

Marc Vallée’s Millbank and that Van is out now on Café Royal Books.

Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.