Manchester, Wednesday 8 December 2010.
To be updated.
On the way to the Manchester occupation, I meet:
Tas, 34, a slate-mine worker at Blaenau Ffestiniog. We start chatting because he has a beautiful, friendly ten-month-old keltie-dog with him – a point of considerable mutual interest. We’re also the only two people at the tiny, freezing Frodsham train station and we’re both trying to find out when and if the next train is due. So, we try to find out by asking each other. Tas and Jay the dog are on their way home to Warrington and I’m heading to Manchester to talk to students who are occupying the university’s Roscoe building.
Tas is thin and pale, has broken, dark-coloured teeth and a small constellation tattooed across his right cheekbone. His face looks a bit red on it in the cold. Mine is also freaking: it’s mostly frozen but my nose is throbbing. It turns out that neither of us knows if a train is going to turn up, or if departure announcements/cancellation news ever make it to Frodders, so we move onto the recession via the dog.
Tas’ story is that he takes the dog for all-day walks in the hills around here on his days off – partly because he loves the dog and wants to do the right thing by him, but partly because he can’t afford to do anything else. He had to take a big pay cut last year to help keep his company afloat. His £11k sometimes-admin-worker sometimes-mine-worker salary was cut to £9k, which he says he accepted because senior management took a cut as well and ‘because I would do anything to keep my job. There’s nothing else in this area. Jobs are dead.’ So. He gave up his car and his holidays and spends all his spare time on the dog. This shows. One look at the dog makes me want to break out in applause – the dog is bright-eyed and lean, with a gleaming hair-job that looks better-organised than Samantha Cameron’s.
Tas is pleased to hear I’m on my way to see students. He thinks the protest bug will spread, no matter how government tries to douse it. Winter is already very cold in this part of the nation and things will get too hard too soon. Tas is particularly worried about Osborne’s plans for housing benefit, no matter that they might be delayed. An annual salary of £9k isn’t enough for optimism. He lives in fear of losing his job. He’d take a pay cut again.
The University of Manchester occupation is taking place in a vertiginously steep lecture theatre, which I fall into, rather than enter. The room is brightly-lit and the people smart and welcoming. There’s a certain tension in faces: the government votes on tuition fees tomorrow and the mainstream line – at the time of writing, at least – seems to be that the government will take it, albeit narrowly. There are also the logistics of getting big groups of Manchester protestors to London tomorrow in time to hear the vote.
Still, I sense a beginning here, rather than an end.
I speak to Tabatha O’Brien, a 22-year-old from Gatley who is studying for an MA in contemporary literature and culture.
She’s Manchester born and bred and has seen a few things: her mother, who put herself through university at the age of 40, fostered children through Tabatha’s childhood (“usually two foster-children as well as the four of us”). Tabatha worked from the age of 15 to put herself through university. “If you really want poor people to have opportunities, I think education should be free.” And more than that, when it’s needed – “kids who lose their EMA… people will really suffer because of that.” The fight will go on for Tabatha, whatever happens tomorrow. “This is part of a wider anti-cuts campaign.”
Bysshe Harkavy, who is just 14, will also be back even if the government wins its fees plans. He’s a Chorlton High School student. He easily holds his own in political discussion: he has an admirable grasp of the fees debate, speaks at length about class divides in Chorlton Vale and Manchester, and isn’t afraid to imagine a world where politicians prove worthy of his first vote. His main concern is the coalition’s plan to cut EMA. “That will stop people from going to university at all.” Bysshe has stood up to school management to attend protests and has been threatened with expulsion for it.
He sees further than the fees debate, too. His father works for a housing association and will be dealing with fallout from housing benefit cuts. His mother works in pupil referral – helping kids who’ve been expelled back into education. He sees the uniqueness of this student movement and hopes “we’ve done enough to win.”
Same goes for Michael Leversha, a 21-year-old philosophy student who will train as a primary school teacher when he finishes his degree.
“The answer is to fund education through taxes,” he tells me. He’s right, of course, and in a way that is resonating. A Manchester city council worker in a high-vis jacket turns up at this point with food, a donation and a message of thanks and solidarity from everyone back in the office. He hasn’t got a dog, but you don’t always need one. The sincerity is just there to see.