Students plan non-violent protest tactics

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

Image caption,
Student leaders want to re-launch an anti-fees campaign that is non-violent and political

A non-violent student protest strategy will begin next week, as National Union of Students leaders want to stop future protests being "infiltrated".

NUS leader Aaron Porter wants to regain the political momentum after violence at this week's anti-tuition fees rally.

Mr Porter says he does not want "splinter groups" to detract from an "overwhelmingly peaceful majority".

Meanwhile a 23-year-old man, suspected of throwing a fire extinguisher from the Millbank roof, has been arrested.

In another development, Mr Porter says that three Conservative MPs have told the NUS that they are planning to vote against raising university tuition fees in England to up to £9,000 per year.

Amid the fallout from the attack by a breakaway group on the Millbank building, Mr Porter wants to redefine a strategy that maintains high-profile political pressure, while avoiding the risk of being hijacked by violence.

Direct action

"We want to keep up the momentum, but have to be completely mindful of the risk of being infiltrated," he says.

Mr Porter says he supports the right to use "non-violent direct action", in the form of sit-ins and occupations, but he warns that the students' arguments will be undermined if this spills over into violence.

There are no more large-scale rallies planned - and it remains uncertain how student unions will be involved in the next potential flashpoint - a national day of student protests on 24 November.

Image caption,
NUS president Aaron Porter wants to keep the momentum of the campaign against £9,000 fees

There are also no official NUS protests planned for a speech by Business Secretary Vince Cable to college leaders in Birmingham next week.

"The next stage is about political lobbying. There are strong sentiments among students, but protests have to be conducted in a responsible way," says Mr Porter.

This will begin with a series of local constituency campaigns demanding that Liberal Democrat MPs keep their personal pledge to vote against raising fees, in a vote expected in the next few weeks.

'Right to recall'

Mr Porter says he is confident of getting 10% of voters in university towns to sign up to a campaign against raising fees - the threshold for the proposed "right to recall" in which MPs could be forced to stand down.

Image caption,
Police at Millbank were hemmed against a breaking glass window

This political pressure is gaining momentum, he says, with three Conservative MPs threatening to oppose the coalition government's plans.

The number of Liberal Democrat MPs who will rebel against the fee increase remains uncertain - but the addition of Tory votes will increase the chances of success for a backbench rebellion.

Students on Wednesday's march against raising fees and cutting university budgets directed much of their anger against Liberal Democrat leaders, accusing them of breaking their promises to students.

The NUS president has been frustrated that the huge turn-out for the fees demonstration, an estimated 50,000, has been overshadowed by the attack on the Millbank building.

Facebook following

Mr Porter says that as well as concern about trebling fees, there had been a growing public awareness of the "unprecedented scale" of the cuts proposed for universities - which will see the removal of public funding for many arts and humanities subjects.

He says students have been successfully making the case that the coalition government has never had a mandate to make such far-reaching changes.

Arrests have continued in the wake of the demonstration, with police in Cambridgeshire arresting a 23-year-old man on suspicion of violent disorder.

This arrest follows an investigation into a fire extinguisher being thrown from the roof of the Millbank offices.

But student opposition to the fee increase remains divided - with evidence of support for a more militant approach from some student unions and their officials.

Websites and social networking sites are being used to show support for those who smashed their way into the Millbank offices on Wednesday.

A Facebook page supporting the protesters who took part in occupying the Westminster building - and rejecting any "witch hunt" against them - has gathered more than 2,500 supporters.

There are also promises of support for a wave of walkouts and occupations in campuses across the country in a day of action of 24 November - with planning meetings set for next week for what threatens to become an increasingly bitter struggle.

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