Senior Metropolitan Police officers were not alone in their failure to get to grips with the scale of the student protests against higher tuition fees. David Cameron’s public relations team were similarly at fault for a lamentable performance in presenting the government’s case.
In the four weeks since the first demonstration and the attack on the Conservative Party’s headquarters, there has been no co-ordinated explanation of the concessions which have been made; nor has there been any success on the government’s behalf in correcting misconceptions. Contrary to a widespread public impression, many poorer students will have to pay much reduced charges or have been exempted altogether and no students have to pay fees up front.Downing Street’s abject record is all the more surprising given the coalition’s success in softening up the public for cuts in social security payments. Indeed the campaign against ‘benefit scroungers’ has been nothing short of a master class in political propaganda.Both the Metropolitan Police and the coalition government have been caught out by the nature of the students’ insurgency. As expected an array of anarchist groups have piled in behind the fees revolt and are doing all they can to stir up trouble, but what has surprised the authorities has been the rapid politicisation of vast numbers of young people, many of whom are still at school. Spontaneous walk-outs from colleges and schools have been organised via messages on social networking sites and mobile phones which explains why the Police have been caught repeatedly unawares by the strength and direction of the demonstrations. But the unpredictability of the protests is no excuse: the government’s information service should have done far better in co-ordinating the presentation of the concessions which have been won by the Liberal Democrats. An advertising campaign setting out precisely the way tuition fees will have to be paid in the future would have done wonders for embattled ministers like Vince Cable. With the exception of the Daily Mirror, the tabloids have generally supported the case for students contributing more towards the cost of a university education. Those troublemakers who have been identified have not been spared the fury of the headline writers; so Cameron’s media chief Andy Coulson and his communications team at No.10 can hardly complain about having had to face a hostile media environment. Downing Street’s failure to orchestrate a campaign to explain the higher fees has contributed to a chastening moment for Cameron, Nick Clegg and their cabinet colleagues. The student protests have already earned their place alongside the poll tax riots and the marches against the Iraq war as perhaps the defining moment in the short life of the coalition government. Vince Cable told the Today programme (10.12.2010) he was confident that the coalition would emerge ‘stronger having been through this experience’ but the government’s majority was cut to twenty-one and the Liberal Democrats have been split down the middle. However much Cable & Co dismiss talks of dissent, the twenty-one Liberal Democrat MPs who voted against higher fees will remain the focus of media attention; their status as ‘heroes’ among the students is assured.For months now the media narratives have gone the government’s way: it was the Labour government led by Gordon Brown which was largely to ‘blame’ for the deficit and there was ‘no alternative’ to the spending reductions imposed by the Chancellor George Osborne. But these story lines now look a little threadbare when up against a student riot that showed the Metropolitan Police had lost control of the streets of London and had no explanation as to why protesters were able with impunity to surround and damage the car of Prince Charles and Camilla on their way to the theatre.