Another occupation…22 years later

Twenty-two years after the 1970 occupation there was another attempt to occupy Senate House, this time over the issue of student loans. On 31 January 1992, Gazette reported:

Occupation

A tense Guild General Meeting has voted for a shutdown of the University on Monday, February 10, alongside a 24 hour occupation of Senate House. Students will be asked not to attend lectures or tutorials and to join the sit-in as part of the national hardship campaign.

The action was decided on by a majority of just five, amid angry scenes in the Stanley Theatre. The proposals, backed by some of the more radical Left-Wingers were passed despite sabbaticals objecting that the motion was too extreme to attract support from campus trade unions. The executive had planned to stop classes for one hour, hoping to unite with University staff and management in a combined attack on government education policy. Both proposals were timed to tie in with NUS’s nationwide day of action on student poverty, a prelude to the national demonstration on February 12.

The University is now heading for its most serious confrontation of recent times, with students rejecting the policy of ‘negotiation and cooperation’ fostered by the Guild over the last year. The desire for such strong action reflects growing impatience among students at their situation, but it is likely to be at the expense of wider support for their campaign. Sit-ins often have more effect on student administration than University management, possibly slowing down the processing of grants and loans.

A University spokesperson expressed sympathy for the students’ position, but said that the tactic of occupation was the wrong way to pursue their demands. He feared that publicity would be directed at the confrontation rather than the cause behind it. It is not thought the University will take immediate action against the protest, but if the occupation continues beyond the agreed time limit students could then be removed by force, and they could threaten to seize Guild assets as at Lancaster last term, though this is unlikely.

Laura Parker, Guild President, made it clear that a longer protest would not be supported by the executive, ”No way will the Guild support the occupation one minute over 24 hours.”

It is unclear how many students will join the day of action, while a small number would be enough to stage an occupation, in order for the shutdown to be an effective protest it will need to attract the large majority of students. Only 50 went from the University to last term’s student hardship demonstration in Manchester.

The General Meeting itself was only narrowly quorate, with 210 students attending, though many had come to hear the debate on Third World debt which followed.

The level of support for occupation, a tactic rejected by the previous week’s rent strike meeting surprised many people and tempers rose as it became clear the vote would be close. Speakers were frequently interrupted by heckling from the floor, and at one point two of them nearly came to blows. Although the sabbaticals were visibly upset at losing the debate they promised to give full support to the day of action.

Debate centred around what the most effective form of protest should be. Guild Treasurer, Jeremy Longhurst argued that students should make clear they were attacking the government and not the University. He called for a ”united front” of opposition in the run-up to the general election, saying this could only be achieved with a limited but united protest.

Laura Parker read a letter to the meeting from the Lecturers Union, the Association of University Teachers, offering support for a one hour stoppage but nothing more. She warned students, “Don’t throw away a unique chance to unite the University.”

The vote for a longer stoppage and the occupation of Senate House has resulted in the withdrawal of support for the hardship protest by the AUT and the acting Vice-Chancellor.

Speaking against the executive stance a succession of students demanded more radical protest to generate maximum publicity. Left- Winger Colette Williams told the nleeting, ”If action bothers you, you deserve cuts,” and went on to say that the staff unions could still be persuaded to join an all-day shutdown;  to campaign for anything less would be pointless. She claimed the University was as much to blame as the government for student hardship, having raised hall rents.

Another student went further, personally attacking the executive for being ”in the pocket of the University” and of “stifling democracy” by holding the meeting in the Stanley Theatre rather than the more accessible Mountford Hall, though this was due to a concert that night.

Despite a last minute plea by Neil Hall that ‘losing trade union support damages everything we’ve worked for so far,” the motion to occupy was passed after a tortuous count, with the tellers on either side disagreeing widely.

Students angry at the decision may call another meeting to reverse it, otherwise it is up to the student body as a whole to prove the day of action a success.

On 21 February 1992, Gazette reported on the action itself, which resulted in the occupation of a different University building:

Occupied

The students of Liverpool’s campaign against student hardship took its most radical step so far with the occupation of Staff House on Monday February 11. The decision to take such direct action followed a closely contested general meeting which narrowly decided to occupy Senate House. An objective which was to prove impossible in a passionate and controversial day of student protest.

The day of action began with a rally in the Stanley Theatre calling on students to join an all day lecture boycott and to occupy. Speakers, who included Terry Fields, expelled Labour MP, stressed the demands – reduction of hall rents, repeal of student loans, restoration of benefits, free childcare facilities and the need to join the national hardship campaign.

The worsening situation students are finding themselves in was illustrated by Deputy President Neil Hall who gave the findings of an NUS survey showing that 61 per cent of students are in debt and that the government by cutting benefits has saved £68m of which only £20m has been made available through Access Funds.

Terry Fields said that he saw the student response as a “genuine reaction to the harsh conditions of poverty and deprivation.” He stressed the need to channel the frustration and anger felt in to genuine opposition against inadequacies of the system.

Set against this resolute backdrop, 150 students marched towards Senate House with rousing chants of protestation, but the march turned into Abercromby Square and up the steps of Staff House, as the original target was sealed off by a heavy police contingent. In the ensuing confusion some students paused from entering a building that none thought could be Senate House, (wasn’t that on the other side of the square?)

And while they paused security staff shut the door; only 90 managed to get in. The siege had begun.

The police already outmanoeuvred, had no intention of allowing any more students in: the main door was locked, fire exits blocked and telephone lines severed. Staff hurriedly finished their lunches and were escorted out of the rear exit by security.

For many students this was their first visit to Staff House with its £47,000 reproduction furniture and the bottles of own label University house wine.

However, after what appeared to be an initial deadlock the following 24 hours were not without incident. The students who had been shut out were not prepared to leave it at that. Firstly, they brought a ladder which was removed, they climbed up ropes, a few braved the drainpipe but the final push came when late in the evening a scaffold tower was erected, (the conduit for 69 bags of chips!) But in spite of all this and the risks it created the doors would not be opened.

Indeed the University was determined to stand firm against the action and at 9 .30pm a court injunction was served – demanding immediate withdrawal or be in contempt of court. Despite the quite obvious tension the students stood firm and this defiance led to a compromise – the occupation was allowed to run its 24 hours.

A significant factor during the occupation was the sense of unity among the students. Colette Williams, one of the demonstration’s organisers, believed that the broad base of occupiers, many of whom were first years, indicated that students will not sit back and see hall rents go up indefinitely. Equally important would seem to be the co-operation of the various

political factions. The original plan to occupy was seen by many to be extremists destroying conciliatory bonds between the Union and the University that the sabbaticals had worked hard to foster. But the occupation focused the attention of all groups towards the real goal of improving the quality of student life, not petty internal squabbling.

The occupation reached a conclusion at 12.30pm on Tuesday as students gathered outside Staff House to join the occupiers as they concluded their action and marched to the Union for a rally attended by Lesley Mahmoud.

Whether the occupation was successful in so far as resulting in increased funding is a moot point . . . The acting Vice Chancellor said that he ”regretted the action since it prevented the whole University community from joining together to support the officers of the Guild in their campaign to publicise the financial plight of students.”

Also, the occupation meant rebuffing the support of the sympathetic AUT. The secretary, Dr Andrew Taylor, commented that every trade union on the campus was opposed to this direct action because it was divisive. Indeed it prevented a united cross campus strike that might have been more effective in stopping the University functioning.

The financial implications of occupying Staff House cannot be ignored, as the final cost of the occupation could mean a £5,000 bill for the Guild; £1,000 more than the annual welfare budget; was it really the most effective protest?

But the occupation was not the only form of protest. An all day lecture boycott had also been organised but without the vital trade union backing its support was small.

Moves to stage a further indefinite occupation were thwarted at an explosive general meeting on Wednesday, February 19. The meeting in the Mountford Hall was packed with around 400 students, the biggest attendance at a general meeting so far this year.

The first motion was overwhelmingly passed, resolving not to support another occupation. A further motion calling for an indefinite occupation of Senate House was then resolutely defeated. The meeting then deteriorated into chaos, as pro-occupation supporters stormed the stage and a minor fight ensued. It was several minutes before order was restored and the meeting emptied.

A postscript to these events was revealed in a Gazette lead story two years later, when there was a further call for the occupation of Senate House. on 28 February 1994, Gazette reported:

Call to occupy defeated

A General Meeting of Guild on Wednesday 9 February produced a surprisingly large turnout and the usual brand of fiery rhetoric and vocal disagreement.

The Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) had called the meeting to gain support for the demonstration against student poverty on Wednesday 23 February.  The group were also hoping to gain backing of the Guild for an occupation of Senate House to register their protest. […]

It was the issue of whether or not to occupy that proved to be the most controversial point. [It was pointed out] that the student occupation of staff House in 1992 had cost the Guild £6000 – the fine levied by the University….Ex-President Laura Parker condemned the motion and its backers as “pseudo-revolutionary” and argued that the Guild needed all the support it could muster.  Occupation, she claimed, would merely alienate students further. […]

The motion finally went to the vote – an achievement in itself as few had expected the attendance to reach 200, the number required for a decision to be passed…The motion to occupy was defeated.

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1 thought on “Another occupation…22 years later”

  1. Damn! I’d forgotten about erecting that scaffolding. Ironically, the person that helped me build that scaffold became the safety manager that cancelled the Matthew Street festival years later. Seems safety is learned, not innate.

    I should point out that the primary reason for doing that was to get a sound system and alcohol in to senate house. As I remember it was quite a party.

    As occupations went, it was more Malcolm McLaren than Malcolm X. I believe the £6000 fine was for the cigarette burns on the carpet in the Senate chamber rather for taking political action.

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