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“Weekend of possibility” brought about by national rent strike event


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Last year, UCL Cut The Rent won one million pounds in cuts after a five month rent strike. Last weekend the campaign teamed up with Radical Housing Network (RHN), Plan C, and the NUS to turn one university’s campaign into a nationwide movement.

The event was billed as “a weekend of possibility” as it invited students from 25 universities across the country to discuss, network and learn about starting parallel campaigns. Some groups had already made remarkable headway, such as at Sussex, where 1,000 students living on campus have already signed a petition calling for rent caps.

The purpose of the weekend was to provide the practical help to capitalise on this enthusiasm. On the Saturday in particular, which was jam-packed with a diverse range of workshops, there was an abundance of advice and resources.

Much of the day involved collaborative sessions to develop effective organisation using the UCL campaign as a model. Having an egalitarian, friendly group and utilising resources such as the internet to improve communication are key tactics for drawing in more students. Maintaining a consistent narrative is also important for developing a powerful message. Given the nationalisation of the campaign, there will be further consideration of shaping the movement in order to appeal to a wider range of demographics and political stances.

As well as the discursive ones, many of the workshops delved into the exactitudes of organising protests, with sessions on street demonstration tactics, legal negotiations and eviction resistance. A rather entertaining method was taking on the role of the university and imagining how we would end a rent strike in the most evil way possible, in order to learn how to anticipate intimidation tactics. A workshop on media was partially led by an activist-cum-journalist, and an organiser of social media campaign #VentTheRent. Their talks and situation-based exercises covered everything a would-be strike organiser would need to know, from utilising social media, press releases, handling journalist interviews and constructing a narrative. It was clear from workshops such as these that the weekend's organisers had worked hard to have every base covered.

That is not to say the weekend was all work and no play. There was exciting action on Friday evening, a party that went on until the early hours of Saturday, and a relaxed, social BBQ on the Sunday. Student-led activism doesn’t all have to be the doom and gloom of soaring accommodation prices, and can appeal to the fun-loving, community-building side of student life.

This sense of community and support networks was another important focus at the event. A workshop on striker self-care integrated the student mental health crisis into the goals of the campaign and needs of the strikers, particularly combatting the lack of student counsellors and the increasing numbers of students with part-time jobs. Potential solutions involved social reproduction tactics, such as community-led cafés to provide food for busy striker-worker-students. These would also act as safe spaces which could provide mental health support and form legal advice centres.

Caucuses (meetings of a sub-group of a political organisation) can be another crucial support system, and the Rent Strike hosted its first women and non-binary caucus on the Sunday. It discussed how such groups can highlight particular issues within the general political movement as well as within the campaign itself. Direct action organised at these meetings can work to improve representation of minorities at demonstrations, and address the disproportionate effect of rising house costs on women and non-binary people.

This progressive attitude was notable throughout the weekend, particularly at the workshops ‘Tenants of the World Unite’ and ‘Striking at the Intersections’. The former focused on issues of race and immigration status in light of the refugee crisis. Talks of intersectionality called for all voices to be heard with the organisation of more caucuses for LGBTQA+, BME and disabled groups. An eye-opening talk from Adam, the NUS black officer, highlighted the relation of calls for cheaper student halls and racial gentrification.

It is clear that the campaign is working to rebrand itself. This is no longer addressing just the problems of a single set of students, but has become a nationally relevant march against the continued marketisation of higher education. The involvement of Radical Housing Network shows how the student situation is reflecting society, and there were talks of bridging the gap to private accommodation. Rent is everyone’s problem.

The campaign is not just making a noise anymore, but is attempting to change the way university education works, build communities, and respond to the various student crises. It was sometimes referred to as creating ‘a new 2010’, and there is a call for sustained political action. So far the agenda has been one of defending education – it’s time to start attacking those who threaten it.

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