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Students Want Labour To Back Their Biggest Rent Strike In Decades

Students in Manchester have already managed to get a 30% rent cut following strikes (Twitter/@rentstrikeUoM)

5 min read

The Labour Party has attracted criticism for refusing to back what could be the biggest rent strike among students in decades.

Action has been planned or is underway at around 20 universities including Bristol, Manchester, Oxford, Sussex and several London campuses in what organisers told The Guardian is “the biggest wave of student renter militancy in over 40 years”. 

Those taking part in the strikes have expressed anger at the high costs of university-owned accommodation and the treatment of students during the pandemic, and are calling on providers to cut rental costs for students.

The youth wing of the Labour Party have in response issued a statement urging Keir Starmer to come out in support of those striking and their demands.

“Students have been put at risk of coronavirus outbreaks and lied to about this year by the Tory government and university managements to keep them paying extortionate rents and fees,” the group said. 

“The marketisation of higher education is at the heart of this crisis with students reduced to revenue streams & staff to costs.”

But, when asked whether the Labour Party supported the strike action, a spokesperson refused to confirm the party's position. 

They said: “Students have been badly let down by this government and many are stuck in an extremely difficult position, often forking out a small fortune for sky high rents.

“The government needs to protect students' rights by working with them and their universities to come to a fair solution.”

It comes amid reports of that students have been prevented from leaving their halls by security guards whilst in lockdown and self-isolating students have been provided “junk food” parcels while self-isolating.

Many are also unhappy that they were encouraged to return to campuses only to have face-to-face teaching suspended, and that new government guidance means they may not be able to return to university after the Christmas break until February.

Activists planning strikes at several universities have expressed their disappointment that the party has not openly supported the strikes.

A spokesperson for the Oxford “Cut the Rent” campaign said: “If Labour wants to remain relevant to students and put forward politics that listens to and gives any real answers to current problems facing students, then it must show support for the rent strikes. 

“It has to be fighting the marketisation of higher education that is squeezing both students and university staff, it has to have a politics that prioritises people’s welfare over profit, anything else offers us nothing of value.”

A member of the Manchester campaign also felt Labour should be more firmly behind students on the issue. “The Labour Party nationally should be doing more to speak out and support the strike to prove itself to millions of young people who can’t remember the last time Labour was in government,” a spokesperson  told PoliticsHome. 

They added: “We’d absolutely encourage Keir Starmer, and members of the shadow cabinet to reach out to us and the rent strike movement to discuss how we can work together to show that together we can win crucial fights like these for students everywhere.”

Some individual Labour MPs, however, have received praise for their handling of strikes in their local area, including Afzal Khan, MP for Manchester Gorton.

Writing for LabourList, student campaigner Ben McGowan said: “In Manchester, we are lucky enough to have the incredible support of our local MP, Afzal Khan, meeting regularly with students and acting as a productive conduit between protestors and the university.

“Every time an issue has arisen, he has been ready to fight the student’s corner, from excessive police presence on campus to the authoritarian response of the university towards a peaceful occupation.”

Mr Khan admitted that students have been “placed in an extremely difficult position this year” and that it was “more important than ever” for there to be an “an open and honest engagement between students and the universities involved”.

“The welfare of students should be everyone's number one priority. Ultimately, the Government’s decision not to offer financial support to universities means the burden is falling on students and their families,” he said. 

“The Government should be stepping in to support the Higher Education sector as they have done for many other sectors.”

Some universities have already agreed to rent cuts following the campaign including the University of Manchester, which last month offered its students a 30% reduction, and the University of Sheffield, which agreed to refund rent paid in the last two weeks of term.

Strikes are still going ahead, however, in universities in Sussex, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Nottingham, and across London.

The largest action is understood to be taking place in Bristol, with 1,400 students reportedly signed up to withold rent between October 2020 and January 2021.

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Read the most recent article written by Eleanor Langford - Who Is Going On Strike And When In February?