The last issue of bathimpact focused on government plans to cut maintenance grants, with particular attention to local MP Ben Howlett. Our columns called out Mr Howlett’s hypocritical support of said plans, however some decided to face him directly. Sally Williamson recounts the events of the day and explains the motivation behind this local protest – part of a larger national problem.
In response to the government’s decision to slash maintenance grants through a backdoor committee, students and comrades protested up and down the country. The decision was particularly poignant in Bath where the Conservative MP Ben Howlett supported the decision and voted in support of it the following week – in spite of around 25,000 of his 88,000 constituents being students at either of the two universities in Bath.
Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts (BSAFC) organised a demo for Saturday 20th February, calling out Ben Howlett for his hypocrisy as a former recipient of a maintenance grant while at university, and also to hold him to account as an elected “representative” of every student living in Bath. For an MP to have himself received a maintenance grant, and expressed how crucial it was for his own social mobility, to then vote to cut them and support increased debt under the guise of “sustainable access” is duplicitous to the highest degree. The Tory party line when raising tuition fees in 2010 was that maintenance grants would be kept in place to ensure access for students from the poorest backgrounds, a claim that was clearly a lie as part of their wider plan for the marketisation of HE. Ben Howlett, as an MP who has not once gone against the party whip, presumably had no intention of representing the views of recipients of the grant in his constituency, nor those of the free education campaigners.
Around 70 people, students and local activists alike, assembled outside Bath Abbey on Saturday afternoon in spite of the weather, with speakers, drums, whistles, and horns, and soon after set off marching through the town. The protest was well received, with passersby fist pumping and cheering and car drivers beeping horns and waving. The march was big enough and had enough banners to block the roads and stop traffic on its route through the city centre, as it made its way to Bath’s Royal Crescent where Ben Howlett was holding a photoshoot for a separate campaign. On our arrival – chanting “Ben Howlett shame on you, we deserve a future too” – the local press turned their cameras towards the protest, and Howlett took one look and ran away, presumably hoping he would be able to escape; however the protest followed his flight through the city for the next 30 or so minutes, until police arrived to break it up. Three members of the peaceful protest were arrested and a large group of protesters then turned to provide arrestee support.