SOAS occupation ends with mixed results

by Taimour Lay

The occupation at SOAS ended disappointingly on Wednesday with a victory rally but few real gains. A statement released in the afternoon admitted that the ‘concessions’ made by Director Paul Webley and the senior management were ultimately more ‘symbolic’ than real. For many of those involved throughout what was often an inspiring protest against last Friday’s despicable immigration raid – an attack which SOAS facilitated and still refuses to apologise for – the question remains: Why did the occupiers walk out when still in a position of strength?

Some members of the occupation were shocked to read the ‘victory post’ that went up on the FreeSOAScleaners blog on Wednesday afternoon, and have collectively released a counter-statement today (posted on Indymedia) to temper the triumphalism. It calls not only for the continuation and renewal of the campaign against ISS, union-busting and collaboration with the Border police, but stresses that lessons must be learned from the occupation after so much promise and negotiating strength on Monday evening was allowed to dissipate in the rush for a deal.

The drift towards agreeing to Webley’s offer – one that was not voted on at any stage, even on Wednesday morning – was driven by a hierarchy of three or four SOAS students who had been conducting negotiations, combined with the SWP’s eagerness to claim a victory, and the general sense among a majority of occupiers that things were getting ”riskier”. There was, without doubt, a gap opening up between some more concerned about the ”threat” of eviction than others, and the panic decision-making that the mass meetings degenerated into was seemingly born out of that.

The problem of the negotiators pushing for a deal, and the imbalance of information and power that entrenched, became seemingly unstoppable by Tuesday night. While it reflected the divisions between the occupiers – in politics, outlook and organising principles – that began to emerge once the management started making offers, however derisory, it might have been more effectively countered by focusing more clearly on the cleaners’ key demands – namely, the guarantee that SOAS would not facilitate any future raids – and by reassuring the majority that the threat of eviction was not as high as some were claiming. (Indeed, it was known by Tuesday that the injunction that had been served was of dubious legal value. With Webley regularly threatening to evict throughout the day, only to then ‘give more time for negotiations’, it was clear he was trying to avoid having to use force.)

The strength still lay with the occupation on Wednesday morning. The ‘decision’ to leave has wasted the chance to win gains for the SOAS cleaners in detention and for those that remain to work in an institution that has proved itself complicit in union-busting and racist immigration controls.

The campaign continues but an opportunity has been lost.

UNISON has called for a rally at SOAS today (Friday) at 6pm.

Campaign Against Immigration Controls are meeting at SOAS on Saturday to discuss how to build the campaign following the end of the occupation – 2pm-5pm, G50. Details here:

4 thoughts on “SOAS occupation ends with mixed results

  1. Original “victory statement” on the occupation blog (posted for information’s sake, not to endorse…):

    Victory to the SOAS occupiers! Directorate offers thanks to campaign.

    At 12.30pm today, after several rounds of intense and complicated negotiations we have reached an agreement between all parties.

    We are particularly thankful to management for taking our concerns seriously and are confident that the way in which these negotiations were carried out has produced a constructive and positive outcome.

    We have tried to work so that the demands agreed include the main concerns of the cleaners who were affected by this disgraceful raid and who have provided confidence to this campaign which will have an effect wider than just our school.

    These are as follows:

    1.SOAS management to write to the Home Secretary requesting exceptional leave to remain for the cleaner who is still being detained and for those who have been forced into hiding, and immediate return of those who have been deported.

    2.Open discussions with ISS, UCU, UNISON and the Students’ Union to review in detail the events of last Friday.

    3.Issue of outsourced cleaning services to be revisited at the next Governing Body.

    4.Meet with above unions to discuss health & Safety issues relating to immigration raids.

    5.Amnesty for all those involved.

    We are very impressed to see that management strengthened the resolves of this negotiations by adding their own concerns and demands including calling for regularisation for non-documented workers providing extra and crucial voices to the campaign for amnesty for migrant workers.

    Further, we appreciate their co-operation and offer reciprocated sentiments to them saying in the statement in which they say:
    ‘We would like to thank all staff and students for their valued contributions, support and co-operation in recent days as we have worked towards these negotiations’.
    In the SOAS strategy and Vision document management spell out how they are
    ‘poised to become the University of the 21st century: it is concerned with the regions that matter and the issues that matter (such as human rights, poverty reduction and globalisation).’ (“SOAS 2016: A Vision and Strategy for the Centennial”, p5 )
    That the directorate is disturbed by the possible role that ISS played in this raid demonstrates to us that the school are committed to upholding their further Centennial Goals of
    “maintain[ing] the highest ethical standards in all of its dealings and foster the values of openness, honesty, tolerance, fairness and responsibility in all areas.” (SOAS 2016: A Vision and Strategy for the Centennial, p9)
    We will work hard to ensure that this sentiment is translated into concrete action which ensures that cleaning is brought in-house and management never again facilitate an immigration raid on campus.

    We are honoured to have been able to stand side by side with the We extend our thanks to all the brave cleaners at SOAS who stood by us, who have inspired us with their fight to organise in a union. supporting us even in these difficult times. We appreciate that the intimidation they have faced may deter them from speaking out; we only hope that they have the strength to continue with this campaign to make as many people aware of this problem as possible.

    Our fight to ensure that employers and the Government do not use the threat of deportation to intimidate workers and prevent them from fighting to improve pay and conditions and trade union recognition has brought together people from all backgrounds.

    Although these are a important victories so far they are more symbolic than practical. The home secretary has only signed papers to stop the removal or deportation of an individual when 80% of the Isle of Man signed a petition calling him to do so. SOAS now has a common goal, this must be used to further lobby for the cleaners in hiding, those that were already sent back to their countries of origin and those still held in deportation centres.

    This campaign is grateful and encouraged by the tremendous response from activists from across the world, from media, politicians, academics, from family and from Palestinian universities who were the focus of the previous round of occupations earlier this year.

    We are strengthened in this struggle for a united cause and urge everybody to start a campaign in their own workplace or institution safe in the knowledge that they are not alone. That united we stand, divided we fall.


    Letter to Home office:

    Academic support:

    Write to the Home Office to try to prevent deportation:


  2. The likes of Clare Solomon and the other SWP heavies were less interested in getting the best deal than the best photo/blog opportunity with which they could crow about victory.

    It was the same with the Gaza university occupations earlier in the year: many occupiers claimed victory but had been fooled by management into ending their actions in return for what no one outside the small bubble of student politics would consider gains, LSE most prominent among these.


  3. “The likes of Clare Solomon and the other SWP heavies were less interested in getting the best deal than the best photo/blog opportunity with which they could crow about victory.”

    I think this is untrue. Admittedly, the culture within the SWP’s student politics is one of low horizons and an over-willingness to see victories everywhere, but it would be wrong to attribute this to a kind of self serving publicity chasing. In the end they led the occupation, and the problem of political judgement is probably part and parcel of their headstrong, spontaneous approach. It is perhaps their overall approach which needs to be considered, not attributing their mistakes to bad intent, particularly not in this case.


  4. I agree with Nathan. SWP members were seriously committed to the struggle. We have important differences of perspectives with them, but they are still comrades. I´d also like to dissociate us from the slur of SWP members as ´heavies´, which implies that there was physical (or other) intimidation going on. This is absolutely untrue, and SWP members (in my experience) generally retained a cooperative approach.

    There were differences which were political, strategic, and tactical. But I don´t believe the SWP members were in bad faith, fact is those people were vital, and made strong contributions.

    Ultimately, the strength of any occupation will depend on the number willing and committed to sticking it out. That – bodies on the ground – is what would have made thee greatest difference to the confidence of all occupiers, incuding SWP members.


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