The left wing student movement in the 1980s

Submitted by martin on 29 May, 2012 - 9:20

Part one of a two-part survey of the student left from the 1980s to 1997, written in 1997. Click here to download both parts as pdf; click here to read part two.


Workers’ Liberty has organised in the student movement since the early ’80s. Sue Hamilton was the key organiser of this work in the mid ’80s. Here, she recalls some of her experiences and suggests some directions for student action today.
When Labour was last in government, from 1974 to 1979, the student movement was headed by the Broad Left. This was an infrastructure composed of CP members, onto which were grafted independent radicals and some National Organisation of Labour Students’ (NOLS) members. It was an effective meeting. In 1981, on the second attempt, Labour finally broke from the BL and fought the remnants of the CP for the leadership of the NUS. NOLS have had control of NUS since their first successful Presidential candidacy, that of Neil Stewart, in 1982. Labour’s dominance of the student movement was maintained at the March 1997 NUS conference, surviving allegations of widespread corrupt election practices.

Now with a Labour government in office the situation has changed for the student movement and for its leaders. They will find the already apparent contradiction between fighting for students’ interests and loyalty to Tony Blair uncomfortable, and the ruling group have to reposition themselves, reassess their direction and re-invent their reason for being.

The history of Labour Students is a history paralleling the labour movement in terms of the positioning of the hard left, the attitudes of the ruling groups, and the nature, forms and substance of the political arguments.

In 1976 the Militant/Socialist Party had taken control of NOLS at about the same time they took hold of the structures of the Labour Party Young Socialists. NOLS left the Broad Left, and Militant ran a failing election campaign in Labour’s name. A “mainstream” Labour left opposition, “Clause 4”, formed in NOLS and launched what they called “Operation Icepick”. They grouped together a motley crew of Labour Party Stalinists and others who could be united against Militant. They quickly succeeded in reclaiming NOLS for the mainstream labour movement and so began the modern phase of NUS history.

Labour Students won control of NUS in1982 after an abortive attempt the previous year. They did it by riding the climate in the student movement against the Tories and by clever organisation - primarily an election stunt known as the “M62 Axis”.

In the week leading up to NUS conference, when the election of delegates was held, the Higher Education colleges along the M62 corridor, from Hull to Liverpool, went into occupation and the CP leadership of NUS was exposed as hostile to such displays of student militancy. Ballot boxes were put up in the occupations and, true to expectations, the ballots returned a Labour mandate for their union’s delegation to the NUS Conference. NOLS won a majority at conference on a promise of creating a campaigning NUS that would fight for student concerns. That slogan would become the focus of dispute in the following years as NOLS began to betray its roots and turned into a logjam against student militancy.

In NOLS there was still an atmosphere that made real political debate possible. In comparison with the Militant-run LPYS, NOLS was an open, democratic organisation. Almost all of the big HE colleges had a Labour Club that was a forum for debate and campaigning activity. In the outside world the left-wing Bennite movement in the Party and unions was growing and found willing partisans in the student movement. It was a rare Labour Club or Labour Club activist who would stand up and support Labour right wingers like Denis Healey or Roy Hattersley. Some key figures in NOLS supported the Benn-Heffer leadership ticket in the internal election of 1983 against Kinnock and Hattersley. The majority would have liked Kinnock for Leader and Benn for Deputy.

It was axiomatic that Labour Students shared the concerns of the broader movement and swore on the same oath - “Never again a Labour government like the last! ” At a national level, NOLS supported the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy. Similarly, there was automatic support for women’s demands, activity against racism and fascism, and for lesbian and gay liberation. Indeed “the politics of liberation”, as they became known, were later to dominate NUS and NOLS and replace the basic support for working class demands dominant in the early 80s. All in all, NOLS stood in stark contrast to the LPYS where there was no real debate and little activity apart from promoting Militant. The electoral system inside NOLS guaranteed minority representation on the leading committee.

As class-struggle socialists gravitated to Labour in the early ’80s there was a decline of the far left in NUS. There has always been a presence of Trotskyist groups in NUS. The International Socialists (SWP) and the now defunct International Marxist Group (IMG) were in competition for the leading role for a decade leading up to the early ’80s.

As the early ’80s battle between the Bennites and the rest inside the Labour Party raged on, the far left in NOLS, organised as Socialist Students in NOLS (SSiN), was able to grow and consolidate a base in the big universities after its official launch in 1982.

Running NUS takes up a great deal of time and energy - it is the largest membership organisation in Britain after the National Trust and the largest student organisation in western Europe. Once NOLS got control of the NUS, the priorities of Labour Students changed - away from developing NOLS, towards running the national union. This shift consolidated the drift rightward of NOLS, but only after some spectacular battles took place.

NOLS was part of the left of the Labour Party, as was SSiN. Militant was usually out on a limb, choosing to substitute campaigns of their own, and just for themselves, for any organic and broad campaign that came into existence.

At NOLS conferences it was common for motions from SSiN colleges to be passed against those of the leadership, because SSiN were offering positions which chimed in with the direction of the broad movement - against immigration controls for example. But this period of relative harmony and creative campaigning began to close in the fallout from Labour's defeat in the 1985 election, after which Michael Foot made way for the renegade, politically self-gutted leftist Neil Kinnock as Leader. There was a reappraisal within the Labour leadership and bureaucracy, and Labour’s slow, steady march to the right began.

New political alignments developed around different explanations for Labour’s defeat. NOLS blamed the left for defeat, changed sides and joined up, like a broad and amorphous “soft left”, with the right. Kinnock was at his most popular during the subsequent election campaign of 1987. He witch-hunted Militant as a means of scaring and intimidating the last flickers of independent life out of the soft left. Militant was being served notice that nearly two decades of dominating - and half-strangling - the LPYS were over.

Certainly the Militant was a foully bureaucratic organisation that had stifled and stultified the LPYS. By that stage they were a very large, passive, propagandist sect, incongruously domesticated in the Labour Party. About this time they had control of Liverpool council, where they bottled out of confrontation with Thatcher and wound up pulling the stunt of sacking a large part of the council workforce - to put pressure on the Tories! It was their evident failure in Liverpool that opened the road for their destruction in the Labour Party. As Frank Field MP said: “We will never get a better chance to shake this group warmly by the throat.” After the Liverpool fiasco, Militant was an easy target and a convenient chopping block for other leftists. Nonetheless, the process of expelling the Militant became the touchstone within NOLS. Gone was the opposition to the Tories as the major concern. Gone the commitment to realigning the Party to ensure that no future Labour government would be as bad as the last one. Instead, supporting expulsion of the Militant became the mark of virtue and political correctness for the right and soft left inside NOLS.

It required a sharp volte-face. From one NOLS NC to the next in the summer of 82/3, NOLS shifted from defending the Militant against expulsion to accepting a transfer of Labour Party money away from the LPYS to NOLS. Effectively the Labour leadership cut the YS’s financial life-line and gave it to Labour Students. Perhaps a little shamefaced about it, they were only too pleased to take the cash and the “insiders” tag which it carried. In so far as an excuse was offered up inside the student movement it was that Militant was hostile to “liberation politics”. They were ‘sexist’, ‘racist homophobes’ - and therefore they deserved expulsion, and possibly should be burned at the stake. It was socialist virtue to support their expulsion!

In the aftermath of the 1983 defeat, the right, nourished by the soft left, regained the power to assert itself. The left lost the battles against the Witch-hunt. While previously there had been no enemy but the Tories and the past practice of Labour, now there was a focus around which the right could regroup. Labour, it was said, could not win a general election as a divided party, the 85 manifesto had indeed been “the longest suicide note in history” as Gerald Kaufmann quipped. The leadership of Labour Students were consolidated as part of the re-formed right of the party. However, the miners then went on strike, and students saw the biggest display of Working class action that they had ever experienced. Most would have been aged about ten during the ’74 miners’ strike. The process of NOLS battening down the hatches on student protest was suspended for a year.

Labour Students, and most of the Liberals too, supported the miners. There was now a three-way fight between Clause 4, SSiN and the SWP/RCP - with the Militant looking on somewhat bewildered - in colleges all around the country. It came to a head in a workshop at NUS Conference 1984, where students were treated to a theatrical display of argument which summed up the rights and wrongs of socialist practice in the student movement.

The scene is a small theatre workshop space in the Winter Gardens at Blackpool. A semicircular room layout is headed at the top-table by NUS President Phil Woolas -- now an MP - who is to defend his section of the Executive Report to the NUS on student support for the miners. On the way upstairs to the room every left group is selling their paper. Nottinghamshire striking miners - a minority in their area - are collecting for their strike fund. Most socialist delegates to the conference are in the room, and so too are the national organisers of the socialist groups, there to have a look at how the most important debate of the year will pan out.

Phil Woolas did support the strike. He did indeed organise for students to go on national demonstrations and to sign petitions and to collect food in colleges to send to beleaguered mining communities. It was unfortunate but typical of the SWP and Militant that they cold not understand this: to them Woolas was Labour, Labour are right-wing witch-hunters, ergo NUS and Woolas and NOLS did not support the miners. Woolas thought he was in heaven, as students from the SWP and Militant got up to denounce him.

The SWP itself, whose ‘theoreticians’ had convinced themselves that no serious working class struggles would occur during “the downturn”, had taken months to involve themselves in miner support activities. Against their allegations of not supporting the miners he pointed truthfully to a list of activities which he himself had been a part of or had officially sanctioned. He made the complainants look like fools, people out of touch with the real world. But what Woolas could not argue against was the view put by SSiN that, while it was true that NUS did support the miners, there was a lot more that the student movement could and should have done, and that the NUS leadership were miles behind some colleges in delivering effective support to the miners. Woolas was asked where was the carnival of student support, which tied the development of the union as a whole in with the rhythms of the miners’ strike? Why was the occasion not seized with both hands? Where was the role for the Entertainments lads, where was the role for the Lesbian and Gay Societies? Why had there not been proposals for student union buildings to be made available for miners to stay in? Where was the national guideline for student unions to organise cross-campus union committees to organise support for the miners? And so on.

Another key division was over donations to the strike funds. College student unions are legally restrained from giving money to outside bodies which are not concerned with student Welfare, or with education in a broader sense. But the National Union is not so restricted. A SSiN conference motion that £50,000 be given to the miners out of central NUS coffers caused NOLS consternation, out of all proportion to the proposal. The Executive stomped and raged - and no one was quite sure why. NUS at that time had big reserves and such a donation could not threaten the fundamental financial security of the Union.

Despite the Executive, Conference voted to make the donation. However, on a national scale that was a very small amount of money - what was most important was the political lessons of the strike for the student movement: NOLS simply did not see themselves, and therefore the NUS, as a movement to be turned to activities around the strike - they could not see it when SSiN argued that the future of the education system was tied up with the outcome of the strike and that therefore, students, in their own interests, should give every bit of help they could to the miners on the picket lines and in financial support.

SSiN argued that the miners’ strike should have been the struggle through which the student movement consciously and deliberately linked up with the labour movement in the front line. At ground level, the strike should have been the moment when links Were made, in anticipation of the battles to save the student grant and fight off the cuts which Were certainly coming if the Tories survived their war with the pit villages.

In their victorious election campaign only 18 months earlier, NOLS had promised to build a campaigning student union. And NOLS did run campaigns - often too politely and restrainedly -nonetheless there were real campaigns. But N OLS idea of a campaign did not include the idea of mobilising the membership! At the time the sour joke was that NOLS campaigns came in an envelope, their demonstrations consisted of a couple of posters and a petition sheet, and their idea of aggressive action was a model letter to send to MPs. There was never a drive to encourage colleges to unify the different interest groups on campus, never a willingness to recognise the widespread interests of students and use that concern to strengthen the union.

Out of this experience germinated the SSiN document Towards a Mass Campaigning Union, in which was set out a plan to develop NUS. The document recognised that the most significant indices of development was student participation and not student union facilities. It was proposed that SUS should draw together the wide and varied concerns of students into Charters of demands which could be modified according to local conditions. So, for instance, where a science-based university mistreated animals in research, and there was an animal rights/environmental group, their demands could be brought into the mainstream of the union by adding them to the Charter - alongside, for instance, the demands of the women’s group, of the overseas students against fee increases, and so on.

Within the formulation, the fundamental difference between NOLS and the far left surfaced. Not only were there policy differences on this and that issue - but, more significantly, there was a difference in perspective for NUS as a whole. Was it to be a campaigning union with an orientation to the working class movement and its methods of organisation and struggle? Or was it to be an organisation which sometimes sided with the labour movement leadership but kept its distance and did not know how to develop the campaigning potential of its own membership? It was this deficiency within NOLS which finally produced the now notorious NUS reluctance to take a high profile in political campaigns, and the mole-like policy of NUS battening down the hatches and lapsing into inactivity so as to promote the chances of a Labour victory in the 1987 general election. Such a strategy was religion to NOLS and the rest of the Party managers by the time of the ’93 and ’97 elections.

On the other flank, the miners’ strike consolidated SSiN as the organisation of the left, not just in Labour Students but also in NUS. The first-ever Labour President of Durham University, Simon Pottinger, stood for a non-sabbatical post on NUS Executive alongside member Karen Talbot. They formed the first ever SSiN team on the NUS Executive and opened doors previously closed, as Simon travelled up and down the country visiting unions and Labour Clubs and expanding the network of SSiN. In the following months, SSiN grew from a small base in a few colleges into a large rank-and file movement, with operations in NOLS and in the NUS.

The premise of SSiN was quite simple- it would unite students who wanted to fight the Tories by building a mass, campaigning union. But there was more to the organisation’s success than that. The time was right for a rank-and-file movement in the NUS - there were many students educated by the miners’ strike who had had a taste of working class struggle. Essentially, SSiN was able to unite those socialist students who were not in Militant or the SWP and give them the benefit of a Well-organised machine to influence NUS decision-making processes, and to organise events which should, by right, have been run by the national union but weren’t. The best example of this was the organisation of an annual demonstration at Tory Party conference - the “Beat the Blues” march.

This fixture was first organised after NUS abandoned the traditional first-term demo, which activists needed as a focus for campaigning in the first few weeks of the academic year. SSiN took on the organisation of this march to make up for the inadequacies of the national union.

Beyond the basic issues of the student movement, SSiN would raise the heavy political issues when they arose, and take a firm line when that was called for. The solid understanding of NUS and the good campaigning proposals meant that SSiN was able to keep within its ranks people who disagreed on some of those big issues. In particular, there was a group of people from Brighton who vehemently hated the SSiN majority line on Israel [emphatically for Israel’s right to exist] and were supporters of Briefing. SSiN benefited from the participation of a group of Briefing-affiliated students at Sussex University and individuals at UCL and at Coventry Poly.

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