Student Politics Remade the Left (1 of 3)

Labour’s Leadership and Student Politics

Part I: The Rise of Student Unionism

The form of politics which has taken over the Labour Party since Neil Kinnock’s election to the leadership in 1983 has never been subject to serious analysis. This is the first in a series of articles in which Hugh Roberts explains how Labour has come to be dominated by a peculiar variety of student politics, and why the implications of this are disastrous.

In his interview in L&TUR 23 (May-June 1991), Eric Heffer suggested that the way in which Neil Kinnock has led the party, involving the comprehensive abandonment of virtually all the party’s long-cherished principles and beliefs and the obsessive and ever recurring prosecution of a witch-hunt against Militant, is explained by the fact that “he is still involved in student politics. He surrounds himself with a team of people, particularly the younger ones, who were all involved in student politics.” Heffer noted that Kinnock in earlier days had been “on the left, even, in a sense, on the ultra-left,” but “then, of course, he began to move, and it indicated to me that he was not rooted in anything. You must have roots – real roots in the movement. And having roots in the student movement is not quite the same thing.”

Most of this is true, and fair comment. But it does not get us very far. There are grounds for the view that Kinnock’s leadership is indeed heavily determined by his background, and that of his closest collaborators, in the student politics of the 1960s and 1970s, and that his ascendancy has reflected the triumph of student politics within the Labour Party at the expense of other forms of politics. There are also grounds for thinking that this matters a great deal, that it has already had disastrous consequences for the Labour Party in opposition and has still more ominous implications for the Labour Party should it contrive to get into office. But this question deserves to be examined with some care, rather than dealt with in a couple of pithy remarks.

“Roots in the movement” is a stirring phrase. But what does it mean? Neil Kinnock is as much of working class origin as Eric Heffer was, and he was active in his local CLP from an early age, and made his living as a WEA lecturer before entering Parliament. Kinnock & Co. have self-evidently been doing unprecedented things to the Labour Party, but Kinnock’s personal rootlessness is not at all self-evident, and in so far as it exists, it is not at all unprecedented.

It cannot be said without qualification that Attlee or Gaitskell or even Wilson had “roots in the movement”. Neither Attlee nor Gaitskell were of working class origin, and neither came from the trade union wing of the movement, any more than Wilson did. Attlee’s family background was upper middle class Toryism, Gaitskell’s the Indian civil service, and Wilson, if of working class origins, came from a Liberal not Labour household. On the other hand, they had all served for some time as Labour MPs before becoming leader, and they had played various other roles in the wide array of activities that might reasonably be comprehended in the phrase “the movement” before becoming :MPs. But the same can be said of Kinnock.

It is not self-evident that Kinnock’s politics have reflected a lack of roots. What they have reflected is something else altogether, the expansion of student politics into the vacuum created by the collapse of the form of politics which previously oriented the Labour Party. In order to understand why this matters, it is necessary to consider what student politics are about.

The editorial in the issue of L&TUR which carried the Heffer interview referred to Eric’s remarks on this matter with approval, and added: “Kinnock has elevated the inconsequential politics of the university debating society to the highest echelons of the Party.” It has to be said that this misses the point. It is not the politics of university debating societies which have come to infect the party leadership. It is the politics of student unions.

It is entirely understandable that most of the people who produce L&TUR should be unaware of this distinction. L&TUR is produced by people who with only one exception have never had anything to do with student politics. It would not have its lucid worldview, its firm but unsentimental orientation to the working class interest, and its tenacious grasp of principles if this were not the case. But innocence of any experience of student politics is bound to limit the understanding of the politics which now rules the Labour Party. Which is why I feel I need to say something about the subject, since I am the exception I have alluded to.

Between 1969 and 1973 I was actively involved in student politics. In the summer of 1969 I spent three months closely observing the ebb tide of revolutionary student politics in Paris. In the autumn of 1969 I went to Oxford University and became involved in the Oxford Union and the Labour Club, and was elected at the end of my first year to the Treasurership of the former and the Committee of the latter. I later resigned from both and became active in the Oxford University Student Representative Council (SRC), first as Chairman of the SRC’s Standing Committee on University Discipline, then as Information Officer on its Executive Committee, then as the SRC representative for my college, and finally as President of the SRC from July to mid-December 1972. In the latter capacity I initiated and led the university-wide campaign to transform the SRC into a fully-fledged students’ union, a campaign which was wholly successful, as the existence from 1973 to this day of the Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU) can testify.

It was through my role as President of the SRC in 1972 and my subsequent involvement in the politics of the National Union of Students (NUS) that I got to know Charles Clarke, the former President of the NUS and before that of the Cambridge Students’ Union who became Kinnock’s research assistant when Kinnock held the shadow education portfolio in 1981 and who has headed Neil Kinnock’s private office since 1983. I can therefore speak of British student politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and of its impact on the Labour Party, from my own experience of those politics and my own knowledge of the most influential student politician in Kinnock’s entourage. Charles Clarke and I go back 19 years, and to some extent what is at issue between the L&TUR and Kinnockism has reflected an earlier parting of the ways between two student politicians who once worked closely together but with very different arrieres pensees.

This will not have been obvious to L&TUR readers, since I have never referred to my political dealings with Charles Clarke before, for various reasons, including a residue of good will, notwithstanding present differences, towards a former political ally, and more generally a desire to avoid personalising important political disagreements. But politics is a very specialised business, in which only a handful of individuals are engaged full-time. The relations between these individuals are accordingly of some importance in explaining the developments that occur. And there comes a point in most lines of political development where personalities as well as policies need to be thought about and their roles acknowledged, and the political differences which have arisen between them explained clearly and openly.

L&TUR has been at least implicitly at odds with the political vision of Charles Clarke since April 1987, when its second issue, which contained an editorial criticism of Kinnock’s strategy in the light of the Greenwich by-election fiasco, was published, and I think that he has been as aware of this as I have been. And I do not doubt that I have him as much as Neil Kinnock to thank for the fact that the L&TUR has encountered a virtually endless series of obstacles to its endeavour to get a readership in that section of the Labour Party which most badly needs political and mental invigoration, and which might normally be expected to be most receptive to informed and reasoned political argument, the Parliamentary Labour Party.


The parting of the ways between Charles Clarke and myself occurred in the late 1970s, although this did not become manifest until I launched the L&TUR a decade later. It reflected the percolation to the surface of the different attitudes to politics which had underlain, and been temporarily masked by, our involvement on the same side in the student politics of the early 1970s. This difference in underlying attitude had several dimensions, but the most important of them was undoubtedly an affair of roots.

Charles Clarke is the son of a distinguished civil servant and Whitehall mandarin, Sir Otto Clarke. That this background has equipped him to compensate for Neil Kinnock’s own innocence of any experience of Whitehall can be readily understood. Whether it has equipped him to appreciate and value the Labour Party’s past achievements and respect its better traditions is another matter. All the evidence suggests otherwise. But then it cannot be said of Charles Clarke that he has any roots in the Labour Party or Labour Movement whatever. But I have roots of this kind.

I am the son of an upwardly mobile Welshman who was himself the son of a Welsh miner (and beyond that the descendant of generations of highly cultured Caernarvonshire carpenters and Cardiganshire blacksmiths) and who had developed an exceptionally lucid, principled and reasonable brand of socialist politics and inculcated this in his children. In 1950 my father, who had by then been living in Yorkshire for several years and was at that time a Staff Tutor in Economics and Industrial Relations at Hull University, contested Skipton for Labour in the general election. The following year he would have been elected to Parliament for Labour in the Shipley division of Bradford had the Liberal vote not collapsed and largely transferred to the Conservative candidate. He never fought an election again, although he was short-listed in his native Caerphilly in the 1960s. But my mother, who had become a socialist under his influence, decided to have a go for Labour herself in 1955, when she contested Bridlington, where by all accounts she waved the red flag with style and gusto (which was about all that could be done in Bridlington, it must be said).

I grew up in a strongly Labour household and the foundation of my political outlook was given me by my father on the basis of his own experience in South Wales during the worst days of the mass unemployment, lock-outs and blacklists of the 1920s and 1930s, his subsequent experience of the Communist Party from around 1935 to around 1943, and his active involvement in the Labour politics of the Attlee-Bevin period. It is because of this particular background that I was inoculated against most if not all of the varieties of nonsense in student politics, and refused, unlike Charles Clarke and to his explicit regret at the time, to make a career in student politics when a career was there for the taking.

Because I detached myself from student politics at precisely the moment when Charles Clarke and many others of his and my generation were investing heavily in them for the future, I developed a profoundly sceptical attitude to the political seriousness of this generation as it began to make its way into and up the Labour Party. And since this generation has achieved precisely nothing of value, and has only an endless succession of absurd defeats and shameful capitulations to show for all its activity, I have no reason to regret my decision in 1973 to break completely with student politics and do something else, and no reason to reconsider the reason for this decision, which was the opinion I had formed of student politics by that time after four years of active involvement in it.


Broadly speaking there were three kinds of students politics in existence in most British universities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was the formative period of most of the ambitious young men in Kinnock’s entourage.

There was the long established student politics of the party political societies, the Labour Clubs, Liberal Clubs and Conservative Associations, in which students committed to these parties debated policy issues and learned how to get themselves elected on to the committees of their respective societies, and generally underwent training in policy debate, manoeuvre and intrigue to prepare them for a party political career. This form of student politics had its natural extension in the university debating societies, where budding Labourites, Tories and Liberals would confront each other and learn how to score points off each other (sharing this forum with students who envisaged other careers for which an aptitude for public speaking was a prerequisite, notably in television).

Then there was the revolutionary student politics of the ‘student revolt’ and its aftermath. At first, this took its cue from the ‘New Left’ and the theories of people like Herbert Marcuse and was vaguely anarchist in outlook. Models available were the Situationists in France and especially the spontaneist March 22 movement led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit in 1968, but these models dovetailed quite easily with the hippy fringe of the Anti-Vietnam War movement in the US and more generally the plethora of conceptions and lines of patter associated with the notion of an ‘Alternative Society’. But in Britain this brand of student radicalism had shallow roots and had largely evaporated as a political force by 1969; or rather, the Marcusian New Left element disappeared from the political arena, the hippy element simply dropped out, and the politically activist element reverted to, or condensed into, or was absorbed by, a revival of the unorthodox trend of the Old Left, namely Trotskyism. At first this occurred under the cover of a nominally broad-based movement called the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF). By late 1969 the RSSF had fallen apart and its main organised underpinnings, the Inter-national Socialists (IS) and the International Marxist Group (IMG), had begun to operate in the open on their own account.

The third kind of student politics of this period was student unionism.

A fundamental characteristic of student unions is that the essential elements of the unions are laid on for the elected student officers who are temporarily vested with the notional responsibility of running them. The officers of a student union do not have to worry about recruiting members, since all members of the student body are automatically members of the student union. And they do not have to worry about collecting membership dues either, because these are paid automatically to the union by the Local Education Authorities as part of the students’ grants. As for administering other activities, most of these actually run themselves as self-governing clubs and societies, the union’s job being essentially confined to handling the booking of rooms and allocating funds. The exceptions are the union’s own catering facilities, but these are often administered by full-time or part-time employed staff, over whom the union officers exercise a largely nominal supervision.

In short, the administrative side of running a student union is largely on automatic pilot all the time. Little or no real responsibility is vested in its elected officers on this score. The running of student unions requires little real administrative ability and is unlikely to develop this in the people who undertake the responsibility if they don’t possess it in the first place. And because it requires little administrative ability, it requires little in the way of a sense of responsibility, and is equally unlikely to develop this sense in people who get themselves elected to office if they don’t possess it in the first place.

None of this mattered very much before the late 1960s, because student union activity had tended to be apolitical, and its characteristics did not infect those students with ambitions to get somewhere in Labour politics. But after 1969 it became highly politicised, and the grafting of leftwing politics onto student union irresponsibility gave rise to a political concoction which has had a lethal effect on the Labour Party.


The student unionism which developed around 1969-1971 was a genuine innovation in student politics. What caught the attention in the 1960s were the ‘revolutionary’ varieties of student politics. But while the Marcusian spontaneist-anarchist-situationist variety was largely something new, and even interesting in some ways, it was a flash in the pan. As a form of politics it lacked vital ingredients and stamina. It was the revival of the Old Left varieties of revolutionary politics which had substance and staying power, but there was nothing particularly novel about the phenomenon of students being attracted to revolutionary Marxist politics. The Trotskyism of the late ’60s and early ’70s expressed much the same proclivities of a minority of British university students as orthodox Communism had in the 1930s.

Novelty and staying power were combined only in the third kind of student politics, student unionism. This did not really exist before 1968-9. Its arrival was signalled by the election of Jack Straw to the presidency of the National Union of Students in 1969 at the head of a slate backed by something in the shadows called the Left Caucus’. And its existence was consolidated by the election of Digby Jacks as Straw’s successor in 1971.

Jacks was (and was widely known to be) a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the guiding force in the Left Caucus’ from the outset was the CPGB. The CPGB’s success in getting first Straw and then Jacks elected to the NUS presidency established student unionism as a form of student politics with serious leftwing political pretensions; it gave to student unionism a gravitational pull on ambitious leftwing students which it had never previously had, and it forced IS and the IMG to re-orient themselves to student unionism to counter the CPGB’s success in this arena, although their presence in it merely reinforced the CPGB’s influence.

The activity of the CPGB was itself guided by a truly novel and complex conception of what it was up to in launching student unionism on an unsuspecting generation. But this conception bore little relation to what the CPGB actually achieved. What it achieved was a catastrophe.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the CPGB transformed British student politics. Between 1969 and 1973 student unions supplanted Labour Clubs as the launching pad for people with ambitions in the Labour Party. This was not what the CP meant to do, but it is what it did. And the implications have been enormous, so enormous that the generation of political activists which lived through this change is still not able to understand itself or the society it lives in or the damage it has been doing.


In the old days the function of university Labour clubs was to enable students interested in a political career in the Labour Party to learn the ropes. Labour Club activists were not oriented to student representative politics at all, but to the outside world, and above all Parliament, and the Parliamentary Labour Party, as the central institutions for dealing politically with the outside world, whether at home or abroad .. They did not spend their time debating what policy to adopt on matters such as university discipline or curriculum reform or the level of student grants, but the case for further measures of nationalisation or incomes policy or comprehensive education or unilateral disarmament and so on.

This orientation led them to develop a respectful attitude towards MPs, learning from them, modelling themselves on them, cultivating them, making contacts that would stand them in good stead in their initial careers, etc. The short-term ambition of every Labour Club activist was to get elected to the Club’s Committee and eventually to become its Chairman, because the Chairman had the privilege of choosing the Club’s ‘card’ of guest speakers for the coming term and so was able to choose the political celebrities he wished to cultivate. At Oxford and Cambridge (and no doubt elsewhere too), the supreme ambition of Labour hopefuls was to obtain the presidency of the Union (that is, the university debating society) in addition to the chairmanship of the Labour Club so that they might choose two ‘cards’ full of MPs and other celebrities and so get off to the fastest possible start in their careers.

This orientation implied and developed a serious measure of respect for the PLP. A chairman of leftwing views would invite members of the Tribune Group to address the Club, because these were the MPs he had an interest in developing links with; a rightwing chairman would invite MPs like Tony Crosland and Brian Walden or Roy Hattersley to speak for the same reasons, and so it went on. In other words, the routine activities of Labour Clubs tended to connect their active members with the various factions or tendencies within the PLP. In doing so, they kept these factions and tendencies topped up with new blood and so enabled the PLP to reproduce itself in each new generation.


Student unionism had a totally different effect on leftwing activists. Through student unionism they became absorbed in student and university affairs. They were not oriented to the outside world at all, except in so far as events in the outside world furnished pretexts for flowery resolutions. Student unionist activity did not develop any interest in Parliament in those who engaged in it, and no orientation to the PLP as such. In so far as student union activists were oriented to the outside world for any practical purposes, this was to the government itself rather than the PLP, that is to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science as the antagonist to be defeated in the annual grants campaign or in the campaign to preserve student union autonomy in respect of how they allocated their funds (in opposition to the government’s attempt to prevent what it called ultra vires payments, that is, the allocation of funds by student unions to purposes outside their proper authority, e.g. grants to political causes).

Because student unionism was not oriented to the PLP, it actually tended to develop a dismissive attitude towards the PLP. By attracting ambitious leftwing students who would otherwise have operated inside the Labour Clubs, student unionism tended to preclude student politicians from functioning later to invigorate the constituent elements of PLP. It developed no interest whatsoever amongst its active participants in the issues which were the stuff of internal Labour Party policy debates, and so it precluded people from reflecting on the policy dilemmas which had confronted previous Labour governments and the policy options which a future Labour government would have to think about. It developed a thorough-going lack of interest in the history of the Labour Party in or out of government and so a cast of mind in which all informed historical perspective was conspicuous for its absence.

And because it had the effect of disconnecting these leftwing students from the PLP, and disabled them from relating effectively to the PLP through its constituent tendencies and factions, it actually tended to develop in them a predisposition to supplant and supersede these constituent tendencies inside the PLP. Whereas the Labour Clubs tended to ensure the reproduction of the constituent elements of the PLP, student unionism fostered a cast of mind amongst those activists with parliamentary ambitions which disposed them to wipe out the existing tendencies within the PLP and remould the PLP in their own image, the image of student union activists.

Another effect of student unionism was that it developed in its active participants an interest in manoeuvring for office within the apparatus to a far greater extent than had been true of Labour Clubs, while precluding the development of any aptitude for the business of political recruitment or proselytising.

Because, unlike Labour Clubs, student unions had their memberships laid on for them, no student unionist needed to bother about recruiting members to the union. But every Labour Club activist with career ambitions had an immediate interest in recruiting new members to the Club. The Club did not have any members laid on for it at all. Its membership was a function, over and above the general factor of the Labour Party’s national standing and appeal, of the energetic recruiting engaged in by its own active members. These members had an interest in doing this, in that it was the way in which they could build up personal followings in the Club’s membership.

I was an active member of the Oxford University Labour Club in 1969-1970 and was able to observe the game at close quarters. The way to make headway in the OULC was to become the OULC representative for your own college, and then coax and cajole (bribery was not unheard of) as many members of your college as possible to take out Club membership. This gave you a block vote with which to bargain with your counterparts in other colleges in the negotiations which went on in the formation of unofficial slates or tickets in the end-of-term elections for the Club’s officers. I dare say that this sort of thing made for a certain cynicism, but all politics have their seamy side, and at least this business developed certain practical aptitudes which future Labour MPs would need.

And, in addition to recruiting student members for the Labour Club, student activists would regularly canvass for the nearest Constituency Labour Party in local and general elections, and develop useful skills in the process.

None of this applied to student unionism. Student unionists developed no aptitude for recruitment or proselytising, let alone canvassing the general public, at all. What they developed instead was an exaggerated and unhealthily premature taste for competition for bureaucratic jobs.

The offices in a Labour Club were normally of one term’s duration only, made minimal demands on a student’s time, and carried no material rewards whatever. While people competed for them, it was merely as stepping stones towards the only office that was really worth having, the chairmanship itself, and this was sought only as the jumping-off point for a political career in the outside world. In student unions, on the other hand, at least one post, the Presidency, was a full-time job which lasted for an entire academic year and was accordingly accompanied by a sabbatical from academic work. In some student unions by the early 1970s, there were sabbatical vice-presidencies as well, sometimes two or three. These offices were hotly contested, because they were real prizes in themselves, carrying with them, apart from various other perks, what amounted to an extra year’s grant. In some student unions, notably that of the Polytechnic of North London, certain activists managed the tour de force of getting themselves elected and re-elected to sabbatical posts several years in succession. (I think it was Terry Povey, a leading IS member at PNL in the early 1970s, who established the record of four years, but I may be wrong.)


In the Labour Clubs, competition for office developed recruitment and bargaining skills and was competition for access to stepping stones to a future career in the PLP. In student unions, competition for office was more intense because the immediate material prizes were greater, but relied not at all on recruitment and bargaining skills but almost entirely upon cut-throat manoeuvre and intrigue. And the offices won in a university or polytechnic student union were not stepping stones to a career in the PLP, but to a career in the NUS if anything. They therefore prolonged the activist’s narrow preoccupation with student affairs and postponed his graduation to the political world outside higher education, and tended to deflect him from involvement with the PLP.

But while the rise of student unionism did anything but prepare leftwing activists to make a useful contribution to the ranks of the PLP, it also prevented the products of the Labour Clubs from doing so.

The Oxford University Labour Club has produced many Labour MPs. At one time to become its Chairman was as good a starting point for a political career as you could hope for: Michael Foot, Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Brian Walden – the list is long and impressive. It is striking, then, that none of the chairmen of the OULC in 1969-1972 became MPs. When I first joined it its Chairman was David Lipsey, who was widely tipped for a parliamentary career. He began well, getting taken on by Tony Crosland as a research assistant. But that is as far as he got in politics; he eventually settled for a career in journalism instead. His successor was a certain Godfrey Stadlen, an impressively intelligent, thoughtful and principled person. He ended up in the civil service. Even the less high-minded figures, who were more adept at manoeuvring than at arguing for coherent policy positions, but whose political skills, such as they were, would normally have taken them far, appear to have got virtually nowhere. A couple of them have made it as far as Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, but no further. The rise of student unionism .blocked off their avenue into high politics. (It was only when the OULC had itself got involved in the politics of student unionism from 1973 onwards that it began once again to function as a launching pad for Labour careerists. But by then it had been infected by its involvement with student unionism, and had largely ceased to be what it was meant to be.)


Within a mere twelve years of the birth of student unionism with Jack Straw’s election to the NUS presidency in 1969, the Parliamentary Labour Party had been deprived of its crucial prerogative to choose the Party’s leader. The premise of everything which has been done to the Labour Party by Neil Kinnock is the event which occurred two years before he became leader, the emasculation of the PLP by the adoption of mandatory reselection of MPs and above all the creation of the electoral college in 1980-1981.

It should already be clear in what way the rise of student unionism had prepared the ground for this development. The constitutional changes of 1980-1981 were the first great victory of the political generation which had been formed by the new student unionism and which was animated by the contempt which student unionism engendered for parliamentary politics in general and the PLP in particular. But this victory simply cleared the ground for other developments, in which student unionism, as it came into its own inside the Labour Party, spread its wings with a vengeance.

The worst effects of student unionism remain to be described. They cannot be described properly except in conjunction with an account of what the CPGB thought it was up to in promoting this political fashion.

(To be continued)


This article appeared in September 1991, in Issue 25 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

Hugh Roberts is no longer associated with the Bevin Society. But what he said remains of great historic interest.