As 2010 is put to rest it will be remembered, among other things, as a year of student activism.
Much is made in the media of the pre-university activists, people under the age of 18. There is nothing new about this of course though. I remember the School Students’ Union in the 1980s which I seem to recall was led by Militant.
I was a 17-year-old president of my further education college student union in 1986. Unlike in universities and polys, this was a non-sabbatical post which wasn’t very conducive to studying the A-Levels I was taking. The following year I was elected as a National Union of Students (NUS) area convenor, a low paid post which meant that instead of going to Uni or starting a career of some kind I got to play at being a full-time revolutionary.
There were two national NUS conferences in those days, plus lots of smaller sector conferences. The entire NUS apparatus was like a kindergarten for political careerists.
The best road to careerism was with the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) as it provided a nice springboard for Labour parliamentary politics. It was even obvious at the time, not just with hindsight, that this was how to have a successful political career. The president of NUS when I was first involved was Phil Woolas, who became a Labour MP until he was recently barred from holding office.
However, some took the road less travelled and made it anyway. Lembit Öpik, the Liberal Democrat who recently lost his seat in parliament, was on the NUS national executive during my time of involvement. And just a few years before I was involved, the broadcaster and journalist David Aaronovitch (son of the highly regarded CPGB economist Sam Aaronovitch) had been the communist NUS President.
A friend suggested we make a list of all the people we personally knew in NUS who became successful politicians. But it would be a long list of people and would, with only a few exceptions, read like a rogues’ gallery, particularly of the last Labour government.
Basically, if you weren’t a Tory then NUS was the place to launch your political career. The politics of NUS was unprincipled to say the least and largely consisted of deals being made between the various groups to get motions through. Just the right training for party and parliamentary politics.
There was one NUS activist who was legendary for mischief making at the time, and that was Derek Draper, who went on to become an infamous Labour Party political adviser who hit the headlines in the “Lobbygate” and “Smeargate” scandals.
Draper developed his art in NUS where, for sport, he used to pillory the many Trotskyists that attended the conferences. I am pretty sure he was behind the publication Socialist Turd which was a merciless trot-bashing rag written in the style of Viz comic. The 1980s were a time of extreme political correctness and the politicos took themselves very seriously, which only seemed to make Draper go further and further with his antics.
One time I had a Searchlight stall outside NOLS conference at some London venue, probably the University of London Union. As a stallholder, who also wasn’t a member of NOLS, I was confined to the fringe of the conference so couldn’t witness the proceedings. The other stalls were the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. So the commies were sat outside while the social democrats deliberated.
All of a sudden there was some noise from inside and a side door opened and a rather flushed in the face Derek Draper emerged. He then proceeded to tell us what had just happened.
There was some motion due to be tabled and he knew from the balance of forces that the right-wing Labourites would lose when it got put to the vote. So, a dab hand in the art of devious politics, he decided that he would try and filibuster so that there wouldn’t be time for the motion to be heard.
He started a row with some Trotskyist, during which he said something like: “Anyway, your girlfriend is so ugly I wouldn’t shag her if she had a paper bag over her head.”
During the ensuing suspension of standing orders, while the matter of sexism from the floor and Draper’s subsequent ejection from the conference were being dealt with, the motion of course fell off the agenda. While the delegates concentrated on dealing with Draper, he had scuppered the Trot’s motion.
Quite whether the current student movement can emerge as anything more than radical street theatre remains to be seen. One thing is certain though, somewhere in NUS the next generation of Draper’s, Aaronovitch’s and Öpik’s are being cultivated. For all our sakes, let’s hope that there are some that will break the mould.