December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Marxism at Liverpool Guild of Undergraduates

3 min read
In 1982, I ran to be welfare officer of Liverpool University Guild of Undergraduates - needless to say, I didn't win!
Guild of Undergraduates

Back in 1982, I was in my first year at Liverpool University studying Philosophy and Politics. I threw myself into a heady mix of radical political activity and constant clubbing. The city’s politics was volatile and exciting. The clubbing scene reflected the supremacy of Liverpool in the pop charts with bands like the Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Wah! The student paper, Gazette, questioned whether I would ever decide between being “a dedicated Marxist or a decadent disco kid”. I chose both. And in the spring of 1982, encouraged by my comrades, I ran for the welfare officer position in the Guild of Undergraduates (now the Guild of Students – the student union basically).

I was a Labour candidate. But really, I was a Militant candidate. This was the Marxist group within the Labour Party that was steadily assuming control of the party in the city of Liverpool and dominated the university Labour club that year. The comrades had no interest in actually winning this Guild election. The point was to raise the profile of our “bold socialist” policies and maybe recruit some students to the cause. Consequently, I ran on such policies as the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies, a £90 minimum wage (generous in those days!) and the introduction of a 35 hour week. I even joked at the time that a 35 hour week would lose the support of arts students who barely managed ten hours a week.

I got about 120 votes. Though I remember a Militant saying to me afterwards: “120 Marxists at the university!!” Think that was a case of revolutionary optimism.

To console myself, I got blind drunk at the count and somewhere there is a picture of me in my revolutionary, inebriated state. I’d love to see it!

DISCOVER: Britain in the era of nationalised industries

Finally, Labour victory at Liverpool Guild of Undergraduates!

That put me off running for the Guild until my final year – two years later – when I was convinced to run again with two more mainstream Labour candidates, Ben Lucas and Maeve (now Baroness) Sherlock. Our manifesto was somewhat more ‘reformist’ as the balance of power in the Labour Club had tipped away from Militant. And in what came as a massive surprise to the three of us – myself and Maeve were elected. To my knowledge – and I’m happy to be corrected – the Guild of Undergraduates at Liverpool University had never experienced a Labour sabbatical team. It had always been run by ‘independents’ – most of whom were members of either the Tories or Liberals but hid their politics for the sabbatical elections.

Our reign of terror – 1984-85 – was memorable to put it mildly. An occupation of the Senate building led to the sad death of the Vice Chancellor Robert Whelan who experienced a heart attack during the proceedings. This made it on to the BBC and ITN news that evening while I was interviewed – rather shell-shocked – by Liverpool’s Radio City. We then went on to stage a rent strike in the halls of residence and supported the miners’ strike. Never a dull moment!

After our term, the Guild of Undergraduates at Liverpool reverted to its usual apolitical form for many years. Though from what I can see from afar, today’s Zoomer sabbaticals seem to be recapturing some of that radical political spirit. Who knows – we Boomers and those Zoomers may have more in common politically than they would ever like to admit. We can at least unite in contempt for those apolitical Gen Xers and Millennials who ran the place in between then and now.

Running for Labour in 1982
Running for Labour in 1982

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