December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Labour Party youth wings: NOLS and LPYS

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NOLS and the LPYS were the two youth wings of the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s and they couldn't have been more different

Pictured here are my membership cards for the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) and the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). Both notionally youth movements within the UK Labour Party and yet – they couldn’t have been more different.

Not since Stalin and Trotsky faced off in the 1930s had two groups of left-wingers loathed each other as much as the student and youth wings of the Labour Party. NOLS under the control of the “right wing” of the party and the LPYS firmly in the control of the Militant – a Marxist group within the party.

The LPYS national conference was essentially a rally for the Militant and its de facto youth organisation. Delegates and attendees were overwhelmingly working class. Motions from the leadership sailed through demanding the end of capitalism, nuclear disarmament and a socialist planned economy.

NOLS conference by marked contrast was a political battlefield. You pretty much went with your war paint on ready to engage in combat to the death. Well, slight exaggeration. But only slight.

NOLS had been set up by the Labour Party bureaucracy after the LPYS fell into Militant’s hands in the mid-1970s. Basically, students were hived off in the hope that a moderate youth wing could be created – with a view to eventually taking back the LPYS.

Those young people involved in NOLS and on side with the party machine agenda against Militant initially called themselves “Clause IV” and later the “Democratic Left”. Both names were ironic because their commitment to Clause IV was questionable and the methods employed to snuff out the Militant and other hard elements within NOLS could barely be described as democratic.

Clause IV came to the conference determined to send Militant dominated college delegations home on any number of technicalities. While Militant arrived set on making the lives of Clause IV supporters a living hell for a week.

In between the two sides was the Socialist Organiser group (known derisively as “Soggy Oggy”) who cut a forlorn and largely irrelevant spectacle. Though they tried to convince themselves otherwise.

The NOLS leadership was an amalgamation of young right-wingers with former Communist Party types. Hard to imagine, but up until the early 1970s, the National Union of Students was run by a “Broad Left” made up of Labour, Communist and Liberal students.

When, under Militant pressure, that curious alliance ended and Labour ran under its own steam, I think some CP elements drifted into NOLS. But not into the LPYS – where there wouldn’t have been a warm welcome from the Trotskyists of Militant for the Stalinists of the CP.

Evidence of this Stalinist presence in NOLS came at the 1982 conference where I was a delegate. A motion was put by the leadership that we should recognise and work with the state-run student union organisation in what was then Communist-ruled Poland.

What made this motion so offensive was that in the port city of Gdansk, a full blown workers uprising was underway led by the independent Solidarnosc movement.

And – get this – a representative of the Solidarnosc student organisation was at the NOLS conference asking to speak before we voted on that motion. His request was turned down by the leadership, which saw its motion passed. Then – and only then – the Solidarnosc rep was allowed to speak.

You have just recognised a trade union like one that would be led by Margaret Thatcher!

Or words to that effect.

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Throughout the early 1980s, the civil war continued within NOLS while the LPYS continued on under Militant control. But after the 1985 Labour Party annual conference, a trickle of expulsions of Militant members turned into a small flood.

The LPYS was shut down and reconstituted in 1993. NOLS became Labour Students – though as of 2019, it was disaffiliated from the Labour Party.

Many of those who went through the LPYS ended up in the Socialist Party, the organisation created when Militant decided to end activity within the Labour Party. While NOLS created a generation of Labour Party politicians who were as much defined by their hatred of the hard left as by their feelings towards the Tories.

It’s been an unhappy history – and somehow I suspect it’s by no means over.

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