Being a student union officer during the miners’ strike in 1984 to 1985


IMG_6956In 1984, the students at Liverpool University saw fit to elect me as Deputy President of the Guild of Undergraduates (student union basically). That summer I began my sabbatical year, which would be far stormier than I could ever have reckoned.

From the spring of 84, the miners had already gone on what would be a one year mammoth strike. This wasn’t your usual kind of industrial action. It was a battle. A war even. Unionised blue collar labour versus Maggie Thatcher.

The miners had brought down the Tories under prime minister Ted Heath in 1974 and forced Thatcher to a climb down in 1981. But….she had bided her time. Coal reserves were built up. And in 1984, Thatcher decided to face down the NUM. For her, this was part of a strategy to break organised labour in the UK. The miners knew this full well regarding themselves historically as a kind of vanguard of the proletariat.

To say the stakes were high would be putting it mildly. So what did we do in the student union? Well, to be honest, students were a bit irrelevant to all the main action. However, my little office soon had a small mountain of old clothes donated by students who wanted to help cash strapped miners’ families.

There were also coaches organised to take students down to picket lines but always rather thinly attended as they did leave at the crack of dawn – around the time most undergraduates were going to bed!

I got to know a couple of miners and one of them, Garry Knowles, was interviewed by me for the student paper. From memory, and I hope I spelt his name right there, he was working at Bold colliery. Bold and Sutton Manor were our two closest pits. Garry somewhat challenged my image of a miner – as portrayed by novelists like D H Lawrence and George Orwell – by being a spiky haired goth.

People put up miners in their homes when they went around the UK to speak at rallies and meetings. There was sometimes a clash of cultures, shall we say. I recall one very middle class woman detailing to us how a very large miner had somehow managed to walk through her French windows without opening them – very drunk at the time needless to say. I’ve no idea what injuries he sustained but her windows were beyond repair!

We also wanted to make donations to the miners but as a student union we were barred by the ultra vires laws – because we were a charity and could only give to bodies with educational aims. The Socialist Workers Party were always goading us to breach the ultra vires laws. But we came up with a smarter ruse.

Apart from being Deputy President of the Guild – a charity – I was also secretary of the area National Union of Students, a body called MASO that was not a charity. So the Guild made a modest donation to MASO that then passed on this donation to the NUM. Incredibly, the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, wrote to the Treasurer of the Guild telling her to retrieve the money from the NUM as it still bore the “imprimatur” of the Guild.

It was decided by the Guild officers that the Attorney General was talking out of his highly partisan backside and we ignored the letter. Nothing happened. And we all knew that the college Conservative association had put him up to this.

Fun times!

My student union election poster from 1982 – Liverpool Guild of Undergraduates


Tony McMahonIn my first year at university, I ran for the welfare officer position in the student union at Liverpool Uni.

The Labour Club was heavily influenced by the Marxist policies of the Militant Tendency and so the programme I ran on included calls to nationalise the top 200 monopolies, a £90 minimum wage and a 35 hour week. I think the latter demand probably terrified some of the arts students!

Note the heavy fringe of the time. Think my hair would have been dyed jet black – think Phil Oakey of the Human League.

The poster was drawn with a felt-tip pen. Seems so weirdly amateur now but we had no digital magic back in those far off days.

 

Observing the 80s – Sussex Uni looks back at AIDS, the Falklands, etc


Sussex University is compiling an online archive of news and ephemera from the 1980s called ‘Observing the 80s’ – a joint project between the Mass Observation Project, the British Library Oral History Collections and the University of Sussex Library.  Click HERE for the related blog.

After the Liverpool riots – students make a big mistake


Ken Oxford
Liverpool police chief Ken Oxford was hated by local black youth

July, 1981 saw riots in the Toxteth district of Liverpool that arguably eclipsed the violence seen in other countries during that same long summer. When I arrived as a fresh faced undergraduate that October, our college bus would go from the halls of residence through Toxteth and the scene was one to make any middle class kid from southern England gulp. Houses gutted and charred and entire buildings flattened.

You might have thought we students at the university would have chosen to keep a low profile and maybe not antagonise the local youth – particularly the black youth of Toxteth who suffered high levels of unemployment and social deprivation at that time. But you wouldn’t have reckoned with the university Law Society. They decided it would be jolly interesting to hear from the Chief Constable of Merseyside, Ken Oxford.

To say that Oxford was a controversial figure would be putting it mildly. Neither the political left in Liverpool or the youth of Toxteth had a kind word to say about him. Nevertheless, in December of 1981, Oxford was asked to address a Law Society meeting on the university precinct. I should point out that said precinct may have felt remote from Toxteth but was actually a mere stone’s throw (pardon the pun) away.

university daubed
University daubed

Before Oxford spoke, a spokeswoman from the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee was allowed to make a statement.  She proposed that Oxford be turned away because he was responsible for the ‘murder’ of David Moore (a disabled youth who died during the riots after being hit by a police van), the use of CS gas (first time on the British mainland – it had been used in Northern Ireland) and the report he himself had done on the riots was, the spokeswoman opined, a ‘whitewash’.  Her motion was rejected “with a loud ‘no’ from the floor” and no vote needed to be taken.

Oxford got on with his speech saying that the police didn’t go out of their way to recruit racists and he felt the main problem facing him was a lack of finance and the attitude of the community.  It was noted that he didn’t think there was anything seriously wrong within the force itself.

He hadn’t concluded his remarks when about thirty members of the L8DC burst in to the Moot Room, where the meeting was being held, screaming “Fucking burn the police!”, “Fucking University”, “Burn the Place Down!” and “Students are guests in this city”.  Carl Chapman, vice-president of the Law Society, tried to encourage the protestors to leave but only when Oxford himself departed early, did the room empty out.

Buildings around the precinct were subsequently daubed with comments to the effect that the student body was racist.  This wasn’t the only time that the university was subject to spray can comments from locals.  Professor Patrick Minford in the Economics Department was one of Thatcher’s key advisers and his call for massive public expenditure cuts met with a graffiti response in jumbo-sized letters all over the faculty exterior.

Student mugging in the 1980s


In the early 1980s, university students comprised a small percentage of the population compared to today – and most came from fairly middle class backgrounds. There was a strong anti-student feeling in many working class areas and this could lead to conflict.

I remember local people in Liverpool referring to the Uni as the “hotel on the hill” and there was a perception that we were the gilded youth. I’m not sure things were quite as golden as the locals thought but that said, our prospects were better than the average scouser aged eighteen in 1982.

Undergraduates were beaten up and attacked. One Liverpool University student who came a cropper allowed himself to be photographed by the student paper, Guild and City Gazette, sporting two black eyes and a busted nose above the headline:

VIOLENT TIMES

This student had been set upon by ten youths aged between 18 and 21 in the Aigburth area of the city.  As the paper discovered, this was by no means an isolated case.  In the course of its investigations, a litany of robberies and attacks was uncovered.

A lecturer had been mugged outside the Roxby building with £20 stolen; a History undergraduate was knocked to the floor and £300 taken; a woman saw youths trying to steal her car and was knocked down and mugged; another lecturer had recently been beaten up in Abercromby Square in broad daylight and a ‘gang of 15 locals’ had turned up at the Brook House pub on Smithdown Road to beat up some students inside.

The University’s Security Superintendant warned that “the number of incidents of this nature is definitely on the increase”.   A University spokesman agreed that there was a trend.  “We are concerned that such attacks are becoming fashionable among teenagers in the area.”

Violent Times - a mugged student
Violent Times – a mugged student

When I ran as a Labour candidate for the student union in 1982


It was my first year at university and the Labour Club decided I should run for the post of Welfare Officer of the Guild of Undergraduates at the University of Liverpool. The Labour Club was then very much under the sway of Militant – a Marxist group within the Labour Party that has now evolved into the Socialist Party.

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.

Think 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.

Running for Labour in 1982
Running for Labour in 1982