“On the Offensive for a Fighting Union”: Revolutionary Communist Students’ manifestos for 1990 NUS conference

This piece was originally posted over at Patreon.

As part of my research into the history of ‘no platform’ at British universities, I came across copies of the manifestos for the Revolutionary Communist Students’ candidates at the NUS conference in April 1990 (alongside some for subsequent years). The RCS was a lively part of the Revolutionary Communist Party and as John Kelly wrote in his book Contemporary Trotskyism, ‘extensive recruitment on university campuses’ was a factor in the RCP’s growth in the 1980s. 

Despite being part of the student movement, the RCP/RCS had a suspicion of the National Union of Students and other student unions at this time. Between 1988 and 1990, as the student unions came under a renewed attack by the Thatcher government, the RCP argued that the student unions were ‘appendages of the institutions of higher education, not independent organisations of students’ and therefore allegedly unwilling to adequately confront (in the eyes of the RCP) the universities and the government (The Next Step, 18 November, 1988). For the RCP, the NUS in particular was ‘ill-placed to lead a student fightback because it [was] part of the system’ that was attacking students’ (The Next Step, 2 December, 1988).

The RCS still put forward candidates for student union elections, including for the NUS. Four candidates were up for election at the 1990 April conference – Lindsay Daniels, Penny Lewis, Para Teare and Claire Foster (better known as Claire Fox). Daniels and Foster were from the Polytechnic of North London (PNL), while Lewis was at Matthew Bolton FE College (where she was lesbian and gay officer) and Teare was at Manchester Polytechnic. 

The manifestos included a list of what the RCS was for (politically independent student unionism, free abortion on demand, free 24 hour nurseries, an end to immigration controls, Irish self-determination, equal rights for lesbians and gays, revolution in the East and West) and against (management interference, student loans, censorship, militarism), as well as a short profile of each candidate. Like the electoral manifestos of the RCP, the platform of the RCS was broad, in an attempt to get as many supporters for a basic programme, which left out some of the RCP’s more controversial positions. For example, under the heading of ‘censorship’, the manifesto talks about Spycatcher and the broadcasting bans against Sinn Féin as part of a resistance against ‘all attempts to silence political opposition’, but did not mention the RCP’s long-running opposition to the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy. From reading the student press in the 1980s and 1990s, the RCP’s reputation preceded them and is not clear whether they would’ve found broader support for their platform. 

The profiles of each candidate are interesting, especially as they mention some similar issues and campaigns. The profiles of the two candidates from PNL (Foster and Daniels) both mention their work in the campaign against the deportation of Juluis Alexander, one of a number of anti-deportation campaigns that the RCP (and its sister group, Workers Against Racism) were involved with in the 1980s. Teare’s profile also mentions her work in anti-deportation campaigns, such as the campaign in support of George Roucou. 

Both Foster and Teare highlighted their activism for women’s rights, including campaigns  for abortion rights and against the Embryology Bill that was being developed by the Thatcher government at the time. Foster’s profile also mentioned a campaign at PNL to ‘win adequate nursery provision in the college’, with the demand for free 24/7 nurseries being a RCP policy for most of the 1980s.

Linking their student activism with wider working class struggles, the profiles for both Daniels and Lewis pointed to campaigns at their institutions in support of the ambulance workers’ strike that lasted over several months in 1989-90

As well as these other issues, three out of the four profiles mentioned the RCS candidates opposition to attacks from the management of higher education institutions and cutbacks for staff and students. Although Foster’s profile also emphasised her disagreement with NUS tactics for opposing the Tories’ proposed cuts to student funding at the time, stating:

Speaking at the rallies at the end of the London demonstrations, Claire showed that she is not willing to wander on demonstrations around the backstreets of cities to fight the loans, as NUS has made us do. She wants a hard-hitting visual campaign which does not rely on asking Tory MPs to stop the Tories’ plans.

I have not been able to find out whether any of the RCS’ candidates were successful. Foster obviously has gone onto bigger things. Penny Lewis is an academic in Scotland and has written for Spiked. The Powerbase database shows that Para Teare has been involved in other RCP/LM/Spiked network ventures too. I haven’t been able to find anything further on Lindsay Daniels. 

The RCS was probably the last outlet for RCP activities in the 1990s, while most of the other party bodies wound down before the party dissolved in 1996, and student activism was an important part of the RCP’s work throughout its existence. These manifestos are a fascinating snapshot of the RCP’s engagement with student politics. 

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