Arty McBain is a former Conservative Party official.
Although student protest was a problem for the Heath government, the hardball strategy of FCS in the eighties neutralised NUS as a campaigning force against Mrs T. NUS itself was made the issue and it was thrown onto the defensive. If it has forgotten the lessons it was taught back then, maybe it’s time to remind NUS how rough it gets in the big boys’ playground.
Student unrest made a significant contribution to undermining the 1970-74 Heath government. From the middle 70s to the middle 80s, the Conservative Party tried two divergent approaches to prevent the NUS doing the same thing to us in the future.
The first was to pour resources into the Party’s student wing in an attempt to gain influence in student unions and NUS. At first, the results were dramatic. When we left office in 1974 the Federation of Conservative Students could boast only 1 student union president but by 1977 there were 50 and FCS had 200 branches and 16,000 members. However, these successes were more apparent than real.
Quick electoral success and high membership was achieved at the cost of diluting the Conservative aspect of the Party’s student wing. Student union ‘moderates’ were enrolled by being told that FCS was a student body backed by the Party but not part of it, so they did not need to be Conservatives to join. The well-resourced FCS became a comfortable refuge for large numbers of anti-Marxist but non-Conservative student politicians who had no committment to the Party. By the late 1970s such centrists had become the dominating current. The 1979-80 National FCS Chairman Stuart Baylis famously described himself as a Swedish Social Democrat.
This quick fix approach created three long-term problems.
First, under ‘moderate’ direction, FCS’s strategic role decayed to being a vaguely moderating rather than a specifically Conservative influence within NUS. FCS became a support mechanism for unprincipled ‘moderate’ student union careerists. Worse, lack of principle led to moral hazard. For electoral advantage at NUS conferences, FCS went into alliance with the next most moderate grouping. This was the Communist Party.
Second, the strategy rebounded on the Conservative Party once we entered government in 1979. Funded to be a Conservative influence within NUS, FCS became an NUS influence within the Conservative Party and sided with the student left against the Government. I vividly recall my shock as a fresher when, having been a schoolboy activist through the 1979 general election, I arrived at my first FCS training conference to see a delegate wearing a “Ditch the Bitch” badge.
Third, no platform was left for those who wished to advocate Conservative views, making FCS not so much a broad front between Conservatives and ‘moderates’ but a ‘moderate’ takeover. This naturally provoked conflict between frustrated Government supporters (‘Thatcherites’) and ‘moderates’.
But was the strategy a success in its own terms, in NUS and student unions?
There were never more than two FCS members of the NUS Executive. All FCS’s reform proposals to democratise NUS and reduce the mob rule element got nowhere. Beginning in 1978 the number of FCS sabbatical officers in SUs went into decline. The FCS ‘moderates’ had next-to-no influence in NUS, they were reviled by the other groups (except the Communists) and they opposed Mrs Thatcher themselves. The refusal to speak up for Conservative policies, the unprincipled manoeuvrings, the collaboration with Communists and the paranoid repression of Mrs Thatcher’s supporters lost the ‘moderate’ leadership its support among FCS’s own members. The ‘moderate’ strategy was a terrible and divisive failure.
A grassroots Thatcherite rebellion that won the FCS leadership in 1980 led to the second Conservative approach to the NUS problem, a bottom up solution rather than a Central Office strategy.
Most normal students regarded student politics as childish and would not vote, leaving disproportionate numbers of obsessives and extremists among the turnout at elections. Smaller colleges sent a huge percentage of the delegates at NUS conferences but didn’t hold democratic delegate elections, choosing them at activist-dominated meetings or Executives. Overcoming these institutional biases were an impossible task for Conservative students with few resources and exams to pass. But NUS could not be allowed to kick lumps out of the Conservative Party without hindrance.
It was therefore decided to move into outright opposition to the NUS, to challenge its compulsory membership, public funding, representative legitimacy and political extremism. FCS officially withdrew from participating in NUS. It ran campaigns to disaffiliate member student unions and ran anti-NUS candidates for NUS conference delegations, dozens of whom were elected.
As with the ‘moderate’ strategy, the disaffiliation strategy met with initial success. Disaffiliation campaigns sprung up like forest fires in universities and polytechnics all over the country, year after year. At one stage 5 of the 8 Scottish universities and major southern English universities such as Kings College London and Reading had disaffiliated. In addition, anti-NUS delegates began disrupting NUS conferences with protests against the student union closed shop and provocative tactics that guaranteed time-wasting overreactions from far left delegates. Endless points of order and a dozen anti-NUS candidates making hustings speeches for every elected position ground NUS conference agendas to a standstill.
With its political credibility and subscription base under sustained assault and its internal processes in paralysis, in 1982 under the leadership of its Communist president David Aaronovitch NUS panicked and introduced proscription. Delegates were banned from standing for the NUS Executive if the secretary of their student union certified that they had been elected to NUS conference on an anti-NUS platform. This of course proved the anti-NUS point and was rescinded the following year, when the tide of disaffiliations had begun to ebb.
Unlike the ‘moderate’ strategy, the disaffiliate/disrupt strategy was opposed by Central Office who made no funds available. In fact, CCO began withdrawing staff and resources from FCS altogether, embarrassed by its demands for student loans, a major quango cull and the privatisation of British Airways, British Telecom and the National Coal Board. Also unlike the ‘moderate’ approach, the grassroots strategy was undermined from within FCS. After a second devastating conference defeat, most of the leading ‘moderates’ decamped to the newly-formed SDP. Those who remained put loyalty to NUS higher than loyalty to the Party and established Conservative Student Unionists as a vehicle for their NUS careers.
NUS eventually reversed the tide of disaffiliations. Given the disparity between CCO’s withdrawal of support for FCS and NUS’s lavish tax-funding, it was remarkable that the campaign had been as successful as it had. But the other legs of FCSs’s strategy: the constant challenges to the student union closed shop at universities through the country, the official boycott of NUS, the lobbies, the EDMs, the posters, comic strips, speeches, pickets, leaflets and the “participate to destroy” campaign at conferences continued to pin NUS down until FCS was closed in 1986.
Six years of forced supping on its own medicine sobered NUS up substantially. But if NUS now wants to replay old fights, we have the experience of how to deal with it. The morality of compulsory membership and taxpayers’ money laundered through universities and then student unions to be used for political campaigns by NUS are as dubious as ever. A revamp of the FCS playbook updated for the YouTube generation, properly financed and supported by the Party machine and supported by all Conservatives this time could inflict fatal damage.
It wouldn’t take too many big disaffiliations to wreck NUS’s finances. Around eight universities are currently disaffiliated through grassroots disaffection without any Conservative intervention at all. Durham University disaffiliated in March this year after a scandal in which NUS officers made violent threats to close down a debate. A proper campaign would set campuses ablaze, forcing NUS to spend time and money defending its home bases and creating the political space for ministers to take action against compulsory membership and prevent the misuse of public money. It only takes political will.
In the 1980s, the traditional toast at FCS gatherings was “To the destruction of NUS before the next General Election.” Perhaps it is time for Conservative Future to say to CCHQ “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”