By Nick Toms
In Easter 1984 over 2000 young people assembled in Bridlington for the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) three day annual conference. Over 100 of them were young miners who had just started to take part in what became the great miner’s strike of 1984-85.
As the strike unfolded the LPYS organised joint meetings with the National Union of Mineworkers in many pit villages across the coalfield to build solidarity. They were often packed with the atmosphere in many truly electric. In the tiny village of Fitzwilliam in West Yorkshire, for instance, an ecstatic public meeting saw the hall of the local public house filled to capacity with an overflow meeting having to take place in the bar.
LPYS members took part in picket lines including Orgreave and raised over £250,000 for the miners’ support groups. The LPYS went on to organise a 1000 strong lobby of young miners at the 1984 Labour Party Annual Conference through a young miners’ committee established for the purpose.
The LPYS was the largest socialist youth organisation in UK Labour history. It flourished in the struggle against Thatcherism in the early 1980s growing to a peak of just under 600 branches in 1985.
It built its membership by campaigning on the key issues facing working class youth at that time. In addition to building solidarity for workers involved in the industrial struggles of the period, the LPYS’ major campaigns included for a better deal for young people than that offered by the Youth Training Schemes (YTS) set up by the Tories to address mass youth unemployment where participants were paid as little as £15 a week. The LPYS fought for trade union rights and rates of pay with a guaranteed job for all trainees.
The YTS campaign included lobbies of parliament (with one involving parents of young people killed on YTS schemes to protest at the lack of health and safety protection on schemes), demonstrations and public meetings. It led to setting up the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign which organised a young workers assembly in the Free Trade hall in Manchester in 1983 where participants included many youth delegations from shop stewards’ committees.
The height of the YTS campaign came in 1985 when the LPYS played a leading role in organising school student strikes across the UK against the government’s proposals to make the schemes effectively compulsory for all young people with the removal of unemployment benefits for 16-17 year olds. 250,000 took part with large demonstrations in many cities including 10,000 in Liverpool alone. Neil Kinnock, Labour Leader at the time, described those responsible as ‘dafties’ but the strikes were victorious with the Tories agreeing to withdraw the proposals.
The LPYS was also heavily involved in the fight against racism and the fascist National Front in the late 70s and early 80s. LPYS members played a significant role in the anti-NF demonstration in Lewisham in 1977. The LPYS and Birmingham Trades Council jointly organised the huge demonstration against the Young National Front conference at Digbeth Civic Hall in Birmingham in 1978. When the police tried to direct the demonstration down derelict backstreets, the LPYS contingent stepped out, turned their banners around and marched back to the Civic Hall despite charges from police horses and bricks flying through the air.
The LPYS was organised into branches based on Constituency Labour Parties. There were also LPYS Regional Committees along with an annual Regional conference. The Regional conferences elected a representative to the LPYS National Committee which was responsible for organising national campaigning and the annual conference. The National Committee produced a monthly newspaper, Socialist Youth. The organisation of the LPYS was greatly assisted from 1978 with the appointment of former National LPYS Chair, Andy Bevan, as the Labour Party national youth officer.
The LPYS National conference was always a highlight of the year. Major figures from the Labour movement attended to give keynote speeches including Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Arthur Scargill. LPYS policy was debated and agreed with every branch entitled to send a resolution. The conference elected the LPYS representative to Labour’s National Executive.
What distinguished the LPYS was its firm roots amongst working class youth, both the unemployed and those in work. Members of the LPYS National Committee included young people from the mining industry, steel industry, engineering and car workers including from British Leyland’s Longbridge plant and Ford’s factory in Dagenham. Young women were fully encouraged to take part with many serving on the LPYS National Committee. Between 1984-1989, the LPYS representative on Labour’s National Executive was female. In 1986, the first black women to serve on Labour’s National Executive was from the LPYS, Linda Douglas.
Political education was a major priority. Residential regional LPYS weekend schools were organised once or twice a year. In the North East, an annual weekend school took place on Holy Island. In Yorkshire, the LPYS organised a joint weekend school with the National Union of Mineworkers at Wortley Hall. In the Eastern Region a school was held in Great Yarmouth. Speakers included leading MPs and trade union leaders. Often there were debates between members of the LPYS NC and MPs.
From 1978 the LPYS organised an annual summer camp in the Forest of Dean. Around 700-800 young people would attend for a week of political seminars, debates and rallies as well as social and leisure activities. The quiz was never to be forgotten nor the club nights with performances from LPYS members around the country. Tony Benn was a frequent visitor. In 1984 eight coachloads of young socialists left the camp to go to Pontypridd and demonstrate in support of the South Wales NUM who had just had their funds sequestrated by the Courts.
It wasn’t all politics. The LPYS had a lively social life. Being a member was politically rewarding and often great fun too. Beer flowed freely.
These were radical times and the LPYS socialist message struck home with many young people. Capitalism was failing and they wanted something different. Many LPYS members were supporters of the Militant Marxist newspaper including every member of the National Committee. At times, especially during the miners’ strike, revolution seemed very much in the air and Militant’s socialist programme offered a clear alternative.
Sadly, the LPYS wasn’t to last as the bitter industrial defeats in the mid 80s took their toll along with the collapse of the Soviet Union (despite its Stalinist nature). The right in the Labour Party gained ascendancy and targeted Militant supporters for expulsion. The LPYS was seen as a major factor in the rise of Militant, so Kinnock and his supporters, including John Mann and Mike Gapes, moved to close it down.
The national and regional structures of the LPYS were disbanded in 1987 along with the national conference. The age limit was reduced from 26 to 23. By 1990 the number of branches had declined to 52. Finally, in 1993, a certain Tom Watson moved a resolution at Labour’s Annual Conference to close down what was left of the LPYS completely.
The LPYS may have passed into history but it left a tremendous legacy. It showed what can be achieved by a socialist youth organisation which campaigns with verve and enthusiasm around a programme for radical socialist change.
Nick Toms was LPYS National Committee 1979 to 1983 and LPYS National Vice Chair 1980 to 1983.