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  Chapter Twenty-seven

School Students' Strike


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THE OUTCOME of the miners’ strike undoubtedly had an immediately chastening effect on the consciousness of workers and their preparedness to struggle. 

But, as we argued at the time, it was not the same as in 1926. That defeat demoralised the miners and undermined the confidence of workers for a decade or more. Following the defeat of 1926 the working class transferred their hopes to the political plane, and the election of a Labour government. 

More important than the psychological effect of the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike was that it coincided with a world economic upswing. This allowed the capitalists a certain leeway, at least in the advanced industrial countries. 

The number of strikes declined in the 1980s largely because of the Reagan/Thatcher ‘boom’. Those fortunate to be employed were able to get wage increases which kept them abreast of the cost of living and in some cases led, through overtime, productivity agreements, etc, to rises above the rate of inflation. The other side of the 1980s boom was the enormous and growing disparity between rich and poor.

Rather than crushing the spirit of revolt the miners’ strike had exactly the opposite effect particularly on the new fresh layers of the working class. 

This was shown in the school strikes which broke out in March 1985, barely weeks after the end of the miners’ strike. The first signs of a movement came in mid-March with a number of student strikes and walkouts throughout the country. Of course, the press were quick to blame it on the industrial action by teachers that was taking place at the time. 

They blew up small incidents, trying to present a picture of ‘rampaging children’ let loose by ‘irresponsible’ teachers. The real reasons for young people’s discontent lay in their frustration, with no prospect of a real job when they left school; the dole or conscription onto YTS was the only future for them. Faced with this movement of school students the police were deployed. 

In Middlesbrough mounted police patrolled daily. Militant detailed a series of strikes in the Portsmouth area. These strikes 

were initially a confused action against the teachers, because they feared a potential "threat to examination chances". [But] the LPYS immediately took the initiative. At one of the schools involved there are eight LPYS members. In an emergency leaflet the teachers’ campaign for better pay was forcibly explained... The YS received support from the majority of students for opposing the mindless violence of a small minority. [The strike began to gain support and] later spread to the Bridgemary School in Gosport, from its outset the action was in support of the teachers. (1)

But these were just small movements before the explosion which detonated in Glasgow one week later. Organised by the Labour Party Young Socialists, with Militant supporters in the lead, 

"a general strike swept through Clydeside schools, bringing 20,000 pupils out... They gave Thatcher a defiant message - ‘We’re not having YTS job conscription’." 

One fourth year student from Sacred Hearts School commented to Militant: 

"The rally was tremendous. If we had more like it we’d really get somewhere. This will be like the miners. I think YTS is slave labour." (2)

More than 10,000 students poured into Glasgow city centre in what Glasgow’s Daily Record called the "biggest show of pupil power ever in Britain". Speakers were amazed when schools with improvised banners marched to the rally to be greeted with thunderous applause and roars of "Here we go". Many made home made banners with slogans like "No Slave Labour" and "What About a Future". Red flags flew all around the indoor rally. An old man approached the organisers and said:

You know, after the battle of George Square in 1919, my father said we would rise again. I always believed him and I have seen it today. (3)

Predictably, this magnificent display of working-class youth’s opposition to the slave labour YTS scheme was condemned by the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party in Scotland. Previously they had condemned, at the Labour Party Scottish conference, the "narrow sectarian nature" of the LPYS in Scotland. But as we explained:

Now the LPYS is condemned for leading mass demonstrations... They expected between 1,000 to 1,500 people, which would be a reasonable return on 10,000 leaflets in normal circumstances. The organisers can hardly be blamed for the initiatives of the Thatcher-hating school students who built the movement themselves. In fact the organisers deserve credit for the way in which the demonstration was channelled into acceptable forms of protest when the numbers could have overwhelmed them. (4)

This new ‘Revolt on the Clyde’ led to an even bigger movement of school students throughout Britain two months later. The LPYS consciously prepared for and championed this movement. 

They used their Easter conference attended by over 2,000 young people as a platform to launch a campaign for a national stoppage of youth. 200 gathered at a fringe meeting, chaired by Frances Curran, to hear Colin Baird from Glasgow and Nancy Taaffe from London, who set the turmoil in the schools against the background of the miners’ strike, Tory attacks on youth and past school strikes. 

A School Students’ Action Committee was formed, a steering committee elected and a decision to call a national half-day school strike (except in Scotland because of earlier exams) on 25 April.

Additionally, Jackie Galbraith, one of the main organisers, together with Colin Fox, of the Strathclyde strike, spoke at the Militant Readers’ Meeting. This conference also elected Linda Douglas to the NEC, the first black person on Labour’s executive.But the success of the 25 April school student strike exceeded all expectations:

A quarter of a million school students have given a crushing answer to the Tories, the press and the cynics in the labour movement... Thatcher condemned it. So did the Liberals. Unfortunately too the TUC and Labour leadership condemned it. (5)

Kinnock condemned the organisers as "dafties" but in Kinnock’s own constituency 500 joined the strike. We declared:

The Marxists in the labour movement make no apology for backing the school students to the hilt. It is essential that the despair, the frustration and anger of youth is channelled in a positive direction, linking up with the labour movement. The students themselves understand it - in Pontypridd the thousand-strong school student demonstration called on the leader of the South Wales miners to lead them into the town, which he proudly did. (6)

Every area of the country seemed to be touched by the strike. Even in Northern Ireland 3,000 had come out with only a week’s notice and completely cut across the sectarian divide. In London

thousands joined the strike... in Brent school students sent out flying pickets to build the strike... in Southampton prefects and teachers at one Catholic girl’s school linked arms across the gateway to prevent students leaving. Similarly at Portsmouth Grammar School, students were beaten back from the gates. In Plymouth four LPYS members have been threatened with expulsion from the Labour Party for supporting the strike. (7)

But all the threats came to nothing:

10,000 school students marched through Liverpool. The mood was electric. (8)

The Labour leadership denounced the strike, but they were also aware that one of the keys to the future success of Labour would be the mobilisation of youth. The strike had convinced them of the enormous discontent existing among all layers of the youth. 

So, at the same time as they evicted the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign (YTURC), which had been behind the strike, from Labour Party national headquarters they also rushed out a ‘Youth Charter’. The printing trade union SOGAT immediately stepped in and offered alternative premises to YTURC. 

The government also learned from the events of 25 April. Recognising the angry mood amongst school students they made some concessions. They had reacted in a similar fashion in 1981 when the Labour Party Young Socialists had organised a massive campaign on the issue of rights, training, conditions and wages against the forerunner of the YTS, the Youth Opportunities Programme. 

As soon as they saw this movement developing the government increased the YOP allowance. Now they took note of the mood of youth as shown by the 25 April strike. Tory spokespersons withdrew the idea of conscripting youth, by withdrawing unemployment or social security pay, for those who refused to go on YTS. The school student strike was a landmark. It served to underline the enormous impact which the miners’ strike had made on youth.

Internationally

While Militant’s coverage in 1985 was heavily concentrated on domestic issues the unique international reports still brought alive to a British audience events and stories which were found nowhere else. In May the paper reported on the expulsion from Zimbabwe of a group of Marxists, led by David Hemson, associated with the South African journal Inqaba. The prime minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, had used his May Day speech to denounce the Militant Tendency! David told us:

Throughout interrogation, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) (they were given this name by Ian Smith, by the way) defended Zimbabwe’s corrupt union leadership and showed hostility to socialism, to the British trade unions and to Arthur Scargill in particular, and the left of the Labour Party... (9)

Showing the connection between the arrests of these Marxists and events in Britain David commented:

By the Thursday, 7 March, we realised a lot of their information came from Britain directly. They were relaying information on the Labour left, including details of leading left wingers’ private lives and even details of tensions within the Labour Party. They said we were not really Labour Party we were Militant. (10)

 

Continued...

Reference Notes

 

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