RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
Studies in pure ambition

Eight years later they have graduated to positions of power and influence and now, for one of them, to scandal. There was Stephen Twigg, the former president of the National Union of Students, cheered by the nation on election night when he ousted Michael Portillo. Lorna Fitzsimons, who that year became an NUS executive officer and later succeeded Twigg as NUS president, and is now MP for Rochdale. Simon Buckby, now a journalist for the Financial Times, who was chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students.

And then, of course, there was Derek Draper , who did not have an official position that year because I beat him in an election to the previously uncontentious post of NOLS publicity officer by three votes. (While the NUS was for all students whatever their political affiliation, NOLS was a separate Labour wing within that movement.) Even then they all had their eyes on the prize. Their rosettes said Labour, but theirs was the politics of ambition. They were addicted neither to ideologies nor, God forbid, utopias. Their drug of choice was power.

Twice a year they would turn up in Blackpool and gleefully work to outmanoeuvre the enemy - not the Tories but the 'Trots'. Telling the faithful how to vote, whom to chastise and who should make the speeches from the rostrum and the floor. As a supporter of Labour's leftwing Campaign Group I bitterly disagreed with their stances on most things. But it was they, not I, who had captured the party zeitgeist.

By 1990 the Labour hierarchy had turned winning elections into a political philosophy in itself. There was no issue, we were told, that could ever be more important than victory at the polls. You were either for the leadership or against a Labour victory. Points of moral principle, like support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, were luxuries the party could not afford. You were either with them, as they twisted their way through a political maze, or you were against them.

It was a bad example to set for the likes of Draper at any juncture. But there was one crucial difference between the grown-ups and the students that made it lethal. At that stage Labour had not been in power for 11 years. Their student proteges had been running the NUS since the early eighties. Arrogance in office was a problem Kinnock could only dream about. In NOLS it was already a fact of life.

Their cynicism was legend. If you didn't agree with NOLS leaders they would simply change the venue of a meeting so that you couldn't show up and voice your opposition. If they wanted to frustrate you they would simply invite you to a meeting that didn't exist and then refuse to pay your expenses.

The year 1990 was make or break for many of them and they very nearly blew it. Twigg won the Labour primary against Sara Adams, who was far more popular among student activists in general, by just three votes. Fitzsimons proved similarly unpopular with NUS students when she lost a straw poll to a Liberal Democrat - a shock result - and only made it on to the NUS executive when someone else dropped out. Both owed their victories, at least in part, to Buckby, who was the chief organiser.

But when it came to self-aggrandisement and bad behaviour Draper was of course in a world of his own. In 1989 he was expelled from the Labour students conference after suggesting to a female delegate that she should put a paper bag over her head while having sex with her boyfriend. I sat in astonishment in the University of London union bar as the woman, in tears, threw the remains of her drink over him and he waltzed away laughing. He was later expelled from the conference and apparently unrepentant.

This, after all, was student politics. While the rest of the nation was choosing between Thatcher and Kinnock, delegates to NUS had to pick between Trotsky and Tribune. You could not, at that time, get ahead in student politics without voicing support for lesbian and gay rights, and anti-racism. Making sexist remarks was completely out of the question. That was, and apparently still is, the difference between Draper and his contemporaries. Whatever their true political beliefs (and it was never really clear since they appeared to be a feather for every wind that blew) they had a sense of what they could and could not get away with.

It was the one political skill that Draper never mastered.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Dispatches From The Diaspora
latest book

'An outstanding chronicler of the African diaspora.'

Bernardine Evaristo

 follow on twitter
If you’re in Bristol, come along.
RT @TheOrwellPrize: The Orwell Festival is here! Here's your guide to what's on offer... 👇 Tomorrow @ucl join us for @garyyounge's opening…
"The entire thrust of public rhetoric about immigration for the five years prior to the Windrush scandal, encourag…
"The fact that several ageing, working-class black people might have immigration problems did not interrupt how man…
"The Windrush scandal is a story primarily about the experiences of working-class black people in their sixties, a…
@MarinaHyde @too_caroline @FaberBooks @guardianlive Events in Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool in the past month…
“Media coverage of the Windrush scandal is the tale of a scandalous event, presented clearly, unambiguously, and ir…
RT @FaberBooks: On Tuesday 13 June, join @MarinaHyde and @garyyounge as they give their verdicts on the latest stories to make the headline…
RT @TheOrwellPrize: 📢Give away! We're offering *2* free tickets to an event of your choice at @ucl, from Gary Younge's opening lecture t…
RT @royalacademy: How can a show of African American art shape our understanding of race in Britain? Writer @garyyounge visits ‘Souls Grow…
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc