My Time at OULC in the 1980s

Former OULC Co-Chair, Stephen Twigg MP, remembers his formative political years as a member of the club.

I attended Southgate Comprehensive School in Enfield, North London. My parents were members of the Communist Party, so left-wing politics formed a big part of my childhood. I joined the Labour Party when I was 15. My aspiration was to study Law and I had not really considered applying to Oxbridge. It was my A level Economics teacher who suggested that I apply to study PPE at Oxford, which I did from 1985-88 .

Internationalism is a core value for anyone on the left or centre-left of politics. During the 1980s, the biggest solidarity campaign was the Anti-Apartheid Movement. At the time, there was a boycott of Barclays Bank. I remember a particularly heated debate in Balliol JCR about whether students should be allowed to cash Barclays cheques at the JCR bar! I imagine that the idea of “cashing cheques” sounds pretty archaic but it was a lively issue. I sided with the majority view, which meant that such cheques could not be cashed. On another occasion, OULC members were at the forefront of a ‘sit-in’ in the entrance to the Randolph Hotel in protest at a Barclays ‘milk round’ event.

In 1987, we were determined to win Oxford East for Labour. Andrew Smith’s victory, unseating a Tory, was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise grim night nationally. Andrew, of course, went on to serve with distinction for thirty years.

I threw myself into OUSU activity from my first term. I became Chair of the OUSU Lesbian and Gay Committee and OUSU Rep on the Balliol JCR Committee. I was elected onto the OUSU Executive on the Labour Club slate in 1986. A year later, I stood for OUSU President. It was my first taste of electoral defeat: I lost to an Independent candidate who stood on a platform of ‘OUSU Reform’! Defeat did not put me off student politics and I went on to spend four years on the NUS National Executive, including two as National President.

I never joined the Oxford Union Society. When I arrived in 1985 the Labour Club had a policy to boycott the Union. Labour students were discouraged from joining and the club campaigned actively to persuade national Labour politicians to refuse invitations to speak there. In my second year, some OULC members who had joined the Union proposed a motion to overturn the boycott. I supported them because I felt that the policy was counter-productive. Despite the boycott, many students had still joined, yet our policy meant that the Labour voice was not always heard. When the boycott was dropped, I did not join but I did speak there in a debate on LGBT rights. In 1997, I came back to speak in the freshers’ debate against the motion that ‘This House has no confidence in the Government’. We won!

I did not come out at school other than to one close friend. At university, it was incredibly liberating to be ‘out’ from day one. I was already involved in the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights (now called LGBT Labour). The week before my arrival at Oxford I had been in Bournemouth at the 1985 Annual Labour Party Conference where we had secured the first ever policy debate on lesbian and gay rights. This debate is referred to at the end of the superb film Pride, which tells the story of Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners.

In my third year, we saw the passage of the now-infamous Section 28. I helped set up the Oxford campaign and many OULC members went on the massive demonstrations that were held in London and Manchester. The passage of Section 28 in 1988 proved to be a turning point. Although we failed to stop this nasty piece of legislation being passed, the campaign gave renewed energy to the cause of equality with the formation of the Stonewall Group. I was very proud when the last Labour government repealed section 28. Of course, we still have a long way to go to defeat homophobia and transphobia both here and internationally. The student movement had a very important role as a champion of equality during the 1980s; for me personally it was incredibly positive to have the support and solidarity of friends in OULC during that time.

Education is my number one cause. Last month, I was with 150 students and parents from Liverpool schools who are part of my Liverpool to Oxbridge Collaborative, which I set up three years ago to support students at eight local secondary schools to consider applying to Oxford or Cambridge, many of them working class families where neither parent went to university. Earlier in the same month, I visited a Child Friendly Space in the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. My late mother left school when she was fifteen. She was always determined that me and my sister should get the best out of education.  In my experience, that sense of hope and aspiration is universal – whether it is my Mum, parents in my Liverpool constituency or Rohingya refugees who have been through Hell but still want a good education for their children.

My time in OULC taught me a lot. I have many fond memories of my student days in Oxford. I certainly spent a bit too much time in the King’s Arms and Balliol bar and not enough in the Bodleian! Without doubt my experience of campaigning whilst at Oxford was a positive one.  I hope that the current generation of OULC activists find the club’s activities both positive and enjoyable. In the 1980s we had many great causes and the rallying chant of “Maggie Maggie Maggie! Out out out!”

I left Oxford thirty years ago. Nine years later, I was proud to be part of Labour’s 1997 landslide. I am optimistic that your generation will not have to wait so long for a Labour Government. I know that OULC members will be working hard for that Labour victory.


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