Delegate to the 12th Congress of the Romanian YCL. Supporter of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in 1984 and the workers in the Wapping Dispute in 1986.
Joining the YCL – that’s so long ago I can hardly remember!
I was recruited to the Communist Party of Great Britain as a student at Goldsmiths College in 1980. In the preceding years we’d had punk, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism; youth culture was radical and ascendant. Nonetheless Labour’s class betrayal during the ‘winter of discontent’ handed the country to Thatcher in 1979.
For me joining the Party was a no-brainer – my Dad joined in the early 60s, mentored by Fleet Street legends Ben Bleach and Reg Beech among others; I’d accompanied him as a child on more demos than you could shake a stick at and shared his relish at every defeat meted out to the Tories and bosses in those glorious days when the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions dragged the TUC kicking and screaming into the class war.
1981 saw London elect Ken Livingstone as leader of the Greater London Council – the opposition to the Thatcher government on the opposite bank of the Thames – projecting London’s rising jobless total every day. It was a heady time – free festivals, demonstrations, a rejection of Thatcherism and young people to the forefront of opposition.
As much time was spent fighting the Tories as studying – and in various states of ‘refreshment’ – as is to be expected of every self-respecting student. For Communist Students in the 80s there was no contradiction between partying and politics – we were capable of doing both with aplomb. Naturally we were also required to get the academic results – and I did better than I deserved to, given my commitment to hedonism and activism. After the ubiquitous sabbatical year on the student union I emerged to a bleak Thatcherite landscape in which 1 million graduates were unemployed. My first job was sitting at a table with a half dozen graduates in a room in Southwark Council stuffing housing benefit letters into envelopes, and my local government career was born.
Having served my apprenticeship in the Communist Students I joined the YCL in the autumn of 1983 and became secretary of the Greenwich branch. We had around 25 members in the branch and my flat became a staging post for several young comrades passing through London as well as the preferred crash pad for discerning comrades – who shall remain nameless to spare the innocent (Kenny C) during general council meetings.
Doug Chalmers was still general secretary at the time, and one of the first duties he asked me to perform was to represent the YCL at the 12th Congress of the Romanian YCL in Bucharest. He told us that Ceausescu was somewhat ‘outside’ the international Communist family so I was basically there to make up the numbers. All expenses paid, I happily agreed. On the plane I was sat next to the representative from the Workers’ Party of Ireland – a good lad called Brian. We had to disembark at Geneva – and then had trouble getting back on the plane, only being allowed back on when we said we were attending the congress. The people who had been allocated our seats then had to sit in the aisle, along with about 10 others who had been overbooked. Welcome to Tirana Airlines.
When we finally got to Bucharest – after about 9 hours and one ‘meal’ on board we were met by an enthusiastic young woman whose job was to ‘take care’ of Brian and I while we were at the Congress. This included informing us we had to go to bed as soon as we got to the hotel. We, on the other hand, were determined to hit the bar. Our minder informed us she couldn’t leave until we were in bed so we told her that if anyone asked us, we were in bed when she left. We then met many international delegates in the bar of the Continental Hotel – and spent several hours recovering from the journey.
The Congress itself was not what you’d call great fun, only alleviated by the seating arrangements – in addition to the Workers’ Party my immediate neighbours included the Argentinian delegate and several from the former colonies. Fortunately their natural antipathy towards the imperialist aggressor did not extend to me. In the front row, side by side, were the delegations from the USSR, People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and North Korea – an exercise in practical détente.
By the second day a combination of roaring hangover and exhaustion from the 5-minute ovations every time Comrade Ceausescu’s name was mentioned (which was every minute we weren’t standing up clapping andcheering his name) resulted in me leading an unintentional sit-down protest from the podium which quickly caught on among the European delegations who were similarly tired and emotional. The Frankie Goes to Hollywood sunglasses came in very handy that day.
We got some sightseeing in, the lowlight being a half day touring old Nick’s monstrous vanity project of a palace. The funniest incident was the 16 year old delegate from the Netherlands (about six feet six and built like Arnold Schwarzenegger) who asked to speak to the general council about gay rights in Romania. Still not sure if it was a wind-up or genuine (‘there are no gay people in Romania’).
It was an experience I’m glad I didn’t miss, but certainly one I’d never want to repeat.
Of course, very quickly after this we were into 1984 and the Miners’ Strike. Mark Ashton set up Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and subsequently became general secretary of the YCL.
I can’t remember the first time I met Mark – just his reputation preceding him. We quickly became good mates – at every demo in London, always followed by a night out and usually ending with me crashing at his flat on the Heygate with a half dozen or so other comrades – or he at mine in Greenwich.
Greenwich YCL was out collecting every week – rotating between Eltham, Woolwich and Greenwich. We raised thousands for the Kent miners in cash and food.
After the miners’ defeat the Party and YCL went through a turbulent time upon which we need not dwell, and then it was January 1986 and the Wapping dispute, resulting in the sacking by Murdoch of 5,000 printers. My Dad was an electrician on the Sun – his scabby union the EETPU colluded with Murdoch in the mass sacking and threatened its own members that they would not be supported if they struck. So they barricaded themselves in Bouverie Street, refused to work in Wapping, and joined the pickets for the twice-weekly demonstrations. My Dad knew that if they lost this dispute he’d be out of a job along with the printers, and so it came to pass.
I was there every Saturday night as was Mark – by this time he hadn’t been in the best of health. He was there at the 12-month anniversary demonstration, when the police rioted and replicated Orgreave on the streets of Wapping. We ran into each other several times during that freezing January night. A few days later he was admitted to hospital with AIDS-related pneumonia, and he died shortly after. By this time I’d reached the maximum age for the YCL – which was then 27 – and had left by the time Mark passed away.
Those years were some of the best of my life – even at a time when the Party was in turmoil we got the work done. Always vibrant and hard working – it’s a pleasure to still be able to call comrade many who were in the YCL when I was in it, and a delight to see so many wonderful young comrades today. Just don’t forget to enjoy yourselves while changing the world.