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International Socialism, Spring 1963


Sid Bidwell

[National Council of Labour Colleges]


From International Socialism, No.12, Spring 1963, p.25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Sid Bidwell, aged 46, left state school at 14; learnt little before but a fair amount since. NCLC Organiser London North Thames Area for past seven years; still prominent in the NUR and in the columns of the only weekly trade union paper in Britain: the Railway Review. Formerly a shunter and freight-guard. Twice a Parliamentary candidate – at East Hertfordshire 1959 and currently at South West Herts. He is a Marxist. Formerly a member of the wartime Revolutionary Communist Party he has held continuous membership of Labour Party since youth (the RCP was never proscribed). The least of his troubles was four years as a Councillor at Southall, his hometown.

Dear Editor

Letters have appeared in Tribune from those who say the National Council of Labour Colleges has long-since ‘sold the pass’ on class and Marxist trade-union education and from J.P.M. Millar, General Secretary of the NCLC, indirectly refuting it but asserting that activities of the earlier part of the century cannot be implanted today. The discussion has arisen because, at long last, the process of ‘rationalizing’ trade-union education has begun and since the beginning of 1963, the TUC has been the main financial supporter of the NCLC. It also provides money for the work of the Workers Education Trade Union Committee which is the bridge to the Workers Education Association which receives most of its income from state grants. It has always been the proud boast of the NCLC that it is the largest non-state-subsidized workers’ educational organization in the world.

The work of the NCLC, administered by Divisional Councils consisting of trade-union representatives, local college committee representatives, and Co-op representatives, grew out of the activities of the old Plebs League (from 1908) and the full-time residential Central Labour College set up first at Oxford and then transferred to London. The latter kept going until 1929; although the 1926 General Strike had hit the funds of the National Union of Railwaymen and South Wales Miners who were its main financial supporters. Nye Devon, Jim Griffiths, Morgan Phillips, Len Williams, J.M.P. Millar, Bryn Roberts, Geo Phippen (my predecessor) were among the revolutionary students. The CLC was established after Dennis Herd, a Ruskin College principal, had refused to operate a non-Marxian economics program. Most of the students ‘struck’ because he was dismissed by the governing board whose concept of trade-union education was to afford ‘liberal’ extension of state-university instruction to a handful of ‘lucky’ enough to find their way to Ruskin. And so it has been through the years. ‘Liberal education’ has been the philosophical base of the WEA, the WETUC and Ruskin College. A philanthropic base.

The philosophy of the NCLC carried on the Plebs League tradition of Independent Working-class Education – independent in finance and ideas. But over the years the firm Marxist base began to shift, not because a few men deliberately conspired to sell-out but because the pace and tone of the class-struggle changed and the trade unions became more and more involved in managerial studies. But still by-and-large (and still today) a large number of its supporters through the years held the socialist flag aloft.

Inevitably the arguments about the respective merits of the WEA and NCLC have waned in the trade unions. Some of them like the NUR, AEU and Miners’ regions have remained firm NCLC unions but USD AW pulled away five years ago and the T&GWU and NUMGW have had only partial schemes. Many of the unions have had education schemes both with the NCLC and the WETUC. Many years ago the NCLC advanced the idea of ‘rationalizing’ trade-union education to cut out overlapping under the auspices of the TUC. The TUC itself, in recent years, has established a Training College for short courses; but it is limited to production and managerial questions. And then at the Congress in 1961 the Movement committed itself to ‘rationalization’. Last year the die was cast in the decision to include the financing of the new scheme in part of an increased national affiliation fee. So now the TUC calls the tune.

But the TUC has not grabbed at it; on the contrary it has been thrust upon the Education Department.

Although the firm financial decision has been taken, there is complete vagueness about the future manner of operations. WETUC uses Ruskin College Postal-Courses Department, has no full-time officials and no office apparatus of its own. The WEA, of course, have many full-time organizers and tutors. The NCLC has, besides its General Secretary and Tillicoultry staff, 18 full-time organizers in Britain.

In this situation of uncertainty, is the NCLC side of trade-union education wailing to receive a final shovelful of earth on its gravel I believe not. The whole matter hinges on the extent to which regional and local rank and file participation is allowed in running the developing scheme. The ideological battle between those who view trade-union education as a workingman’s taste of the higher state forms of education and those who look to education for emancipation of the working class and for the complete transformation of society, will go on. Socialist optimism tells me that the new involvement of the entire TUC unions (and even some of the non-TUC unions) must have considerable progressive content. The ‘left’ and the ‘right’ will battle within it just as they struggle now in the present organizations of the working class. But what we need is more working-class intellectuals.

Sid Bidwell

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