The New Statesman Profile - Manchester University

In this crucible, a generation learnt its politics and it went on to become the heart of new Labour

"Manchester is the most wonderful city of modern times. It is the philosopher alone who can conceive the grandeur and the immensity of its future." For Disraeli in 1844, the iron march of the industrial revolution clearly still retained some romance. While the city basked in the optimism of its new-found wealth, the first and largest of the great civic (or "red-brick") universities was founded in 1851. The Victoria University joined a political and intellectual tradition already embodied by institutions such as the Manchester Guardian and the "Manchester school" of economics.

The aspiring dreams of the 19th-century Gothic courts now lie surrounded by the architectural baggage of the past century and a half, but the university remains as vast and prosperous as ever. As the 20th century draws to a close under a Labour government, the university can claim to have manufactured some of the central figures in the Labour movement today.

Alumni include Nick Brown MP, the minister for agriculture, the political commentator David Aaronovitch, the former cabinet minister David Clark, the former lobbyist Derek Draper and the Newsnight producer Nick London. The assistant general secretary of the Labour Party, David Gardner, was a contemporary at Manchester of John Mann, the party's trade union liaison officer. A third key Labour post, business relations adviser to Tony Blair, was held by the recent graduate Liam Byrne. Steve Hewlett (editor of Panorama), Charlotte Raven and Anna Ford were also at Manchester - indeed, Ford was the first president of the union when it went co-ed (previously there had been separate men's and women's unions). For Decca Aitkenhead, now a Guardian columnist, it was clear why she should enrol: she felt "bowled over by this amazing exotic display of political energy" from her first visit.

An insistent suspicion runs through the mind of a political observer confronted with a school such as this: "Manchester Mafia, Manchester Mafia", it rattles with railway-like metre. The concept of educational establishments producing particular schools or traditions in politics is not new; St Andrews was supposed to be important in the Conservative Party at one time. But the number of successful Manchester graduates in all fields of the new Labour movement, and the close ties between them, suggest that it is worth examining what the university has that makes it so adept at producing inhabitants of the political jungle.

To do this, we need to look deep into the twilight world of student politics, an arena in which young politicians can learn their black arts while discussing and voting on affairs of little relevance to anyone else. At least, that is the conventional view of student politics. However, the past two decades at Manchester make it clear that politics there have often had quite widespread effect, both indirectly through shaping the political habits of the principal actors, and directly through their actions. In turn they have reflected the changing expectations of succeeding generations.

The Manchester Students' Union is a big place. At the core of a highly centralised yet vast student body (of 18,000), its political meetings will often involve over a thousand students. Such a constituency creates a number of effects. First, an enormous amount of organisational skill is required to exert any control over this caucus. Second, as John Mann puts it, "if you have a hundred people turning up, any fringe grouping can control them. If you've got a thousand, the fringe organisations become irrelevant." In other words, the union becomes a gift for ferociously organised moderates, Mann himself being the perfect example.

There has always been a consistent pattern of the Students' Union being taken over by Labour moderates: Kinnockites or modernisers - take your pick, depending on the era. This went back at least to the early 1970s with Nick Brown, a political organiser without equal, who wrote the union's constitution. While Labour chief whip, he was described by a political observer: "If I was trying to get myself selected for a constituency, and was told that someone had just left London on the last train to destroy my chances, and that person could be Tony Blair or Peter Mandelson or Nick Brown . . . I would bloody pray it wasn't Nick."

For a while, just before Thatcher's government, the Conservatives took control. But it only required a call to arms by a new generation of right-wing Labourites, led by John Mann, David Gardner and Phil Woolas (later to become MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth), to wrest back control in the early 1980s. This time, however, it was part of a larger strategy: to gain Kinnockite control of the National Union of Students (NUS), which, as it happens, was also full of people from Manchester.

The NUS at that time was controlled by a coalition of communists, liberals and independents. David Aaronovitch, the communist president of the NUS from 1980-82, had been very active in debate while at Manchester. Jane Taylor (the former deputy editor of the New Statesman), also a Manchester graduate, was the Left-Alliance candidate for the presidency when challenged by Woolas in 1984. Woolas won it, but by less than 20 votes, and became the NUS president for the next two years.

He insists he was always part of the modernising movement: "We very much wanted to ditch the old nationalisation policies. We thought it was a load of nonsense. We even had a campaign in 1982 called the New Deal for youth unemployment.

It was a time of crisis for student activists. While grants and benefits were being stripped away, the only responses familiar to left-wing groups were those of the 1970s: demonstrations and strikes. The government responded by breaking all the rules, refusing to pay attention or meet the slightest of student demands.

Frustration and anger within the student body built up, and was unleashed as a succession of Tory cabinet ministers came to speak at the union. When Leon Brittan arrived, 32 arrests had to be made just to clear a way to the door. As Decca Aitkenhead remembers, "I had the sense that the big events that might have made the national news were going on in Manchester".

At about this time Woolas had a conversation in the Spanish Ballroom of the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. He was discussing with a politically ambitious schoolboy how to take over Manchester Students' Union. The advice was very good. There were two ways: as editor of the Mancunion (the student newspaper) or as general secretary.

The boy, Derek Draper, decided to take a third way. As communications officer at the end of the 1980s he changed the constitution through a campus-wide ballot, attempting to make the union more accessible to ordinary students and less answerable to obsessive hacks and leftists. The gesture was bold and extravagant, but he made too many enemies and was removed from office over a relatively trivial offence. "You could point out the parallels with my lobbying career," he remarks.

The meeting of Woolas and Draper points to another Manchester strength: a cross-generational interest. This continuity among the modernisers has also been maintained by Vic Silcox, the general manager of the union. Appointed in 1982, he was a trade unionist who had been put on the board of British Leyland to try to stop the breakdown of industrial relations. "Vic was able to tell us that the old ways just didn't work," says Woolas. "In fact that was probably the most far-reaching decision I've ever made within the Labour Party, appointing Vic." His managerial style may also be the reason that the university has one of the richest unions in the country.

Under John Major party politics at both national and university level became dull, and the student body was drawn to the green movement. Seasoned hacks looked on in disbelief as the great debating chamber was painted with daisies, like vines growing over ruins.

While a new generation of Labour students has tried to win back control in recent years, they have, perhaps, lost their most potent weapon, the anger and spice of opposition. It is far more difficult to get people fired up in the student forum with the consensual politics of Blairism. As Blair would no doubt be proud to point out himself, the politics of today are no longer red in tooth and claw.

Draper certainly missed opposition at times: "My great problem was there was no one to the right of me. When I was societies secretary, I used to give extra money to the Tory club so they'd get off their fat arses and actually do something. And they never would, they were so useless."

The newer members of the Manchester Mafia have learnt from the same training ground, but they live in weaker political times. Despite the campaigning of Blairites such as Matthew Laza, now of the Labour Movement for Europe, or Lorenzo Jarrett-Thorpe of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, the greens maintained control, promising a greater spirit of defiance to the status quo. Only the "mouthy but consensus-seeking" politics of Liam Byrne, the most successful of the 1990s Mancunians so far, seemed in tune with the times as he shot into Blair's political circle.

Even after leaving the North-west far behind, the mafia keeps in touch with those politically close in spirit. The graduation from the bars of the union to the watering holes of the Commons has been smooth.

Charlotte Welsh, another recent graduate and former youth representative on Labour's NEC, tries to explain the link between those who have shared the floor: "We all know we've come through the same university. It's more of a feeling than any practical connection. We sort of think in the same way."

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers