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Oxford University Labour Club

Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) was founded in 1919[1] to promote democratic socialism and is today the home of the Labour Party and of social democracy at Oxford University. OULC is the largest and oldest university Labour club in the country and has a particular reputation as an active campaigning force.

Oxford University Labour Club
OULC Logo.jpg
Formation1919; 100 years ago (1919)
Megan Howells (The Queen's College) and Jay Staker (The Queen's College)

The club caters for any students who are interested in the ideals of the labour movement whether members of the Labour Party or entirely new to politics. Stewart Wood, special adviser to consecutive Labour Party leaders Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, said that 'OULC is held up as an exemplar of what needs to be done.' During his visit to Oxford in July 2009 the Prime Minister Gordon Brown was reported as having praised OULC's 'brilliant contribution to progressive politics in the University, the city and the country.'[2] The club was instrumental in returning Andrew Smith to Parliament for Oxford East at the 2010 General Election with a 4.1% swing to Labour, the largest in England outside London.

Throughout the year it hosts a range of speaker, social, discussion, and campaigning events, as well as producing a termly magazine called Look Left. Signature events include the annual Barbara Castle Memorial Lecture and John Smith Memorial Dinner.

In 2016, some officers of the Oxford University Labour Club resigned citing allegations of anti-Semitism in the club. This resulted in the national Labour party officially investigating the club for anti-Semitism. In March 2018, the OULC released a statement calling for ‘greater action to root out antisemitism’ from the national Labour Party.[3]


David Lewis and the early 1930sEdit

When David Lewis came to Oxford, the Labour Club was a tame organisation adhering to Christian activism, or the not-quite-so-scrappy-socialist theories of people such as R. H. Tawney and his book The Acquisitive Society. David's modified Jewish Labour Bundist interpretation of Marxism, that Cameron Smith labels "Parliamentary Marxism," ignited the renewed interest in the club after the disappointment with Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government.[4]

The Oxford newspaper The Isis noted Lewis' leadership ability at this early stage in his career in their 7 February 1934 issue: "The energy of these University Socialists is almost unbelievable. If the Socialist movement as a whole is anything like as active as they are, then a socialist victory at the next election is inevitable."[5]

In February 1934, British fascist William Joyce, (Lord Haw Haw), visited Oxford. Lewis and future Ontario Co-operative Commonwealth Federation leader Ted Jolliffe, organised a noisy protest against the fascist, by simply planting Labour Club members in the dance hall that Joyce was speaking in, and causing a commotion, as groups of two and three left making much noise on the creaking wooden floors. The speech was foiled. Afterwards, the Blackshirts contingent had a street battle in Oxford with members of the Labour Club and the townsfolk.[6]

Lewis prevented the communists from really making inroads at Oxford during his time there. He increased the Labour Club's membership by three-quarters, from 484 members in December 1932 to over 850 members by the time he left, while the October club never rose above 300 members.[7] Ted Jolliffe stated "there was a difference between his speeches at the [Oxford] Union and his speeches at the Labour Club. His speeches at the Union had more humour in them; the atmosphere was entirely different. But his speeches at the Labour Club were deadly serious.... His influence at the Labour Club, more than anyone else's, I think, explains the failure of the Communists to make headway there."[8] In 1935, the Soviet controlled Comintern's Seventh Congress, called for a united left response to fascism, called the popular front. The communist October Club used this call, for a popular front, as a pretext to have a union between themselves and the Labour Club.[7] Under Lewis' leadership, the club was able to easily defeat a motion by the October Club, as only 20 OULC members voted for the union.[9]

When Lewis returned to Canada in the summer of 1935, there really wasn't anyone to replace him, to keep the communists at bay[10] as The Isis noted: "The Labour may have rejected fusion [with the October Club] but the matter is not yet settled. An interesting thing is the dearth of what are technically known as 'promising people' in the ranks of the Labour Club. For years the Labour Club has been turning out a Geoffrey Wilson, a Frank Hardie, a John Cripps, a David Lewis, each year: but this [coming] year there seems to be no figures as outstanding as these."[11]

Communist takeoverEdit

Since there was not a strong Labour leader to take over from Lewis after he graduated and left in the summer of 1935, the Labour Club amended its constitution to remove impediments to fusion with the communist October Club in December 1935. Shortly thereafter the two clubs joined together forming a "popular front". The club's membership peaked before the war at between 1000 and 1200 members depending on whose numbers were used, which was approximately a fifth of all of Oxford's 5023 students. Of the club's total membership, the Communists made up approximately less than 200 members.[10][12]

Anti-semitism inquiryEdit

The national Labour Party appointed Janet Royall, to head an inquiry into allegations of anti-Semitism within the Club made in February 2016. The then-current Co-Chair and another officer resigned from the Club, alleging they were disturbed by the discrimination and anti-Semitism they alleged was inherent in the Club.[13][14][15]

2016 European Union ReferendumEdit

After successfully campaigning for the re-election of Andrew Smith as Member of Parliament for Oxford East, with an increased majority, in the 2015 General Election, and increasing the number of Labour councillors on Oxford City Council in the 2016 local elections, OULC campaigned hard during the European Union referendum. At the Michaelmas term 2015 General Meeting, OULC voted overwhelmingly to endorse UK membership of the European Union and to actively campaign in favour of the UK's continued membership of the European Union in the coming referendum campaign. This involved campaign stalls, door knocking and rallies. OULC did however host Graham Stringer MP who gave the Labour case for 'Brexit', during an address in Wadham college in Trinity term. This was in the same term that OULC hosted Chuka Umunna MP, Anneliese Dodds MEP, Andrew Smith MP and Alan Johnson MP, the leader of the Labour IN campaign, for signature 'remain' campaign events throughout Oxford.

Constitution and organisationEdit

OULC is run by an elected Executive Committee, as established under the OULC Constitution. The Constitution can be changed by a two-thirds majority at any OULC General Meeting, Termly General Meeting (TGM), or Extraordinary General Meeting; at which its members can also pass policy in the form of motions (such as submissions to the Labour Party's Policy Review), hear reports from the executive and elect (at the TGM) the new Executive.

Under the most recent version of the OULC Constitution (as of Trinity Term 2016), the head of the Executive is the two Co-Chairs. One Co-Chair position must at all times be held by someone who 'self-identifies partly or wholly as a woman or transfeminine'[13], and two other positions on the Executive at every TGM, must be reserved for those who self-identify partly or wholly as a woman or transfeminine. The positions so reserved rotate around the Executive. If no one who self-identifies partly or wholly as a woman or transfeminine stands for such a position, the incoming Co-Chairs must produce a report to be made public, detailing what they will do to enhance the position of those who so self-identify within the Club. This also applies if the only two people standing for Co-Chair are men.

At the General Meeting in Trinity Term 2016, the Club also re-established its long-forgotten alumni network. Upon receiving permission from Lord Attlee, the grandson of Clement Attlee, the former Labour Prime Minister, the alumni network was named 'The Attlee Association', in the former Prime Minister's honour.


OULC has hosted a range of speakers from the Labour movement, including a number of high-profile politicians. In Trinity term 2009, OULC hosted the then current Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband. He commented "I recently met with the OULC members and was impressed. [They] can help Labour be at the cutting edge."

OULC holds regular informal meetings to discuss policy. This provides its members with an opportunity to engage in serious political debate. An October 2008 review of party political events by the Cherwell commented that OULC is 'an active political party as opposed to a social gathering. Their meetings are informal, and last year they were visited by a number of prominent left wing politicians.'[16]

OULC also runs campaigns. The club plays a role in the efforts to keep Oxford East Labour and contributed significantly to the election effort in July 2009 where Labour gained four seats on the county council, the most successful Labour result in the county. In its report on the election victory, the Cherwell cited the club's then co-chair, Jacob Turner, as saying that he felt the result was a consequence of "a very great effort from the local party including Labour Club members. We've been going out, meeting people, and asking them not to vote for us, but just how our councillors can help them. We've built up a relationship with residents which is ultimately expressed in voting."[17] In the run up to the 2010 General Election the club regularly turned out 20 campaigners every Sunday. This made a huge contribution to Oxford East's position of having the highest voter contact rate of anywhere in the country (more than Wales, Scotland and the North-East put together). In 2012, the club was instrumental in Labour winning its first Student Ward in the city in over two decades. When possible the club sends members to other towns to campaign, including Reading, Slough, Southampton and even Edinburgh.

OULC holds a number of social events including a fresher's dinner in Michaelmas Term and a barbecue or picnic in Trinity term. OULC also hosts an annual dinner, the John Smith Memorial Dinner, in the fifth week of Hilary term. The dinner commemorates the contribution and life of John Smith, the former Labour party leader, who died suddenly in 1994. Recent speakers at this event have included Neil Kinnock and Margaret Beckett.

Involvement in Labour politicsEdit

Labour StudentsEdit

OULC is affiliated with Labour Students, and former OULC members have held a number of positions there. In February 2011, OULC disaffiliated from Labour Students for a one-year period as a protest over the way the organisation was run. In February 2012, OULC voted by 20 to 4 to rejoin Labour Students citing the progress made by the leadership of the organisation in improving accountability and democracy.


OULC also has links with other socialist organisations, trade unions, and Labour Party groups, including the Oxford District, Reading and Slough Labour Parties.

Broader political involvementEdit

Oxford University Student UnionEdit

Since the establishment of the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) in the early 1970s, OULC has maintained a presence. There have been many Labour presidents, starting with John Grogan in the early 1980s, and OULC candidates have in recent years been successful in the 1998 (Anneliese Dodds), 1999 (Kirsty McNeill), 2004 (Emma Norris), 2005 (Alan Strickland) and 2006 (Martin McCluskey) elections. Whilst the Club no longer runs official candidates, OUSU's executive committee and delegate body has also had a Labour presence.

National Union of StudentsEdit

Stephen Twigg was National President of the National Union of Students and an OULC member in the early 1990s.

Local governmentEdit

Six current or former members of OULC currently sit on Oxford City Council, and one is a County Councillor in Oxfordshire. As of the 2016 Oxford City Council Elections, Dan Iley-Wiliamson, OULC Membership and Alumni Officer at the time, was elected as a councillor for the Holywell ward, serving most city centre University colleges.


At the 2005 General Election, five recent former OULC members stood for election as Labour candidates.

In parliament former OULC members include John Grogan, Ed Balls (although also a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association whilst at Oxford), Ed and David Miliband, and in the European Parliament, Richard Corbett and Mary Honeyball.

Notable former members of the executive committeeEdit

See alsoEdit

References and notesEdit

  1. ^ Smith 1989, p. 195.
  2. ^ Henderson, Nicky (10 August 2009). "Prime Minister visits Labour Club". Cherwell.
  3. ^ Willis, Charlie (28 March 2018). "OULC joins other University Labour Clubs with antisemitism statement". The Oxford Student.
  4. ^ Smith 1989, p. 187.
  5. ^ "[Article name unknown]". The Isis. 7 February 1934. p. 9.
  6. ^ Smith 1989, pp. 194–195.
  7. ^ a b Smith 1989, p. 196.
  8. ^ Smith 1989, p. 196, Ted Jolliffe in an interview with the author.
  9. ^ "[Article name unknown]". The Isis. 29 May 1935. p. 4.
  10. ^ a b Smith 1989, p. 197.
  11. ^ "[Article name unknown]". The Isis. 5 June 1935. p. 13.
  12. ^ Smith 1989, p. 554.
  13. ^ "Ed Miliband cancels Oxford talk in 'anti-Semitism' row". BBC News. 18 February 2016.
  14. ^ Zeffman, Henry (17 February 2016). "Ed Miliband postpones Oxford talk after anti-semitism claims". New Statesman.
  15. ^ Rashty, Sandy (28 February 2016). "Labour launches new probe into claims of antisemitism at Oxford student club". The Jewish Chronicle.
  16. ^ Cox-Brooker, Sian (24 October 2008). "Get into... politics". Cherwell.
  17. ^ Dayan, Mark (6 June 2009). "Oxford stays with Labour". Cherwell.

External linksEdit