History,  Trots

From the Vaults: Operation Icepick, December 20, 1976

There is a thirty-four year old story from student politics that has become legendary: Operation Icepick. To provide some background: the Militant tendency, a Trotskyist organisation that wished to overthrow parliamentary democracy and install a dictatorship, acted as an entryist organisation into the Labour Party.  The loyalty of the members of Miltant was never to the Labour Party but to the Trotskyist organisation that they supported. Militant members could not take drugs, a “petty-bourgeois deviation”; they could not campaign for gay rights, a “petty-bourgeois diversion” and, in any event, homosexuality would disappear after the red revolution and in their communist utopia; the feminist movement was “petty-bourgeois-dominated” and subject to “hysteria” and so on.

It was in Liverpool and in the youth sections that Militant had some notable successes. In 1970 these totalitarian Trotskyists took control of Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) and, in January 1974, had successfully taken control of the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS), the official student wing of the Labour Party.  Militant members were highly disciplined. They did what their puppet masters at Militant HQ told them to do.  This meant they did not have to think in debates at NOLS conferences, all they needed to do was to jerk their hands upwards when the Militant leadership  gave them the signal on which way to vote. Some of them may have been required to give speeches, but in practice, to the Militant members, it did not matter what the Militant speaker said, he (and it was usually a he) could stand on the stage and pick his nose and they would still vote for him. It was this discipline, both in attending meetings and in voting, that contributed strongly to Militant taking over NOLS in the first place.

A fight back was necessary:  OIP – Operation Icepick (which later changed its name to Clause 4) was formed.  If the way delegates to conference were to vote was predetermined by which faction they supported, then all that mattered was the relative strength of one faction versus the other faction. It is logical to assume that the way to do this is to try and ensure that as many members as possible of the faction you supported became delegates to the conference. But there was also another way:

Five days before Christmas 1976, a fifty-two seater coach sped south down the M6 on its way from Scotland to Lancaster. Most people travelling north along the motorway that afternoon would not have noticed it: the vehicle was just one of hundreds of coaches you pass on any long  motorway journey. But observant drivers, glancing across the central reservation at the oncoming traffic, might just have spotted that on the front of this particular vehicle, tied by wire to the radiator grille, was a brand-new icepick.

The ‘Icepick Express’ was not carrying a party of mountaineers back from a climbing weekend in the Cairngorms. On board, in fact, were nearly fifty Scottish students on their way to the 1976 Conference of the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) at Lancaster University, all of them sworn enemies of Trotskyism and of Militant in particular. They were going to Lancaster determined to stop Militant from regaining power in NOLS. When the coach left Glasgow the party on board had included a rather lonely band of Militant supporters. But when the party stopped at a café on the A74 just north of Carlisle, by special arrangement with the driver this group was accidentally left behind. As they chased after the coach on its way out of the car park, nearly a hundred fingers could be seen waving furiously in their direction.


Michael Crick, Militant (Faber and Faber Limited, 1984), p.78.