In Memory of Mark Ashton – YCL General Secretary and Working-Class Hero

Tom Partis writes about the legacy of Mark Ashton, former General Secretary of the YCL and co-founder of LGSM

Tom Partis, is a member of the YCL’s Greater Manchester branch

Mark Ashton, former General Secretary of the Young Communist League of Britain, passed away on the 11th February, 1987, tragically succumbing to HIV/AIDS at the age of 26. His accomplishments for the advancement of LGBT+ rights in the labour movement and wider society are huge, and we must ensure that all Challenge readers know his name, his accomplishments and his legacy.

Mark is most famous for co-founding the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). LGSM was an alliance of lesbians and gay men who supported the Miners’ Strike from 1984-1985, standing in solidarity with their class against the Thatcher Government, which had declared war on the workers and their trade union movement. 

The time period in which LGSM operated was a crucial time for the workers struggle, and for the gay rights movement. One the one hand, there was Thatcher’s assault on the unions and working-class communities, with Thatcher’s “free-market” dogma being pushed upon Britain, as she proclaimed there is “no such thing as society”. On the other, there was the assault on the LGBT+ community, an already ostracised group whose conditions were made worse by the Thatcher regime’s folk devil, New Right fear-mongering, eventually leading to the implementation of section 28 in 1988.

Therefore, the alliance between the LGBT+ community and the miners made a lot of sense – it just took people like Ashton to drive it forward. There were branches of LGSM all across the country, and the group raised over £20,000 for the miners, equivalent to £70,000 in 2020.

The alliances forged by LGSM can not be understated in importance; the relationship formed between the LGBT+ community and the trade union movement as a result of LGSM was a turning point for the advancement of LGBT+ rights in Britain. Miners and the labour movement began to support and take part in gay and lesbian struggles, leading the London Gay Pride parade in 1985. At the 1985 Labour Party conference, a resolution committing the party to supporting LGBT rights was passed only due to a block vote from the National Union of Mineworkers. The miners’ groups also allied themselves with the LGBT communty in the campaign against the homophobic Section 28. 

LGSM was forever immortalised in the brilliant 2014 film Pride. Ashton’s leading and exemplary role in LGSM was recalled in a series of interviews with former members prior to the release of Pride. The actor playing Ashton was nominated for two British Independent Film awards.

However, many do not know that Mark was a member of the Young Communist League and Communist Party – this is certainly not mentioned in the film! Reportedly politicised by the poverty he saw on a trip to Bangladesh, Ashton advanced the struggle for Peace, Jobs and Socialism as YCL General Secretary from 1985-1986. 

In his memory, various funds have been set up in Ashton’s name. The Mark Ashton Trust and the Mark Ashton Red Ribbon Fund have collectively raised nearly £100,000 for those living with HIV. Ashton has a panel on the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt, a plaque at the entrance to the London headquarters of the Terrence Higgins Trust, and a plaque at the ‘Gay’s The Word’ bookshop in Marchmont Street, London, the place at which LGSM held their meetings. The song “For a Friend” by The Communards was written in his memory, and the film “Jean Genet Is Dead” is dedicated to his memory.

Ashton’s ability to bring together the struggle for LGBT+ rights and class analysis was crucial to the success of LGSM. He convinced the gay community that it should not exist outside the wider labour movement, and managed to defeat the bigotry and social conservatism present at the time in the labour movement as a result. This will forever be the legacy of Mark Ashton – a man who built working-class solidarity. A Communist and a working-class hero. 

If he were alive today he would have worked with his comrades to reject the corporatisation of Pride, and to advance understanding of LGBT+ issues in our movement. Therefore, we continue Ashton’s legacy by bringing class analysis to our community, defeating the ‘pink pound’, and assuring that the Communist movement always supports and upholds the LGBT+ movement.

Rest in Power to Mark Ashton, a comrade whose legacy can never be forgotten.

Please donate to the Mark Ashton Red Ribbon Fund in order to help the fight to end stigma against HIV/AIDS. The YCL will also be holding an international seminar on modern LGBT+ Issues on the 27th February as a tribute to Mark. Amongst the guests will be LGBT+ members of various Communist youth organisations, as well as the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Tom Partis

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