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Born 16th May 1945, Jacks was the son of a building surveyor. He grew up in Charlton, south-east London and read biology at King's College London. He then studied at the Institute of Education and taught briefly at Holland Park comprehensive before being elected to the NUS national executive committee in 1969, Serving as National Union of Students (NUS) National Secretary the following year, he became President of the NUS from March 1971 to July 1973, the first (but not last) Communist since the cold war period to be elected to the post.
He was widely admired for his devotion and talent – even responsibility - in this role. His tenure coincided with Margaret Thatcher's time in the Heath government in charge of education. Disarmingly, he took her out to lunch at one of London's most expensive restaurants in an attempt tp puncture the myths fostered by much media attention.
As a Communist with long red hair and a bushy red beard, Jacks was a natural target for the less discerning of the media. But the education correspondents of the more serious newspapers grew to admire his style. Frances Beckett has recalled the junior education minister Norman St John-Stevas (now Lord St John of Fawsley), “sitting quietly and listening, and maybe having his view changed ever so slightly, and the Daily Telegraph's then education correspondent, John Izbicki, insisting his newsdesk allow him to report Digby as the thoughtful man he was.”
Jacks led the NUS's opposition to Thatcher's proposals to restrict the finances and autonomy of student unions. A combination of quiet, serious argument and mass demonstrations produced the desired result: the proposals were shelved. He negotiated an increase in the student grant, then, at the NUS conference, faced calls to reject it and somehow arrange a general strike instead.
In 1973, he was recruited to the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) by Clive Jenkins, becoming first a Divisional Officer. He took some time out to write a book which set out his views on student politics. ‘Student Politics and Higher Education’, published in 1975 but returned to union service.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jacks did not adopt the disabling philosophy of revisionism in the Communist Party wars of the 1980s. In 1979, Jacks wrote a short contribution to the “Forward March of Labour Halted?” debate initiated by Eric Hobsbawm (see separate entry) in the Party’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today, which had yet to adopt quite the degree of adventurous swerving to the right that became its later hallmark. Accepting that the terrain of modern life had begun to massively change, Jacks nonetheless heavily stressed in his own contribution the centrality of the organised working class and the need to direct struggle in that direction.
He remained with the union all his working life, becoming Regional Officer and eventually retiring as an assistant general secretary of what had by then become then the Manufacturing, Science and Finance trade union and then Amicus (now both part of Unite). He was noted in this role for being intensely loyal to Loyal to MSF General Secretary, Roger Lyons, a matter of some controversy amongst many on the left.
Perhaps by now predictably, after retirement, he served as a Labour councillor in Hounslow, west London. Nonetheless, it should be noted that one commentator on his death recalled the last time that they had met, the two of them fell to discussing the mutually interesting problem of becoming and being a Labour Councillor. In that he “was always surprised that a person with such communist convictions became a Labour Councillor”.
Latterly, Jacks was secretary for the Alliance for Finance, a confederation of trade unions in the finance industry.
He was found dead aged 66 in October 2011.
Frances Beckett obituary: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/nov/29/digby-jacks-obituary