SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 197 April 2016

The struggle for Labour’s youth

The recent Young Labour conference was the first chance for young members to influence the Labour Party through its official national structures since Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory last September. Since then Corbyn has faced continual opposition from the right wing in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), and the Momentum organisation has been set up to build support for his leadership.

Momentum has been compared in the press to the Militant tendency – the predecessor of the Socialist Party – which had wide support in the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), leading it for much of its existence. It was the fear of Militant and an independent radical youth wing fighting for socialism that led to the Labour Party closing down the LPYS and its internal democracy.

So, whether or not Momentum would be able to mobilise the fresh layers drawn towards Corbyn to win the leadership of the LPYS’s successor organisation, Young Labour – set up in 1993 by now deputy leader Tom Watson – was a test of their organisational ability and programme. It was also a test of the strength of the Blairite machine that Momentum is up against.

The conference was made up of elected delegates from university Labour clubs, Labour-affiliated trade unions and socialist societies, and regional delegates elected online by Labour Party members aged under 27. All young members (reported in February as numbering 50,926) were sent emails to participate in the delegate elections. Only 2,890 voted, however, over the period of a month from late November.

Young Labour’s membership has tripled since the general election, but if only 5% or so voted, this suggests that the layer which has engaged in the party’s official structures is quite small. In January, these young members also voted for their regional representatives on the national committee of Young Labour. Momentum-backed candidates won all these elections but the numbers voting decreased further, to only 3.5% or 1,750 people.

At the conference, elections took place for the youth representative on the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), for the chair of Young Labour, and some other positions on its national committee. The Momentum-backed candidate, James Elliot, an Oxford University student who drew up Jeremy Corbyn’s youth policies during the leadership election, lost out on the NEC place by just 0.01%, the equivalent of one or two votes under the electoral college system.

One of the material advantages that the Blairites have is that most Labour Party fulltime staff were hired under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Labour’s national youth officer is Stephen Donnelly, a previous chair of the historically right-wing Scottish Labour Students. The decision not to allow a recount was made by him. The right wing has at its disposal this powerful machine and is willing to use it.

Those who are enthused by Jeremy Corbyn and want to remake the Labour Party along anti-austerity socialist lines will come up against this bureaucracy and will have to seriously fight to eject it. The NEC representative was the most important position elected. Key questions, such as whether or not Jeremy Corbyn would automatically be on the ballot paper if there was a challenge to his leadership, will be decided by the NEC.

The equivalent of this position in the LPYS was held by Militant supporters for much of its existence. But to make Young Labour a toothless replacement for the LPYS, the democratic structures of the LPYS were gutted. In the LPYS, delegates elected by its branches voted for the NEC representative at the national conference. These delegates had to win the confidence of the local members that they would represent them. The election of Militant supporters to the leadership of the LPYS was the result of the influence of their ideas and fighting programme for improving the lives of young people.

The collegiate system of Young Labour, in which the results of the three constituent parts – delegates from Young Labour, Labour Students, and from the trade unions and socialist societies – are given equal weight in the outcome, acts as a brake on a movement of young people from below. Choosing delegates who you trust will fairly represent what you want in the organisation and will fight for the things you believe in is next to impossible. Young Labour Party members in London, for example, were given a list of 300 potential delegates in November’s online ballot, each with just a 50-word statement. They had to pick up to 78 to vote for!

The vote for the NEC was split 60:40 for the Momentum candidate among Young Labour delegates, 60:40 for the right-wing Labour First-backed candidate among Labour Students delegates, and around a 50:50 split in affiliated unions and socialist societies. This suggests that, while there is support for left-backed candidates by either young activists or fresh layers getting involved in the Labour Party, Blairism still has a stronghold in a large section of the trade union bureaucracy and is still in control of the leadership of Labour Students.

In much of their election material, the right-wing Labour First candidates were able to imitate the left-backed candidates in rhetoric and policies. This shows two things. The right lacks a social base able to attract fresh people based on its real ideas and policies. But also that the programme of the left is weak enough that the Blairites find large portions acceptable enough for themselves.

Both candidates for the NEC used the word socialist in their statements but neither explained what socialism means and how to fight for it. Both called for Young Labour to become more democratic but lacked concrete proposals or a plan to achieve that. In terms of policy, both say they will act as conduits for the views of Young Labour members, with James Elliot giving a nod towards being anti-austerity. Similarly, the other left-backed candidates did not offer a fighting socialist programme to transform Young Labour.

The mixed composition of the conference was reflected in the policy motions debate. Just 90 minutes were given in a two-day conference to discussing how Young Labour should react to the changing times ahead – five motions heard out of 19 after a priority ballot. These were on the British steel industry, supporting those with mental health issues and long-term illness in education, a free education motion calling for scrapping tuition fees, condemning the cuts to student nurse bursaries, and a confused motion attacking the EU as a "capitalist institution promoting austerity", while calling for a ‘remain’ vote in June’s referendum.

All the motions heard were passed, including the left-backed ones, but the deficiencies of the Labour left were also shown in them. The scrapping fees motion made no mention of the return of a living grant and argued only for "taxing the rich and their businesses" to fund free education. The issue of nationalisation and democratic control were absent from all the motions discussed. A number of key motions were not given priority by the ballot and therefore were not heard, including ones calling for no-cuts local council budgets, fighting the housing crisis, opposing Trident renewal, and two motions on resisting the anti-trade union laws.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn has led to an ongoing civil war in the Labour Party. The Young Labour conference shows what Corbyn supporters are up against: a powerful right wing which holds in its hands the bureaucratic machine of the Labour Party, is well funded, and has had the time to build up a well-oiled organisation. To defeat and eject the right wing from all levels of the Labour Party will require the mobilisation and engagement of layers beyond those that have currently been mobilised. To do this will mean fighting on a clear socialist programme, seriously challenging the right wing with calls for reselection and involving the widest layers of young people, trade unionists and socialists possible.

Matthew Hamilton

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