Corbynism and The Youth Wing

An interview with Lara McNeill, Momentum activist and newly-elected Youth Rep on the NEC

On Friday, March 16, Lara McNeill, 21, was elected to a two-year term as the Youth Representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee. Prior to this, Lara has served as vice chair for Labour Students and campaigns officer for London Young Labour. She is also a Momentum activist who has written for us about the need to democratise Young Labour.

Lara was part of the Momentum slate for the elections, where under-27 members of the Labour Party nationwide were eligible to vote on 9 national positions on the Young Labour National Committee (YLNC), a regional representative (for 11 regions), as well as a youth representative for their regional board (for 10 regions, excluding Scotland). Of the 31 members of the Momentum slate, all but 3 were elected. The Momentum-backed candidate for chair, Leigh Drennan, lost to the Progress-backed candidate, Miriam Mirwitch.

On Sunday, March 18, New Socialist editors Wendy Liu (W) and Daniel Frost (D) sat down with Lara (L) to discuss the significance of these elections as well as the progress of Corbynism among the various youth structures of the party. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

The significance of this victory

WCongratulations on your new role! How would you explain the significance of these elections?

LSo this was quite a historic election because it was the first time the electoral college has been split this way. The way it’s been done before was at a conference with 303 delegates, split between 101 Labour Students members, 101 Young Labour members and 101 trade union affiliates. And this process was never in the rules in the first place; it was one of those things where people said it had be done this way because it’s always been done this way. So I think there’s something quite significant in the way this has changed the status quo—being like actually no, we no longer have to do things the way they’ve always been done, because the way they’ve always been done is unfair.

In recent years, we’ve had the youth representative on the NEC being politically at odds with the membership and with the YLNC [Young Labour National Committee]. It just hasn’t worked at all. This year, the vote for youth rep was split 50/50 with one half going to trade unions and affilitates, and it was claimed to be a setup [in an article released by Progress, without an author byline, 3 days before voting closed; Lara responded to it on Twitter] just because I got more support among trade unions. But it was trade unions’ young members networks who selected me. And then the other half of the vote is OMOV [one member, one vote, among all under-27 members of the Labour Party], and I did win in that section as well. That threw the claim that my election was completely decided by trade union general secretaries out the window, as young trade unionists have a very similar view to young members wanting a socialist representing them on the NEC.

So I got support from all sides of the movement. And I think it was due to people crying out for change, because Young Labour is really not fit for purpose right now.

WWhat about the rest of the positions? The Momentum slate mostly swept the board, winning NEC youth rep, 8/9 national YLNC positions, and 19/21 regional positions, and yet lost the key position of chair. How did that happen?

LYeah, it’s a really interesting dynamic because we lost the chair election by less than a hundred votes, and turnout was really low. The Momentum slate did well in most of the regions, not only because Momentum has a lot of members who support it but also just as a consequence of having a slate at all.

People like to slag off the concept of having a slate, but I personally think slates are a good thing. I’ve talked to so many people who are confused by the sheer number of candidates, because Young Labour is not really in the hearts of our communities and our local groups, and our youth are not empowered. A lot of people don’t even know what Young Labour does or what the different positions are for, and sometimes have never even heard of many of the candidates. So if you know your politics, and you know you’re on the left of the Labour Party, then Momentum putting out a candidate is extremely helpful. It’s going to up turnout.

Plus, I think that if there weren’t slates, the campaign would be much more misleading. There are people who run very misleading campaigns where they imply that their politics are different from what they actually are, by trying to hide who they supported in the last leadership election in order to hide their true political views, or who have started calling themselves “socialists” without ever really supporting socialist policies, or who have only just recently become trade unionists. And whilst I want everyone to become an active trade unionist, I think it’s really disingenuous when people join up just before an election. And I think most young trade unionists can see through that, which is why they supported similar candidates to the rest of the membership.

So yeah, Momentum won all the positions except a small number. In the case of chair, I think it’s mostly that the non-Momentum candidate ran a really strong campaign where her team was messaging lots of young members personally and basically just working really hard to get her elected. Plus, there’s the fact that Labour Students sent out an email, using Labour Party data, on the day before voting closed, saying that they backed the non-Momentum candidates for chair and youth rep. So Labour Students publicised their endorsements—made on behalf of a very undemocratically elected committee [via a delegate system, not an AGM or OMOV]—and also they got a block vote of 27,000, since they’re in the affiliate section.

WDo you want to talk about the significance of your victory? In terms of what it means for Corbynism.

DAnd the role that you’ll be exerting on the NEC, what the role is and what it means for someone on the left to occupy it.

LThe reason it’s significant is two-fold. One, is that you have a socialist on the NEC. So when it comes to things like electing our next general secretary—which is happening later this week—and making decisions on processes for democratising the labour party or supporting CLPs, I’ll be another member on the committee, voting along with other comrades. So one part of it is that I’m a socialist on the NEC who agrees with democratising the labour party.

And when it comes to the youth bit, I see that as a way of lobbying for Young Labour to get more funding, more staff, more resources. And I think that’s a way of solidifying Corbynism. It’s about making the 110,000 young members all activists and all active in the party. At the moment, we don’t have the structures for that. I think Young Labour is a real gateway into the Labour Party. A lot of young members don’t go to their CLP meetings—I personally didn’t for ages—whereas with Young Labour and Labour Students they can get involved at a grassroots level, like through their university. So it’s about lobbying the NEC to give us funding and staffing to reinvigorate Young Labour and make it a gateway to the party.

You’ve also got loads of Corbynites who joined for Jeremy Corbyn and who need to understand the structures of the party, and how they can personally influence policy, or stand as candidates. We’ve got a pool of really great socialist candidates who don’t know how to even start getting selected.

If someone else had this position, and this person didn’t have the same vision for Young Labour in terms of making it more democratic or active, that would really be holding us back. I think we’ve been held back for the last two years, at least. Because even if you have the whole of the YLNC wanting Young Labour to move in a certain direction, every single engagement with the NEC has the potential to sideline them. The NEC decides the national events for Young Labour, it’s decided the election processes, it’s decided where the conferences are and how much tickets cost. We couldn’t even amend motions at our policy conference [which Dan has written about for New Socialist] because of a decision made by the NEC.

So the YLNC are basically powerless at the moment. Which then goes back to the question of why was turnout so low in this election? Why did the left do well in local positions? It’s probably because Momentum supported them, yeah, but also because people didn’t know who anyone was, because Young Labour has just been held back so long. And the NEC has just decided this in a very top-down way. So why would anyone get really involved when they can’t really make a difference? So it needs a fundamental change.

This is why my role is so important: the YLNC has been so powerless for so long. But I sit on the NEC. So it’s my opportunity to advocate for them, as I’ve got a little more power to actually do something. Whereas the NEC previously found it so easy to sideline the YLNC again and again and again until they just gave up trying to get things. Whereas they can’t really ignore me.

The historical context

WLet’s talk about the historical context of why the situation in Young Labour is the way it is. For me personally, I would say that the current state of affairs is kind of shocking in a lot of ways. And I think that’s broadly true for anyone who hasn’t really been following what’s been going on with the Labour Party. If you just moved here, or just started getting politically engaged, and you join Young Labour because you’re excited by Corbyn and you think that’s where all the young Corbyn supporters are, then you’re in for a bit of a rude awakening when you find all these people who don’t really support Corbyn in positions of power within various youth-centric groups.

I think that’s especially true for London Young Labour, where prominent members of the 2017-2018 committee openly supported Owen Smith during the most recent leadership elections. I remember going to my first LYL event last summer [the London Young Labour summer school] and being really confused at how little mention there was of Corbyn or the movement he represented, which was the whole reason I’d gotten interested in UK politics in the first place. The event just felt really disappointingly liberal. If that event had been my only introduction to London Young Labour, and I hadn’t met you and the other Momentum members of the committee, I don’t think I would have gotten more involved and I certainly wouldn’t be on the committee right now. I had just heard so much about how young people overwhelmingly supported Corbyn, so I naively didn’t consider the possibility that there were young members who didn’t support him or what he represented.

Can you talk a little about why that is, and why some institutions within the Labour Party, most notably London Young Labour, are so resistant to change such that the makeup of their committees didn’t proportionately reflect the political views of their broader membership?

LI think it’s really important to remember the people who have come before us, especially CLPD [the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, founded by 1973 for the purpose of ensuring that the party was more accountable to the membership]. Democratising the Labour Party has always had so much pushback from the Labour Party machine, and that includes Young Labour. Because Young Labour tripled in membership quite early on—we were the first to triple before the wider membership tripled, actually—we saw the Corbyn surge first. And we just weren’t prepared for that, the structures weren’t there for us to be a flourishing, local-level group.

So the kinds of people involved with Young Labour before tended to be those who were set on having a career in the Labour Party. The important thing to remember is that just because Corbyn’s leader now, it doesn’t mean the Labour Party as a whole is really left-wing. Things don’t change overnight. There are so many levels of bureaucracy and structure that we need to make more representative of the membership, and that’s basically where CLPD and other groups that push for democratising the Labour Party all come from, recognising that we need democracy at every single level of our party.

All this stuff about reinvigorating Young Labour, and getting it the resources it needs, is ultimately about giving people at a grassroots level a say, and a stake, in Young Labour and the Labour Party. And once that’s the case, people will be be more likely to come along and get involved, and there will be less room for careerists to maneuver and remain in charge. And it will actually be meaningful and rewarding for newcomers to get involved, instead of what it’s been like in the past where they’ll turn up to an event and it’s only a few people there, all of whom are on the committee. Careerists won’t thrive in an environment where there’s an active grassroots membership.

I’m not saying that people who are anti-Corbyn or whatever can’t be in any positions in Young Labour. It’s all about being democratic and allowing that debate between people with different views in the party. But until recently, a lot of people in leadership positions in Young Labour nationally or regionally were anti-Corbyn in a way that didn’t reflect the views of the membership. So there’s clearly something wrong.

And that comes down to a lack of democracy in the structures. If you have enough democracy in the structures, then the committees would reflect the membership, but they haven’t. I think the YLNC does reflect the membership better now [mainly as a result of changing their electoral process]. And as part of the NEC, I would want to continue the process of democratising the party.

The controversy around Labour Students

WCan you say anything about Labour Students, and the controversy over lack of democracy there? [Labour Students recently had its annual conference, where the 2018-2019 national committee was elected on the basis of a delegate system, with each affiliated Labour Club being able to send up to 4 delegates; Lara, who was on the committee for 2017-2018 but didn’t run again, attended as a delegate for King’s College London. All three full-time Labour Students officer positions were won by what LabourList described as ‘centrist’ candidates.]

LSo Labour Students is the kind of thing that reeks of the establishment of the Labour Party. Because Labour Students is an affiliate of the Labour Party, but it’s also part of the Labour Party. So it’s like this loophole—this weird grey area—and because of that, our democratic concerns as grassroots members have been ignored. So it’s kind of rolled on. It’s one of those things where it’s always happened this way, so it just keeps happening this way, like the electoral college. Whereas we actually need to change it.

It’s just really undemocratic. We haven’t had OMOV implemented yet, despite it being in our constitution. Instead, we’ve had two conferences that didn’t follow our constitution. But everything’s up in the air because it’s an affiliate. Unlike Young Labour, where the Labour party oversees our elections, the Labour Party can’t intervene because it’s an affiliate. So what you have are three full-time officers at the top [Chair, Secretary, and Campaigns and Membership Officer] who, in recent years, have been from one faction. And they have complete autonomy over the electoral system, with very little oversight. Last year, we even had someone write their own rules for their election then stand down from the election committee in order to stand as a full-time officer.

Which is why, if we do get more staff for Young Labour, I think it shouldn’t be elected staff. It should be people who are mandated to do what the YLNC has decided to do, simply because of the example set by Labour Students, where full-time elected members can decide to spend their time helping members of their faction get elected in internal Labour elections rather than actually mobilising students.

WDan, what was your experience like with Labour Students?

DI went to my first Labour Students meeting in 2011, at my university’s Labour club, which was quite a left-wing university, actually. And like a naive first year, I stood for a position, and in my speech I said that we should be talking to other groups on the left, and organising around tuition fees. Needless to say, that wasn’t what was happening within Labour Students at the time. People like Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Owen Jones would come to our university to speak, but it was never the Labour club that invited them. And those of us on the left were trying to fight on tuition fees while the Labour club was organising pub crawls with Conservatives.

I think part of the problem is that the people who were in Labour Students at the time were often doing internships in Parliament alongside Conservative students. So those were the circles they were moving in. So at our union meetings they would be sitting with their Conservative friends and everyone on the left—including Labour Party members on the left—was excluded from that.

One of the things that’s changed is that those of us who were involved in the tuition fee protests then, and who maybe felt excluded from the Labour Party at the time, have now kind of poured into the Party and brought our experiences with us. Which means that for the current UCU strike, there’s been a lot more involvement from Labour Party members, who are either on strike themselves or otherwise supporting the action. In my current university, Labour Party members were involved in forcing our student union to have a referendum to support the strike. That is a very different situation [from the tuition fee protests in 2010-2011]. There are still challenges, but the situation has much improved.

LYeah, the membership has definitely changed, mainly because we’ve had this influx of members after Jeremy Corbyn [became leader].

At the same time, it’s just not about Jeremy Corbyn and how great he is—it’s not a leadership cult. It’s about a wider political shift. It’s a rejection of the whole New Labour project, and it’s been a long time coming. We’d reached the precipice where we couldn’t carry on with the destructive policies of New Labour any longer. The Iraq War, PFIs—it was all going to come to an end, and that’s manifested in Corbynism.

So the grassroots membership is changing, which is why I think we will see Labour Students change soon. You see indications of that with my election onto the NEC, but also with other things happening at the same time, like the influx of left-wing members into Labour clubs. People want more democracy in Labour Students—they want it to change

One thing that really bugs me is when people say we should avoid talking about structures or OMOV because it’s just bureaucratic. Yes it’s bureaucratic, but it’s also important because it’s the first step to making the institution better. Sometimes I feel like I talk about elections all the time, and it’s annoying, but it’s the first step. I don’t care about the voting process in itself, I care about what that represents in terms of who gets in power.

So it is important to talk about the structures, you just have to explain to people why it’s important. The amount of people we’ve gotten involved in really bureaucratic stuff [like internal electoral processes] by explaining their importance to the wider movement, in terms of how that will enable us to do more grassroots activism, has been really inspiring.

But yeah, the grassroots of Labour Students is changing and there’s no way they can hold that back for much longer. Because young people are now finding a home in the Labour Party. Whereas I know so many people who didn’t see it as a political home before. I feel like I’m really lucky to be around the time I am—I’ve spoken to people who are from a slightly older generation, where Labour just wasn’t a home for them when they were students.

And I’m obviously passionate that people should be in the Labour Party—we’re the party of the trade union movement, and if it changes away from that and more towards Blairism, then we should stay in and fight to change it. At the same time, I also completely understand when people are not members of the Labour Party—after all, we’re also the party that introduced tuition fees. That’s a really difficult situation and I can’t say what I would have done if I had been a member at the time.

But overall, the grassroots is changing, and I hope that would pressure institutions like Labour Students to change. But we do need people getting elected into positions as well, not just remaining in the grassroots. We need to get left-wing socialists who believe in the democratisation of the Labour Party elected into positions.

The young people who don’t support Corbyn

WLet’s go deeper into the prevalence of young people in key positions within the youth wing of the party who didn’t support Corbyn during the most recent leadership elections and maybe still don’t support him now. Because there’s definitely this common wisdom that young people are more likely to support Corbyn, because his policies tend to be really popular among young people. But we know there are young people who don’t feel that way, including people who are essentially young Blairites. Why is that? Where do they get that from?

LI think there are multiple different types of people who don’t support Corbyn. There are the full-on Blairites who, like Blair, would rather Labour not be in power than see Jeremy Corbyn get elected. And there are people who are preoccupied with remaining in the EU, who fall on the more liberal part of the spectrum. But there are also people, many coming from working-class backgrounds, who do want Labour in power, and they honestly believe that Corbynism will prevent us from getting in. These people are starting to be proved wrong, and a lot of them are now saying, okay, we are being proved wrong in the polls, therefore we’ll get involved.

So I think there’s a divide between people who really do want a Labour government and just thought Corbyn was unelectable—which was a concern among some people on the left as well—and there were some people who, even if the left was doing well in the polls, just don’t want us in power. I guess they’re just inherently very liberal people, in terms of their politics. And I don’t know why, I don’t know where they get that from.

The other thing to remember with Young Labour and Labour Students is that people hide their politics. People will misrepresent their politics to get jobs or win [internal] elections. The problem with our movement at the moment is that very few people have got enough time to give up for these things. So if you’re obsessed with getting a job in politics, and you have the time and resources for it, it’ll be much easier for you to get elected [to a position within the youth wing, which can be a stepping-stone to a career in politics]. Whereas most working-class people who don’t care about having a career in politics aren’t going to go to Labour events all the time.

So the structures are favouring people who do want a career in politics and can afford to be giving up their time for it. And we need to change this. We need to be doing stuff at all levels of Young Labour, getting involved with culture and what young people actually do on a day-to-day basis, to get people more involved. We need to make a mass movement where everyone only has to give up a tiny bit of their time, rather than focusing on a few people who can give up a lot of their time, because that inherently encourages careerists and people who want a job in politics.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, having a job in politics. But they should be in the minority. We should be an accessible mass movement of people from all different walks of life, most of whom will have lives outside of politics. And it’s not really like that at the moment.

This is something that will take a while, and that’s why democratisation of the structures is such an important thing. We just need to get a ton of new people involved in politics. You do need people who are really into politics from an academic side, but you also need people whose politics come from life experience, people who are working in the NHS or as teachers or on the railways.

On political education

WThis is where political education becomes really crucial, isn’t it?

DYeah, I think when we talk about young people and Corbynism, one perspective is that we just need to encourage young people who already support Corbyn to get more involved in the party. Which kind of takes for granted that young people are always going to support Corbyn. I don’t think it’s enough for those of us on the left to say that we’re going to give young people a voice—we actually need to engage in political education. Because whilst our age group, the slightly older section of Young Labour, does have that experience of political struggle, and a lot of us remember what a Labour government is like compared to a Conservative government, that won’t necessarily be true for the next generation.

I was working at a school until recently and I do think there is an effect that a Conservative government has on education. So if you grow up with a Tory government, you might start to think more like how the Tories want you to think. And I think that with our parents’ generation, there’s a kind of missing generation of Labour Party members as a result of Thatcherism, and there’s a risk that could happen again, especially when you think about the alt-right and the insidious recruitment they do online.

And that’s why I think it’s not enough for the left to be making sure young people are heard. I also think we need to be pushing for political education, which is what London Young Labour is now starting to do and what other organisations on the left have been doing. Trying to fight back against that indoctrination [coming from the right].

LI agree. I think it’s really important that we push for an alternative political narrative, especially when it comes to the alt-right. Because people are frustrated, especially after having gone through austerity, and while that’s not an excuse for racism, there is still a section of people who get involved with the alt-right out of frustration at not having a political narrative that speaks to them so they go with the first outlet they find.

I think the Labour Party is doing good things now when it comes to challenging the narrative around austerity. It’s so hard to believe that we were basically austerity-lite just three years ago. And I think this [reversal on austerity] is part of the reason people have been leaving other parties to join Labour.

When it comes to political education, I think we definitely need to be doing that within Young Labour nationally and within the regional structures. We also need to be fighting against bias in economics, in the media, and actually challenge the mainstream narrative. And that’s really hard to do without a Labour government, especially when it comes to the school curriculum, but we can start within our own structures. We’ve got 110,000 members [in Young Labour]; that’s a good place to start.

For example, my mum, she’s voted Tory her whole life. The way I convinced her to vote Labour this time was by finding her life experience and linking it up with Tory policies. Because she just saw them as separate things. And it’s like no, actually, the reason you’ve seen this reduction in your child benefit and your wage hasn’t gone up in so long is because of Tory policy. And it’s a mixture of challenging what they say in the media—taking down the austerity narrative and the misleading statistics about the economy—and explaining what the reality is.

That’s what I see as political education. And we can do that, we can link daily life to Tory policies. And it’s difficult, but we have to start working in our own structures. All my own personal political education has come through being involved in the Labour Party over the last 2 years, just learning from comrades in the party. And now, I feel very comfortable going into debates about economics or policy, which I didn’t learn much about in school. So there’s so much potential there.

On the significance of the London Young Labour AGM

WLet’s switch gears a bit and talk about London Young Labour. [At the most recent AGM in February, the 2018-2019 committee was elected. The Momentum-backed candidate for chair, Artin Giles, who was also endorsed by New Socialist, won with 198 votes to 152. Elected alongside him were the Momentum-backed candidates for all 5 liberation positions, and 8 out of the 9 Momentum-backed candidates for block positions, including Wendy.] For me, it felt like this kind of watershed moment, even a historic moment, where the political composition of the committee almost completely reversed. You were one of 4 Momentum-backed members of the committee from last year, and now there are only 6 members who aren’t Momentum-backed, out of 22 positions total. That’s an enormous shift. Can you talk about how that happened, and what the committee was like before?

LSo the committee hasn’t always been the same. In the past, we have had fairly left-wing chairs before. Historically, the committee has alternated between mostly on the left and those more on the right of the party, though sadly more on the right recently.

I think what’s special about London is that it really favours the worst of the careerists. Lots of people go to university, or get a job as a parliamentary assistant, here in London with the intention of having a career in politics. And, just to reiterate, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to work in Parliament or whatever, it just depends on your motivations behind it.

When it comes to determining who’s on the committee, I think it’s a mixture of organising and the actual politics. Because even if the grassroots membership is mostly left-wing, you’ve got to encourage people to turn up to an all-day AGM on a Saturday because that’s the current system we have. And there just wasn’t that much organising last year.

I think the reason we did so well this year came down to having so few members on the left of the committee the year before. That really fueled our frustration, so we did a lot more organising, convincing people to get involved for the next one—telling them about London Young Labour, explaining why they haven’t heard of it and explaining all the amazing things it could do if it were to change. There are so many social movements in London, and London Young Labour could be such a solid, legitimate organisation to help push these things forward, avoiding more controversial organisations on the left like the SWP [the Socialist Workers Party, which has been beset with internal controversies]. We just needed to encourage people who were already involved with political activism in some way to become involved with Labour. So that’s basically what we did for this year.

So when it comes to organisation, I think you have to put the work in. It’s not just going to happen. We were definitely pushed by Corbyn’s trajectory to some degree, but at the same time, those of us on the left have to remember that candidates on the right of the party are still being selected around the country for key positions within the structures of the Party. Yeah, Momentum got an overwhelming amount of selections this time, but we can’t underestimate the power of people who are heavily involved with politics and want to preserve their faction’s dominance on a particular committee. That can sometimes overpower the grassroots, who don’t always see why it’s important to turn out for a meeting. That’s one of the things Momentum has been able to change, just by stressing the importance of actually coming to these meetings.

So it’ll take a while. Some of these YL structures stay quite entrenched, in a way that is echoed in the rest of the Labour Party [see the rest of our Taking Stock pieces for reflections on the state of Corbynism within the rest of the Party]. It’s not going to change overnight because of the way the structures are set up.

On misleading campaigns

WLet’s talk a little more about the way some people conceal their true political views when running in internal elections. It does feel like there’s a trend of people who have traditionally been on the right of the party starting to co-opt the terminology of the left, calling themselves “socialist” or describing their policies as “radical”. Or saying they’re on the left of the party when they’ve supported Liz Kendall and Owen Smith in the leadership elections. And obviously they can say things like that if they want—the left doesn’t have a monopoly on this terminology—but it’s perplexing, because they’re basically implying they support Corbyn more than their past actions would suggest.

Do you think this is an indication of them having genuinely changed their political views—after all, people have the right to change their minds, especially young people—or do you see it as more of an indication that they know which way the wind is blowing, and are just saying what they think they need to say to get elected?

LI think it’s usually not genuine. As I said, there’s a mix of different types of people—there are people who are ideologically on the right of the party, and there are people who didn’t think Corbyn was electable but are now happy to be proven wrong. But when it comes to people who run campaigns where they conceal their political views, a lot of the time they’re also involved with things like Progress, they’re just not open about it.

Another way you can tell someone hasn’t changed their mind: when they talk about the actual issues, they can be very vague and apolitical about it, and you can’t have a real political discussion about it. I think it’s quite see-through, though, and I think members who pay attention do see through people who aren’t willing to be open with their political views.

WI’ve seen this trend where the people running these apolitical campaigns try to turn criticism about their policies into some sort of personal thing—like how dare you criticise me, this is sexist or racist or whatever. Kind of like how a lot of Hillary Clinton supporters were quick to dismiss criticism of her as being inherently sexist and thus invalid, even when it was entirely based on her politics. I know I personally was guilty of doing this, before I actually took the time to try and understand the criticism. And it’s like no, sometimes there are valid political criticisms, but I guess when you don’t know how to respond politically—because you just don’t have a good answer, or you’re not willing to be open with your politics—then you have to deflect it somehow, invalidate it by making it seem like a personal attack.

LYeah, there’s this really weird culture where it’s like we can’t have a political argument. I’ve been accused of “bringing other women down”, and it’s such a weird thing. I’m obviously not condoning abuse or bullying in any way, but it’s like, you don’t have to be friends with all other women. There are people I completely ideologically disagree with, in my own party. I’m not going to hang around with and base my friendships around them.

So yeah, women don’t all have to get on. Me criticising another woman and even a man criticising another woman isn’t necessarily sexist if it’s about her politics, if it’s a political disagreement. If I want to actually do something good for women in the Labour Party, it’s not just a matter of me getting into a position of power as a woman. It’s about how many women come behind me. Anything otherwise is just liberal feminism.

W“Lean in” feminism.

LYeah, that’s just stupid.

DThe idea that criticising other women is undermining other women, that’s such a massive sexist trope isn’t it.

Going back to changing of minds, I think there’s changing your mind and “changing your mind”, right. We had Richard Angell come to Croydon and he said that nationalising the railways was going to be a vote loser. And this was in the CLP of one of the busiest stations in the country with one of the worst train operators in the country—he says it’s going to be a vote loser. Now, people who agreed with him then might now be saying nationalising the railways is good, but they haven’t changed the mindset that got them to that policy; they’re still basing it on whether it’s a vote-winner or not. They’re not really socialist, because they’re not thinking in a socialist way about public ownership and how to build power.

LYeah, I think there’s a fundamental difference between people who are socialist and people who are social democrats inside the Labour Party. Because one’s trying to chase after this mystery “centre ground” and the other’s trying to shape the centre ground. People are just not on the “left” or “right”; my family aren’t, they changed their politics from Tory to Labour. Most people don’t vote left or right, they vote on issues they care about. And for him [Richard Angell] to come into that local area and say that nationalisation is a vote-loser, it just shows the kind of bubble he’s working in, which is this thing where he’s looking down from a national scale. He’s not engaging locally; he’s got this top-down, I’m-going-to-speak-over-other-people attitude, and that makes him really out of touch with local people. But yeah, it’s about who’s going to shape the centre ground and shape politics.

And it’s not as hard as it sounds. You’re not trying to convince the public of everything all at once. The wider economic narrative around the deficit and debt is difficult, I get that, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it, since the Tories are literally spewing out lies, and it’s our duty to speak against it. But things like tuition fees and nationalising the railways—honestly, the public supports it. And I reckon that for some things with low public support right now, they could become more popular if we make an effort to argue our case for it.

We don’t have to go into everything asking if it’s a vote-winner or not. We need to stick to our fundamental socialist principles, including free education, the NHS, no PFIs. It doesn’t matter if it’s not popular—you make the argument for it anyway, in order to convince people of our ideas; you don’t just give up.

On factionalism

WLet’s go back to the rifts within the youth wing of the party. For new people joining the party now, who don’t really know the history or the structures or any of the stuff we’ve just talked about, suddenly getting thrown into all this factionalism can feel a bit like walking into a wasp’s nest. How do we ensure they stay involved and that they don’t get disillusioned by a toxic environment?

LSo I don’t think that factionalism is always bad. Like I was saying earlier, I think there can be multiple reasons why factions can be good. It makes it easier for people who aren’t really involved on a day-to-day basis, but who know their politics, to decide who to vote for to best represent them. I also think factions are just people organising around their beliefs, and that’s what socialists do. There was a lot of fuss at the Labour Students conference about factions being really toxic, which I don’t agree with—factionalism can be done in an acceptable way, and all this current fuss about factions is mostly just trying to undermine a particular faction [the left].

I think people can be put off because there are people with different ideologies in the party, and of course there’s going to be conflict there. There’s also the split between careerists and those who aren’t careerists, which can cause frustration. But overall, with Young Labour, I think we should have a mix of different events and priorities: political education, socials, getting into local communities, doing local campaigns. There’s so much we can unite around.

And I’m not trying to shy away from differences. I think if there’s something that we, on the left, believe in, we should push for that. Still, there’s so much that we can unite on: anti-racism, anti-fascism, Grenfell. There’s so much unifying stuff.

So while I definitely agree with the idea of factions in principle, that doesn’t mean I’m going to start an argument [with someone in a different faction] for no reason. That’s what some people think factionalism is about, but it’s not. I’d happily fight alongside other people in our own party on issues we agree on. And you can overcome some of the toxicity and making a more accessible environment by doing that, by uniting around issues.

WThat’s a good point. Factions are there for a reason, right? I think people like to imagine that the centre ground is factionless when, really, it’s just another faction; it’s just harder to see as one. It’s like the idea that a particular viewpoint is devoid of ideology when it’s really just the dominant ideology.

LYeah, at the Labour Students conference there were these two questions right after each other. One: who did you vote for in the last leadership election? Two: how do we get rid of the toxic factionalism. And there was this big thing on Twitter about it being ironic, because apparently asking people about their political views is toxic factionalism. To me, that’s just trying to create a really weird culture in politics where you’re not expected to back up any political decisions you make and it’s moving towards this apolitical mush.

There is some truth to the idea of toxic factionalism: we definitely don’t want an environment where people are too scared to make their political views known, because they think others are going to attack them or whatever. That’s not what we’re going for. We just want an environment where people say what their politics are. I think the alternative perspective, where people are not expected to have political views, is kind of patronising, especially when it’s said to young women, as if they can’t be expected to have a political position on things, because it’s too “difficult”.

WThat kind of goes back to what I was saying earlier, about the tendency to deflect political questions by treating them as personal attacks. As if it’s rude to ask someone a question about their political views in a political campaign.

When it comes to questions about leadership elections, this goes back to what you were saying about backing up your position. The question is not necessarily a damaging one for anyone who voted for Owen Smith or whatever. If you voted a certain way but have since changed your political views and now regret it, this is an opportunity for you to explain why and say more about your politics. But if you haven’t changed your mind, and don’t want to back up your position, you’re just going to equivocate.

LIf they haven’t changed their mind, why aren’t they prepared to stand up for their politics? I have more respect for people in the party who at least stand up for their stances on various issues. I just find it weird that people try to hide their beliefs. Coming back to the apolitical thing, when I went to Labour Students conference, one of things I found weird was that there was no politics, it was so apolitical.

DIt was the same at my university’s Labour club. I think I only ever went to one meeting.

LThat’s the thing, if it’s an apolitical environment, the only people who will come back are the careerists, because politics is the whole point. So if we move away from politics on the grounds of avoiding factionalism then we’re limited to identity politics [without any class-based grounding], liberal politics, which just upholds a lot of the status quo essentially.

WDo you think there’s any point trying to win over the people [in key positions of power in the party] that aren’t currently aligned with the left?

LNo, I don’t think so. I think a lot of these people are just really entrenched in their politics. And what’s the point, when there are so many new people out there with strong political views? Why not give them a chance to get involved instead? We shouldn’t be having arguments amongst ourselves, unless it’s about people trying to block democratisation or funding which would prevent us from becoming a mass movement. We don’t need to spend hours arguing with people already in the party, trying to convince them of our politics, when we could be out in our communities, convincing people who aren’t yet in the Labour Party as well as all the members who aren’t yet active.

The other thing about factionalism is that it’s not factionalism itself that’s toxic. My first event was Scarborough [the 2016 Young Labour conference, which used a delegate system]. The reason that was toxic was because people were being misleading about their politics and running smear campaigns. That’s not factionalism, that’s just awful politics and people behaving like awful people. You can have factionalism without that. So that’s what makes environments unwelcome, just people behaving badly.

WYeah, the current state of factionalism is really just a reflection of the fact that there’s a huge ideological chasm within the party at the moment. You can’t really get rid of that without getting rid of the underlying political disagreements.

Going back to the factionalism thing and how that’s often twisted into a matter of personal attacks: when I gave my speech at LYL [running for block], and I said that last year’s committee didn’t do enough to support Corbyn or engage with the movement behind him, I remember there were a lot of disgruntled noises from the audience. From what I heard afterwards, it was a mix of people involuntarily gasping in disbelief and saying things like “absolute nonsense”. Which is fair enough, because presumably the people who were upset by my comment are people with whom I just politically disagree—maybe they think the committee did do enough to support Corbyn, or they just didn’t think I had the right to criticise last year’s committee for some reason. I certainly didn’t see it as a personal attack in any way; it was a political disagreement, and I treated it as such.

Something similar happened during the questions for the chair elections, when the non-Momentum candidate for chair equivocated in response to a question about HDV and was met by a negative response from the audience. And yeah, in an ideal world, that wouldn’t have happened, because you don’t want to create an unwelcoming atmosphere for anyone, no matter what their politics. On the other hand, I think some of the responses were involuntary, because people were just shocked at how she began answering the question.

What really baffled me was when some of her supporters implied that the negative response from the audience had something to do with—or was unacceptable on account of—the fact that she was a young, BAME woman. Which I really don’t buy, in this particular case. I think the people who insinuate that any criticism of their faction is motivated by sexism or racism need to recognise when it’s primarily political criticism, and figure out how to engage with it on those terms. Or maybe they do recognise it, and this is just their way of cynically using identity concerns to deflect valid criticism, I don’t know.

LPlus, it’s patronising to say that women can’t deal with political disagreements. That’s what’s sexist. Because we can—we can deal with arguments—and to imply that we can’t, that we’re just too delicate and fragile, is patronising and sexist in itself.

What’s ahead

WMoving on to the state of things now and what’s ahead. Where do things go from here? Dan, how do you see things? You’ve been around [in the Labour Party] a lot longer than either of us.

DSo I joined in 2010, in sixth form. I think things are moving in the right direction. In my area [Croydon], we’re setting up a Young Labour group, and with London Young Labour, the move, which Artin’s election signals, away from organising just in the centre toward trying to make sure other boroughs are represented as well, I think that’s good. So I’m optimistic.

On the other hand, I don’t think we can take anything for granted. That’s my worry, all these 16- or 17-year-olds joining now, or even 14- or 15-year-olds. That’s the group we can’t take for granted. We need to welcome them and provide them with political education. We need to figure out how we can get more young people and students, and what it means for them politically active.

LYou know, Unite does that thing where they go into sixth forms and explain what trade unions are, since that’s a little less politically loaded than explaining what the Labour Party is. I think we should try to do something similar to that.

WJust to wrap up. I get the sense that some of the more centrist members of the party, even the young ones, still feel like the current state of affairs is just a temporary setback for them. That we’re in the midst of this brief moment of “Corbynmania” and they just need to stick it out, and then in a few years things will eventually settle down and they’ll go back to their regularly-scheduled political careers.

Personally, I don’t think that’s true. I think we’re moving towards something entirely different, toward a complete reimagining of what politics and the Labour Party is actually for, which is linked to the failure of centrist politics to provide a compelling vision for the vast majority of people.

And I think that’s why Momentum’s membership keeps growing and growing—because it’s providing an outlet for the people who were never interested in politics before. And those people vastly outnumber those who have been in politics all their life. Whereas I can’t really imagine anyone new to politics suddenly becoming a Blairite and joining Progress, because, what, they’ve decided that the Iraq War was a good idea? I honestly don’t know. Which means the numbers are on our side, and so the Labour Party is—at least at the level of the membership—becoming a vehicle for actual socialism and not just careerist ambitions.

On the other hand, who knows; maybe in a few years, the pendulum will swing back to Blairism. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think things have irreversibly shifted?

LI think there’s a similar feeling among the Tories as well. But for me, when I see things like Corbyn speaking at Glastonbury and young people chanting his name, it’s just such a totally different type of politics. I think it does signal something big, and it’s not just about Corbyn; young people have just been shut out of and have had no expression in parliamentary politics for so long.

But we do need to be vigilant about solidifying it. We need to solidify it in the industrial and trade union context, but also by getting good left-wingers elected in our structures to all positions in the party, including as staffers and as candidates. And not just left-wingers—it’s not about getting people removed from the party just because they don’t agree with our politics. The point is to make sure people who are in positions of power actually represent the membership, because that’s the whole point of representative democracy.

So we do need to solidify it, basically. And young people are going to be at the centre of that. We’re the future of the party and it’s a really exciting time.


Daniel Frost (@d_j_frost)

Dan is a UCU member, and studying towards a PhD in the history of left-wing activism in Croydon at the University of Reading.

Wendy Liu (@dellsystem)

Wendy Liu is the author of Abolish Silicon Valley.