Fighting for Democracy in Young Labour

by Lara McNeill

On October 14th and 15th, Young Labour will meet for its 2017 National Policy Conference where 303 delegates will debate submissions to the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum (NPF). There are already serious concerns about the composition and democratic procedure of this conference, concerns which are shared by everyone seeking an active and member-led Young Labour.

Whilst, positively, the elections for young member delegates were conducted on the basis of a One Member, One Vote (OMOV) online vote last month, the fact that young members only had the chance to elect a third of the entire conference leaves much to be desired. On the narrowest of margins, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party, which has only two young members on it, chose the delegate makeup of the conference and every other detail including the location and the timing and process of elections. Further to this, the NEC took this decision on the basis of plans presented to it by unelected Labour Party staff, bypassing the wishes of the Young Labour National Committee, who only were only recently granted the privilege of their own bank account.

The committee do not want the current plan - in which 101 delegates are to be allocated to Labour Students, 101 to Young Labour members and 101 to trade unionists and affiliates - but rather the majority of the conference to be Young Labour members elected from CLPs with better representation for young trade unionists. This seems like a reasonable request, given that there are over 90,000 young members, 100,000 young trade unionists and affiliates and around 10,000 students members (with the exact numbers not even confirmed by Labour Students themselves).

The splitting of regions has also been unclear to both the Young Labour National Committee and grassroots members. We now have a situation where the whole of Scotland’s young members have a delegation of four. Central London, one of four London sub-regions, receives seven.

Since long before my involvement, Labour Students has been a notoriously undemocratic and cliquey organisation, completely opposed to its grassroots membership. This May, I was surprisingly elected as one of its Vice Chairs, alongside the fantastic Lina Nass. However, the conference we were elected at was marred by all sorts of irregularities. Delegates were shut out of the room, people impersonated delegates and were allowed in, while real delegates elected by their Labour Clubs were dubiously excluded by the Labour Students apparatus weeks beforehand. There was no accountability in the running of the election, despite the presence of three full-time officers, who behaved in any factional way they pleased.

I have honest faith in the new Labour Students full-time officers meaning to move on from the catastrophes of previous years, but I fear no systemic change is on the cards. Even well-meaning individuals get caught up in the organisational culture of Labour Students; the structure exists whereby three full-timers will become inevitably separated from the part-time Vice Chairs and the rest of the committee, entrenching a top-down structure which is practically impossible to influence or reform.

I’m yet to hear of the progress on implementing OMOV - a struggle which has been ongoing for the best part of a decade - as a democratic tool in our organisation, and I haven’t been able to influence any national events in a way that could meaningfully ensure maximum outreach and financial accessibility.

It is not widely known that Labour Students is not a subsection of the Labour Party - like Young Labour is - but an affiliate. It has three full-time elected members of salaried staff when Young Labour has zero. The disproportionate influence of one affiliate of the Labour Party in our youth structures should be alarming - especially one that has yet to determine properly who its membership are and how it follows its own constitutional and democratic election processes. Concerns about the internal culture of Labour Students and the resources offered to it are regularly ignored at NEC level, whilst Young Labour and its 90,000 members are dictated over.

Furthermore, Labour Students’ 101 delegates will be decided on a first-come-first-served basis, and young members who are not students will have to stand for election.

This is not about pitting students and workers against each other, as some claim. Most students are at least part-time workers, and those Young Labour members who argue against a strong presence of young trade unionists at the expense of students (who can attend anyway) are being utterly insincere. Networks of young trade unionists and the Trades Union Congress are facing a huge battle to recruit young trade unionists; this ridiculous situation only reinforces the narrative that students have no place in a union, since even our young trade union activists are facing a serious struggle to gain real representation within Young Labour.

As a Labour Party, we consistently highlight the fact that still too few working class people will make it to university and see it through to the end. We strive to reduce inequalities in education that begin at primary school level, and prevent kids from working class backgrounds from reaching their fullest potential.

The divide is further apparent in Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and with Labour Students clubs in smaller universities not being prioritised on a national level (with many not ‘affiliated’ to Labour Students, or considered inactive), many ordinary members won’t even make it onto the generous allocation of student delegates. This further invalidates this conference structure as a means of meaningful representation for young members.

When I joined Labour, I never thought I would be so caught up in the bureaucratic structures of the youth section - motions, elections, process and all the rest. But until they are solved, these overarching democratic concerns should be at the forefront of every young member’s mind. Sadly, there is little point passing excellent socialist policy, or putting through motions that would mandate Young Labour to advance the struggles of young working people, without the resources to campaign on these issues, or without ensuring that Young Labour has the political autonomy to lobby for the inclusion of our policies into Labour’s next manifesto.

I long for a political and campaigning youth section that benefits both Young Labour and the Labour Party, allowing us to start solving problems for the young workers of today. But that will not happen until our democratic concerns are taken seriously. It will not happen until we are trusted by the Party with the autonomy we deserve. Young members have never been so crucial to the party as they are now - as we saw in the June general election campaign - and the political desires of the young are increasingly important in the national political sphere. The structures of our Party must be democratised to reflect this, and the will of young Labour Party members needs to be taken seriously more than ever.

Photo: Chris Beckett


New Socialist is, and will always be, not for profit. Help us sustain and develop this project by subscribing on Patreon.