by Dan Frost
On the weekend just passed (October 14th-15th) young members of the Labour Party descended upon the University of Warwick to take part in the National Youth Policy Conference, which I attended as a delegate for South and South-East London.
In the build-up to the conference, New Socialist reported on the anti-democratic stich-ups on the part of the Right and the Party machinery, which had sought to deprive Young Labour members of the opportunity to introduce policies befitting the Labour Party under Corbyn. In addition to the Young Labour (YL) members and trade unionists who should rightly decide our policy, a third of delegates would be from Labour Students with places given out, scandalously, on a first-come-first-serve basis.
As it happens, this did not have quite the calamitous effect that we feared. The Left, principally organised through Momentum, had fought hard and won a significant majority of the YL delegates. Perhaps more critically, Momentum was also successful in helping a number of young left-wing workers to be selected as trade union delegates.
Crucially, though, the Right was obviously demoralised. They had not brought the expected Labour Students clout and were almost cloyingly accommodating to left-wing delegates, clearly having woken up to a change in political circumstances. But in other respects they seemed pathetically trapped in the past, engaging in Hillary Clinton cosplay and arguing for the graduate tax as if that argument wasn’t long lost.
As a result, the Left scored a number of victories. The first two motions to be discussed, demanding a publicly-owned banking system and consideration of capital controls, were passed with little dissent. Other motions – like the CWU’s call for public ownership of key industries and motions on low wages, insecure work and the repeal of trade union legislation stretching back to the 1980s –passed easily and with even less controversy, a remarkable sign of how far we have come. Even figures linked to the Right are now engaging in banter about nationalising Greggs and Wetherspoons – a joke for them, of course, but a reflection of how much the discourse has changed.
At the same time, the lack of democracy at the conference did take its toll. The inability to make amendments to motions, and the chaotic way that motions are formed in the first place (with no system organised for discussion or to make members aware of which motions have already been submitted), meant that a number of motions which reached conference were imperfect – and we had little opportunity to change that except to vote them down. In most cases, this meant that the imperfect but broadly adequate motions were passed – ultimately they are only advisory anyway – but in others it led to a high rate of abstentions.
This was a particular issue for the motion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, opposed not simply because it suggested a two-state solution but because it insisted upon it as the only legitimate solution (regardless of potential demands from Palestinians on the ground) and implied opposition to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Similarly, the motion on combating Islamophobia was challenged because of simplistic wording and a lack of substantive demands.
The first point of serious controversy was over the motion on Freedom of Movement, which fell. Unsurprisingly, this has been reported by the media and hard-line Remainers as a major betrayal, a reflection of the insensitive nationalism of our young members, etc; a vindication for some, possibly, of the decision not to debate motions relating to Brexit at the national conference in Brighton. A few important points need to be made in light of this controversy.
Firstly, although I voted for the motion, it suffered particularly seriously from the lack of an amendment process. I agreed with complaints that the motion did not substantiate its call to ‘extend’ free movement by not stressing the importance of expanding it beyond EU citizens. Without amendments, there will have been some delegates who voted against for this reason.
Secondly, and more importantly, accusations of racism and nationalism on the part of all those who voted against the motion fall wide-of-the-mark. Many of those who voted against, and in particular the union delegations, have considerable experience of organising migrant workers. The young trade unionist Left have also emerged in the context of a profound internationalism, learning lessons from socialist movements in South America and (more recently) southern Europe. Subsequent motions were routinely passed afterwards opposing exploitation of migrant workers and calling for the reopening of the Dubs Amendment.
Thirdly, there is the matter of the motion’s association with the Clarion/AWL. The AWL is a Trotskyist (or rather Shachtmanist) sect which operates in an insidious manner not dissimilar to the SWP, and has a number of appalling positions- in particular, on international politics. Some within the Left argue that clearing the AWL out is the highest priority (particularly in light of their apparent appeals to the Progress Right for alliances), and will have voted against the motion on this basis.
That, in my opinion, vastly exaggerates the significance of the AWL. Although they may have seemed more vocal at times than the Right, it’s obvious that in the wider Party they do not possess the same influence. And even at the weekend’s conference, they were a forlorn and isolated bunch. Someone associated with the group (probably inadvertently) broke with the AWL’s line by challenging a motion on reproductive rights in Northern Ireland. There is also a danger that in our opposition to the AWL we veer into opposing anything which is marginal or ‘weird’ – a danger which justifies New Socialist’s criticisms of Angela Nagle, and which would threaten those who have come from outside the traditional world of labourism.
I voted for the motion because it was a step in the right direction and because I disagree that passing it would have empowered the AWL or unnecessarily divided the Left. At least two motions submitted by AWL-linked delegates were passed (on nationalising the banks and free education), and they have not brought their activists the attention that voting down Freedom of Movement has offered. Moreover, some of the arguments raised against the motion genuinely were accommodating to the Old Right and to a hackneyed and nervous conception of what the working class is and believes. We have helped to change the discourse on nationalisation, and I think we should be fighting to do the same about immigration.
A similar sentiment is presumably shared by those who voted in favour of the motion opposing NATO, for which I delivered a speech. This was the closest motion of the conference, won by a margin of only four – partly because there were a relatively high number of abstentions. The lack of amendments meant that the motion was much less polished than it could have been – some slight changes might have succeeded in winning over more delegates, including the speakers who argued correctly that focusing on NATO can serve to detract from the problem of specifically British imperialism. That said, YL has agreed a motion which calls on Labour to be “avowedly anti-imperialist” and calls for withdrawal from NATO- long a commitment held by those on the Labour Left, but which some might have suggested was in danger of falling by the wayside.
Youth conference was hugely positive, as young socialists and trade unionists from across the country came together to share experiences and pass policy which is finally starting to reflect Corbyn’s transformation of the Labour Party. In particular, the energy and aptitude of young workers is a fantastic sign that Momentum needn’t confine itself to electoral politics.
Looking ahead, it’s vital that the Left continue to build upon our victories and to fight for the democratisation of Young Labour – something that should hopefully come through the democracy review, but which can be won at conference if necessary. We need to redouble our efforts to establish democratic YL branches and to recruit young members into trade unions.
But we shouldn’t be distracted from these efforts by an obsession with the AWL. They were marginal at youth conference – they’re even more marginal outside it. We should remain vigilant against the threat of proscriptions, and remember how often victories in the youth wing have been followed by a crackdown from the Party machine. The Right seem to have lost some of their lustre, unwilling or unable to manoeuvre within Young Labour and Labour Students as once they did – but they mustn’t be underestimated.
Photo: Richard Rogerson
New Socialist is, and will always be, not for profit. Help us sustain and develop this project by subscribing on Patreon.