This year’s Young Labour conference comes in the wake of the transformation in the Labour party that began last summer with the election of Jeremy Corbyn. An incredible enthusiasm for left wing ideas and a genuine interest in what it means to be a socialist has opened up in the enormously increased ranks of the party.
Since so many of the people inspired by Corbyn’s revolution in the party are young, the transformation of the party has great potential to be reflected in Young Labour. By opening up the youth wing of the party to this massive influx of anti-austerity students and youth, Young Labour could take on a new lease of life, free from the bureaucracy and careerism that has been strangling it for so long.
The overall picture of this year’s conference confirms the shift to the left inside the Labour party but unfortunately Young Labour did not make the most of this historic opportunity to engage thousands of new people in the organisation. The binge by previous generations of Young Labour careerists who have treated the youth wing of the party as a vehicle for their own political advancement seems to have subsided for the time being. But it has left a hangover in Young Labour which made this year’s conference a fairly uninspiring event.
The first mistake was that the conference, held in Scarborough, cost £30 to attend, plus the cost of travel, accommodation and food for the weekend, all of which had to be funded by the delegates themselves. Immediately this priced out a huge number of young people who cannot afford such expense.
Over the course of three days candidates were elected for various positions and five motions were debated and passed. It is an indication of the direction of travel inside the Labour party under Corbyn that the candidates representing the left of the party won a majority of the positions on the national committee of Young Labour.
Jasmin Beckett, a candidate to the right of the party, was elected as NEC Youth Representative, but Caroline Hill, a candidate endorsed by Momentum and Labour Young Socialists (LYS) was elected as the national Chair. Other positions included International Officer and Ordinary Representatives.
Every position was contested between candidates backed by the right and left wings of the party. Although the left took a majority of positions, many of their speeches and campaign material could have been much stronger politically. Left candidates need to campaign on the basis of their anti-austerity, socialist politics as well as their ideas for building Young Labour and its campaigns on the basis of radical, left-wing ideas. Campaigns that emphasised these points could have inspired a new layer of Labour party members to look to the left for the party for ideas and guidance.
If, as was unfortunately the case with a number of the candidates, election campaigns are reduced to a discussion of the individual candidate’s personal experience of politics and life inside the Labour party, without much mention of ideas or programme, there is a risk that it will be very difficult for members (especially new members) to distinguish between left and right candidates in these elections.
The very close result in the NEC Youth Representative election demonstrated the sharpening split in the wider party membership: the left wing Corbyn supporters, versus the right wing of the party.
The most disappointing aspect of the conference was that only one hour and fifteen minutes of the entire weekend was dedicated to presenting and debating policy motions. Young people join the Labour party to discuss and actively participate in politics. Policy debate should therefore make up the vast bulk of the Young Labour conference if the party is to inspire more young people to engage with it. The fact that the debates on policy were so lively was a positive sign that Young Labour members take these questions seriously and genuinely care about these important political questions.
The motion on free education was the most controversial of all, with several right wing delegates speaking against the motion on the basis of believing it to be a good thing for them to have been privileged enough to be able to pay £9000 per year for their education! Those proposing the motion argued successfully in favour of free education for all. However, when dealing with an issue like free education it is necessary to explain how this would be funded in a period of capitalist crisis and permanent austerity. The proposal was limited in this respect because it did not tackle this elephant in the room.
Throughout the conference this was a recurring theme. Many of the proposals, such as the defence of a free NHS, were correctly argued for but the fundamental question of how to tackle austerity so that these things could be funded was never acknowledged. For socialists this question is at the heart of the problems society faces today and requires explicit anti-capitalist ideas.
Another motion was passed in favour of remaining in the European Union. The emphasis was on the European Union as a defender of job security, a provider of funding for public services and allowing the free movement of people across borders. These arguments seem to fly in the face of the facts and at no point did any of the delegates acknowledge that the free movement of people is already being restricted and suspended as the European nations see themselves being “invaded” by refugees. It is also the case that workers’ rights and living conditions are already being slashed, not exclusively across the southern states of the European Union, and even in those with a “left wing” government such as in Greece. The reality is that the European Union does not have solutions to the problems being faced by the working class. In fact it is far more preoccupied trying to solve the problem that, under conditions of economic stagnation and global economic instability, there is no longer enough loot to be shared between the bosses and bankers of the member states. In or out of the EU, during a capitalist crisis, such as the one we are currently living through, the working class will never come out winning, unless the ruling class is overthrown. For young people in Britain and all over Europe this becomes more and more obvious with each new stage in the European crisis and it is a shame that this sentiment was not reflected at the Young Labour conference.
Radical politics needed
What the Corbyn phenomenon showed and the Sanders campaign in the USA is confirming is that the vast majority of people today, particularly young people, are not interested in meaningless abstractions about “hope” or “change”. Nor are they overly preoccupied with identity politics or the personal prestige of candidates. People are looking for socialist ideas and radical, class-based politics. Young Labour has the potential to engage a vast layer of British people in its activities and transform itself into a powerful campaigning organisation if its newly elected leadership base themselves on these ideas and principles. There can be no room for back-room deals or personality politics when the stakes are as high as they are for ordinary people suffering the crisis of capitalism and brutal austerity.
What a growing number of people are coming to realise is that we must fight, not only for reforms, but for a revolutionary change in society. The whole system is rotten and the poison from its decay is now threatening our education, our healthcare, our welfare system, our housing and our jobs. Only by cleansing society of capitalism can we build a decent future – this is the task to which Young Labour members and all young people must put their minds.
by Emily Cosentino, West Ham CLP