London Young Labour AGM: Everything changes, everything remains the same

By Daniel Round, Vauxhall/Stourbridge 

Some significant developments came out of London Young Labour’s annual general meeting on 3 February. Strong motions supporting democratic rights for people living on housing estates, against racism and for freedom of movement, and for the establishment of a trans officer position all passed with ease. The new chair, Momentum and Open Labour-backed Artin Giles (elected 198-152), spoke of turning London YL into a “shock force for socialist advance”. At the end of proceedings, attendees heard a typical but typically good speech from John McDonnell MP, with the shadow chancellor joking about his recent experience at Davos (“Da… ugh!”) and even quoting Antonio Gramsci. Taking it all in was a packed hall of around 350 young members, full of enthusiasm after a successful year and excited about the prospect of substantial gains at the upcoming local elections in May.

However, beneath the positivity and decent rhetoric was an unpleasant underbelly of bullying, insults and factional manoeuvring – a harmful cocktail spawned from the toxic culture within the recently disbanded Momentum Youth and Students (MYS). Former MYS London standard bearers were among those most jubilant at the results of the AGM, which saw a sweeping victory for the Momentum-backed candidates. Quite how these candidates came together to get formal backing is not entirely clear – apparently, a list of names was sent to Momentum NCG officers who approved it without the group’s elected members being consulted, let alone taking a vote. This is just the latest example that speaks to a general lack of democracy and transparency emanating from the Momentum powers that be.

A number of activists, including writers for The Clarion, decided to run for the committee block vote on a Left SlateClarion contributor Omar Raii was successful, finishing in the top 14. The Left Slate had, among other things, a distinct focus on working-class struggle, actively supporting strikes such as the ongoing Picturehouse dispute, and supporting free movement. Despite some significant political differences, it called for votes to also be cast for candidates backed by Momentum having reached out, unsuccessfully, to stand alongside them as a united left prior to the AGM. The official Momentum slate did not reciprocate even though they only ran 9 candidates for the block of 14, and so could have chosen to do so to help secure more left-wing committee members.

The Left Slate’s call for votes to be cast for Momentum-backed candidates didn’t stop a number of attendees on and associated with the slate from receiving abuse from other Momentum supporters. Examples include a tremendous young activist under the age of 16 being intimidated and harassed at the AGM on more than one occasion, and by more than one member of the aggressive clique formed out of the old MYS group. Another activist has spoken out on social media of feeling unsafe after leaving the post-AGM party, having been stared at and confronted for talking to the “wrong people” on the evening. Others have reported having vulgar and abusive epithets repeatedly hurled at them throughout the day. One Left Slate candidate for the block of 14 eventually decided to stay away from the AGM altogether in anticipation of the toxic, “Stalinist” atmosphere.

In addition, Rania Ramli – who stood for chair and was recently interviewed by the Clarion – was inappropriately booed during her speech by some supporters of Artin Giles (who we also approached for an interview). It is worth mentioning here that The Clarion was accused of having an informal alliance with Progress for simply interviewing Rania, which is unusual given that some supporters of the Momentum leadership have happily lined-up with much more right-wing “moderates” to take on internal opponents. At another point, there were audible sighs in the hall when someone asked a question concerning anti-semitism (who the sighs belonged to is unclear).

While everyone on the left should strongly defend the demand for rigorous debate around the key issues, the multiple incidents that have come to light from the AGM are most clearly not examples of that. Bullying and intimidation have no place within our party, stifle open debate, and are entirely at odds with the task of growing a democratic and healthy youth movement. It must be taken extremely seriously. We must raise these issues throughout the labour movement.

Feeding in to this hostile environment, there has been a concerted effort within certain quarters to target Young Labour activists who support the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), as well as those who have worked with them on campaigns or are simply friends with AWL supporters. This represents another cynical and harmful spill-over of internal Momentum factionalism into London Young Labour politics, making it more difficult to discuss and address important issues.

A motion was put to and passed by the AGM about a serious issue of sexual assault that happened in the AWL in 2005. You can read the London YL motion here (pages 15 and 16). The survivor’s statement can be found here, and the AWL’s response here.

This was the only motion that heard arguments against. An activist spoke to challenge some of the contents of the motion and counter the idea that the group is “secretive”, outlining the processes that the group has put in place before the motion passed after little time for proper consideration. It has been reported that prior to the AGM, the movers of the motion were contacted by the AWL and agreed that the measures the group has taken are appropriate. However, this was not stated in the proposing speech and the motion was not amended.

The motion was prioritised and heard first following a priority ballot in which attendees numbered each motion in order of preference. There seems to have been a politically motivated campaign to make sure the motion was heard. Although most of those present will have voted in favour of the motion for genuine reasons, the campaign behind it looks very much like a cynical attempt to weaponise an extremely serious and sensitive issue. A number of people in the hall recognised this and abstained.

This comes at a time when the Labour Party itself (and other political parties) have had a number of complaints made concerning sexual misconduct. A genuine call to tighten up safeguarding in Young Labour would of course have been very much welcome. But while the motion did recognise that sexual violence is obviously not confined to any one political tendency, it specifically attacked a single group. Any serious attempt to tackle the issue would have addressed it as a whole, and not prioritise the exclusion from London YL events of all young activists who happen to be associated with one particular organisation – some of whom would have been in primary school when these awful incidents took place.

Again, behind this is the politics of the group previously organised around MYS. While most of those present at the AGM will not share their politics – as evidenced by the overwhelming vote for freedom of movement, which they are known to oppose (though not always openly) – they have managed to manoeuvre themselves into a fairly dominant position.

After the AGM, the old MYS London Facebook account posted an image with the caption: “MYS is dead, long live London Young Labour”. It would be a travesty if their toxic, ostracising culture is now in a position to take hold of London Young Labour – or, worse, to migrate to Young Labour nationally. We should push for the new leadership of London YL to prioritise clamping down on the connected vitriolic atmosphere of bullying and intimidation during its tenure, though any serious action would likely displease certain committee members.

MYS was shut down last month for bringing Momentum into “disrepute” following concerns about the sectarian and threatening online activity of some of its leading members. But it was the Momentum leadership that allowed for this unpleasantness to spread in the first place, partly stemming from its own anti-democratic tendencies and polarising manoeuvres. In confronting opposition within Momentum, some of the leadership’s supporters have curiously adopted the type of language and tactics previously used by the Labour right against Corbyn and the left, leading to more than a whiff of McCarthyism.

Those of us on the left who stand for an open socialist politics within the Labour Party should challenge these damaging trends at every opportunity and fight for a genuinely pluralistic and democratic movement. Only through greater democracy and participation will we be able to establish a sustainable unity across the left, strengthened by comradely and critical debate between its various parts. An open socialist politics means moving beyond simply campaigning for mandatory reselection and internal Labour Party democracy. Democracy needs to be the very cornerstone of our politics and our structures – in both Young Labour and Momentum, and across the wider labour movement. At a bare minimum, that means standing up against witch-hunts versus entire groups of activists (as Corbyn and Benn consistently did in the 1980s and 90s), and against the cliquey politics of bullies with bureaucratic tendencies.

For now, all change in London Young Labour with a section of the left in charge and socialist ideas firmly on the agenda. This presents real opportunity for our youth section. And yet, with an intransigent clique now entrenched – abusing and excluding real and perceived intra-left opponents – everything somehow remains the same.

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