“It’s just like Labour Students…” Reflections on London Young Labour conference 2019

Left takes control of London Young Labour | Socialist Appeal

By Seema Syeda, Streatham CLP

[For Daniel Round’s report of last year’s LYL conference, see here]

The youth have historically been the vanguard of radical socialist transformation. It was the energy and vision of thousands of students and young people flocking to join Momentum and the Labour Party in 2015 that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership.

They campaigned in the streets and online in droves, fending off the anti-Corbyn media onslaught through sheer weight of numbers. But anyone who attended London Young Labour’s Annual General Meeting on 31 March would easily be forgiven for thinking they’d walked into a strange, Kafkaesque alternative reality – as opposed to the kernel of the democratic socialist revolution.

The litany of errors were too many to be accidental. The first tell-tale signs were the location (an obscure venue in Hatch End); the date (Mother’s Day); and the timings – starting early Sunday morning on the day the clocks went forwards. It was almost as if bright-eyed young socialists from across London’s vast suburbs were actively being discouraged from attending.

I trekked all the way from Streatham to Hatch End, only for Google Maps to direct me down a muddy field track, through a suspicious looking thicket, over a steep and narrow concrete railway bridge, into the leafy suburbia of Harrow, before arriving at a huge square building covered in construction fences and tin foil. Along the way I bumped into some other perturbed young travellers; one from Tottenham, the other from Greenwich – like me, it had taken them both almost two hours to arrive at the venue.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were well under a hundred people there on the day, as against apparently three or four times that last year.

I’ve had enough experience of the (until very recently) Progress-run Streatham Constituency Labour Party to know that important all member meetings are almost always located in remote, relatively inaccessible areas at the boundaries of the constituency. The fact that something similar seemed to be occurring on the regional scale raised my shackles about what to expect, and the experience that followed confirmed my suspicions.

Faiza Shaheen gave the opening talk, and her speech hit the mark when she homed in on the latest controversy to have struck the labour movement: the abominable tendency of some on the left to pit the interests of the ‘white working class’ against the migrant community.

The irony here was that she’d been introduced by Lara McNeill, Labour’s Youth Rep on the National Executive Committee, who‘d literally done just that when she argued in an article for LabourList that overturning the EU referendum signalled that Labour took “the concerns of the liberal middle classes more seriously than the social class we were founded to represent”, seemingly forgetting that the majority of the black and ethnic minority community – one of the most vulnerable and exploited in Britain – had voted overwhelmingly to remain. Lara has now, rightly, been called out by the indefatigable Clive Lewis MP for giving “succour” and “sympathy” to Brexit campaigners whose arguments are laced with xenophobia.

But this was not the end of the absurdity of the day, oh no. Over five hours into the start of the programme, after the ballot for chair and some ballots for the liberation caucuses had been held, the ballot for the Block of 14 began. After twenty minutes of lining up to collect the ballot papers, the chair of proceedings nonchalantly shuffled up to the stage to announce that, unfortunately, all the ballot papers had to be withdrawn and reprinted due to a mistake on the candidate list.

Another twenty minutes went by as the committee made efforts to correct the mistake, but tragedy turned into farce when, after fifteen minutes of lining up to collect the new ballot papers, the chair shuffled up to the stage again to announce, without a hint of apology, that there had been another mistake on the ballot papers, and all of them had to be withdrawn yet again. The saddest thing about all this was that the young members attending seemed resigned to it; perhaps they, like me, had learnt to expect nothing less from an internal Labour Party meeting.

The ballot was postponed until after the next liberation caucus. By this time, it was nearing 5pm. I’d decided I’d had enough, and got up to leave – but a friend persuaded me to hold out, “Stay for the motions, at least, they’re the most important part”, he beseeched.

Ah. The motions. One could quite reasonably conclude that the true motive behind the block of 14 ballot farce was to cut into the time given to motions – the only serious forum for all conference participants to partake together in meaningful political debate.

Indeed, after the Block of 14 ballot was finally completed, only one motion that had reached the top of the priority ballot, coincidentally the chair’s own motion, was proposed, by the chair himself. The motion essentially called for Labour to go through with its own version of Brexit and not to call for a second referendum, let alone back remain. Only one person was allowed to speak against the motion. Someone in the audience called for another round of contributions from the floor. But the chair was having none of it for – lo and behold – John McDonnell had arrived! The motion was quickly put to a vote and seemed to pass overwhelmingly.

I doubt anyone is really fooled that this (and Lara McNeill’s) position on Brexit is genuinely representative of the Labour youth, let alone the wider British youth, but there you have it. No other motions were given time for debate, and the ones that had made it to the top three of the priority ballot were not even disclosed to the audience. It was utterly, intentionally, shambolic.

The rather bitter-sweet twist of fate came when John McDonnell began his speech by stating, “I campaigned on the basis of another Europe is possible”, a statement I’d like to read as a not-so-subtle dig at the failure of the Young Labour leadership to allow any nuanced debate on Europe.

After the Shadow Chancellor’s speech, I made the journey home with fellow young comrades from South London. They shared much the same resignation and dismay as I had about the proceedings.

“It’s just like Labour students”, said one. “They bang on about democracy, but really they just want to shut out all serious political debate and ensure their favoured candidates win the ballots.”

Another, who had been waiting to support the motion calling for the reinstatement of the old Clause 4 into the Labour Party constitution (it had been submitted to the conference, but was not debated) was similarly disillusioned.

“People have careers to take care of”, they told me. “They don’t want to let the Young Labour conference pass anything too radical, because then they’ll have to agitate for it at national conference, and that might embarrass the leadership.” They had hoped the motion to reinstate Clause 4 had reached the top three in the priority ballot, but thanks to the lack of transparency, would never know how popular it actually was.

Still, others I spoke to felt that being present to influence events in what little way possible by getting motions into the option booklet was worth it. I, for one, am sure that I will never get that wasted day of my life spent at London Young Labour conference back. But the consequences for my personal life are trivial. What is rather more tragic is the depressing effect such bureaucratic and manipulated processes appear to be having on the transformative energy and enthusiasm of the Labour youth movement.

Seema Syeda is Co-Secretary of Streatham CLP (writing here in a pc) and co-author of Creeping fascism: what it is and how to fight, with Neil Faulkner, Samir Dathi, and Phil Hearse. Follow her on Twitter @seema_syeda

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