By Simon Duffy
In the winter of 2018, the left – backed by Momentum – finally took over London Young Labour from the right wing of the party. The atmosphere was buzzing; the largest lecture theatre at UCL, with a capacity of around 400 people, was full with members spilling out onto the floor. The left won comfortably, but not without a solid mobilisation from the right. The least we can say is that people in the room thought it mattered to attend.
In light of Momentum’s emasculation of its own democratic structures it will surprise few readers of The Clarion that the left’s takeover of LYL has led to a desperate and disastrous culling of all the grassroots and democratic potential that the earlier political fights may have indicated possible.
I attended this summer’s policy conference on 24 August with little expectation, and about 40 other people joined me. To clarify, that’s about 40 people of the tens of thousands of young members Labour must surely have in London. 40 people – a generous number, in fact, for a conference called at three weeks’ notice at the height of summer.
One might be tempted towards generosity here, and claim that the tiny turnout is down purely to the complete, embarrassing and unrelenting incompetence of a clique of self-selected petty careerist Corbynista hacks who have never organised a proper political event in their lives.
Now, there’s plenty of truth to that. But this conference was also symptomatic of a political culture so absolutely terrified of criticism, debate and challenge within the left itself that it drives into the ground any activist organisation it consumes. Consider the following evidence.
To begin with, we were told off by a member of the committee for handing out leaflets unless we showed “politeness” by “asking the committee first, so we can check if it has offensive material”. The incendiary material in question was, of course, advertising an emergency motion against the government’s planned crackdown on immigration after Brexit.
Leaving aside the fact that this was in direct breach of conference policy – which last year agreed to work with the Labour Campaign for Free Movement – and leaving also aside the fact that they refused us “permission” after we had asked, is there any rebuttal that needs to be made here, anything other than point out the total insanity of a political conference attempting to halt the spread of political ideas, as though they were contagious? As though they cannot be debated?
Other victims to this righteous purge of A5 paper grenades included a conference building the case for a socialist Europe, and a leaflet advocating a repeal of the Thatcherite trade union laws with quotes from the President of the RMT and the General Secretary of the FBU.
Such they attempted to stymie the spread of ideas they did not like. But of course, centre stage to the collapse of the organisation was the shamelessness with which the committee stifled debates on ideas that may have already, to their alarm, spread.
Some of us submitted for debate a motion calling for LYL to oppose Brexit outright, and to challenge the Labour leadership to back Remain and the defence of free movement. This would mean loyalist committee members risking their own political careers by challenging the leadership, so they naturally panicked when the room, against our expectations, prioritised the motion for debate (at around motion six of nine). And they knew it would almost certainly have passed.
They had already made efforts to prevent motions they hadn’t whipped for being heard – like allowing only one and a half hours for the debate, and then letting preceding sessions to overrun. By the time the democratic session arrived, there was only 50 minutes left to decide the next 12 months of policy priorities.
But that wasn’t quite enough – the earlier motions were, though important, self-evidently uncontroversial and supported by the overwhelming majority of attendees. With the right of the party having apparently, and unsurprisingly, given up on mobilising for conference, no one volunteered to speak against any of the first five motions.
So the Chairs organised to make sure that a bizarre system was permitted in which anyone could raise totally mundane ‘points of clarification’ purely to keep the conversation lasting as long as possible – rather like how on a failing date you begin to talk about the colour of the furniture and looming prospects of Sagittarius just to prevent the other person leaving.
It might put readers into a coma if they learn of all the “points of clarification” we sat through, but they included one giggly attendee asking “What is 8chan?” to which another attendee responded by reading out a Wikipedia page. Again, I do not rule out a shortage of brain cells for this line of questioning – but I suppose it was, most likely, an organised filibustering effort.
Other tactics to waste time included reading out entire motions before they be voted on (including an instance of the Chair breaking down in laughter during a reading of the section on the Christchurch attacks) and asking speakers to repeat their speeches whenever the first two seconds were misheard. The result was, of course, that no policy of controversy was voted on or even discussed.
What’s most depressing about all this is that the organisers of this conference will almost certainly consider the whole affair a total success. They held back insidious politics from taking hold and they preserved their rather pointless role over an organisation whose death they are doing everything in their power to facilitate.
When these people rightly criticise the lack of democracy in Labour Students (run by the Labour right), they are utter, utter hypocrites.
The only upside of this is that, just plausibly, so few people will be needed to turn this committee around next time that it might just be doable.
• For Seema Syeda’s almost as damning report of another London Young Labour conference earlier this year, see here.
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