Report of Young Labour conference and interview with YL national committee member Rida Vaquas

A report of the Young Labour conference in February, by Brendan Menezes and Tim Jones.

After three hectic days in Scarborough (26-28 February), the dust is yet to settle from the events of the annual Labour Students and Young Labour conference.

The Momentum slate was initially a resounding success in every region, getting an enormous number of Corbyn-supporting delegates elected. However the left ran into early difficulties with finances, as there was no assistance available from Labour with the costs of transport or accommodation. There was a compulsory £30/40 registration fee, an the conference was held in a part of the country hard to get to for the majority of members.

Momentum candidate for chair of Labour Students Ollie Hill lost narrowly to Kate Dearden on day one. That represents a major step forward, however, as Ollie got the highest vote for a left-wing challenger in many years. Leftwinger Caroline Hill won a 60% majority in the election for Young Labour Chair, and the left took an overall majority on the National Committee of Young Labour. Momentum supporter James Elliott lost to Jasmin Beckett in the race for National Executive Committee Youth Rep by 49.41% to 49.55%. It was a tense race which saw an orchestrated smear campaign and documented instances of delegates disenfranchised, widespread bullying and harassment, and more: all evidence that the long-honed stitch-up skills of the Blairite Labour Students faction were deployed to the full, as they fought their rearguard action in Scarborough.

Unite has already called for an inquiry into the disputed NEC rep election.

The conference passed motions in support of free education and of staying in the EU, and for migrants’ rights. Scottish Labour Young Socialists evoked memories of conferences gone by in their public statement: “40 years ago the ‘Icepick Express’ left Scotland to scalp Militant control of the Labour Party’s youth wing. On board was Bill Speirs, a key figure in the founding of the Campaign for Socialism. This weekend, after SLYS delegates had swept the board in the Scottish ballot, the ‘Eric Heffer Express’ returned to Youth Conference. The left won a resounding victory — 27/33 places on the Young Labour executive committee, including the brilliant Caroline Hill — Chair of Young Labour. How the wheels of history turn. The result of the NEC election remains up in the air, surrounded by smear campaigns, union delegates breaking their democratic mandate, and the party’s refusal to carry out a manual recount. We await the NEC’s investigation.

“We unequivocally stand in solidarity with our comrades in Unite. Every attack on them is an attack on the entire labour movement.”

The election of Jeremy Corbyn has sent a left-wing surge through the youth structures of the Labour Party, and the wins for the left – in the face of bitter resistance and shameful tactics from the right – have consolidated the new, left-wing mood of the party. But in order to build a real youth movement that can be a “seedbed of the left” and make a lasting and major change in UK society, local, constituency and branch-level Labour youth groups need to be built, as organisations for activism, political education and debate, and cultural life.

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A interview with Rida Vaquas, West Midlands rep on the newly elected Young Labour national committee

We shouldn’t understate the victory of the left slate. Previously we had a minority of regional representatives who regularly organised with the left. We now have won every position.

I think my campaign, on a firmly socialist and democratic basis, went well (I won!), but out of 3,000 young members in my region only 141 votes were cast. How does the left develop a truly mass democratic movement?

If the left wins at the conference, how much difference will it make?

This depends on the work we do. Socialists have to be extremely cautious of a new inert left bureaucracy replacing the bureaucracy of the right. Socialists should put in the work of grassroots mobilisation, of organising across the country.

A combative youth wing does not just come about by good people winning positions, but through the utilisation of those positions to facilitate action.

How can Young Labour increase participation and particularly working-class participation?

More work in trade unions, definitely. Also Young Labour needs to be embedded into local communities.

Currently to be involved in Young Labour usually requires travelling miles across a city or even across the country. That’s disengaging. We need genuinely local groups. Campaigning on issues that affect young people, being present in community campaigns, these are all things that affirm Young Labour’s relevance.

What should Young Labour be campaigning on?

To start with, on issues democratically decided by conference! Currently what happens is that we pass motions deciding our position… but no action is taken. For example: 45% of 25-34 year olds privately rent, up from 24% in 2004. Rent controls, tenants’ rights and the building of social housing are therefore critical policies. The crucial point is that we need to take policies seriously. A perfect political programme means nothing unless we organise to win it.

What changes are needed in the Young Labour structures?

One member one vote is a necessity now. A policy-making conference every year, in which motions can be submitted on any topic, not just on policy commissions decided centrally. NEC representatives should be mandated, by conference and by the National Committee.

What are the policy debates coming up at the conference?

Trident and free education. In both of these cases, we have a Labour Party leadership which is sympathetic and agrees with the left position, but a Parliamentary party which is hostile. These issues will be hotly contested by the Labour right. Supporting the junior doctors is also an important precedent for showing solidarity with industrial action, crucial in a time of trade union repression by the state.

How should the Young Labour left organise?

Absolutely in a democratic and open manner. Socialism can never sneak in through the backdoor, it announces itself proudly. To build a sustainable Young Labour left, we need formalised structures, in which people discuss ideas and learn how to organise. We need everyone to feel confident in doing organising work and debating their ideas out. Momentum Youth and Students can play a role, but only if it evolves from its current state, and calls a democratic conference open to all of the Young Labour left, in which constitution, structures and principles are decided, as a well as an elected committee.

What should the left do about expulsions of Labour activists?

Publicly oppose them, support comrades in fighting them. There is a strong historical tradition of revolutionary socialists in the Labour Party, but also a strong historical tradition of witch hunts. Expulsions of people who have supported and worked for Labour victories is an attack on the left as a whole.

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