At the 1993 Labour Conference, a young delegate called Tom Watson proposed a motion to establish a new youth wing for the party: Young Labour. It would replace the Labour Party Young Socialists, which had long been dominated by the Trotskyist Militant tendency. New Young Labour would be loyal to the leadership.
Twenty years on, the youth wing is still dominated by the playing-it-safe brigade. I was elected to the Young Labour national committee last year. At a meeting last month, I tabled a motion on ‘defending the right to protest’. After we had discussed it, one of my colleagues proposed that ‘the motion should not be discussed’. The majority then rejected it on the grounds that matters of policy should only be raised at Young Labour’s biennial policy conference. At the previous meeting in October, a motion opposing the Royal Mail privatisation was blocked for the same reason, even though it echoed a vote passed unanimously at the Labour Party Conference that month.
Many of Young Labour’s leading lights are members of Progress, the self-described ‘New Labour pressure group’ chaired by Andrew Adonis. Set up in 1996, it is an ‘independent organisation of Labour party members’ which ‘aims to promote a radical and progressive politics for the 21st century’. Since the 2010 election, it has made repeated calls for Labour to embrace ‘economic credibility’, which sounds suspiciously like a by-word for capitulation to Tory spending cuts.
Progress’s most generous donor is David Sainsbury, who provides the organisation with £260,000 a year (two-thirds of its income). He stopped giving money to Labour after Ed Miliband became leader. Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB union, called for Progress to be ‘outlawed’, describing the group as a ‘party within a party’. Progress rejected the label; some of its members even said it was ‘only a magazine’, the defence used by Militant when Neil Kinnock moved to expel it.
The Young Labour chair, Simon Darvill, and national executive youth rep, Bex Bailey, have written for the Progress website and spoken at the group’s rallies and events. In August, the three full-time officers of Labour Students, who sit on the Young Labour committee, guest edited the Progress website.
According to Tom Watson, Tony Blair only allowed a new pressure group to be established ‘on the express condition that Progress centred itself around the party leader and was not in any way to be seen as, or develop into, a faction’. But that’s what it now is: it frequently runs slates of candidates in internal elections, such as for Labour’s national executive. It has also attacked Ed Miliband’s leadership and published a cover story in 2012 casting doubt on Ken Livingstone’s ability to win the mayoralty – the party’s biggest electoral test that year. Miliband has made tackling corporate ‘vested interests’ a major theme of his leadership; Michael Meacher has described Progress as a ‘classic example’ of ‘the intrusion of corporate funding into modern politics on a dominant scale’.