Young Labour Grounded

Conrad Landin

Earlier this month, Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, wrote to the national committee of the party’s youth wing, Young Labour, ordering them not to send a delegation to the International Union of Socialist Youth’s summer camp in Malta. The camp is hosted annually by either IUSY or the Young European Socialists (YES). The Labour Party has taken part for many years. This August, though, McNicol said he would rather young members ‘focused their efforts on campaigning in the run up to the general election’. Labour is not currently ‘engaged with IUSY in a meaningful way’.

Two years ago, I was one of around fifty activists who went to the YES camp in Croatia. We were the largest British delegation ever. During New Labour’s 13 years in government, the party struggled to attract young supporters. In the months after Ed Miliband became leader, thousands of new members – many of them young – joined the party.

When we met with delegations from other countries, it was obvious that Young Labour’s political compass was shifting. The delegation’s leaders were in their mid-twenties (membership is for supporters aged between 14 and 26). They toed the party line that we were opposed to the depth and speed of the coalition’s austerity, but accepted the need for cuts. Younger recruits heckled them.

Labour HQ decreed that only ten delegates would go to last year's camp in Turkey. McNicol wrote to other European parties, saying that if Young Labour members tried to jump aboard their delegations it would be ‘treated as a disciplinary matter’. Kaisa Penny, YES’s Finnish president, told McNicol to stop interfering.

The president of YES’s control commission, Thomas Graham (formerly of Labour Students), admitted recently that most of Labour’s European allies see their British comrades as ‘crazy right-wingers’. Some in the party have dismissed the international festivals as ‘Trot camps’. But apart from some bad publicity in the Mail, it’s not clear what they have to be afraid of.

Most European social democrat parties have autonomous youth wings with large budgets, staff and even, in some cases, their own MPs, but Young Labour was set up to do the bidding of the party leadership. It has one support worker, appointed by the party establishment. It has no independent constitution, only a few vague mentions in the party rule book, such as: ‘Young Labour conference shall be held from time to time as determined by the National Executive Committee.’ Young Labour's policy decisions will nominally be submitted for consideration for the 2015 manifesto. But the party has made no effort to engage young members in recent announcements of youth policy, such as Miliband's pledge to cut benefits for 18-21s.

Graham thinks there is a strong cultural difference between Young Labour and its sister organisations. ‘They don’t understand that we wouldn’t be willing, and able to afford, to fly our leaders off to Helsinki to meet with the Finnish Social Democrats.’ I asked Graham if he thinks frosty relations between Young Labour and its international counterparts are cause for concern when the far right is on the rise across Europe. ‘There’s a bit of a fear about the impact of people going to these things,’ he said.