IT IS ALMOST EXACTLY FOUR YEARS since Jeremy Corbyn defied expectations to win the Labour leadership contest on a wave of enthusiasm from thousands of young activists who joined the party to fight for a radical anti-austerity manifesto and a “new kind of politics”.
Despite the youthfulness of the movement that brought Corbyn to power, it was years before Corbynites made serious inroads into Labour’s bureaucratic and virtually moribund youth organisations, which had been exploited for decades as merely a conveyor belt between universities and the party apparatus.
A long, concerted battle against the bureaucracy might have left young radicals with more appetite for a wholesale transformation of Labour’s structures when they eventually won control. But the Corbyn movement came into ascendancy not through a systematic political struggle against the New Labour machine, but effectively via an online plebiscite. This, along with the right wing’s attempts to overthrow Corbyn, fostered a bunker mentality among the left, prioritising ‘loyalty’ to the strategy of compromise on Brexit, party democracy, and programme, pursued by the Leader’s office.
This year’s London Young Labour (LYL) policy conference demonstrated that the ruling clique in the youth organisations is content to simply replicate in miniature the example set by Momentum and trade union bureaucracies, in which the role of members is to uncritically carry out policies handed down from above.
The LYL conference – called for the end of summer holiday season with only a week given for policy submissions – set itself the task of clearing a backlog of motions previously submitted, as well as developing a political strategy for key issues facing young Londoners. Attendance was only a fraction of the 300+ young members who attended the AGM in March 2018, when Corbyn loyalists first took control.
Little has been seen or heard of the organisation in the intervening months. This year’s AGM passed only a single motion backing Corbyn’s continued Brexit fudge after a comical series of errors and delays. Many of LYL’s leading figures of recent years have decamped to higher positions, leaving behind a disintegrating organisational infrastructure and a toxic culture based on the politics of social cliques as opposed to democratic debate.
The recent policy conference was no different, with democratic debate allotted a paltry 50 minutes of a full day’s agenda. Despite the ruling clique’s enthusiastic support for Brexit, the severity of the unfolding political crisis was enough for a Left anti-Brexit motion, similar to the national conference motion promoted by Labour for a Socialist Europe, to end up amongst those prioritised for debate.
The overriding priority of the organisers was to prevent even the pretence of a debate over the party’s policy. The organisers’ training in the worst bureaucratic abuses of the student movement caused the conference to rapidly degenerate into a series of ‘points of clarification’ designed to filibuster out any discussion of the Brexit motion.
Our movement’s apprentice bureaucrats may have walked away laughing, but their control freakery left their political immaturity and contempt for party members exposed in equal measure, and more importantly, has rendered Young Labour irrelevant to the growing youth movements.
Young people in Britain today are faced with the prospect of immediate economic shocks post-Brexit, a looming worldwide recession, and the threat of catastrophic climate change. Young Labour should be mobilising its members to take action against a No Deal Brexit, bring down Boris Johnson, and bring Corbyn to power on a radical anti-austerity programme. It should be organising for the student climate strikes and supporting young workers to link the up workplace struggles with the climate movement. It should be at the forefront of campaigns to support migrants and refugees, save our public services, and democratise the trade unions. Labour’s youth movement could lead by example in forging links with similar campaigns across Europe and the world, pressuring Labour to take responsibility for co-ordinating a worldwide working class fightback.
LYL’s ‘left’ leaders have cosily settled into the playpen formerly the training ground of New Labour’s apparatchiks. If we want to actually organise Labour’s tens of thousands of young members and relate to the youth movements passing us by, we need to act now to clear out the cliques and rebuild an autonomous, fighting socialist youth movement fit for the struggles to come.