Note: this is, to the best of my knowledge, an accurate account of the conference. It is nonetheless a political account, based on my own political views. I should also note that, unlike last one, I was heavily involved in the organisation of this one, so I might be slightly biased…I’d be interested to hear the views of other attendees!
London Young Labour Summer Conference 2015 was considerably more democratic, participative and accessible than any London Young Labour conference that I have attended in the past. The Conference also voted for a whole host of excellent left-wing policy, demonstrating the continuing strength of the Young Labour left, particularly the Labour Campaign for Free Education, in London. By contrast, the results of the hustings for London Mayor demonstrates some of our weaknesses.
However, the most disappointing elements of the conference were not in relation to its political outcomes but to the way in which the central Labour Party continues to treat London Young Labour in such an undemocratic and patronising manner.
Here are my thoughts on the conference: two good things and two areas for improvement.
Good #1: Left-wing motions and debate
At the winter conference in December only four motions were submitted, and two of these were ruled ‘out of order’ at the last minute by the Party (this was thankfully over-ruled by Conference attendees). By comparison, this year saw nine motions and a further nine amendments submitted.
Interestingly, the right-wing did not submit anything. As a result the debate was completely framed in left-wing terms. The only proposals to not pass were two very left-wing amendments: one calling for the abolition of capitalism and the other asserting Marx’s labour theory of value. Both fell by a close margin.
Of all the motions though, the most surprising was the one on the rights of sex workers. I expected this to fall. It faced a strong online campaign (from non-members predominantly), and Labour Students are strongly opposed (as an organisation, there is a diversity of views within its membership). However, I was pleasantly surprised to see it pass quite comfortably, with many people explaining that they had changed their mind in the course of the debate.
Overall, the policy platform we passed was incredibly good.
Not only were the results of the debate good, the discussion itself was conducted in a friendly, comradely and positive spirit throughout. Credit for this clearly needs to be shared amongst all speakers and participants.
Good #2 – Participative discussion
I criticised last conference for dedicating insufficient time to members discussing politics, instead prioritising top-table plenary speeches. This conference was different. The Mayoral Hustings was heavily weighted towards questions from the floor and more time was dedicated to motions, meaning more people spoke.
Possibly most significantly, however, we replaced the plenaries with small workshops on a range of topics – public speaking, getting to know each other, and ‘aspiration – a dirty word’ – meaning that instead of spending the day listening to politicians speak, members had greater opportunity to meet each other and discuss their own ideas.
Not only is this option vastly more engaging, it is also vital for building London Young Labour and the Party in general. Young Labour should be capable of putting pressure on the Labour leadership. This requires opportunity for young people to discuss their political ideas, educate themselves, and democratically shape the direction of the organisation.
Requires improvement #1 – the left intervention into the Mayoral Hustings
We absolutely smashed the motions debate in the afternoon but only a couple of hours earlier we were completely trounced in the Mayoral Selection vote, with the right-wing candidate Tessa Jowell winning decisively.
I am interested in others’ views on this but I think that the key reasons for this are as follows:
- The Right did a very good job of mobilising proxy votes (which applied to the selection but not the motions debate) whereas the Left clearly prioritised writing and submitting motions.
- Unlike the Right, the Left were split: some supported Diane Abbott and others Sadiq Khan. While the AV voting system allows supporters of these candidates to give a second preference to the other, overall it meant that the Left candidates’ supporters could be more easily drowned out by #TeamTessa.
- The Right had a clear effective message: “Vote Tessa Jowell, she is the best chance we have of winning.” Despite voting for the Left candidates over her, I struggle to come up with any of their key messages.
- The Right were enthusiastic. Many on the Left didn’t support a candidate at all. Those who did were half-hearted up until the Hustings itself. No one is inspired by enthusiastic support.
- The Right were organised. Everything that Jowell said was tweeted and every time she finished speaking it was met by thunderous applause.
Requires improvement #2 – everything that involved the central Labour Party in any way at all
It is no exaggeration to say that every decision in which the Labour Party office was involved led to frustration and disappointment.
The biggest example of this relates to the drama surrounding proxy voting at the Mayoral selection.
Despite being sent a full explanation of how we planned to run the selection weeks in advance, they informed us a few days before the event that we could not use proxy votes for the nomination. I still do not understand the logic behind this*.
Then, instead of giving us an opportunity to discuss this as a committee and work out a plan for moving forward, the Party went above our heads and emailed all of our members to say that proxy votes would not be allowed.
Faced with the dilemma that we already had many proxy votes signed up, we were forced to decide between going ahead with the nomination process with no proxies, or to turn the nomination into an informal ‘endorsement’. The committee decided, with no dissenting opinion, to do the latter and not disenfranchise anyone.
The Labour Party, seemingly not understanding what one is, informed us that there is ‘no such thing as an endorsement’ and that we would have to push ahead with their proposed plan of action. Thankfully, we ignored them.
In addition to this little episode, the Party did other things to make the conference planning more difficult. For instance:
- The Party changed the nomination deadline for the Mayoral Selection at three weeks’ notice meaning that we had to cancel our existing plans and reschedule to a Sunday a week earlier.
- London Young Labour (bizarrely) does not have access to the contact details of its own members. Consequently we rely on the Party to send out our newsletter. It took them an astonishing two weeks and two days to do this. As a result, anyone who did not follow us on social media only heard about the event almost a week after the motions deadline, a few minutes after the amendments deadline, and a few hours before the conference registration hit capacity.
- Friday evening before the Conference we were told that the Party would not print the papers for the event. This meant it was left for us to organise at a day’s notice, and for £150 of our own money. This decision came minutes after us telling them that we were not going to follow their instructions with respect to endorsements. Presumably a coincidence.
Conclusion – we need to re-evaluate our relationship with the party
Overall, I feel like the conference was successful and marked a step forward for left-wing politics and democracy in Young Labour. However, by being so involved in the organisation of the event, I have seen much more clearly the problems with our relationship with the Party bureaucracy. I think that we need to re-evaluate this relationship and work out how best to move forward. At the moment it is not working for either side. I plan to write more on this in the next few weeks.
* The rules explain two processes for nominations. The first, for Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), nominates two candidates, one of whom must be a woman, but is strict in how this works and does not allow proxies. The second, for affiliates, nominates one candidate and does not restrict the affiliate on how this decision should be taken, meaning that proxies are allowed. London Young Labour is not strictly in either of these categories so it was not clear how we should be treated. The eventual ruling was, inexplicably, that we should be given one nomination (like an affiliate) but that proxies were not allowed (like a CLP). It was never made clear why we were interpreted in such an odd way.