What happened at the 2016 Young Labour conference?

2 Mar 2016


Young people, on the whole, are largely recognised as being the most liberal, free and open-minded individuals in society today. They are in favour of modern ideals such as same-sex marriage, they support more intervention for the poor and needy, and are generally less likely to react with hostility to the views of others. This made the behaviour of Young Labour members last weekend all the more surprising.


Last weekend played host to the Young Labour conference in Scarborough. This event is similar to the main Labour conference, with the exception that it is open only to young members (obviously), only elected delegates are permitted to attend and has more of a tokenistic impact. But it is still the best way for young members to make policy and gain access to the Labour leadership. Elections for youth officers and representatives are held, policies are submitted, and fringe events are arranged.


This year, the elections for the National Executive Committee held more weight than they would have normally. With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour's new leader, the party has witnessed a fierce battle between left and right for dominance over the party executive – the group of individuals who decide Labour’s electoral approach and work together to formulate key policies. The NEC, at present, leans slightly to the left of the party. The NEC youth delegate therefore was a key battleground for Blarite and Corbynite followers to control.


That was where the troubles began for the conference. Within hours of the opening chatter of excited delegates, Twitter was flooded with updates from conference attendees, complaining of a hostile and divisive atmosphere. Indeed, many accused UNITE of attempting to whip votes to ensure that the left-wing candidate (James Elliot) was elected, with one 19-year old being ordered to show proof of his ballot paper to ensure he voted for Elliot. When he failed to do so, he felt it was unsafe to return to his UNITE-funded hotel room. His friends were then forced to accompany him and reclaim his belongings. He left early on account of feeling so vulnerable. Hardly the kinder politics that Jeremy Corbyn promised when he was elected (that UNITE backed).

Events did not improve. Vicious bullying broke out on several occasions, with supporters of Blairite views being denounced publicly, which reduced some members to tears. Things went from bad to worse when the result was delayed only to find that Elliot lost – by 0.1%, with 1% of ballots being spoilt. A manual recount was then denied. This sent some of the Elliot supporter base into outrage, with rumours of smear campaigning, bullying and House of Cards style politics from both sides exploding on social media. These accusations have become so widespread that UNITE has demanded an inquiry, and the whole fracas is now being reported in the Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail. There were also complaints of anti-Semitism and an oppressive anti-Jewish environment in some social sessions (the Oxford University Labour Club, of which Elliot is a part, is presently under investigation regarding complaints of anti-Semitic proliferation at the club).

The NEC elections were not the only embarrassment the conference suffered, however. Many members of the BAME and Liberation caucuses missed the beginning of an election and some delegates were turned away on the doorstep due to being unavoidably late. Accessibility was reported to be a nightmare. The BAME officer was “reduced to tears” by the Safeguarding Officer. Widespread underhand discrimination was suggested and the Disability group released a statement condemning the conference for the violent environment that so many delegates reported. The Manchester Labour Students co-chair resigned amidst allegations of racism and leaking.  


And the battle continues at the time of writing; arguments over what did and did not occur, and who is responsible. The bullying tactics and smear campaigns that occurred during the conference made Frank Underwood look like a benevolent diplomat. The main culprits appear to be Labour Students and UNITE, but the events of the conference are so complex it would take days to fully dissect, and social media is not an appropriate environment for a post-mortem. It would merely be fair to summarise that some reprehensible behaviour occurred at Scarborough, although the story has been distorted and exaggerated since.


While many may disregard this incident as a petty dispute between self-important pretend politicians, it indicates a much more fundamental problem within the Labour Party. While the Conservatives implode over Europe, Labour is failing to capitalise. Instead, it is bogged down by infighting, bigotry, ignorance and petty ideological battles. Several dozen members have already expressed misgivings about attending future Young Labour events, and large numbers of delegates were left disillusioned by the conference. Considering that young members propelled Corbyn to his present position, this split in Labour’s youth wing could in fact encourage a more profound divide within the PLP.


The Labour leadership have now announced that the current investigation into anti-Semitic behaviour at the Oxford University Labour Club will  be extended to include the allegations of intimidation and harassment that so many reported at the conference. The new NEC representative of Young Labour, Jasmine Beckett, has written an article for the New Statesman calling for solidarity and promising change in the wake of the event. But it seems that Beckett will have an extremely difficult time, at least initially, to make any permanent changes. James Elliot has already filed a complaint to the party regarding the election (he and UNITE claim that rumours of anti-Semitism were promoted by the Beckett campaign and voters were encouraged to smear Elliot on social media). Given this, and the tiny majority Beckett commanded in the election, the prospect of division and hostility within the youth wing has only been intensified.


Young Labour appears to have been engulfed by the left-right battle that has plagued Labour’s since the resignation of Ed Miliband. The choice facing the beleaguered youth wing affects all of Labour: will members of the party reconcile their differences and put up a united defence against the Conservative threat? Or will the warfare continue, and undermine the party’s competence, message and ability to act on its true beliefs? If the party really hopes to fight the Conservatives on equal terms in 2020, then it must resolve its image crisis, and soon.

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