I’m sure you won’t have failed to notice that the UK has a snap general election coming up on June 8th. You’re also probably aware that the Labour Party, the UK’s largest opposition party, looks set to be wiped into oblivion at the worst, and to be pushed into electoral insignificance at the best. Though party leader Jeremy Corbyn continues to be unpopular both in and out of the party, the reasons for Labour’s difficulties go beyond him. Despite its turmoil, there is one way Labour could make significant gains at the upcoming event.
The key to turning the electoral tide against the ruling Tories lies firmly with the “apathy party”. It is made of people who choose not to vote. Those, at the last general election in 2015, who were a group larger than those that voted for the winning Conservative government. But look inside the “apathy party.” There is an obvious opportunity for Labour. Young people, in the ages of 18-24, continue to trail behind the rest of the electorate when it comes to voter turnout. In spite of the increase in participation by this age group, between the 2010 and 2015 general elections, the turnout was low for the group, at 43% compared to the national average of 66%.
This was an obvious problem at last year’s EU Referendum. However, when youth vote, they vote Labour. In 2015, 43% of 18-24 year olds who voted, voted for the Labour Party, which was far higher than the national picture of 31%. This age group holds the key to beating Teresa May at her own game, and stopping what looks to be an easy succession for the Tories. By mobilising more of the disenfranchised youth to vote for them, Labour can seize a powerful support base.
However, I fear that this will not take place. While the many reasons for young people’s political apathy exist, I can firmly point out one cause close to home. It may feel uncomfortable to face, but I believe the youth wings of the Labour Party – Labour Students and Young Labour – hold some of the blame for creating this apathy towards politics. That is, for those young people, like myself who have previously been involved in these groups (Labour Students, in particular) and see how the continual failure to connect with younger voters, these groups could recruit younger people able to hold the progressive front, but they repeatedly and completely miss the mark. The internal nepotism, gerrymandering, and hostility results in a perpetual barrier to recruiting more young people involved in the world of progressive politics, instead fostering an environment that is inward-looking and exclusive.
Before I go on, I am not solely blaming these groups for young people not voting. I will not, however, back down in saying that the beginning of many people’s foray into politics, upon reaching the legal voting age of 18, that these groups are guilty. They fostering an elitist culture, which is detached from reality. Among other reasons, I target the Labour youth groups because they are political groups most familiar to me. Similar issues could happen in Young Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups. However, Labour promotes itself as a party of “equality, democracy and social justice”. At least, this is what I was lead to believe before I became involved in Labour Students. They are failing on these fronts and, as the youth movement with the real potential to hold successive Tory governments to account, it is a real missed opportunity.
So, why are Young Labour and Labour Students failing to reach out and connect with more young people?
Labour Students and Young Labour are a microcosm of the issues plaguing the rest of the Labour party at this stage. However, these groups appear to act more as an incubator, rather than merely a mirror of these problems. With the natural uncertainty of many youth, Labour’s factional infighting is offset against a background of competition, nepotism, and the race for one to have that coveted internship with the local MP. While young socialists and social democrats have opportunities to volunteer at local food banks, those in Labour instead seem to be more concerned with fielding candidates into NUS and society elections.
All of this makes for an inward looking, self-contained community. In fact, the constitution at my Labour Students branch stressed that all society activity must be geared to campaigning for the party first and foremost. There was no space for political neutrality; all volunteering came with an attached agenda of promoting the party. This more often than not resulted in a neat excuse for the group not to get engaged in wider community work, which while more likely to make a real-world difference, presented less opportunity to stick yellow and red “Vote Labour” stickers on everything. Smiling in front of a “Vote Labour” placard seems to conclude that a good day’s work was done, regardless of what the response by local people on the doorstep had been.
I will add here that some others and myself attempted to revise this clause in our local Labour Students constitution, but we were told at the relevant Annual General Meeting that there was no time for constitutional amendments.
The so-called “liberation groups” of LGBT, women, BAME, and disabled are something that Labour Students heavily commits to, and I have detailed my concerns about such a system previously in this article. In short, the existence of these groups reduces candidates to tokens. They foster an idea of a hypothetical “black candidate” or a “female candidate”. That is, they fail to represent how groups are not hive minds. Dissenting voices, that deviate from what is the perceived dominant narrative within each caucus is are swiftly crushed. Commitment to solving any issues such students may be feeling, as a result becomes little more than a pretence. Uniformity is the aim of such groups, in order for a running candidate to tick that they have met the requirements for the vague umbrella terms of “LGBT issues” or “disabled issues”.
This was certainly my experience in my Women’s Caucus. Reducing students to the sum of these identity categories is therefore, I believe, guilty of making marginalised students feel even more pushed out of the arena of politics. In 2016, the Labour Students conference held a vote on an issue while the BAME caucus was outside of the room, voting on their own policies. It is no wonder that many said this incident epitomised how black and ethnic minority students feel excluded from the main structures of the organisation. Young Labour and Labour Students are failing to engage young people who have traditionally been excluded from political circles, which is extremely disappointing for an organisation that claims to hold values such as “anti-racism” at its heart.
Those reading may be familiar with this article, published last year, which compared 2015 Labour Party activists to “middle class Ryanair passengers… having to stomach a couple of hours flight with people they shared little in common with.” Many of these activists were made up of Young Labour and Labour Students. It is no secret that people feel that the Labour Party has lost touch with its working class roots, and the concerns of ordinary voters. The youth branches are of no exception. As I have explained, internal politics of the young Labour organisations are the priority, rather than any wider engagement.
Instead of taking this criticism about activists (which itself came from former Labour Party candidates) as constructive however, I saw many senior Labour Students crying that the comments are “offensive”. Instead of determining what could be a better way to reach out to voters, they lambasted the authors of the comments for daring to criticise the many activists who put in so much hard work into door knocking at the general election. To me, this reflected the feeling of moral superiority many in Labour seem to currently have. The fact that they set aside their time for door knocking, as well as doing their degree, was supposedly enough in itself to warrant praise and admiration.
They gave up their time to give to local voters. However, what if the door knocking sessions didn’t connect with voters, and didn’t speak to their concerns? Just because such students gave up their time does not entitle them to be congratulated – what matters is how productively and successfully that time was spent. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Labour Students can be certain that they are convincing people to vote for their party, even if they are in fact working towards the opposite. That such members feel that ordinary people should validate the voluntary work they did at the last election is concerning, particularly if voters do not feel in any way that it benefited them.
I have many issues with Labour Students from personal experience, which have deterred personal involvement with the organisation again. The most upsetting was when a senior member pulled a Labour MP into a Twitter spat, in an attempt to intimidate a close friend. The most absurd was when our organisation went to a local pub, only to find that there were no seats. A senior member snapped at the “white working class scum who do nothing but spend all day drinking their benefits away”, or something to that effect. People wonder why the organisation isn’t connecting with ordinary voters?
Both Young Labour and Labour Students are likely to produce the next generation of Labour Party politicians. At a time when an ageing Marxist appears to have been the party’s best leadership candidate, getting young people involved is more crucial now than ever before. As it stands however, both groups are funneling in the kind of bureaucratic, careerist characters that helped to facilitate Corbyn’s victory in the first place. It is no secret that Labour Students is closely tied with the National Union of Students, (NUS) as members from the former regularly take up leadership positions in the latter.
The ascension from Labour Student, to NUS president to Labour MP is a familiar one, the most recent poster boy for this popular trajectory being Wes Streeting MP. Student unions seem stuck in a perpetual pendulum between the same faces from “Progress” on the right, and “Momentum” on the left. This means, whenever one approaches their respective students union about problems in their local Labour group, it is not objective and neutral dealings that they are met with. Challenging and changing the problems, therefore, becomes very difficult. A self-sustaining system ensures that the democratic power in the society remains in the hands of the few, not the many.
Labour needs some fresh and dynamic new blood, and it needs it fast. If the party is to be an effective force and opposition to May’s minions, it needs to review how it currently gets young people involved. Dissent is at the heart of politics and indeed, most of our best political figures have rebelled against the dominant narratives of their time. Yet the promotion of conformity, uniformity, hostility and the crushing of dissenting voices that currently occurs in Young Labour and Labour Students threatens to stunt the growth, and deter the involvement of any fresh political talent.
Writer and editor for Conatus News, and contributor to various other publications. Student at University of Birmingham and recovering member of the Labour Party and student politics.