Youth politics can be miserable. The culture in NUS and Labour Students is particularly toxic and it is to blame for a generation of jaded and cynical young activists. The student movement no longer churns out leaders like Dutschke, Wilkerson, or Hayden.
It’s understandable then that socialists are reluctant to engage in youth politics. The idea that youth politics is irrelevant and indulgent is a common refrain on certain strands of the Left. It is argued that we should spend our time on different projects with more immediate returns.
But the reality is that youth politics is much more important than we think. NUS, Labour Students, and Young Labour have long been training grounds for future parliamentarians and bureaucrats. They do more than teach how to pack a room. Youth politics teaches a generation of activists what is politically possible.
The sudden collapse of New Labour is testament to this. The original New Labour ‘big beasts’ were schooled in political theory and organising through their battles in LPYS. Peter Mandelson was, of course, once a communist. However as New Labour sought to establish hegemony in the party, they purposely sucked politics out of the youth wing. The second and third waves of New Labour politicians had never encountered socialism in their life. Their view of politics was built on patronage, entitlement, a meek sense of liberal identarianism.
That view is still pervasive in Labour Students and Young Labour. This is despite tens of thousands of young people joining the Labour Party to support Corbyn and his project. Labour Students is still a rotten borough and last weekend an outstanding Left slate was comprehensively beaten at London Young Labour. The Left majority on the Young Labour national committee has been constrained by a lack of resources, bureaucracy, and deliberate attempts by the party apparatus to prevent young people on the left engaging.
This is now becoming a serious threat to the success of the Corbyn project. Corbynism’s more realistic advocates have always viewed this as the political equivalent of purgatory. It was always a dangerous course and Corbyn himself was never prepared for the challenges of being a modern political leader. But this was never about Corbyn. The Corbyn movement was an explosion of anger at decades of social democratic failure. It wasn’t a social movement or even particularly socialist — but a demand for a modern left-wing political party that was unconstrained by the cultural chains and conservative instincts of moderate labourism.
The Labour Party’s institutions are innately conservative. If the Corbyn project is to be of any consequence at all then we must redouble our efforts to transform them and sweep out the cold, dead hands of New Labour and the Old Right. Corbynism, however flawed, remains the only viable way to achieve this.
But what comes next is critical and this is why youth politics is so important. There is an overlooked third camp in the Momentum debate that is mainly comprised of young, intelligent, and critical socialists. They view the horizontalist ‘new left’ as insufficient and the old cultists as irrelevant. They believe in engaging with the mainstream trade unions and in the value of effective interventions at all levels of the party. If this group can define its politics and start to organise then it will be the most exciting thing to come out of the Corbyn project so far.
Scottish Labour Young Socialists have tried to start this process. This weekend we won a clean sweep in the Scottish Young Labour elections. We committed Scottish Young Labour to supporting the traditional fayre of youth politics — free education, opposition to Trident, withdrawal from NATO. This may seem inconsequential and it obviously has no direct impact on party policy. But our real success was to shift the terrain of the debate and transform what is seen as ‘acceptable’ politics in Scottish Young Labour. It may “only be a youth wing” but we have shown that a culture change within the institutions of the Labour Party is possible. We are building a diverse, talented, and committed group of young socialists that will long outlive Corbyn’s tenure as leader.
The burden is falling on us — as young people — to ensure that Corbynism has a permanent legacy. We need to provide a welcoming space for those on the Left to engage, develop, and sharpen their politics. If we don’t do it now, then Corbynism may just be a footnote in our history.
Alistair Craig is a member of Scottish Young Labour and an organiser of Scottish Labour Young Socialists, who’s website can be found here.