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It’s official: Young Labour can debate policy for two hours every two years

Young Labour on the March for the AlternativeWho could possibly enjoy the feeling of I-told-you-so when the mess you’re faced with offends you as much as anyone, if not most of all? Certainly not me at the last Young Labour national committee meeting. Along with a minority of committee members, I had spent the previous two meetings warning that giving up any say over policy and stance was a bad move for the committee.  Deferring all such discussions to the youth wing’s policy conference would mean issues would be irrelevant by the time they got discussed.

Take the motion Max Shanly put forward to October’s meeting, calling for Labour to bring the Royal Mail back into public ownership if we won the 2015 election. It was party policy anyway, and it might even put a full stop to the privatisation. But months before the policy conference at which it apparently made sense to discuss it, the stockbrokers had moved in and calling on the leadership to act seems an irrelevance. And in December, the motion I tabled that was apparently oh-so-offensive was deliberately conciliatory. It only called on Young Labour to join the campaign against surveillance of students and trade unionists – and called on NEC youth rep Bex Bailey to raise the issue at next meeting of Labour’s executive. Not even a policy issue, arguably, though certainly time sensitive.

Besides, we argued, how could we possibly fit two years of policy discussion into a single conference? And why would the sabotage stop here? My mind swings back to my first Young Labour days, when conference was banned from mentioning policy at all. At the organisation’s 2011 conference, Iain Gray, the now-forgotten Scottish Labour leader, made the keynote address, rather patronisingly saying “I’d love to know what makes you guys tick.” He looked a little awkward when Cat Smith, then Compass Youth chair and now parliamentary candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood, retorted in the Q&A: “I’d love to tell you what makes us tick, Iain. But we can’t discuss policy, we have no website. We meet once every two years, and it’s all crammed into two days.” Events had turned to farce when party officials tried to stop Young Labour’s then-chair from addressing his own conference.

Yes, things have moved on from those days. There was the giant step of the 2012 policy conference, and, we all heard in very solemn tones, someone was even overheard saying “no to aspiration, yes to nationalisation”. Things just must have changed. The conference voted in favour of a policy of building a million council houses and providing sites for traveller communities. When the party produced the resulting policy documents, these bits of “radical zeal” had disappeared.

18 months later, and we’re presented with the timetable for the next policy conference – where policy will apparently be debated for two hours, and ambiguously “workshopped” for a further hour and a quarter. Despite it being a “Young Labour policy conference”, three and a quarter hours of a tight schedule will be devoted to hearing platform speeches from MPs and party hacks. Needless to say, all are over the age of 27.

It’s true that Young Labour now has a coherent policy process – which will hopefully stop repeats of the 2012 debacle. The spectacle of an already-marginalised community being airbrushed from Young Labour policy was truly disgraceful. But with a committee that can’t even take a collective position on practical issues like campaigning and mandating, what will we even do with policy?

Jeevan Jones, the committee’s West Midlands rep, raised his concern at January’s Young Labour meeting that policy was making up only two hours of a policy conference. Part of me wanted to join him in condemnation of this – for it is a ridiculous spectacle. But another part remembered that Jones had himself voted for the neutering of the committee when plenty of people round the table had pointed out the absurdity of only discussing policy every two years. Silence on subjects that happen to arise at the wrong point in a two-year cycle is downright odd, and pretty unfeasible to boot. If committee members were sincere when they voted to deny their organisation a collective voice for 23 of 24 months, then they should have seen this coming.

Conrad Landin represents the East of England on the Young Labour national committee, as well as being associate editor of Left Futures. The events related above took place at the meeting on 22nd January. He is willing for it to be circulated as a personal account, not an official minute. He is also happy to give oral reports at CLP and Young Labour group meetings – please direct such requests and other queries to landinc [at] mac.com

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