The 22-23 February Young Labour conference in Bradford delivered a surprise upset for the Labour leadership, as delegates voted 109 to 107 to reject the anti-union Collins Review into Labour Party structures.
During an often heated debate, many Young Labour and trade union members criticised the Collins Review for its threat to the unions' collective affiliation. The changes, proposed following the false allegations against UNITE's conduct during the Falkirk West selection, would mean that trade union members would have to “opt-in” to become affiliate members of the Labour Party. In 2019, the number of individual affiliate members will become a pretext to reduce the unions' collective power, including their 50% share of the votes at the annual party conference. Concern was also expressed that there will be just two hours of debate at the conference, and that no amendments or parts will be allowed.
The vote at Young Labour conference means that the youth wing's two delegates, Simon Darvill and Tori Rigby, are mandated to cast 25,000 votes against the Collins Review on 1 March. Though this is a small number of votes compared to UNITE or UNISON, it is larger than the TSSA and, more importantly, sends a clear and visible signal that many members and trade unionists are concerned about the proposals.
This was a further blow to the leadership of the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS), whose conference immediately preceded Young Labour, and whose members are expected to act as a right-wing bloc to keep the latter in check. The NOLS conference itself was marked by a dramatic walkout of several Labour Clubs, protesting against the committee's arbitrary and undemocratic decision to rule out a motion on introducing One Member One Vote (OMOV) in Labour Students elections. Whether they all now disaffiliate from NOLS or not, a federation of these clubs would be a big step forward. Such a federation could fight to democratise Labour Students, as well as co-ordinate independently to decide policy and run campaigns on campuses.
Several years of agitation by the left for more democratic youth conferences has made some progress. As well as the vote on Collins, there was a small amount of time set aside on the Sunday to discuss policy. The left won several votes, including on the abolition of Right to Buy, greater freedom for trade unions, and a 10% “super tax” on the wealth of the richest 10% in Britain. The danger now is that, realising that greater democracy is to the benefit of the left, the leadership will crack down and roll back these limited democratic gains. Vigilance is necessary.
The Collins debate in particular was stormy, as one would expect on such a contentious issue. Undoubtedly behaviour could have been better on both sides of the debate but the atmosphere wasn't helped by the lack of any standing orders and the decision to take the vote by a show of hands. The first vote went 103 to 100 in favour of the Collins review, which prompted calls for a recount. The results of the recount were not released for reasons not shared with the conference floor. It was clear from the expressions on the face of party staff that the second recount had delivered a vote against Collins. In future, clear standing orders and labour movement norms, including the right of conference to select and replace the Chair, make points of order, and call for a secret ballot, are needed.
The left, including the trade union delegations, has made headway in recent years. This was more in terms of a diffusion of a left common sense on issues such as Right to Buy and trade unions, rather than any specific organisational co-ordination. The general mood of the conference was to the centre-left and the task now is to cohere the Young Labour left together to fight for a more democratic youth movement with socialist class-struggle politics.
Another report on the Collins Review vote can be found here on Left Futures