Can Young Labour be made to grow?

Submitted by martin on 28 December, 2010 - 1:11 Author: Martin Thomas

The Labour Party's official youth movement today, Young Labour, is, so Michelle Webb reports in her recent book on the whole history of Labour youth movements, "anything but vibrant".

Click here for details of Young Labour conference 2011
"Young Labour appears to have avoided being cast as a potentially disruptive element... Indeed, it is little reported for anything at all".

The evidence amassed by Webb, however, suggests that the Labour leadership could probably more or less at will transform Young Labour into something lively - if it wanted to. Even if Ed Miliband and his friends still consider the risks of a lively youth movement too great to encourage - and they may do so - there may be local openings now for building lively Young Labour groups.

Labour Youth Leagues were first launched by a London Labour women's conference in 1919. The idea then was not a political force, but more a safe place to park older labour movement children. The "children" were to be provided with "rambles and picnics" and "taught Labour songs".

It was never like that. As soon as the Youth Leagues were officially recognised at the Labour Party conference in 1924, successful pressure mounted to lift the upper age limit to 25. The Youth Leagues wanted to make sure that their active and confident members were not disbarred before they had reached their stride. They constantly complained against, and often in local practice defied, the official instruction that Youth Leagues were not to debate politics and generally "not to overemphasise the political side" at all.

Age limits would be controversial again and again. By 1933 the left was pressing, unsuccessfully, for the limit to be raised to 30. When the Labour leadership moved to shut down the first Labour youth movement, from 1936, it reduced the age limit, in stages, to 21.

In 1948 a more confident Labour leadership conceded to left-wing pressure to raise the limit back to 25. Others wanted 30. In the late 1980s, when the Labour leadership was shutting down the fourth of its youth movements, it reduced the limit to 21 again. It is now 27.

The Youth Leagues were allowed a national conference in 1929, and the right for youth delegates to vote on constituency Labour Party General Committees in 1931. They grew fairly rapidly in the 1930s, although until the mid-1930s the Labour leadership was rigidly "orthodox" (budget-balancing) in its response to the Great Depression (the Liberals, not Labour, were the first to become Keynesians). By 1935 there were 510 local Youth Leagues, though only 135 were at their 1935 conference.

Stalinists, led by Ted Willis, later to be the author of the famous (pro-police) TV cop show Dixon of Dock Green, were winning hegemony. In 1936 the Labour leadership started retaliating. In 1938 Willis and the national Youth League leadership pulled out and openly joined the Young Communist League.

The Youth Leagues were dormant during World War 2, but mushroomed in 1945/6. 250 branches were set up in the year after the end of the war, although they still had an official upper age limit of 21 and no national structure.

The Labour leadership gingerly conceded a national rally in 1949, and then a national conference and area federations in 1951. By then there were 806 Youth Leagues.

The Labour leadership worried about the influence of Bevanites and Trotskyists in the Youth Leagues, and soon started eliminating the national structures and squeezing the life out of the Youth Leagues. By 1959 the 806 Youth Leagues of 1951 had dwindled to 268, and a Labour right-winger analysing the causes of Labour defeat in the 1959 general election pointed to an "ageing Labour Party" where meetings were always dominated by "tired, grizzled men and grey-haired care-worn women".

The Labour leadership decided to take a risk again. It relaunched the youth movement with committees, conferences, area federations, a paper, and help from full-time staff.

The Labour Party in 1959 was a grey and unattractive wing of the era's "consensus politics" (called "Butskellism", after Tory politician Butler and Labour leader Gaitskell). As one activist of the time mentions to Webb, "the regional youth officers intended to strictly control the [youth] branches in their areas".

Yet the response was quick. The number of Young Socialist branches increased from 268 in 1959 to 608 by October 1960.

To the consternation of the Labour right wing, the relaunch of Labour's youth movement had been just in time to tap into stirrings generated by the nuclear disarmament movement and the civil rights movement in the USA.

Confrontation followed more quickly than in the 1930s. By 1964 a would-be Trotskyist faction - the Healyites - had won the majority of the Young Socialists (despite their faction having been officially banned years previously), and marched it out of the Labour Party. The Healyites would soon degenerate into crazy sectarianism, and worse.

In the aftermath of the showdown between the Healyites and the Labour leadership, the youth movement shrivelled. In 1966-70, many young people followed their elders out of the Labour Party in disgust.

The Labour leadership reconstituted the youth movement on a fairly liberal basis in 1968. It began to grow again from about 1970. Two decades of strange stillness followed, in which the youth movement was controlled by the Militant faction (now the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal). Young Socialist conferences expanded to become maybe two thousand strong, and would regularly pass motions demanding the nationalisation of "the 250 monopolies" - but unlike the Stalinists of the 1930s, the Bevanites of the early 1950s, or the Healyites of the early 1960s, the Militant people were seen as "safe" by the Labour leaders.

And so they were. The shutting-down of the fourth movement was prompted not by any initiative or rebellion from the youth, but by the fiasco and rout of Militant's control of Liverpool's Labour council in 1984-6. In the aftermath of that, keen to make an example of Militant in order to cow other Labour leftists, and spurred on by young graduates from anti-Militant factionalising in university Labour politics like Phil Woolas, the Labour leaders shut down the Young Socialists.

Militant scarcely resisted. By 1990 the YS was down to 52 branches, and by 1993 to 18. There had been 581 at the peak, in 1985.

At that point the Labour leadership decided - reluctantly, it seems, under pressure from the future Blair/Brownite junior ministers Claire Ward and Tom Watson - to set up a new youth movement. It was given few resources, and did not grow even in the years 1994-7, when Labour Party membership briefly swelled to 400,000 in a surge of hope of getting rid of the Tory government in office since 1979.

As early as 2001, a survey of 40 CLPs found only one which had more than four members under 30! Leftish young people saw their parents becoming disillusioned with Blair-Brown Labour - refusing even to vote for it, quitting Labour Party membership, or sticking with it only in a spirit of passive resignation. No wonder the young people didn't join Young Labour.

The party leadership was nudged into some gestures to help Young Labour. From 2007 people under 27 could join the Labour Party for ÂŁ1 a year. From 2008 Young Labour conference was allowed to elect the chair of the movement (and elected a left-winger, Sam Tarry). But the condition of Young Labour is still such that the "coming events" advertised on its website are all over two years old!

The Labour Party's regional officials, who in the Blair/Brown years developed a viciousness beyond that of the right-wingers of the 1960s (and less kept in check by assertive and lively local Labour Parties), have been keen to control Young Labour branches. They seem to have had little trouble.

The very "flexibility" of the new rules may be part of the problem. All previous youth movements organised primarily on a constituency basis. Now Young Labour groups can be set up for single constituencies or much wider areas (so long as the regional official agrees).

The general result is Young Labour groups spanning vast areas ("Birmingham Young Labour", "Sheffield Young Labour", etc.), easily dominated by small groups of young careerists, and unattractive to other young people.

In the old days, the Youth League or YS branch would have some "organic relation" to its Constituency Labour Party: repressive measures came more often from the national leadership than from the CLPs, and even the worst regional official could not keep tight control over every branch. Most CLPs felt some obligation to maintain some sort of youth group.

Now, a regional official who can set up a "Young Labour" clique covering a vast area has "done his job", and can keep the group under close control. The "Young Labour" group has no organic relation with the rest of the Labour Party - not with CLPs, and not even with Young Labour conference (composed of young delegates from CLPs, not from YL groups).

Labour Party rules ban Young Labour groups from holding lists of their own members, i.e. the Labour Party members under 27 in their area.

All previous Labour youth movements with any life had a strong social side to their activities. It was never just the "rambles and picnics", and singing round the piano, envisaged in 1919, but there was rambling; cycle outings; football, cricket, and other sports; dances; amateur theatre; and (believe it or not, a staple of the 1930s Youth Leagues) whist drives.

After 1959, many argued that the expansion of affordable commercial entertainment for young people, and the larger proportion of young people staying on in school, at college, or at university, with ready-made social activities there, made it impossible for a Labour youth movement to be attractive as a social thing.

In the early 1960s, however, at least in some areas (the most famous example is Wigan) where commercial entertainment was scanty, the Healyites were able to build big Young Socialist branches by organising discos.

The Militant period in the YS stood apart from all others for its dour exclusion of "social" activities for YS branches. But that was more a decision by Militant than something imposed by the environment. Actually even the fact of a regular meeting, with the promise of a collective trip to the pub after it, makes a YS a "social" thing. (One of the photos in Webb's book is of League of Youth members in Bradford queuing for a bar to open, in 1949!)

If five-a-side football leagues can be successful recruiting devices for university Islamic societies, in the 21st century - and they can - there is no reason why similar things couldn't do the same job for Young Labour groups.

The "official" Labour Party line has been in favour of "getting away from boring meetings and formalities". Many young people see this, rightly, as an attempt to fob them off; others will drift away because YL groups fail to have regular and accessible meetings. Where small groups of young Labour careerists organise social activities, they may not choose what will attract other young people.

Young Labour is Labour's fifth youth movement. All the previous four were eventually shut down by the Labour leadership as too left wing. But all the previous four made their way against initial obstacles.

Both the first two Labour youth movements (1920s-30s, 1940s-50s) made their way against official restrictions greater than at present; the third (1960s) had no easy road either; and the fourth (1970s-80s) had its initial and decisive growth in a period when Labour was deeply discredited.

The virtual absence of any Labour youth movement at all since the early 1990s is, you could say, fair punishment for the policies of Labour leaders over that period.

The punishment, however, hits the labour movement at large more than it hits the Labour leaders.

There has been no other broadly leftish youth movement either - no sizeable, relatively permanent, movement in which young people can enter left-wing political debate and organising at whatever level they choose and with minimum preconditions.

Young people have been active, against the invasion of Iraq, and in initiatives like Make Poverty History and the Climate Camps, but almost all in one-off protests and very loose networks.

As a result, the "cadres" of leftish youth politics today - the people in a position to organise and hegemonise - are not people emerging from a process of debate and education in a structured movement, but the small minority of young "politics-as-a-career" people, the people who choose a "career" in or around politics through student-union sabbatical positions, posts in NGO and think-tanks, places as MPs' assistants, jobs as junior full-time officials for trade unions.

Neither the AWL nor any other activist left grouping is in a position to create, in the short term, a large youth movement to bypass those "cadres". If a lively Labour youth movement is possible, it will provide the best leverage to transform leftish youth politics. And that, in turn, is an essential step in the transformation of an ageing labour movement.

Since May 2010, some 43,000 new people have joined the Labour Party. The anecdotal evidence is that many of these are ex-members rejoining, and not many of them are young even by the "under 27" criterion.

With the emerging student and anti-cuts movements, however, that little influx may create new possibilities for Young Labour to revive, and an environment not qualitatively more unfavourable for it than the early 1930s, the early 1960s, or the early 1970s. No previous Labour youth movement has grown in ideal conditions or times.

I don't know how overwhelming the deadweight is from the discrediting of Labour over 13 years in office, and the still-largely-intact corps of Blair/Brownite officials in the Labour Party and around it (in unions, NGOs, etc.) There is only way one to find out: by poking at the problem, and seeing.

Webb's book reads, unfortunately, like a standard Ph D thesis - turgid, stuffed with footnoted banalities and "methodological" musings, and ignorant of background to the details it lists. For much of the story it recounts, a much better source is the AWL pamphlet, Seedbed of the Left. But it is, as far as I know, the only comprehensive history of Labour youth movements covering the whole span from 1919 to 2010.

Michelle Webb, The Labour League of Youth, Edwin Mellen Press, 2010

See also, for some info on Young Labour now, these notes from a YL activist.

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