1 September 2021

Young Labour has no attachment to democratic politics – it’s time the party shut it down


Back in 1984, Labour had barely started to recover from a devastating general election defeat the previous year. The party presented to the electorate an ugly face of extremism and intolerance. And it had one more potential public relations disaster that year when the national student Labour conference, held at Hull University, was abandoned after it descended into violence. Delegates who supported the Militant tendency, a revolutionary Trotskyist organisation that had infiltrated the party, physically attacked their opponents. Labour’s national executive conducted an inquiry and then buried it.

Only one press story about this inquiry ever emerged, in The Sunday Times on May 13, 1984. The paper reported: ‘Militant supporters are alleged to have jammed shut the doors and to have assaulted other delegates in an attempt to prevent people leaving’. This did indeed happen. I was chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, then the biggest in the country, and saw one Militant supporter, who remains politically active in Liverpool to this day, frenziedly kicking a female delegate. I told this to the inquiry, and was disquieted that the party never released its report.

I recount this story because Labour has had severe problems historically with its youth organisations. At that time, Militant had taken over the youth wing of the party, known as the Young Socialists, and was doing its utmost to do the same with the national students organisation. Fortunately, if painfully slowly, the party got around to expelling Militant over the next few years. I’ve noted that the party’s current youth organisation, Young Labour, is likewise ideologically very distant from democratic politics. The party appears to have realised this and to be sidelining the organisation. That’s good to hear, but it would be better to shut it down completely and start again.

According to the admittedly unreliable Morning Star:

‘Young Labour (YL) warned that it is set to miss out on its traditional day at party conference this year as it accused Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership team of stonewalling the group. YL chairwoman Jess Barnard said Labour told the group today that there is no capacity for due diligence checks on possible event speakers until September 20, just five days before the start of conference, potentially ruling out the YL day.’

Though I have no inside information, I suspect that Ms Barnard’s reasoning is correct, and that Sir Keir’s team is deliberately obstructing the group. Ms Barnard is quoted as saying that the party has refused to accept as speakers Jeremy Corbyn (who is not a Labour MP) or anyone from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. If so, that’s quite right too. The party should follow through by dissolving Young Labour. It would be one more signal of its earnestness in cracking down on the extremism and anti-Semitism that did immense damage to Labour’s reputation under Corbyn’s titular leadership.

There are three main areas in which Young Labour has shown itself heedless of, and divorced from, the party’s values and traditions. First, Labour is a constitutional party committed to parliamentary democracy. Young Labour, by contrast, pledges allegiance to a dictatorship. There’s no need to take my word for it. They say so themselves. In August, the group stated:

‘Young Labour gives its unconditional solidarity to the Cubans in the struggle against imperialism and its full support to the call for the US government to immediately end its criminal blockade of Cuba.’

It is of course possible to believe US policies towards Cuba to be misguided without endorsing the regime that they target. That’s the view of the Labour Party. Cuba is an autocracy which, in the words of Human Rights Watch:

‘…continues to repress dissent and deter public criticism. It routinely relies on arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics, independent activists, protesters, and others.  Other repressive tactics employed by the government include public acts of shaming and the arbitrary termination of employment. The US embargo continues to provide the Cuban government with an excuse for its problems, a pretext for its abuses, and a way to garner sympathy abroad with governments that might otherwise have been willing to condemn the country’s repressive practices more vocally.’

That’s an acute analysis of conditions on the ground. But Young Labour does not condemn Cuba’s dictatorship at all, let alone vocally. It supports the regime.

Second, Labour is committed to collective security through Nato. This isn’t just one policy view among many; it’s fundamental to the party’s values and its history. The post-war government of Clement Attlee recognised the threat from Soviet totalitarianism and did its utmost to tie together the security of free nations on both sides of the Atlantic. The creation of Nato in 1949 was to a large extent the work of Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign secretary. The alliance ensured that the nations of Western Europe remained free, and that those of Eastern Europe eventually became free with the peaceful defeat of communism.

Young Labour takes a different view. It believes Britain should leave Nato and baselessly claims that the alliance’s ‘continual aggression makes people in the UK less safe than they otherwise would [be]’. I need hardly add, though Young Labour is apparently unaware of it, that Nato prevented genocide on our continent when it stopped Slobodan Milosevic’s ferocious assault against Kosovan Albanians (most of them Muslim) in 1999.

Third, Labour has deep historic ties to Anglo-Jewry and with its sister party in Israel. It supports a two-state solution between a secure Israel and a sovereign Palestine. Young Labour has, by contrast, voted down the position of mutual recognition of two states of Israel and Palestine, and its members in London have called for the abolition of Israel. Their promotion of the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” means literally that.

There is no polite way of putting this to people who have no notion of the centrality of Israel to Jews in a hostile international order. Young Labour is a frivolous and ignorant body, and the extinguishing of Israel’s very existence could only come about by unleashing catastrophic violence – indeed, a second Holocaust against the Jewish people. Labour can have no truck with this. It has a moral obligation to restore its battered reputation and credibility by rooting out the anti-Semitism that poisoned the party and public discourse under Corbyn.

Young Labour, which has no members of its own (for every Labour member aged from 14 to 26 is deemed to be automatically a member) has no right to continue being parasitic upon the party. It’s time to shut it down, and invite its members to sign up to anti-Semitic and anti-democratic sects like the Socialist Workers Party instead. That’s where their politics lie, and meanwhile the constitutional left can carry on the job of urgent self-repair.

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.