How Do We Solve a Problem Like Labour Students?

Labour Students is an organisation that has a long history of dubious practices, but this year it has provided a masterclass on how to exclude your base.

Labour Students is notorious as one of the last strongholds of Labour’s old establishment, fiercely and actively resisting the tide of change that has gripped the rest of the Labour Party since 2015. Lovers of democracy be warned, you will find no home here. The Left’s answer is simple – sweep away the barriers to participation and open the movement to everyone.

There is only one person that I have seen be absolutely honest about Labour Students. It takes a great deal of courage to see something and describe it as it is. Luke Akehurst described the organisation almost perfectly in a tweet, alleging that: “Momentum wants to destroy moderate control of Labour Students to cut off the training, political education and development of future moderate MPs and councillors.”

If Labour Students was responsible for any political education at all, this might be a little more accurate, but the point remains that the body seems to focus primarily on producing career politicians. The student element of a leftist movement is traditionally the most radical and energetic, but Labour Students demonstrates all the dynamism of an elderly country gentleman.

How did we get here?

Labour Students is an organisation that has a long history of dubious practices, but this year it has provided a masterclass on how to exclude your base from an electoral process. In looking at this track record, we can see how such an institution can very easily become self-perpetuating when at surface level, the mechanisms it uses can present the façade of inclusivity whilst in practice being profoundly prejudicial.

It’s the job of the left to look beyond and criticise this apparently friendly façade and establish the material reality of the relations involved. Because let’s not forget that it is the right that has constructed this group into what it is today, and the right that has consistently resisted attempts at effective democratic reform through organised institutional autocracy. The constitution of this organisation is an entirely deliberate construction, so when you see the various misdeeds of the organisations, remember: this is no accident.

These apparently neutral conditions are most problematic for those committed to basic democracy due to their ability to be so horribly and cynically misused for what, to all intents and purposes, appears to be active gerrymandering of the voting base. This is happening in several ways (that we know of):

  • Firstly, there are many clubs that have not realised that they needed to provide proof of 10 members. This may seem like an error on the clubs’ part, but Labour Students FTOs did not provide sufficient notice that this is the case. The first thing that some club chairs learned about the proof of 10 members requirement was when their delegate and nomination applications were denied after the deadline or as happened to a Southampton delegate, being denied entry to conference, under the impression that all the requirements to entry had been fulfilled.

  • Secondly, (and perhaps most tragically) there are clubs that have struggled to get the requisite 10 members signed up and emailing proof of club membership to Labour Students, so that these clubs can then send off this list. If there were any errors on these forms, the Executive did not respond until after the deadline, by which time it was too late. On top of this, when club chairs reached out to the executive committee, their queries fell on deaf ears.

  • Thirdly, there are a large number of students that have paid their subscription, provided their names to the club, but not realised that they needed to personally forward proof of club membership off to Labour Students. I almost fell into this category myself, as the notification that you needed to do this is not part of the email that you were sent upon joining, but in one sent much later. If I had not been talking about this in the pub with friends, I would not have realised at all and not been able to vote in this election, let alone stand.

Because so few clubs are affiliated (only about half by my count), and so few people are members, it has been impossible for either side to find candidates for the regional coordinators in the North-West, and it’s been impossible for the only Northern candidate to gain the necessary two nominations, as there is only one Northern Club affiliated – Durham (n.b.: Regional coordinators require two nominations from within their region). This means that the North-East will go without a Coordinator for the second year running, and the entire North will be without representation on the Labour Students Committee.

It’s an administrative nightmare to preside over such a nonsensical and convoluted system, and I would pity the administrators. But then, it appears that they are in fact quite happy to deny party members a say on how an institution that is meant to represent them is run. The common defence is that they are working very hard, and that’s undeniable, but entirely misses the point - this is the least we should be able to expect.

The situation is so bad that many members that are not usually sympathetic to the left of the party are being completely alienated by Labour Students. In addition to a wide base of support from clubs, we have received support from Open Labour, which whilst not being on the right of the party, is still not usually found to be on the same page as CLPD Youth or Welsh Labour Grassroots, both of which have endorsed the Left as well. Far from being an isolated and bitter group of hardened rebels, opposition to the exclusionary methods being employed by the Executive Committee are being expressed by a very wide cross-section of the Labour Party.

To reiterate: none of this is accidental, all of it is a result of deliberate design and manipulation. If you are forced by Conference to implement a One-Member, One-Vote (OMOV) system, then the only solution left to you when you have lost the confidence of student party members is to go to every measure possible to exclude as many as possible.

What is to be done?

The Left’s response to this anachronistic organisation must be a radical departure from the situation as it stands. Implementing a proper One-Member, One-Vote system is the obvious first step. The current system (pejoratively called ‘JoeMOV’ after the National Chair) is clearly not fit for purpose.

The concrete solution (‘Option C’) was proposed by Lara McNeill, the Young Labour NEC Representative, but was blocked by the Labour Students Executive. The central importance of this proposal is that it will use the membership list that is compiled by the Labour Party. Every student that signed up with the central party will have a vote in future elections if the LSL slate is able to win the current election. Of course, this automatically eliminates the requirement for your club to be affiliated in order to get a vote. It’s worth noting here that many of the committee members that opposed Option C are now running for positions on the Committee or executive.

It would be easier to administer, being mostly automatic, and would reduce the confusion inherent in the current mess of a system. We must of course go further than that. Once clubs are affiliated, it would make sense to assume continued affiliation rather than making them sign up each year, and actively approaching unaffiliated clubs to try and to encourage them to affiliate to the organisation would be a positive step forward, rather than partisan attempts to gerrymander the electorate. By engaging smaller clubs and Further Education institutions, we could further broaden the base of the Labour movement among students, and increase the reach of our politics beyond a few select institutions - which ought to be a crucial objective.

The cultural shift will also engender an inherently more inclusive organisation. The implementation of the new Trans Rep position this year was simply dreadful. It was not announced prior to the conference deadline being closed, and delegates to liberation conference were only informed the day before conference. This gave trans students no notice, and meant that only people who were already planning to attend conference could stand for the role. Conference is also on the same weekend as Women’s Conference, meaning that students were forced to choose between them. Hosting conferences in accessible locations and making sure that clubs can send delegates is a basic, but deliberately overlooked step. Working class students are engaged with poorly enough as it is and increasing the cost of any given event puts a needless barrier in the way of political participation. This is no way for a Labour-affiliated organisation to conduct itself.

In the interests of basic transparency, we must break off all official links with Community. The opaque relationship that the two organisations have is not entirely clear to anyone. What’s crystal clear is that former chairs of Labour Students have gone on to become Community organisers, and that in return, Labour Students is promoted by Community. The relationship is clearly designed to amplify the power of Community and it is unclear what benefit (if anything) grassroots student Labour members get out of it. I would have less of a problem with this if Community’s own track record in the trade union movement was not such a toxic one: it was recently fined by the TUC for actively undermining GMB in its attempts to organise exploited ASOS workers. Its involvement in Labour Students appears to be primarily concerned with funding the most right-wing candidates on offer in any given internal election.

Rather, we must reach out to all of Labour’s affiliated Trade Unions, as well as working closely with the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU). Universities would simply not function without their lecturers and staff; students and university managements forget this at their peril. In Lancaster last year during their record-setting strike, the Labour club made sure to send students to stand with the striking lecturers in solidarity. The Trade Union movement may have become more concentrated in the past few decades, but we shouldn’t play favourites, especially with a union with such opaque practices. By working with a wider range of unions, Labour Students would be able to give their members a much richer experience of the real world and strengthen links between the union movement, the student movement and our Labour Party for years to come.

Ultimately, if we win, we will have won despite the barriers put in front of us and this will not be a vindication of the system as it stands. Labour Students Left stands for more than just vacuous slogans about inclusivity. Why can you trust us? Because we genuinely believe in these things, rather than cynically exploiting them as a way to climb up the greasy pole. Because the left has been campaigning for this for over a decade. And because we are finally so close our goal of an open, socialist and democratic Labour Students.

In a sentence, our mission is: to break down barriers, wherever they exist.


Oliver Robinson (@cllr_oliver)

Oliver Robinson is a Labour City Councillor for University and Scotforth Rural in Lancaster, and is Lancaster University Labour Campaigns Secretary.