Labour Students is Unfit for Purpose

Labour’s student wing has long been synonymous with undemocratic stitch-ups. But increasingly, the members they claim to represent are wising up.

When I first joined the Labour Party as a 14-year-old, I remember older comrades complaining about Labour Students. Assertions abounded as to its undemocratic nature, its unclear use of party funds, its total domination by the Blairite right, its stubborn refusal to take a progressive stance on free education or tuition fees. 

In 2013, the year I joined, it was certainly an undemocratic, unaccountable organisation, ran by a clique that anointed another generation to take the reins every year. The best (and bizarrest) description of it came from Labour MP Dan Jarvis, who called it “the Parachute Regiment of the Labour Party”. It provided no tangible support for Labour Clubs, and nor did it represent any real advocacy organisation for students.

Six years later, from the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the near tripling of party membership, Labour Students remains much the same. If anything, the stitch ups and hypocrisy have increased, culminating in this year’s elections to its national committee.

At first glance, Labour Students has many aspects that should make it a dynamic and politically-engaged organisation. It possesses an autonomy and power that dwarves anything permitted to Young Labour, its far larger – and far more democratic – counterpart. Unlike Young Labour, which has had one appointed full-time overseer for its activism, Labour Students has enjoyed three full-time officers, elected by national conference, who are employed directly by the Labour Party. The union Community also provides an (unclear) amount of money to fund Labour Students annually, allowing the organisation to hold events without having to go through the party’s Southside headquarters for approval and funding.

Despite this huge amount of resource, Labour Students remains little more than a conveyor belt for careerists. Aside from recruitment leaflets encouraging students to join Community – supposedly a steelworkers’ union – chairs of college and university Labour Clubs receive little from the three full-time officers. No advice or material support is offered, and the level of communication from head office is kept to the most minimal possible. 

The Labour Students website proudly boasts of its several ‘priority campaigns’, ranging from tackling exorbitant rent to campaigning for better student housing. Yet in my two years of being a student Labour activist – including eight months of running a Labour Club – there has been no national events, demonstrations or anything that could remotely be described as political organising by Labour Students. At most, chairs are irregularly invited to a campaign day for a council by-election where it is likely that, quelle surprise, a Labour Students veteran is the Labour candidate.

This incompetence is matched by an unparalleled lack of accountability. Despite having been elected to the National Committee in April last year, I have never once seen an organisational budget. Myself and other left-wingers on the committee have been invited to one meeting since being elected, meaning that we have either faced deliberate exclusion from the organisation’s operations, or that there has been only one meeting of Labour Students in that time. I’m not sure which is worse. 

Even more appalling was the arbitrary of expulsion of Labour Students’ LGBT officer from the committee – on Trans Remembrance Day, no less. This was telling; Labour Students has no disciplinary procedure and the committee was not called to decide on the case. Many of us suspect that the LGBT officer was kicked out after falling out with a person close to Labour Students’ leadership. 

This was the unaccountable culture that culminated in this year’s national committee elections. A one member one vote (OMOV) system was written into Labour Students’ constitution in 2017. That year, the commitment to OMOV was ignored and elections were held under “temporary conditions.” But it was clear that they could no longer put this off in 2018. However, they had no intention of transferring power to anyone but their hand-picked successors.

This is when the Labour Students leadership reached new heights of dishonesty. The national committee was informed of two proposals: either Labour Students could have a highly-convoluted mockery of OMOV dreamed up by Joe Dharampal-Hornby, the organisation’s then-chair (subsequently dubbed ‘JOMOV’, in his honour), or it wouldn’t have any OMOV at all. 

Under JOMOV, members sign up for Labour Students, paying £1 (on top of the fee of their party membership and university club) and registering with an email address. Several universities such as Birkbeck do not give out e-mail addresses, making it practically impossible for these members to register; similarly, vast swathes of further education colleges and sixth forms were excluded. Following this registration period, the chair of a Labour Club would then e-mail Labour Students to confirm affiliation with their club. Finally, members would send Labour Students an e-mail from their club or students union to confirm their membership. It was then – and only then – that they would receive a ballot.

Lara McNeill, the youth representative on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), proposed a simpler third option, which was to pursue genuine OMOV. She noted that Labour had already spent thousands of pounds on verifying which of its members were students, having recently created a student membership rate. She proposed that these members could vote in the Labour Students elections. This did not even go to a vote, with Labour Students’ full-timers ignoring democratic process and shooting down any possibility of discussing it. Concerns were cited with autonomy and independence from the central party – issues that didn’t seem to concern Labour Students when its staffers were hired directly from the party a few months earlier.

Probably the worst thing about JOMOV is that many people who jumped through every ridiculous bureaucratic hoop to register still did not receive a vote. Shamelessly, Labour Students full-timers failed to remind individuals unfavourable to the right-wing leadership about upcoming deadlines. As the chair of a left Labour club, I received no word about the deadline for members to present proof of membership from any of the FTOs, and there was no promotion of this deadline through Labour Students’ social media. E-mails, texts and calls from myself and other left-wingers were consistently ignored, while right-wingers messaged every member that they assumed would vote for them to remind them to navigate the bureaucratic traps they had set.

These traps snared large numbers of left-wing Labour students, with nomination forms being invalidated for astonishingly bureaucratic reasons, such as the fact they had been filled out electronically rather than written in pen and scanned in. A candidate for a North East regional position was denied their chance because they received only one nomination from the club: this is because there was only one Labour club able to affiliate in the region. 

Several left-wing members did not receive their ballots from the Electoral Reform Services (ERS) in charge of running the elections, which full-timers blamed on technical difficulties – a little unbelievable, considering the company’s ability to successfully run national Labour elections involving over half a million people. 

Unsurprisingly, the right-wing slate took every single position – bar one – in the end. This was despite the fact that the left slate had won over 30 nominations from clubs nationwide, compared to the 5 or so gained by the right slate. The full-timers have refused to release vital details of the election, such as voter turnout and the margin of victory for the elected candidates. 

As a result, scores of infuriated Labour clubs have decided, often unanimously, to disaffiliate from Labour Students: of 90 Labour Clubs across the country, a minority of 43 affiliated for this academic year and of this number, thirteen have disaffiliated, including the LSE Labour Club, the political base of Labour Student’s incoming chair. Eleven more are considering disaffiliation over the coming weeks.

And who can blame them? Labour Students’ full-timers have shown that they hold our student membership in contempt. Their behaviour has been so bare-faced and shameless that many moderate Labour students who would never dream of backing a Momentum-backed slate recognised the extremity of the situation – and the necessity for radical change in the organisation.

One consolation is that, from September onwards, Labour will no longer be funding Labour Students’ three full-time staffers. It is also to be welcomed that a recent NEC meeting ruled that three student representatives on Young Labour’s national committee will be elected by an OMOV vote of all student members, bypassing the Labour Students set-up.

But students in our party are still stuck with a fossilised shell of representation. If we are serious about charting a new, democratic and socialist course for our party, then we must dismantle this relic and create a student organisation that our mass party can be proud of.