The Labour Students Stitch-Up

Figures released this weekend show that less than 2% of Labour's students voted in the Labour Student elections. It's time to end the right-wing stitch-up that locks thousands of students out.

Yesterday, Labour Students released the breakdown of results from its National Committee elections which took place in March. This may seem odd given that it was an online ballot and the successful candidates were announced shortly after the vote concluded. What is most concerning about the results is that the total number of eligible voters was 507. As of March 2017, Labour Party data showed that there were 28,414 members of the party paying the student rate.

The fact that not even 2% of Labour’s students participated in the Labour Students election is a scandal. But the reason for this is simple. Labour Students has for years been dominated by a small clique with factional allegiances to the right of the party. In an attempt to maintain this domination of the official student wing of the Labour Party, the successive leaderships of Labour Students have stifled any attempts to bring democracy and accountability to the organisation. 

For years, the main focus of this has been the struggle for OMOV (One Member One Vote). In 2017, an OMOV system was written in to Labour Students’ constitution. In 2018, Labour Students basically decided to ignore this and hold elections via a delegates conference, as they had previously done. For the 2019 elections, we were told we would finally have OMOV.

The truth is that we were given an overcomplicated, gerrymandered system that was an affront to democracy. Instead of giving a vote to the tens of thousands of Labour Party members who pay the student rate, Labour Students decided to create a system whereby you had to join Labour Students as a national organisation, you had to join your university Labour Club, your university Labour Club had to register with Labour Students National Office and had to have at least ten members to do so, and then your university Labour Club had to inform Labour Students National Office that you were indeed a member of the Labour Club. 

If this system sounds unnecessarily complex, that’s because it was designed to shut out thousands from the process to prevent democracy and accountability becoming part of the organisation. This was exacerbated further by the absence of publicised guidance or reminders on how to navigate the process. Labour Students National Office did find time to remind some people, however, who it seems likely they thought would vote for the moderate slate, about how to register in time to get a ballot. The end result was a ballot that went out to barely over 500 students.

While we have only just found out the breakdown of the election results, myself and others affiliated with Labour Students Left knew that this was how it would pan out. That is why a motion was proposed at Labour Students National Conference back in February that would have created a democratic, hurdle-free OMOV system. The plan would have enfranchised thousands by using the Labour Party’s verified student rate membership database. I was proud to stand up and argue for this motion. It was fundamentally a question of whether we wanted to be a democratic and accountable organisation that represented students with socialist values. 

The answer from 30 people in the room was no. The motion fell. One delegate even argued against the motion by claiming it would disenfranchise people because there are some who are members of Labour Students but not members of the Labour Party. Therefore, it seemed the logical option would be to disenfranchise thousands in order to enfranchise, at best, a couple dozen. And in true Labour Students fashion, the Chair attempted to make life even harder for those proposing the motion by inventing a Standing Order that claimed a two-thirds majority was needed for it to pass.

So where does that leave us as students who support the Labour Party and want a democratic voice within the movement? Some argue that we should try to reform Labour Students from within, as we have done for the last few years with our fight for OMOV. That is why a motion was proposed at last night’s Labour Students National Committee meeting on “restoring trust in Labour Students”. It is clear that the organisation is in crisis. Labour Students had 42 affiliated clubs at the last election (essentially those who managed to jump through the numerous hurdles). Since March, almost half of these clubs have disaffiliated. 

The motion called on the current Committee to issue an apology for how the last set of elections were carried out and to run all future elections using the Labour Party’s verified student database. This motion was voted down 10-3. It is clear that the leadership of Labour Students has zero intention of changing its ways by bringing democracy and accountability to the organisation.

That is why myself and so many others are unwilling to invest another year of time and effort to this unreformable organisation. Our efforts would be much more effective if contributed to our university Labour Clubs or to other areas of the labour movement, such as trade unions or Constituency Labour Parties. 

I sincerely hope I am proven wrong and that Labour Students changes its ways in the near future. But in the absence of that miracle, I am increasingly of the view that the Party must intervene against the disgraceful conduct of its affiliate and official student wing. Perhaps then, we can create a socialist student organisation that is worthy of representing Labour Party members in education.

About the Author

Jawad Khan is a former Labour Party candidate for the European Parliament and a member of the Young Labour National Committee. He is also on the GMB union's national young members committee and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Young Workers Forum.