Around 200 delegates attended the 2017 Young Labour Policy Conference at Warwick University over the weekend of 15-15 October. In a marked change from previous years the mood of the conference was left-wing. The conference voted for free education, shrugging off the attempts of the much-reduced Blairite faction to garner support for their graduate tax policy. Likewise, the conference voted to leave NATO — a clear break from the foreign policy of recent years.
The conference revealed three political tendencies: a Blairite right wing organised around activists from Labour Students, now very much on the back foot; a diverse “middle” tendency broadly influenced by the politics of Momentum and the leadership of Unite; and a left wing current grouped around supporters of the Clarion magazine, that put forward clearer class-struggle socialist ideas, including some supporters of Workers’ Liberty.
In votes on many bread-and-butter class-struggle issues such as the Clarion supporters’ call for the nationalisation of the banks, the conference was a left-right fight, with the Blairites on one side and the centre-left and the hard left on the other. But differences within the centre-left came out in two important debates: on freedom of movement and Israel-Palestine.
The motion on free movement submitted by Clarion supporters pointed out that migration did not cause falling wages, called for Labour to oppose an end to free movement and to close down detention centres. This motion met with demagogic opposition, including from the Unite Young Members delegation. They made conservative arguments packed with left-sounding jargon – i.e. that migration in fact did suppress wages (a notion with no basis in fact) and that freedom of movement had been invented “by capitalists, for capitalists” and that therefore locking workers behind national borders would be preferable. Sadly, the motion fell, although a subsequent motion, more limited in scope, about defending migrant workers’ rights, passed.
Conference also voted against a socialist motion on Israel-Palestine. It called for an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, an independent Palestinian state, and support for the workers’ movement in both countries, such as radical binational unions like WAC-Ma’an. Speakers opposed the motion on the grounds that Israeli Jews had to be removed from formerly Arab lands for justice to be done — a superficially “militant” position, but one which, carried to its logical conclusion, would lead to genocidal war, bitter enmity towards most of the world’s Jews, and no prospect of improvement in the lives of most Palestinians (who overwhelmingly support a two-state solution). Bizarrely, some particularly sectarian professional “left-wing” Israel-baiters slandered the internationalist trade union WAC-Ma’an as “Zionist” for having Israeli-Jewish members.
At one point in the conference, some supporters of Workers’ Liberty voted against a motion that called for the application of the 1967 Abortion Rights Act to Northern Ireland. That was a mistake. Workers’ Liberty has long supported the extension of the Act to Northern Ireland, and abortion rights for all women all over the world.
The growth of the broad left in Young Labour is to be warmly welcomed. But the debate on free movement and Israel-Palestine shows the need for a fight for socialist, internationalist politics. Moreover, for the debates at this conference to have meaning, more Young Labour groups need to be set up at the constituency level, and organise meaningful and attractive socialist activity in working-class communities.