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The third in a series of articles profiling rising young stars in the Labour Party. A few months ago Luke Pearce met with Daryn McCombe, recently elected as London Young Labour’s new representative on the board of the London Labour Party.
I know Daryn’s been up since 5am as I walk into his office mid-afternoon to drag him away for this profile piece. His public sector job ranges from quiet tediousness one day to manic firefighting the next. Today looks like it’s been the latter.
Unperturbed, ten minutes later we’re sipping coffee in the King’s College Waterfront bar, the BBC coverage of the NUS anti-fees demo a background distraction. I know we both feel tinges of guilt at not being at the march itself, but Daryn focuses on bemoaning the violent scenes at Millbank, which he feels are a distraction from the coalition undoing Labour’s work to widen access to higher education.
Both our location and the fees debate are home turf for Daryn. In 2007-08 he was the President of King’s College Students’ Union, a role he claims to have almost stumbled into after observing the union’s disengaging bureaucracy while hanging around the union bar with the musical theatre society. I find it hard to believe he didn’t have some politics or ambition beforehand. “I guess I was always politically interested, shouting at the TV news.”
This is probably about the most revolutionary we’ll get from someone who is often seen as being on the ‘right’ of Labour’s youth movement. I put this accusation to him. “Labour has to be electable. It’s all very well being on the left, but if you’ve no power, it’s irrelevant.” So it’s all about pragmatism? “We have to convince the majority of the UK that we have a credible agenda for government, and there are two ways of doing this. Firstly, we have to recognise where the public are right – for example, most people are ‘hard on crime’, but also realise that social conditioning is important. Labour will find it hard to reconnect to those C1 and C2 voters who are at the core of our vote without realising this.” Secondly, there’s scope for genuine leadership. “You have to show leadership on issues where the party is right and where the public are a bit behind.” He lists bailing out the banks, LGBT rights and a strong public sector as examples of this.
Actually Daryn used to be a Tory, which he bravely admits to me. His first school work experience was arranged with Ann Widdecombe MP, for whom he wrote a speech on care homes, though he had no party political affiliation at this time. It was in the sixth form that he felt strongly about the Iraq war, privatisation and student fees, and joined the Conservatives “as an oppositional move – it wasn’t to do with their values. I think the public often skip allegiance between the parties – not because they believe in their values but in opposition to the other one.” Nevertheless this can’t have been easy to swallow for his Labour father.
Unlike many of Daryn’s contemporaries at the student union, flirtation with the Liberal Democrats didn’t feature on his horizon: “I could never figure what they were about.” His realisation that he was a social democrat occurred just before he decided to campaign for student union president, accepting that he could oppose disagreeable Labour policies from within the party.
“Lots of the time I probably get painted with the same brush as people I’m associated with, like Richard Angell, because we work together in LGBT Labour. But I disagree with him on Trident… I am seen as ‘on the right’ by the left of the [Labour] movement, but I can work closely with the left, like Cat Smith on improving women’s representation in LYL [London Young Labour].” There’ll be plenty of opportunities to straddle differences in the London Labour Party in Daryn’s recently elected role as London Regional Board Representative for LYL. He aims to improve a somewhat soured relationship between the regional party and its youth organisation, while continuing to get young feet on the streets campaigning in advance of the 2012 Mayoral elections.
“I want to go back to economics,” Daryn insists. “It sounds clichéd, but we genuinely have to tap into people’s aspirations, what they want for their kids, their lives – because that’s what drives people to do things.” He’s gesticulating wildly now and tapping the table. “It’s not a race to the bottom, it’s a race to the top!” Daryn apologises for what he says was a rant. He’s an incredibly friendly person but doesn’t hold back from expressing his core beliefs.
So what’s with the whole ‘McCombe’ thing? His father is Scottish, his mother English, while he was born in Northern Ireland. The McCombe name comes from Londonderry: 250 years ago his father’s family migrated from there to South Ayrshire. 26 years ago Daryn was born back in his ‘home’ city, after his parents were posted there as Salvation Army officers.
Does he remember the troubles? “I have a vague recollection of the army being everywhere. I remember, when I was about five, the IRA planting a bomb under my friend’s dad’s car because in his job as a decorator he’d painted a police station. Luckily it took his leg off and didn’t kill him.” These sorts of events left their mark on Daryn’s politics. He says he has an “absolute phobia of communities collapsing – ’28 Days Later’ freaked me out completely, I still have nightmares.”
In the 1990s Daryn’s family moved to North London. Daryn reveals that 18 months after starting secondary school he was almost expelled for ‘disruptive behaviour’ and no one expected him to pass any GCSEs. “The conditions you’re in as a young person can really influence you… Don’t get me wrong, I had a choice to behave the way I did. I was the same person.”
What turned things around was his family’s move to York and changing school, though even there he was occasionally thrown out of classes. Daryn’s first involvement in politics dates from around this time: he joined the school council and claims to have secured more bins for the playground – “Or at least created the memory that I did!” He eventually achieved high grades, went to King’s College London and graduated with a 2.1 in Theology, and is now on course for a merit in his part-time MSc. What caused his bad behaviour? “I was bored basically. School didn’t particularly inspire, at least not until A level.”
Daryn got engaged this summer to his partner Chris, also a member of the Labour Party though not particularly active. It’s important to have shared values in a relationship, Daryn tells me, but it doesn’t matter to him whether or not Chris is involved in frontline politics as well. “It does mean that we’ll never be organising against each other on Conference floor. I’m more leftwing than he is. He’s more sensible.” I can tell Daryn’s very excited by the wedding; I have to ask him how this sits with his religious beliefs.
As a former theology student he’s had plenty of time to think about how his religious views relate to his politics and personal life. Daryn talks in great detail about his philosophy, admittedly losing me for much of it. I think what he’s trying to say is that, believing in universal salvation, he emphasises love and tolerance, rather than a church that excludes and judges. The church’s arguments about sexuality make it insular and are unnecessary due to God’s relationship with individuals.
“Politics is a way of implementing values, and that’s fundamentally what drives me to go to all these weekend meetings, giving up Saturdays to go trudging through the rain in Lambeth… I don’t use politics as a way of making everyone join the church. But my politics is about values.” It’s such a big part of his life I wonder why he doesn’t work in politics. He responds that it’s not the right job for him at the moment, and that while some people are needed to formulate and test policy, others in the Labour movement need to be involved with ordinary people’s working lives, which he believes was an issue with which the party had difficulty in the Tony Blair era.
Daryn wears his heart on his sleeve and has been honest during our discussion, though I can tell he’s politically very savvy, and I would imagine not easily taken advantage of. I presume he will eventually make the transition into career politics. He admits he’d love to be in Westminster, but says he doesn’t have an obvious career path to get there. “If the time is right, and the place is right, and I can do something about representing people I care about – whether it’s with a housing association or whatever, I will.” Definitely a politician’s answer – he’ll go far.