Labour Students under fire as one of their largest groups quit

oxford uniBy Mark Ferguson / @markfergusonuk

Update: Three former Chairs of OULC have spoken out over the disaffiliation in another open letter, which we have reproduced at the end of this article.

(The original version of this article suggested that OULC was the largest Labour group in the country – which is how OULC describe themselves. Labour students have informed us that OULC are in fact the 7th largest group in the UK).

The student wing of the Labour Party – Labour Students – suffered a blow as one of the biggest Labour Club in the country, Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) disaffiliated last night. In an open letter to Labour Students (reproduced below) OULC criticise the “democratic proceedings” of the organisation, and appeal for reform – although suggest that under current structures internal reform is “near-impossible”.

OULC are well known within the party as hard working and dedicated campaigners – especially for their work in the hyper-marginal Oxford East constituency. They’ve received praise from senior members of the party, including Miliband adviser (and now Lord) Stewart Wood calling them “an exemplar of what needs to be done”. They’ve also been praised by Gordon Brown for their “brilliant contribution to progressive politics.”

Their alumni include Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Mandelson and both David and Ed Miliband.

Dear Labour Students,

Yesterday evening, we took the decision by 19 votes to 6 to disaffiliate from Labour Students. This was not a course of action we were happy to take, or one we took lightly. Our affiliation with the student movement within our Party is something we regard as an important part of our identity within the Labour movement. We are sad to be leaving an institution that has secured the election of countless Labour candidates while leading the way on tuition fees. But we could no longer remain within an institution whose democratic failings we feel increasingly threaten to undermine its positive work.

For the last two years as a club we have held an annual debate on whether to re-affiliate to Labour Students following concerns over its democratic proceedings. This year’s elections though, which saw every single position on the Labour Students Exec elected unopposed, showed that the problems that had initially concerned us had become worse not better. One of Labour Students’ worst kept secrets is the prominent role of the outgoing Exec in choosing and encouraging a chosen group of candidates to run for positions, with little to no attention focused on encouraging others to enter the race. This practice is clearly in itself wrong, but also serves to stifle debate and discussion about how Labour Students can be reformed to serve the clubs who need it most.

The undemocratic culture of Labour Students is typified by its constitution, which is not available online or even at the request of members. How can individual clubs be expected to argue for change if they can’t even consult the constitution? We have also been sad to see this same lack of transparency reflected by the organisation itself, which is all too often disconnected and remote from the student clubs it was elected to serve, with little to no regular contact with clubs. During the affiliation meeting itself, even those members of Labour Students who came to speak on its behalf acknowledged that the organisation has ‘lots to improve’, while one recent delegate to Labour Students Conference said that these democratic failings made them ‘sick’. While these shortcomings are problematic as a matter of principle, they are also beginning to affect the services Labour Students provides.

At the last election, we received election material that may have been fine at targeting most voters, but was completely unsuited to targeting students, forcing us the scrap the material and produce our own instead. In Labour Students’ campaign literature, there is no discrete student offer. We have found the local party’s election material more suited to targeting students than our own national body’s. The decisions Labour Students have chosen to take have also seemed disconnected with their membership. While Labour Students’ decision to endorse David Miliband last year was not out of keeping with our club’s own stance (he shared our endorsement jointly with Andy Burnham), the failure to even make members aware in advance that such a decision was being made, let alone inform them how they could make their own views heard, rightly angered many.

Given these problems, it was clear to us that Labour Students is in need of reform. However, it was also clear to us that the institution’s own structures make internal reform near-impossible. When we put some of these concerns directly to members of the national executive two weeks ago, as a club we felt a clear lack of engagement with the issues we were raising. As a club we are consistently outward-looking in our nature, be it in our strong links to the Oxford East CLP and local charities or our record of campaigning in elections across the country. On this occasion though, we felt with regret that the best way to foster a meaningful debate about the way forward for Labour Students was through deciding not to affiliate for the next year. We remain committed to fighting for the values that brought us into Labour Students in Oxford and elsewhere, but these wouldn’t be in keeping with our continued presence in an organisation whose democratic deficit increasingly stifles efforts at meaningful reform and improvement. With this in mind we hope through disaffiliation to start an honest and open discussion about the way forward for Labour Students, and return to a revitalised and refreshed Labour Students. We hope that this decision can be the start of a constructive, open discussion about how Labour Students can stand up for progressive students across the country that we didn’t feel we could have while remaining members.

In comradeship,

Oxford University Labour Club

——–

Dear Jack and Kat

As former chairs of Oxford University Labour Club, we’d like to express our disappointment that the club has chosen to disaffiliate from Labour Students.

Labour Students is the national organization which brings together all student Labour Clubs across the country, representing them at a national level. Membership of Labour Students gives OULC its voice and its formal place within the Labour Party. Leaving Labour Students means that OULC is now cast adrift, existing outside of the organized Labour movement.

The reasons given for disaffiliation don’t stack up. Of course Labour Students isn’t a perfect organization: few national political bodies which co-ordinate large numbers of local groups on tight resources are. But it does a great deal of important work. There are Labour MPs across the country who will tell you that they owe their seats to Labour Students, because the national officers effectively co-ordinated student activism where it mattered.

OULC has taken completely the wrong approach to dealing with its stated internal, procedural concerns about how Labour Students is run. There were no conversations with the Labour Students national officers about improvement prior to this move. By disaffiliating in this way the club has removed themselves from the debate on how to change Labour Students for the better and have removed its members from the national representation structures of the Labour Party.

We were proud to lead OULC – a club with a long history and a strong record of local campaigning. It is particularly disappointing to see our club marginalised and its national reputation damaged.

The internal squabbles over Labour Students rules will soon be forgotten. But what won’t be forgotten is that at a time when Labour needed to stand together as a united movement, OULC wasn’t there.

We hope that OULC will enter a constructive dialogue with Labour Students about the concerns that members of the club have, and that OULC will consider reaffiliation as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely

David Green (co-chair, Trinity Term 2008)
Ben Lyons (co-chair, Michaelmas Term 2009)
Ayo Ajanaku (co-chair, Michaelmas Term 2009)

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