How I was saved by Young Labour

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At the weekend, both Manchester Young Labour and London Young Labour had their committee elections. I followed the London results over Twitter, but was able to get a front-row seat for the Manchester elections as I was running them. Not running in them. That’s for young people.

I owe a lot to Young Labour. I joined the party at 16, more or less in isolation – I lived in a Tory bit of Walsall, my family were all supporters but none of them were members, and although I’d been able to join the party through the website (at the cost of £7 out of my EMA), this was before Twitter or any of the other online support networks members now have.

My ‘first branch meeting’ story is one a lot of people would recognise – an unsociable hour and a half in a social club (pre-smoking ban), during which I was ignored by all the existing members as they had a discussion about which potential candidates for selection would be best at climbing lampposts. (Does anywhere else in the country do their electioneering through the medium of posters on lampposts or is it just the West Midlands?) I never went back for a second branch meeting and didn’t know what a CLP was.

I delivered a few leaflet rounds for the local election candidate, with no real idea of what I’d say if anyone opened the door while I was leafleting it. I’d joined the party because of national policy issues (and what was at the time a painful but swiftly outgrown adolescent crush on Tony Blair – there, my secrets are now officially all on the internet): I didn’t know the first thing about the council or the candidate I was leafleting for. I certainly didn’t know how people made the leap from delivering leaflets to becoming a candidate themselves. If that had been my only introduction to the Labour Party, I’m not sure I’d have bothered staying a member. And when I arrived at university a couple of years later and saw the two bored-looking male students sitting behind the freshers’ fair stall like Statler and Waldorf, I would probably have kept walking.

Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – at some point in the intervening two years I was saved by West Midlands Young Labour. They sent regular emails, and when I finally plucked up the courage to reply to one, I was invited to an event where – miracle of miracles – there were other young people! Having actual conversations about politics! And I got to meet an actual MP, one I’d already heard of, and he was young-ish too and he could quote lines from the West Wing and everything. (And he didn’t say “cut it with the bling bling” once.) And there were biscuits! And then we went campaigning afterwards – my first experience of putting the world to rights over a leaflet round (you know, when you have conversations about the failings in Labour’s housing policy, punctuated by driveways and the occasional sound of an activist being mauled by a dog). It was all a far cry from the unsociable social club.

Not only that, but WMYL also made it easy to come back to campaigning events – they’d set a central meeting point and then rock up to it with a minibus, rather than expecting young people to trek across the region.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s become easier to be a young member of the Labour Party over the last ten years. More and more local and regional Young Labour organisations have emerged, and social networks have made it easier to find people who share your beliefs – and often your frustrations – even if you live in a Tory wilderness. There’s still a lot to be done in ensuring that Young Labour receives the support it needs, and to make branch meetings a more appealing way to spend an evening than a rail-replacement bus service; but Refounding Labour will help, and some areas have come a long way already.

On Saturday at the Manchester Young Labour AGM, after running the elections and listening to impressive speeches by both Lisa Nandy and Usman Ali, I slipped out early to leave the new committee and other members to start planning their year. Partly this was because, after ten years in the party, I have started to say things – a bit like in the paragraph above – that make me sound like one of the Four Yorkshiremen. (“In my day we didn’t do all this phone canvassing. We used to communicate wi’t’voters wi’ tin cans and a bit of string.” “String? You were lucky to have string!”, and so on.)

But more importantly, I think there’s a big gap between my generation and the young people who are the future of Young Labour. Not just an age gap, although I was somewhat terrified last month to realise that one very committed and knowledgeable young Labour supporter I was following on Twitter was half my age. Half. My. Age.

While being Young Labour may have been getting easier, being young has not. I was one of the first people to get EMA, as a pilot scheme was run in the West Midlands. I was fortunate – if you can call it that – that my family was below the income threshold to have to pay tuition fees. I graduated before the recession hit and I haven’t been unemployed for more than a fortnight since then. I lived under Labour from the ages of 11 to 24.

Contrast that with people at school, college or university now. No EMA. No Future Jobs Fund. Universities facing their biggest fall in applications for more than 30 years as students are put off by trebled fees. Youth unemployment around the million mark – over a fifth of 16 to 24-year-olds. The generation below mine have got a fight for survival on their hands.

That’s why Young Labour is so important. Not just for the constant renewal of our party, not just for continuing to recruit and nurture young members, but for making sure that that fight is Labour’s fight. I wish all the newly elected Young Labour representatives all the luck in the world and a successful year. We’re going to need them.

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