By Dom Anderson and Dannie Grufferty
A few clarifications first;
- Apologies for using the much derived acronym, NOLS (National Organisation of Labour Students). We’ve lost track of the number of National Chairs who have tried and failed to stop people using this aged acronym, which Labour Students hasn’t technically been known by since 1994. It’s just easier.
- The Office – It’s not the television series we speak of, it’s the Labour Students’ National Office.
We have both long been members of Labour Students, having served on its national committee, as full time Labour Students officers in NUS, and campaigning for the party through thick and (quite a lot of) thin.
Labour Students is an incredibly important, and sometimes under-appreciated, force within Labour. Campaigning in any weather for Labour candidates and generally being a force for good within the party.
But we’re rather tired. Tired by old alienating debates that end up with the mantra that you either agree with the “NOLS line” or you don’t.
Hey when the party’s “uber-fixer” Tom Watson says you need to get your house in order, something might be wrong (no offence Tom).
Because the arguments against things like OMOV (One Member One Vote) as took place this weekend at Labour Students’ National Conference are often just attempts to mask paranoia. Paranoia ironically once shared by greats of the Labour left like Tony Benn, who were vehemently against giving every member of the Labour Party a vote in 1993.
These aren’t just about arguments of left and right. Leftist factions worried OMOV would reduce the power of trade unions and pull the party further to the centre. While Labour Reformers believed giving each member a vote would help unify the party. Which it did.
OMOV is pretty simple in our minds. The fact of the matter is that if you don’t believe each of your members deserve a say, then you neither trust, nor truly respect them.
Because for us, what happened last week in terms of the OMOV debate was the last straw. We’ve both argued before and since with Labour Students that OMOV is not only the right thing to do, it’s also rightly inevitable. One of us, as NUS group leader, spoke in favour of OMOV at Labour Students’ national conference (while supporting a consultation).
So. The “consultative” questionnaire basically consisted of a few open-ended questions, like;
“Currently, there are caps on the number of delegates the biggest Labour Clubs can send to conference. Do you believe OMOV would increase the power of these clubs to the detriment of small clubs? Why?”
That’s your idea of a non-leading question? Here’s one from us;
“OMOV would enable all members a say in how we are run. Do you think that is a good thing or would it be of detriment to hacks and cliques?”
Furthermore, the questionnaire asked for students names, membership numbers, etc. Which obviously did not put anyone off from saying what they really think.
There are 3 main arguments against OMOV;
1. A vote at National Council and a consultation said “no”.
Does it not say in the constitution (granted, a rather fluid document) that conference is the sovereign decision-making body?
Rachel Megan Barker put it eloquently:
“Imagine if Parliament worked like that, oh we can’t repeal the bedroom tax, cause last time we voted on it we voted in favour?”
2. It is too expensive/a drain on resources.
Can you pay too high a price for democracy? On a purely practical level you probably don’t need to. Where have you been getting your figures from anyway? Liberal Youth have a system costing them about £600.
This argument has also been rather undermined by the fact that NOLS have previously used online OMOV to decide on priority campaigns.
3. It would favour men, hence OMOV is sexist.
Yes it may do. But one of us (as a woman) found this argument rather patronising. NOLS should be proud of its record in women’s representation, it’s better than a number of the hard-left factions in NUS.
Oh and for the record, life generally favours men. But should that be an argument against allowing the many women who can’t afford to go to conferences the right to a vote? Why not just work to get more women to join the party instead?
So those are the main arguments. But what about what actually went on this weekend?
Clubs staged a walkout in protest (not a crime, FYI), and some labelled them “pathetic” and an “extreme minority”.
Yes, an extreme minority which includes such noted Trotskyite extremists as Blair, Mandelson, Ed and David Miliband, most trade unions and the wider party. Are the numerous club chairs (many women themselves) in favour, an “extreme minority” too?
We’re sure people on both sides behaved a little badly at times this week, but those in positions of leadership should know better.
The reality is, like back in 1993, the majority of the Labour Party are not revolutionary socialists who want to nationalise everything that moves. On the contrary, we’re sure the membership of Labour Students, if granted a vote would actually exert a very much centre-left/centre kind of vibe.
Despite this, and contrary to popular belief (and the views of high-profile lefties in NUS), you don’t have to be a card-carrying member of Progress to get NOLS to like you. But from conversations with clubs on campuses this year, Dom’s been able to see that there remains a perception that Labour Students resembles something more akin to “Progress Students”, while at the same time many student members of Labour, very active on campus and in their Labour Clubs, are choosing not to get involved in the national organisation.
The fact is, that if Labour Clubs don’t start to see changes they may disaffiliate en mass. This would be awful on any level, at any time; but in a General Election year? Come on.
We remain proud to be Labour Students because of the members up and down the country who like us joined because we are proud to be in a party with a link to working people. We are proud of our history in NUS being the leading force for change, keeping the organisation afloat in dark times, and not being afraid to have an honest debate with the left on controversial issues when the national union’s progress (forgive the term) required it. And we believe that Labour Students is a force for pluralism in NUS.
So. Some possible solutions:
1. Introduce OMOV
Stop having “votes” on whether or not people should have the right to “vote”. Will also solve the easily-fixable problem of uncontested elections.
2. Have a proper debate about the link between Young Labour and Labour Students
Is it not a little elitist to put students in another group entirely, and give them more resources than the vast majority of young people in the Party, most of whom never end up members of a University or College Labour Club.
3. Give NOLS/youth structures greater freedom from the party
We’re not sure how this would exactly be done, but there’s no harm in discussing it is there. Hey, this might even increase your membership. This could also ensure we’re not just electing what are essentially party staff.
You never know, just having the debate might not be so scary. Might even be a little unifying.
The fact is that now the PLP are beginning to mutter. The Leader’s office are apparently baffled.
Personalised disagreements, exploding over Twitter are just frankly embarrassing. When Liberal Youth and Conservative Future have more democratic processes than Labour’s youth structures, again it’s embarrassing. We’re supposed to be the Labour Party, we’re supposed to want people to have a voice.
Some will call us hypocrites for not speaking out before. We’ve both been hypocrites in the past, and yes elements of this blog are hypocritical. But if that’s the worst people throw at us then fine.
One thing’s for sure. We’re likely to lose some friends/comrades as a result of this blog. But let’s face it, if we lose friends over a political disagreement, then were they really such good friends or comrades in the first place? Probably not.
Let’s have an honest, open, and comradely debate about the future of the sort of movement we want to see. It can only make us stronger.
P.S. Vote Labour.
Dom Anderson is the current Vice President Society and Citizenship, NUS Dannie Grufferty is currently working in France as a nanny though still keep a beady eye on Labour politics. Former VP at NUS.