Young Labour vice-chair: What really happened at our policy conference?

Young Labour Conference: a national meet-up of some of our party’s most active, enthusiastic and passionate members under the age of 27, took place this weekend in Coventry.

Much about what happened was noted in the media, much of the commentary coming from those who were not actually inside the room. As a delegate, I had quite a different experience to the one that is being played out in the pages of the newspapers and in Tories’ twitter feeds.

Young Labour delegates, elected by members from across the UK, or there representing their affiliate organisation, came together to share ideas, forge new networks, and hear from our leader: Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy gave an impassioned address, emphasising the need to give young people a reason to vote, let alone vote Labour. While the recent election saw a surge in turnout amongst our generation, we cannot allow that to wane as a disastrous Tory government continues to push through cuts to our communities and services.

Some people have taken offence at the joke (very much a joke…) question asked of Jeremy: will he nationalise Greggs and Wetherspoons? Sadly, he did say it was not an immediate priority.

My union, Unite, submitted two motions, on industrial strategy and action to tackle the housing crisis. We applauded the commitments made in Labour’s manifesto to build more council housing and set up a National Investment Bank to rebuild our neglected industries. Conference also went further to demand an end to the age banding in the Minimum Wage, and for greater support for young peoples’ mental health.

It is the international policies have gained the sensationalist headlines, on whether the UK should adopt the same position as Sweden with regards to NATO, or how much we dislike Donald Trump. Delegates also discussed an immigration policy which called to maintain free movement for EU nationals. While I voted in favour of the motion, it did not pass and I believe this as much to do with delegates not wishing to commit the party to a fixed position whilst negotiations are ongoing as anything else. It is now absolutely vital that Young Labour unites and campaigns for pro-migrant politics in our workplaces, campuses and communities.

In the room, however, the real debate was had on free education. Scrapping tuition fees and reinstating maintenance grants was a clear commitment from Labour in our manifesto, and while some Labour Club delegates were not in favour, the policy was re-affirmed by conference, following an open and comradely debate.

Policy debate gave way to discussions and workshops. My union, Unite, organised a fringe on “Young Workers, Fighting Back”, where we heard from young trade unionists who have been involved in recent industrial disputes, like Lewis, part of the BFAWU’s #McStrike campaign; and Ryan, who has been fighting proposals to cut 120 jobs as part of the Birmingham bin strike.

Lewis Baker of BFAWU addressing the Young Workers fringe

Cat Smith, shadow minister for young people and voter registration, also addressed conference. She emphasised the need for young people to have a stake in society, and in our political system, and the importance of the upcoming decision in parliament on Votes at 16. This vote is a key opportunity for all Labour members to show their support for young people, and Young Labour is inviting all members to engage in the campaign by filming a short video and sending it to their MP.

Votes at 16 campaign

Young members are also engaged in issues of internal democracy, too. Youth conference’s policy-making power is welcome, but it is a stepping stone towards the goal of a fully autonomous Young Labour that is able to determine its own standing orders and put our policy into action with a campaign budget.

Newer members sometimes report being treated as inexperienced and naive by those who have been around the party longer. For too long, some have seen young members as simply there to knock on doors. Of course, we all enjoy campaigning, and Young Labour proved our worth in the general election campaign in June, but we also have just as many ideas and talents amongst our ranks as the rest of the membership.

I came away from Young Labour feeling re-energised and confident. We are ahead in the polls, and as Corbyn said, we are in “permanent campaign mode”. With the levels of debate and the energy of activism, it would be foolish to dismiss or ridicule our party’s youth wing. With 95,000 members, who indisputably played a pivotal role in Labour gaining seats in the June election, Young Labour is a force to be reckoned with. This conference gave me even more confidence that our party is on the brink of taking power. Labour’s young members will be the ones that get him there.

Leigh Drennan is vice-chair of Young Labour and a Unite activist. 

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