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Young Labour conference: potentially unaffordable under new structure

This article appeared on Left Futures on 30th October 2012

What sort of people should be attending Young Labour conference? The answer should be obvious: the sort of people who make up the next generation of society.

At some point next year – it was February two years ago, and could well be February again – Young Labour activists will flock to a corner of the UK to determine the future direction of the party’s youth wing.

A new chair of the organisation will be elected. So will a youth rep to Labour’s ruling national executive. And with a national committee that we never hear from, it might well be a good chance to hold them to account.

Yet there will be one noticeable difference to previous years. There will be no delegates representing constituency Labour parties (CLPs) – only regional Young Labour groups.

 

You wouldn’t be the first to query what difference this would make. Both allow ordinary members to put themselves forward for selection as delegates. But the implications could be severe.

That’s leaving aside any potential for political manipulation. Before the last Labour Youth conference with elections for the top positions, the London region Labour party were accused of fiddling the delegation. Allegations about how other regions behaved were aired less publicly.

But there will be a more noticeable side too. Without delegates representing their constituencies in an official capacity, it is unlikely that they will be able to get the financial support many will need in order to make the trip.
This was certainly the case at this year’s Young Labour conference, which, despite not featuring elections, was significant in being the first at which the youth wing could decide its own policy.

When you have a cover-price of £25 “including meals”, you might think that the issue of cost is on the margins of relevance. But the cost of attending such an event is far greater than this: to begin, you need to get to the location. Last year’s conference was in Newcastle, and a train ticket from Cambridge, where I live, set me down about £65, with a railcard. Then, you need somewhere to stay. At even the most basic of youth hostels this is unlikely to cost you less than £20 a night. Add that up, for two nights kip, getting there and back, and actually getting into the conference centre, and you’re at £130.

Luckily, at the time of the conference, I had enough money saved in my account, and the inclination to use it, to pull it together and go. I was also told by my CLP that they would give me a contribution of £50 towards my registration fee and rail fare – although this was entirely out of their own generosity. If the CLP is not being officially represented, then they will rightfully ask if it is their place to fund a delegate. Regardless, as happened last year, of them receiving a letter suggesting they support their young members.

But it takes some hardline commitment to your party to think that this is a worthwhile expense.

That’s assuming that you have the choice. I encouraged numerous friends and comrades to attend last year’s event. Some did – but it took a lot of persuasion. I ended up helping several try to get support from their CLPs, some of which were generous, and others – perhaps cashstrapped – refused outright.

So what happened? They simply had no means of getting to Youth Conference. And you could see it in the room. Too many suits – and an underrepresentation of women, of young workers, of working-class people and of ethnic minorities.

Fortunately, it is not too late to ensure this does not happen again. The Young Labour national committee must reconsider their plan to drop CLPs from the delegate structure. Only this will ensure that there is a proper mechanism in place to stop our youth wing being only for those who can afford to take part.

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