Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The young ones

Are the glory days over for political parties’ youth
and student wings? Ben Leapman investigates

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In his autobiography, John Major describes the Brixton Young Conservatives in 1959 as a ‘merry and growing band’ and recalls the names of sixteen fellow activists. ‘We canvassed, enrolled new members, helped in political campaigns, held dances and tennis mornings, went on outings, published our own magazine, heckled local Labour MPs and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves,’ he explains. The former Prime Minister boasts: ‘We even attracted to our number two members of the Dulwich Young Socialists. When this was discovered they admitted their (not very strong) allegiance to socialism, but charmed us by saying that our social life was better.’

Young Tories may still be more sociable, and young Labour members more earnest, but the days when either party could get a vibrant youth group going in a single parliamentary constituency are long gone. The main parties’ youth wings are at the cutting edge of the upsurge in apathy now sweeping Britain. Besides suffering from the decline in support among young people for all mainstream politicians,
the Labour and Tory youth organisations have also fallen victim to power games within each party. As a result, each renamed group is a shadow of its
former self.

With both parties finding their overall membership numbers stagnant
or falling, while the need to fill dozens of local positions in the bureaucratic structures of their voluntary organisations remains unchanged,
it is easier than ever before for keen young members to make their mark
in the ‘adult’ party, rather than hunt
high and low for enough other young sympathisers to get a separate group going.

The exception is in student politics. All three main parties still have lively university-based wings. In the Tory and Lib Dem structures, student activists are the prime movers in merged youth and student organisations. Labour keeps
its students and its twentysomethings separate. As a result, Labour Students thrives while Young Labour suffers.

Annual elections for National Union of Students posts show increasing success for independent candidates, but this year Labour won back the NUS presidency from an independent and, at the same time, the Tories won their first NUS executive seat in seven years. Outside academia, where active party political youth groups exist they are increasingly based on bigger regions rather than individual constituencies. But they can still help young professionals to network, build up their campaigning skills – and find a partner. Some things never change.

The old Labour Party Young Socialists were deemed to have an out-of-date name, but the real reason for their abolition lay in the war between Labour moderates and the hard left in the 1980s. LPYS branches, with their right to appoint members to the constituency party’s general committee, were just as much a battleground as ward-based branches and affiliated trade unions.

In 1994 a new structure was introduced, Young Labour. An alternative name, Labour Youth, was rejected for having unfortunate authoritarian overtones. The rules for Young Labour were drawn up to allow local groups to do their own thing, rather then being
tied in to the bureaucratic party structure. They decide whether to organise on a town-by-town, seat-by-seat or region-by-region basis. They do not send delegates here, there and everywhere. The result has been an outfit which is informal to the point of being ineffectual. Some modernising members are even demanding a return to the structures of the old days. Matt Huggins, a 21 year-old activist from east London, is seeking to revive Young Labour in the capital by establishing the group on a more formal footing. He points out that the current structure allows small cliques to form Young Labour branches, which whither away when their founders grow older and move on.

Just as the LPYS was shut down for harbouring the hard left, so the Tory student wing was disbanded for being too rightwing and libertarian. Wild in its partying as well as its politics, the Federation of Conservative Students gained notoriety in 1985 when a social event brought destruction and chaos to Loughborough University. Members wore ‘Hang Mandela’ badges and called for the legalisation of hard drugs. The national party became fed up with the bad publicity, and in 1987 Norman Tebbit called time on the FCS.

After a series of name changes, the most recent incarnation, Conservative Future, has neutered the student activists by lumping them in with young professionals. The now-respectable outfit is flavour of the month with leader Iain Duncan Smith, who called CF members up onto the stage at the end of his speech at the spring forum in Harrogate, so he could pose for pictures surrounded by bright-eyed youngsters.

Of the three main parties, the Lib Dem youth and student wing comes closest to preserving the old radical tradition of its forerunner, the Young Liberals, which, in its 1970s, heyday used to regularly lock horns with then-leader Jeremy Thorpe. For the most part, young party activists in British politics today are sober, suited and thin on the ground.

Young Labour and Labour Students

Membership: claims 30,000
Upper age limit: 27

Structure: Young Labour has no elected national officers. Activists can choose what area to base local branches on. Labour Students has an elected executive and university branches. Youth conference every two years, student conference annually.

Officials: One Young Labour staffer at party HQ. Labour Students, chaired by Vicky Foxcroft, has three elected sabbatical officers funded by the party. The NEC youth representative, currently Blair McDougall, is elected at annual conference.

Activities: Haphazard organisation gives Young Labour little campaigning muscle. Branches organise canvassing days, social events and policy forums to feed into national policy reviews. Labour Students
is an effective machine for winning NUS elections, sometimes accused of backing the government instead of standing up for students. Recent campaigns have been sponsored by AEEU and MSF trade unions.

One member said: ‘Generally, Young Labour does what the rest of the party does – campaigning, canvassing, policy forums – but we are a bit less parochial.
It is all done on a pretty informal basis. Canvassing days are people bringing around their friends, as opposed to people elected to committee positions to organise it. If we’re lucky we might get 20 people out to canvas on a London-wide basis. London Young Labour has all gone a bit quiet lately.’

Conservative Future

Membership: claims 10,000
Upper age limit: 30

Structure: Elected executive. Branches based on party’s 43 regional areas, each with a chairman. Separate university branches. Funding from Central Office.

Officials: Chair Hannah Parker.
One staffer at Central Office.

Activities: Activists out on
‘blast days’ for mass canvassing. Exchange visits to the USA with the Bellweather Forum, a networking group for young Republican Party supporters. Socials are nights out
in trendy bars, not discos in village halls. Advising Tory vice chair Shailesh Vara on building youth membership, and frontbencher Charles Hendry on youth issues. Look out for more photo-opportunities
at the Conservative conference this autumn.

One member said: ‘The social side used to make headlines for all the wrong reasons, so we have tried to focus more on campaigning. In a West London branch we can get up to 40 people out on a good day. We’re being asked to help with rebranding and refocusing the party. People have their own reasons for taking part – to find out what their interests are, to make contacts, to find a boyfriend. People date, just the same as they would at work. Networking can have negative connotations but it’s a tough world out there.’

Liberal Democrat Youth and Students

Membership: claims 17,000
Upper age limit: 30

Structure: Elected executive. Local and university branches. Funding from HQ.

Officials: Chair Miranda Piercy. Two full-time staffers at Cowley Street HQ

Activities: Two annual conferences and a weekend residential course for newcomers. LDYS calls itself ‘autonomous’ and has greater freedom than the other two parties’ youth wings to push for changes to national policy – promoting causes such as more generous student funding, civil liberties and the right to vote at 16. Scored a big win by persuading this year’s Lib Dem spring conference to call for the full decriminalisation of cannabis, against Charles Kennedy’s better judgement.

One member said: ‘We’ve been more and more successful in student union elections, where Charles Kennedy’s policies on tuition fees and student grants have struck a chord. LDYS is now dominated by students aged 18 to 22 instead of the councillors in their late 20s who used to run it. The group has been at the forefront of lots of the policy debates within the party, although we’re not quite back to
the days of the old Young Liberals.’

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Ben Leapman

is the assistant news editor and home affairs correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph

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