Reflecting on #YL16: A Need for Something New

By Jade Azim / @JadeFrancesAzim

Standing in that conference hall in Scarborough during the Young Labour Conference this weekend at the height of the NEC and Chair elections was like being in the middle of a Venn diagram. As a delegate with no ‘-ite’, it was pressurising and, from afar and without purpose, dehumanising. People I liked -friends- on either side of the obvious divide were being reduced to abstractions, people forgetting that all candidates and their supporters were human beings with feelings. And more importantly, that we are all, in fact, on the same side. I imagine, for a first-time young politico, this experience would have been traumatic. We received manuals on the hotel desk for new members on a break-down of the jargon. BLP, CLP, PLP, NPF, NEC… There should have been one for factional divides, too. Navigating the dos and don’ts of clans would have undoubtedly been overwhelmingly intimidating for those not in the know.

I point this out not as naïve or a newcomer. Internal elections have always been wrought with factionalism, but this year’s conference was unprecedented. It reflects, on a microcosm, a denigration of relations within the Party. There is deep suspicion on either side, even at the youth level.

However, just writing ‘either side’ is exactly reflective of the problem I had in the middle of that Venn diagram: the weekend was marked by a dichotomy, one that was both unnecessary and possible to change. Quite obviously, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, people are going to be characterized by who they voted for in the summer. That being, whether you voted for or against the eventual winner. This was always going to be inevitable residue from that contentious summer, but now it has passed, contests and debate should not be determined by who you supported, and neither should assumptions about where you stand in the Party. I walked around that hall with a knowing feeling of suspicion and silence, people maneuvering to avoid being pigeonholed unfashionably, unable to articulate their opinions in the open. It is unhealthy. It is a culture of silence. And worst of all, it prevents people of whose opinions may be valuable, and more importantly legitimate, in a debate being made to feel as though to be outspoken is a sin. The worst part is that it prevents independence of thought. When you have to be silent, and remain within the parameters of a faction, or avoid being labelled as part of one, the result is uniformity. Not just uniformity within groups, but a universal understanding of Mutually Assured Destruction: I will stick to my side, you stick to yours, don’t say a word to challenge each other openly and within any sense of civil debate. Instead, we have unspoken hostility, marked by t-shirts worn.

But the ideological schisms that emerged were not the only point of anger. There were controversies and genuine heartbreak over accessibility issues. Scarborough turned into something of a hellhole for both disabled and BAME delegates; both were treated as invisible and BAME delegates had to deal with a case of bullying. It ended in an emotional and passionate plea from two highly articulate delegates, at the end of their tethers. Again, a symptom of a closed culture.

Overall, Young Labour Conference made me even more unequivocal about the need for Open Labour, and the need for its greater involvement and mobilization in the future, for two key reasons.

Firstly, there needs to be a fundamental culture change. This culture of silence needs to end. People must be free to speak their opinions without fearing being ostracized, or if standing for election, losing on that basis. We must be able to be open, to be outspoken, to be independent of thought and belief. I should be able to say an opinion on Trident, 2020, or a candidate, without being assigned an ‘-ite’. And how do we do that?

By exercising this second point: Open Labour itself has to be established, it has to put itself forward, it has to construct itself as a bridge. As we’ve written before, the ‘soft left’, the Tribunites, acted as a glue. And while I aspire for Open Labour to be far greater than an interim, and to be distinct in its values to bring to a table, I also want there to be a table to come to in the first place. Currently, it is like that hall; two tables, backs turned away from one another. A disingenuous dichotomy that means you have to pick a side as though we live in Twilight. It doesn’t have to be that way. Open Labour can contribute something, offer something, so that the thinking is more diverse and allows for independent thought away from tag-teaming. There can be a third voice, to go some way to representing the diverse nature of the Labour Party spectrum.

This is not constraining us to be run down in the middle of the road, either. ‘Bridge’ isn’t meant in such a way. We stand proudly and openly on the Labour Left, which in itself is much more diverse in opinion and priority than this conference made out. And that’s the point; we want to remind people of the diversity of the Labour Party, and that it is a strength.

And in the future, we hope more would join. Often it is said that we need less groups within Labour, not more. Actually, we need a diverse number of opinions that can organise on equal grounding. It prevents hegemony or a two-horse race. It gives people the option of greater choice and greater debate, more than black and white.

In doing this, we can start putting the Party back together, bit by bit, and make it whole again. To apply the glue. Remind people we are not two, but one, even if we do disagree, so we can take the fight outside the hall instead. So we can help the people out there. And to the Tories, of whom we definitely disagree, and on a far greater scale.

Open Labour has to be key and it has to be courageous in constructing this transformation.

Once again, we publish a piece like this to point out that being open about thoughts and feeling is where we need to be, and is healthy for the Party. Open Labour WILL play a part, and we will be open about it. In doing so, we hope to bring along with us a culture change too.

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