To understand the move last night by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to abolish the party’s student wing, Labour Students, you need to go back in time nearly 40 years to the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Then, the party’s youth section, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), had been wholly taken over by Militant, a Trotskyist entryist group. But in the student section of the Labour party (then called NOLS, the National Organisation of Labour Students), mainstream Labourites – like NOLS chairs Mike Gapes in the 1970s and John Mann in the 1980s – put together a broad coalition of democratic socialists and held back a Militant takeover of the group.
NOLS went on to provide many of the footsoldiers for Neil Kinnock’s ousting of Militant and the wider hard left within the party as a whole, and in the 1990s the group enthusiastically supported Tony Blair’s transformation of the party into New Labour. It provided a training ground for generations of future moderate Labour MPs including Gapes, Mann, Phil Woolas, Stephen Twigg, Jacqui Smith, Caroline Flint, Tom Watson and more recently Wes Streeting, Ellie Reeves and Vicky Foxcroft.
For this reason, the hard left are obsessed by Labour Students and their inability to take control of the group. The hard left – and their moderate rivals – also understand that whichever ideological faction controls the political education and socialisation of young people in the party, has a disproportionate influence on the party’s future.
Jon Lansman, who proposed last night’s action at the NEC, is a veteran of the 1980s conflicts and an obsessive about succession management, nurturing a new generation of hard left cadres by seizing control of the party’s youth and student structures. Lansman and Momentum believe that by smashing Labour Students they can cut off the conveyer belt of new MPs, councillors and activists on the moderate wing of the party. This is their ‘Anakin Skywalker slaughtering the younglings in the Jedi Temple’ moment. On a petty and vindictive level they know it will hurt people who identify with Labour Students, and increase the chances of those members quitting Labour – but they don’t care.
The hard left were incensed that Labour Students held out against the Momentum tide and continued electing mainstream leaders even after Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015. The longstanding alliance in the National Union of Students between Labour Students and the Union of Jewish Students also meant that Labour Students has been particularly vocal in calling out Corbynite antisemitism. That said, perhaps Labour Students didn’t help themselves when they trolled the hard left by dancing to the Blairite anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ at their annual disco at the party’s conference.
Sadly, whereas in the 1980s and 1990s Labour’s democratic soft left protected Labour Students, and sometimes even took a leading role in fighting the Leninists, this time round the soft left (in their ‘Open Labour’ incarnation), have acted as ‘useful idiots’ for the Leninists in the party. Rather than recognise the need for moderates to build a coalition, they have obsessively campaigned for One Member One Vote balloting for Labour Students’ elections. This is something that hasn’t been possible because there is no agreed national membership list of Labour Students (and the organisation functioned perfectly well for decades with student Labour Clubs electing delegates to a national conference, which then elected leaders). This One Member One Vote campaign has undermined the legitimacy of Labour Students’ national leadership to the point that Lansman was finally able to wield the axe last night.
In doing so, Lansman and his political allies have consciously destroyed one of the most effective campaigning sections of the Labour Party just before a general election, and robbed Jewish students and party members of a key ally in the battle against antisemitism, for pure factional advantage. In by-elections and general elections the group has provided the party with a mobile army of young canvassers who have been happy to travel, often with decisive effect, to far-flung marginal constituencies across the UK.
But at least Lansman’s faction know what they are doing and why.
The soft left dolts who have cheered his alliance on, when they should have been fighting them, have done Labour the gravest harm without even understanding that they are being used.
Luke Akehurst was National Secretary of Labour Students in 1995-1996.