Young Labour leaked email

When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet.

Forget Miliband v Cameron or Balls v Osborne. Susan Nash against Christine Quigley is the political battle to watch.

On paper, the seemingly prosaic prize is chair of Young Labour, the party's "youth wing". In reality, it's a fight for the leadership of a new political generation. And it's getting fractious.

Over the past week the contest has been rocked by allegations of dirty tricks, internal party interference, whispering campaigns and threats of legal action. A leaked email sent by Quigley to key campaign supporters claims, "We know that there is a link between London Region controlling our delegation and Susan's/NOLS campaign. Can we prove it?"

Calling for proof that the Nash campaign is involved with "dirty tricks", Quigley says she intends to "put in a formal complaint to the Head of Legal" if such evidence is forthcoming. She concludes, "We can't run a whispering campaign – it looks so bad. However, if we can make the case that there are dodgy dealings and expose them publicly, it puts our reform campaign in a much better light."

Despite appearances, the contest is not a classic tussle between left and right. Both women voted for Ed Miliband in the leadership. Both are well-respected activists with a strong track record in Labour youth politics. Each campaign claims its charge is a standard-bearer for the new politics rather than the old radicalism.

Christine Quigley is described by supporters as "the unity candidate". She is said to have made great strides in bringing more young women into the Young Labour movement, and adopts a "pragmatic" approach to her politics.

Susan Nash is "a campaigner" who, according to her followers, has led effective attacks on the coalition and its policies. She has reportedly been building up a strong national base and is also billed as "a unifier".

To find the true dividing line between the campaigns it's necessary to explore the long-standing divisions over the respective positions of Young Labour and the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) within the party. Young Labour are the Jets to the NOLS Sharks. The former are revolutionaries; the latter are counter-insurgents.

Young Labour likes to present itself as being rooted in radical, working-class politics. NOLS, in contrast, has historically operated as shock troops for the leadership. "Young Labour is a training ground for tomorrow's organisers and campaigners," says an insider; "NOLS is the training ground for tomorrow's MPs and cabinet ministers."

Jet set or widen the net?

Christine Quigley is a Jet. Her pitch is that Young Labour Students must fight to retain their independence, which she feels is under threat from the NOLS machine. Susan Nash is a metaphorical Shark. While she agrees that the two organisations should retain distinct identities, she believes there are benefits to be gleaned from closer co-operation.

Tensions bubbled over last week when it was announced Labour's London region had abruptly cancelled the meeting to elect delegates to next month's national Youth Conference, at which the new chair will be crowned. Although the conference was rescheduled after a storm of protest, it was pounced on by the Quigley camp as evidence of party attempts to derail her campaign.

"It was a deliberate plan to trip up Christine," says one supporter. "They were going to try to make things as difficult as possible for her delegates."

Charges of skulduggery are vigorously rebutted by sources close to the Nash campaign. "The idea anyone would try to rig things in London Region, when Christine Quigley is London YL chair, is ridiculous. That's where she has her power base. In any case, even if they wanted to try something, it would come to nothing. The London party couldn't organise a drink-up in a brewery."

Nor is the election simply about the future of Young Labour. It's also a fight for its legacy. Quigley is supported by Sam Tarry, the controversial and high-profile incumbent. Nash supporters claim she represents the change that Tarry promised, but failed to deliver.

"Under my leadership we've managed to secure a full-time youth officer," says Tarry. "We've doubled the membership, ensured those members were deployed effectively in the defence of dozens of Labour seats in the election, and secured a record number of young councillors. We're also an international player now within the European young socialist movement."

Others are less flattering. "Sam's a nice guy, but he's a real self-publicist," says a source. "Young Labour was a vehicle for Sam, not the Young Labour movement."

Henry Kissenger famously said that student politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low. But it would be foolish to underestimate the significance of this campaign. Ed Miliband has put youth politics at the centre of his political agenda. Young members are becoming an increasingly important part of Labour's activist base, while the reaction to the coalition's cuts agenda is radicalising a whole new generation.

Next month, the party's younger membership will decide whether they are Jets or Sharks. Young Labour is about to have a new top cat in town – a gold medal kid with a heavyweight crown.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.