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.

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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage