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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle