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.