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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution