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Labour's lost generation takes the reigns: Laurie Penny on why we need rampant idealism

It is time for the young left to stop schmoozing and get on with what it does best.

Behind the railroad pass in the quiet backstreets of central Manchester, the Young Labour Party is in full swing and, rather fittingly, two check-shirted DJs are spinning out the greatest hits of 1994. Here, the weary, battle-worn young volunteers, envelope-stuffers, advisers, canvassers, councillors, hash-taggers, tweeters, bloggers and fiddlers have come to unwind after nine sweltering months on ever-more desperate and depressing campaign trails. The room is full of shirtsleeves, sleepy smiles, and the barest suggestion of sex as a hundred earnest men and women in their early twenties realise that for the first time in almost a year, there's time to flirt.

Yesterday Ed Miliband spoke lavishly of Labour's young people, and here they are. This is the "new generation" of whom so much is promised, whose task it is to revivify the party and move on from the more embarrassing losses of the New Labour project. Watching them giggle and slurp pink cider and shuffle to the strains of Salt-n-Pepa, one wants to yell: you've just suffered the greatest defeat the Labour Party has seen for a generation! Most of you aren't even old enough to remember the last Tory government! The coalition is about to turn on the public sector with what Mehdi Hasan today called "fiscal sadism" -- cutting for the sake of cutting -- and your gang could be out of power for another ten years. Why on earth are you all so bloody happy?

Perhaps it's because, as one young Labour blogger told me, "we don't have to pretend any more". There is certainly an atmosphere of relieved sincerity at this conference, with less naked ambition and jostling for ministerial internships and points on CVs. Perhaps now the young left can finally stop "schmoozing and gossiping about who went to dinner with whom" and get on with what it's best at: rampant idealism.

Earlier this week, a prominent Labour figure commented that the party has been so caught up in campaigning that it has not yet come to terms with the profundity of its defeat. That may be true of the shadow cabinet, but it's not the case for Labour's "new generation": these young people know exactly what has been lost, and why, and how badly. They are fully aware of the scale of New Labour's defeat, and the atmosphere is exhilarated. "I think a lot of people are excited," says Vince, who volunteered on Ed Miliband's campaign. "The real fight is still to come, but we've dropped a lot of baggage, and it's all a clean canvas now."

For my generation, remember, New Labour is overwhelmingly associated with betrayal, hypocrisy and disappointment. Despite the Ace of Base pumping out of the sound system, most of us are far too young to remember the true horror of the Thatcher years, or even the elation of 1997. Instead, we remember top-up fees, civil-liberties crackdowns, the crash of 2008 and the Iraq invasion.

"As part of a generation who have grown up under New Labour, turning the page on old orthodoxies couldn't come soon enough," says Sam Tarry, the National Chair of Young Labour. "Ed Miliband's campaign really connected with the next generation of party members -- his willingness to listen and move on mobilised young activists to get involved in a big way. With many of the new young MPs backing Ed Miliband, too, this could signal a re-imagining of the party at the grassroots, with more focus on setting out a credible economic alternative."

Labour's new cohort knows what it's like to lose. We are, after all, the lost generation. We don't expect our dreams and ideals to be realised without a fight, and we don't expect much help from the grown-ups. There is a profound sense at this party conference that the elder generation of Labour statespeople has failed us, and that the time for deference is finally done. "Young Labour is buzzing with ideas, enthusiasm and anticipation of what can be achieved following this conference," said Tarry. With the politicians who saddled us with debt, tanked the economy and took us into Iraq shuffling off into the twilight, one thing's certain: it's our turn now.

 

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.