Unite denies Labour activist's "buying young democracy" claim in party youth rep row

The union was accused of offering funding for travel and accommodation to the Young Labour Conference in Scarborough for “the right kind of people”.

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A young Labour activist has accused Unite of paying for “the right kind of people” to go to the Young Labour Conference in Scarborough at the end of next month. The union denies the claims.

The Labour student, called Rhys Morgan, claims on his blog that he was offered travel and accommodation funding by the union to be an Oxford Brookes Labour Club (OBLC) delegate at the Conference. He believes he was offered payment to go up to Scarborough because the members of his student club are seen by the union as “the right kind of people”. He claims that the same has been offered to other such student Labour groups.

Young activists will vote for Labour’s National Executive Committee Youth Representative at the Conference, and Morgan's impression is that Unite is keen to turn out the vote for James Elliott, who is seen as the “left candidate” in the election.

A Unite spokesperson says the union is not "paying delegates' travel costs" and calls Morgan's claims "frankly absurd and just plain wrong", adding:

"We did not play any role in the elections. And members who accept help with accommodation costs for the conference are obviously free to support whatever candidate they chose."

But some in the Labour Party are concerned with the unions' general attitude to young Labour members. One source tells me this story is “everything that people who voted for Jeremy voted against. New young members were sold the lie that the leadership wanted their ideas and enthusiasm, sadly it seems they are just there to shut up and vote the way they are told”.

The Young Labour Conference is difficult and expensive to access, particularly for young people and students who are strapped for cash – something that Elliott himself has pointed out publicly, writing on Facebook: With a registration fee of £40, and delegates expected to arrange their own travel and accommodation, and no sight of a hardship bursary, I fear that the conference will only be accessible to those with the means to pay.

On his blog, Morgan writes:

The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that Unite are trying to abuse this inaccessibility by providing travel and accommodation for those who have been affiliated in some way with, or have openly endorsed their candidate, ensuring they’ll be there to vote for Unite’s preferred candidate whilst not concerning themselves with other delegates who may not.

The party's National Executive Committee (NEC) is very finely balanced politically, and the Youth Representative role is one of the key positions those on the left of the party believe they can win back.

Unite denies any role in the Youth Rep election, but does see the expense and inaccessibility of the Conference as a problem:

“There is wide concern that the cost of attending Labour conferences is prohibitive.  People who cannot afford to participate are locked out of the debates and development of the party this movement supports.  This is something we routinely press the party to address.

“In the meantime, Unite is committed to making conference as accessible as possible for our members, and we are proud to do so.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.