In September, a motion to effectively abolish Labour Students was passed by Labour’s NEC. A month later, Labour Students still has not disbanded to make way for an inclusive student wing of the party. The motion was proposed by Jon Lansman, the chair of Momentum, but there has long been a calling for the disaffiliation of Labour Students within the Labour movement.
Why? Labour Students is (or was) profoundly undemocratic.
The student wing of the Labour Party — despite years of left-wing activists in the party campaigning for it — has never implemented One Member One Vote. OMOV directly injects democracy into a party. It permits every single member their own vote, instead of being represented by a delegate from their university. Without this voting system, tens of thousands of students in Labour cannot: elect their own National Committee, be represented by their own party, vote for issues or policies at Labour Students conference (because most of them were never invited or refused upon entrance), and cannot take part in a members-led democracy.
To put this into perspective, out of about 20,000 Labour Students’ members, less than 500 can be sent to their own conference to vote. This is unlike many other wings of the Labour Party, such as Young Labour, which allows all members one vote each.
Labour Students made disenfranchising an entire generation of Labour student members look elementary. Deny members their democratic right to a voice and they will flee, potentially even to a new political home. Some party members have questioned the dubious nature of Labour Students and considered whether its leadership denying One Member One Vote is intentional. Labour Students has — for the last thirty or so years — been controlled by the right of the party. That is not a problem, considering the Labour Party is a broad church. The problem is that the Labour Students leadership is pretty keen on keeping things how they are. The bureaucracy of the leadership means that denying all members voting rights keeps them in power. If all members of Labour Students could have voted, one thing is certain: those in power would have been dethroned.
As with most student political wings, its high-ranking members have often succeeded in becoming politicians later on in life. Take Tom Watson, for instance. Once a chair of Labour Students, now the deputy leader of the Labour Party. It could be argued that Labour Students has provided a training ground for budding politicians. This might explain the unwillingness to budge on allowing members to choose — democratically — who they wish to lead them. Labour Students no longer represented Labour student members who had fought passionately for direct democracy, real representation and a socialist movement.
Beyond this, Labour Students made the most vulnerable members of their movement absent in their stride. If a member could not afford the expenses to attend a Labour Students conference, they would miss out on attending in favour of a better-off member in their Labour club. Students — who disproportionately are affected by mental health, financial and housing issues — do not have a say in shaping the policy of the society they wish to transform. Students within the Labour movement were deprived of democracy. Thus, without Jon Lansman’s motion, students would have given up hope.
Students are a key asset to the Labour movement. Labour cannot afford to lose their campaigning efforts. It’s time to transform the student affiliation to the party: one which truly reflects the movement, and will encourage its members to organise and campaign for a Labour government. A transformed Labour Students’ wing must allow all members to vote, if they are true believers in political representation.
A newly-transformed Labour Students must organise at pace. An election is on the horizon, and Labour needs its student activists ready to fight.