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Les politiques de la jeunesse au Royaume-Uni et en France

 | 
Sarah Pickard
, 
Corinne Nativel
, 
Fabienne Portier-Le Cocq

La désaffection politique des jeunes

From Young Socialists to Young Labour : The changing face of left-wing youth politics in Britain

Jeremy Tranmer

Résumé

For many years Labour’s youth section was a constant headache for the adult party. This state of affairs reached a climax in the 1980s. Under the influence of Militant, the Labour Party Young Socialists were openly hostile to the leadership of the party. However, by the mid-1990s, Young Labour, as the youth wing was renamed, had become a loyal supporter of New Labour. This startling transformation can be put down to a number of factors including the changing face of the Labour Party itself and the emergence of a new generation of activists who had grown up in very different ideological and political context to their predecessors.

La section de jeunes du parti travailliste a longtemps été un casse-tête pour le parti et cette situation atteignit son paroxysme dans les années 1980. Sous l’influence de Militant, les jeunes socialistes du parti travailliste se montraient ouvertement hostiles vis-à-vis de la direction du parti. Cependant, au milieu des années 1990, le Young Labour – la nouvelle dénomination de l’aile jeune – soutint fidèlement le New Labour. Cette étonnante métamorphose peut être attribuée à des facteurs comme le renouveau du parti et l’émergence d’une nouvelle génération de militants ayant grandi dans un contexte politique et idéologique très différent de celui de ses aînés.

Texte intégral

1In 1996, Peter Mandelson, the high priest of New Labour, and Roger Liddle, one of its political advisors, described an event organized by Labour’s youth wing as follows:

Not long ago, in a South London theatre, a host of politicians and Labour-supporting celebrities assembled at a Young Labour gala evening. Neil Kinnock, the host for the evening, received a rapturous reception from the two thousand young activists in the audience, as did Mo Mowlam, MP, who is now Labour’s Youth Co-ordinator. But the biggest applause of the night went to someone else: James Callaghan, a man who represented something few in the hall could even remember – Labour in power. The applause for the former premier is deeply ironic. Parts of the Labour Party spent the early 1980s attacking the record of Callaghan’s government, accusing it of having betrayed socialism. In the years after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979, speakers at the Labour Party conference defending the former government’s actions were routinely booed, with the hard-left-controlled Labour Party Young Socialists in the vanguard. It is a very far cry from that to the reception Lord Callaghan received from today’s burgeoning youth membership (Mandelson, Liddle 1996: 211).

  • 1 The terms ‘adult party’ and ‘parent party’ will be used to refer to the Labour Party itself, in rel (...)
  • 2 I am grateful to Yorkshire Young Labour activists Chris Read, Ian Adderley and Joe Riches and to fo (...)

2Indeed, the relatively rapid transformation of Labour’s youth section from a thorn in the adult party’s side to one of its staunchest allies is quite remarkable.1 Unfortunately, it has received very little serious attention, as has the history of Labour’s youth organizations in general.2 Most historians and political scientists tend to concentrate on the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) or the trade unions, both of which have a clear degree of power and influence, unlike a youth organization. Behind this lack of interest, there lies a widely held condescending attitude to youth politics in general, which is frequently seen at best as an irrelevance and at worse, as a source of amusement. Who has not heard clichés about ‘youthful enthusiasm’ and ‘youthful idealism’, or comments such as ‘they’ll grow out of it when they get a job and have a family’? This article will concentrate on answering the following questions: how and why was the Labour Party youth section transformed from a radical campaigning organization that was a common sight in demonstrations into a more docile, less visible group of people who are little more than foot-soldiers of the adult party. To do so, I shall begin by giving a very brief overview of the history of Labour’s youth section before concentrating on the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) and Young Labour (YL) from the 1980s to the 2000s. I shall then examine changes taking place within the Labour Party during this period and their impact on its youth wing. Finally, I shall study the effect of young people’s changing life experiences on their relationship with the Labour Party.

A brief history of the Labour Party youth section

  • 3 The origins of the Labour Party can be traced back to the late nineteenth century. The Labour Repre (...)

3The Labour Party has had an official youth section from the mid-1920s.3 Although its name and forms of organization have changed, its aims have remained relatively constant – to lend support to the adult party, to spread Labour’s message among youngsters, to recruit young people to the party, to provide a specific space for them within the party, and to encourage political, educational and social activities. Other recurring elements in much of the history of Labour youth include infiltration by other left-wing groups as well as conflict with the parent party.

  • 4 The following information about the Labour League of Youth is taken from Michelle Webb’s 2007 docto (...)

4Influenced by the creation of the Young Communist League in 1921 and the Independent Labour Party Guild of Youth three years later, as well as by vibrant continental youth organizations, the Labour Party decided in 1924 to create Leagues of Youth throughout the country.4 They combined social activities with political activism. Thus, members of the League of Youth organized dances and went camping together but also held open-air meetings and went leafleting and canvassing. By the mid-1930s over 500 local branches existed with a total membership of about 30,000. However, the League was infiltrated by Communists who, exploiting widespread discontent with Labour’s lacklustre opposition to domestic and international fascism, came to prominence locally and nationally and cajoled the League into adopting more radical positions. It was consequently actively involved in protests against the British Union of Fascists and came into conflict with the adult party (Branson 1985: 124). It was damaged politically and organisationally when the Communist-influenced elements led by Ted Willis broke away in 1939 (Callaghan 1987: 45). The League recovered after the Second World War, and by 1951 possessed over 800 branches. However, it was closely monitored by the adult party, fearful of further Communist entryism. The League became caught up in the disputes between the left-wing Bevanites and more moderate sections of the Labour Party and was dissolved in 1954. Some ‘Youth Sections’ continued to exist locally, but there was no national structure.

  • 5 The Socialist Labour League (SLL), led by Gerry Healy, had worked as an entryist faction within the (...)
  • 6 The Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) was a branch of British Trotskyism which strongly believed (...)
  • 7 The full list is as follows: Peter Doyle (1972-1974); Nick Bradley (1974-1978); Tony Saunois (1978- (...)

5Following Labour’s third successive election defeat in 1959, it was deemed important for the party to connect with the country’s youth if it were to have any chance of returning to power. As a result, a new youth organization, the Young Socialists, was founded by the parent party in 1960. It was quickly taken over by members and supporters of the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League, who were highly critical of the orientation of the adult party and embarrassed the Labour Party leadership by becoming involved in industrial disputes (Shaw 1988: 132).5 Again, the youth wing was weakened when a large proportion of its members left to join the Socialist Labour League in 1964. The following year, the Young Socialists were renamed the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), but they were soon faced with familiar problems. Within five years, members of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), or Militant as it was widely known, came to dominate the leadership of the new organization.6 Its dominant position in the LPYS gave Militant a significant power base in the Labour Party as a whole. For example, from 1972 to 1989, with the exception of a few months in 1974, the LPYS’s representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) was a member of Militant, who was able to influence debates within the Party’s leadership.7 This situation was replicated locally since the LPYS was represented in the local and regional party structures.

  • 8 Michael Foot led the Party from 1980 to 1983, while his immediate successor Neil Kinnock remained l (...)
  • 9 Joe Ashton was a Labour MP and a member of the NEC. Politically, he was on the right of the Labour (...)
  • 10 Red Wedge was created by musicians led by Billy Bragg and Paul Weller and organized concerts in sup (...)
  • 11 Created in 1884, the Fabian Society participated in the foundation of the Labour Party. It acts as (...)
  • 12 Mann had been a member of Labour’s Youth Sub-committee, while Woolas was a former president of the (...)
  • 13 Tom Sawyer was at the time a leading figure in the National Union of Public Employees as well as a (...)
  • 14 The NEC did, however, raise the upper age-limit to 23.

6Although the strength of Militant within the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) had been noted in the 1970s, it became a source of embarrassment to Party leaders Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock during the 1980s.8 The LPYS was highly active in the opposition to Thatcherism, but not always in ways of which the adult party approved. For example, the LPYS campaigned against youth unemployment, but its members were present on picket lines during the miners’ strike and claimed to have raised over £250,000 to help striking miners (Taaffe 1995: 251). They supported the Militant-run Liverpool council, which was in conflict with both the Conservative government and the Labour Party. LPYS members were behind a strike of school students in 1985, leading the Labour leader Neil Kinnock to denounce them as “dafties” who were manipulating young people (Leapman 1987: 127). As early as 1981, Joe Ashton9 had expressed the opinion of moderates within the party, stating in an National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting: “Look at the Young Socialists. In the old days they ran discos, but now the YS are run by brainwashed zombies organized by Militant and we are paying for this. We should cut their funding and end the YS” (Benn 1994: 172). The party attempted to weaken the LPYS by reducing its budget and encouraging activities which bypassed the youth section such as Red Wedge10 (Crick 1986: 274). A 1986 Fabian Society11 pamphlet on youth written by John Mann and Phil Woolas criticized the “stranglehold” Militant had on the LYPS and accused it of deliberately limiting membership of the LYPS in order to maintain its dominant position (Mann, Woolas 1986: 13).12 The authors made a number of proposals which provided the basis of a report presented the same year by Tom Sawyer to the NEC.13 His proposals, which included the creation of a new youth campaign committee and the reduction of upper age-limit for membership to 21, were sent out to constituency parties for consultation. Although 85% of the responses received were hostile, the NEC ignored the widespread opposition to its plan, and it was adopted at the 1987 conference14 (Heffernan, Marqusee 1992: 173). As a consequence, much of the leadership and approximately half of the 10,000 members were excluded from the LPYS (Leapman 1987: 127). By the end of the decade, only 52 branches, with approximately 300 members, still existed (compared to over 500 branches in 1985), while national conferences attracted under 200 people (compared to nearly 2,000 a few years earlier) (Heffernan, Marqusee op. cit.: 173-174). Moreover, the LPYS’s autonomy was severely curtailed since its chairperson was appointed by the adult party, a practice which continued until 2009.

  • 15 Peter Mandelson was Labour MP for Hartlepool. Having run the Party’s 1987 general election campaign (...)
  • 16 Interview with Chris Read (a leading YL activist in Yorkshire), Rotherham, 29/08/2010.
  • 17 The Young Labour website was, in fact, not updated for over a year between September 2009 and Septe (...)
  • 18 Interview with Chris Read (29/08/2010). Few attempts have been made to recruit new members. Little (...)

7The 1992 general election saw another Labour defeat, the party receiving fewer votes among 18-25 year-olds than the Conservatives. Moreover, approximately 40% of under-25s did not vote, and 20% were not even registered to vote (Davies 1996: 450). Once again, Labour reacted to defeat by attempting to reform its youth movement. Following debates within the party’s youth committee, which involved future leader Tony Blair, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) was renamed Young Labour (YL) at the following year’s party conference – a move which was overshadowed by the adoption at the same conference of the principle of One Member One Vote (OMOV) for internal elections. The new organization was given considerably less autonomy than its predecessor, and it was tied more closely to the historically more moderate student section. Membership of YL increased rapidly in the following years, partly as a result of the historically low level that it had fallen to and also due to the enthusiasm created by the party’s new and young leader Tony Blair. The latter openly appealed to young people to join him in his “crusade” to make Britain a better place (Blair 1996: 33). By August 1995, YL was able to boast 22,000 members, the highest figure since the 1950s (Wilkinson 1996: 251). According to Peter Mandelson,15 “of these new young recruits, most are university-educated and professionally employed, as much in the private as in the public sector” (Mandelson, Liddle 1996: 220). In the following years, YL proved to be a staunch ally of New Labour, supporting it unconditionally in opposition and in government. In 1998, its National Executive Committee (NEC) representative Sarah Ward rounded on Labour critics of the first Blair administration, claiming that they had to change their ingrained habit of systematically criticizing any and every government (Davies 2001: 29). Although individual members demonstrated against Britain’s role in the war in Iraq, YL did not protest collectively. In fact, YL has had little coordinated public national activity of any sort, limiting its visibility. This has led some YL members to believe that their role was simply to support the activities and campaigns of the adult party.16 It remained loyal to the Brown government, one of its last initiatives being an attempt on its website to drum up support for the government’s decision to allow swimming pools to ask for financial assistance in order to make them free for the under 16s.17 Its website did not even mention the 2010 general election, doing nothing to mobilize young people and encourage them to join YL. Unsurprisingly, membership fell and currently stands at less than 10,000.18

  • 19 The upper age-limit for membership is currently 27.

8Young Labour (YL) is therefore markedly different to previous Labour youth sections.19 It is less autonomous, has less central organization and has not promoted or participated in national campaigns. It has remained loyal to the party leadership, and did not criticize publicly the Labour governments of the 1990s and 2000s. It is no longer a target for entryism by youth sections of groups and parties to its left, contradicting what the historian John Callaghan described in the 1980s as the law “that Labour’s youth section will be taken over by whichever entrist group happens to be the biggest” (Callaghan 1987: 116-121). Its acquiescence to the adult party is quite remarkable given the history of Labour youth organizations and the youth wings of other left-wing parties, which one observer in the 1980s described as “a tale of chronic feuds, sectarian rivalries and battles with the parent bodies” (Cohen 1984: 102).

The transformation of the Labour Party

  • 20 The ‘loony left’ was a term frequently used by the right-wing press to refer to more left-wing elem (...)

9Why and how has this transformation taken place? The first reason is the changes that have taken place in the Labour Party over the past twenty-five years. The party’s defeat in the 1983 general election and the subsequent choice of Neil Kinnock as leader were clearly a turning point. Neil Kinnock came to believe that the leadership needed to stamp its authority on the party machine and change Labour’s image if it were to become a credible alternative to the Conservatives in the eyes of voters. One of his priorities was to eliminate sections of the party that he deemed to be too extreme and potentially damaging to the party’s public image (the so-called ‘loony left’).20 He therefore distanced himself from the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill during the year-long strike of 1984-1985 and from Labour councils which adopted too confrontational opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. He also took disciplinary measures against supporters of Militant, accusing them of constituting a party within the party. Although the five members of the Militant editorial board (Keith Dickinson, Clare Doyle, Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe and Lynn Walsh) had already been expelled from the Labour Party in 1982, the process gathered pace under Neil Kinnock. In 1986, Liverpool Militants Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn, as well as six others were also expelled. From 1988, Militant spearheaded a campaign of non-payment of the Conservatives’ Poll Tax, leading to a further crackdown on it. Leading figures such as Tommy Sheridan were expelled in 1989 and 1990.

10The decision to reduce the upper age of Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) membership to 23 in 1986-1987, irrespective of the short-term consequences for the organization, has to be seen in the context of the organizational and political struggle against Militant and of a broader rebranding of the Labour Party, as does the attempt to limit the LPYS’s autonomy by imposing a chairperson on it. Developments in the youth sections mirrored changes in the adult party, such as greater intervention by the leadership in the selection of parliamentary candidates. The change of name from the Labour Party Young Socialist (LPYS) to Young Labour (YL) in 1993 is also significant. It distanced the new youth section from the reputation of extremism that the LPYS had gained since its foundation. The removal of the word ‘socialist’, often associated with extreme left-wing politics, from the new name contributed to the new moderate image the party was hoping to create. Tellingly, the transformation of the LPYS into YL took place the same year that Labour Party leader John Smith undertook structural reforms by introducing One Member One Vote (OMOV) in internal elections to reduce the influence of trade unions and change the image of the party. The refusal to give YL more autonomy in the following years is quite logical given Tony Blair’s desire to allow the leadership more control over the party and centralize its organization. The result of these accumulative changes over a relatively long period was a youth section that was clearly subservient to the adult party.

  • 21 He was elected leader in 1984.
  • 22 Tony Blair took to calling the Party ‘New Labour’ in the mid-1990s in order to emphasize the extent (...)

11At the same time, the left-wing of the party became increasingly marginalized and saw its influence fall. Although the Left was quite heterodox (Militant was just one part of it), it had in the late 1970s and early 1980s provided an alternative and a challenge to the mainstream of the party. The strength and breadth of support for Tony Benn, the most prominent representative of the Labour Left, was the most obvious sign of this. However, by the mid-1980s the Left was in disarray as the Bennite coalition broke up into the ‘soft left’, which rallied to the Kinnockite leadership, and the ‘hard left’, which opposed it. This realignment divided and weakened the Left, which has never recovered. The ‘soft left’ participated in the ideological and political reorientation of the party in the late 1980s, which moved it away from the radical policies it had adopted at the beginning of the decade. This process continued and was reinforced under the leadership of Tony Blair,21 when he abandoned traditional conceptions of socialism. Symbolically, the most momentous step was the changing of Clause IV of the party constitution, which had previously advocated collective ownership of the means of production and exchange. What remained of the Left was powerless to resist Tony Blair’s transformation of the party. One of the consequences of the general drift of the party since the mid-1980s was an increase in ideological coherence and political uniformity within Labour. Whereas it had previously prided itself on being ‘a broad church’, which welcomed representatives of all shades of opinion on the Left, it became dominated by the late 1990s by supporters of New Labour,22 whose basic assumptions became the common sense for most of the party. This is something which took place at all levels of the party, and the youth section was clearly caught up in this political and ideological transformation. There is nothing to suggest that ideological complexion of YL is any different to that of the party as a whole, and there is therefore no reason for YL to challenge the adult party as it shares the same basic assumptions. Consequently, it is a novel phenomenon in the history of Labour’s youth organisations.

12It must also be remembered that Labour underwent a profound cultural transformation in the 1980s. In the words of the political scientist Eric Shaw:

In the early 1980s, a breakdown in internal socialization mechanisms and the crumbling of leadership legitimacy produced a rank and file permeated with a deep mistrust and antagonism towards all authority-holders in the Party. The shock of the 1983 election defeat (repeated four years later) helped restore these mechanisms and instigate profound changes in membership outlook. There developed a much finer sensitivity to the effects of their actions on Labour’s image and a much enhanced appreciation of the need for Party unity which reflected not only the pragmatic understanding that policies cannot be implemented out of office but also the re-awakening of feelings of loyalty and attachment to the Party in its own right. Further, by the end of the decade members came to appreciate that the prestige and standing of a leader influenced the disposition of voters to back a party (Shaw 1994: 164).

  • 23 John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and won the 1992 general election. He governed until (...)
  • 24 Interview with Chris Read (29/08/2010).

13The changes that Eric Shaw mentions resulted in the creation of a party that was more loyal and more deferential to the leadership. This situation was reinforced in the 1990s in two distinct phases. Firstly, as John Major’s government was increasingly discredited,23 it became obvious that Labour stood a serious chance of winning the next general election. Having been out of power since 1979, members at all levels of the party were aware of the potential negative consequences of their words and deeds and did not wish to rock the boat and jeopardize the party’s chances of victory. Secondly, following the election of the first Labour government for 18 years, they were anxious not to discredit it by criticizing it too overtly and were receptive to calls for unity and patience from ministers. The combination of growing deference and factors specific to the context of the 1990s led to a more docile party than in the past. Young Labour (YL) was no exception to this general trend within the party, and its members worked for the election of a Labour government and then actively supported it.24

14One of the specificities of the youth section is that membership has an age limit. Although, as mentioned above, it has changed more than once, it entails older members constantly leaving as they reach the upper age-limit (either to be active in the adult party or to drop out of the Labour Party completely). After the administrative reforms and removal of Militant supporters in the late 1980s, it can be assumed that remaining small membership was overwhelmingly moderate and loyal to the party leadership. Their position was strengthened by the influx of new members in the mid-1990s who were galvanized by the rise of Tony Blair and his transformation of the party. By the late 1990s and early 2000 any remaining traditional socialists who had joined in the late 1980s would no longer be eligible for YL membership. Given the absence of a strong organized left in the party as whole and the subordinate position of YL to the adult party, it was unlikely to attract more radical elements hoping to push Labour to the left. By the second half of the 2000s, given that upper age-limit stood at 27 and the lower limit 15, YL members had almost entirely joined during the period of the Labour governments and had known nothing else but New Labour. It was therefore hardly surprising that YL should have been so supportive of successive Labour governments.

Post-Thatcher Britain

  • 25 For a detailed discussion of the consensus, see Richard Heffernan, 2001, New Labour and Thatcherism(...)
  • 26 Interview with Chris Read (29/08/2010).

15The changes in Labour’s youth wing cannot be explained solely by developments within the Labour Party itself. Young Labour (YL) members are the products of a particular society at a particular time, and therefore of a particular ideological and social context. As Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley have explained, “different age cohorts bring political experiences acquired in very different circumstances to the task of making political judgements” (Seyd, Whitely 1992: 80). YL members of the 2000s have grown up in a society dominated by a post-Thatcherite consensus based on neo-liberal precepts such as low inflation, low taxation, limited state intervention in the economy etc. Tony Blair and New Labour strengthened this consensus discursively while in opposition and practically once in government.25 Neo-liberalism thus became the common sense of the age, the dominant ideology. This has had a significant impact on young people in general and on the small minority joining the Labour Party’s youth wing. Among young people, it has contributed to apathy and a lack of interest in party politics. This is to be expected since politicians of all hues have, for the past thirty years, stressed the importance of placating the markets and underlined the severe limits the latter placed on governments’ room for manoeuvre concerning economic policy. Consequently, there would appear to be little point in joining a political party or even voting, for that matter, given that governments are by their own admission unable to bring about significant economic change. Regarding members of YL, their reluctance to criticize or question the general orientation of their party seems quite logical when seen from this perspective as it corresponds to the common sense views of society that they have always known.26

16Moreover, there is no credible alternative ideology on the Left to draw on. Traditional conceptions of socialism have been marginalized inside the Labour Party, as mentioned above, and outside it. One of the main causes of this has been the decline of traditional working class culture which sustained them. In the past, young workers were exposed to trade unions in the workplace and gained a basic political education from trade unionists. The 1980s saw the decline of heavy industry and manufacturing, where unions were particularly well-implanted and the rise of the tertiary sector, where they were much weaker. As a result, traditional Labourism was weakened and marginalized. The organizations of the radical left have been unable to impose their versions of Marxism as an alternative and have remained very much on the margins of British politics, as have their youth wings. Ideologically neo-liberalism has also been strengthened among young people by their life experience. The ambient individualism and competition between young people for jobs has weakened support for and belief in collectivist solutions to society’s ills. As the sociologists Alan Furlong and Fred Cartmel put it:

Greater insecurity in the labour market and the uncertainties which characterize early careers can mean that young people’s work experiences are more individualized as they are forced to compete with each other in the hope of remaining in employment. As young workers become less able to identify collectivist solutions to negative workplace experiences traditional class-based political allegiances may weaken (Furlong, Cartmel 2006: 132).

17Ideologically speaking, Labour’s variety of neoliberalism has no serious adversary to its left to challenge it, and Young Labour (YL) members are not exposed to alternative ways of thinking which could lead them to question the party’s overall approach. In the words of the comedian and activist Mark Steel, “the link between the Left and youth now seems almost completely broken” (Steel 2009: 35).

  • 27 There is no evidence to suggest that youth organizations of the Socialist Workers Party, the Social (...)
  • 28 Especially since the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which has played a major role in Love Music Hat (...)
  • 29 Labour’s growing problems with young people was exemplified by the fact that whereas 57% of the 18- (...)

18All of this is not to suggest that radical politics has disappeared completely from young people’s lives. More radical sections of Britain’s youth have been involved in various forms of DiY politics such as opposition to road-building projects in the 1990s or protests against global capitalism outside banks in the 2000s. However, this form of direct action is based on an “explicit rejection – or bypassing – of organised party politics” (Gartside 1998: 59) and will not lead young activists into the ranks of YL or the youth organization of any other party of the Left.27 Other activities that have attracted the support of young people are equally unlikely to point them in the direction of the Labour youth wing. Other activities that have attracted the support of young people are equally unlikely to point them in the direction of the Labour youth wing. For example, the movement of opposition to Britain’s role in the war in Iraq involved hundreds of thousands of young people throughout the country, but they were, of course, protesting against the policy of a Labour government. Love Music Hate Racism has mobilized thousands of people in concerts against the extreme right-wing British National Party (BNP), but they will probably not see joining YL as the logical next step in their opposition to racism.28 In other words, the more radical elements among young British people are not attracted to the Labour Party (and by extension to YL) and will probably “support a limited number of single issue pressure groups in areas where they hold strong views” (Furlong, Cartmel 2006: 128). This trend has no doubt been strengthened as a result of the policies of successive Labour governments since 1997 (for example, concerning students’ university fees), which have done little to endear it to young people.29

Conclusion

19The changing face of Labour’s youth section is due to a number of factors. Young Labour (YL) has been shaped partly by changes which have taken place within the Labour Party – the end of entryism, the weakening of the Left and the stress on party unity, for example. Although its members are not representative of British youth as a whole, they are more politicized. Yet like all young British people, they have grown up with the domination of neoliberalism. Ideologically speaking, Young Labour is therefore markedly different from its predecessor. Moreover, it is clearly an exception in the history of the party’s youth wings, and suggests that there is no cast-iron law according to which left-wing youth groups must be more radical than their parent organizations and constantly at war with them. This is probably quite a relief to the leaders of the Labour Party, but what they may find worrying is that its youth organization has no more members today than twenty-five years ago and that the proportion of young activists in relation to the overall membership of the Party has not altered either. In their inability to reach out to young people, to attract and to represent them, New and Old Labour are remarkably similar.

Notes

1 The terms ‘adult party’ and ‘parent party’ will be used to refer to the Labour Party itself, in relation to which the youth section was in a subordinate position.

2 I am grateful to Yorkshire Young Labour activists Chris Read, Ian Adderley and Joe Riches and to former Labour Party Young Socialists member Mike Whale for the information they gave me in written and oral interviews.

3 The origins of the Labour Party can be traced back to the late nineteenth century. The Labour Representation Committee was founded in 1900, and it adopted its current name in 1906.

4 The following information about the Labour League of Youth is taken from Michelle Webb’s 2007 doctoral thesis The Rise and Fall of the Labour League of Youth which can be found online, (page accessed 12/08/2010, eprints.hud.ac.uk/761/1/michellewebbfinalthesis.pdf.

5 The Socialist Labour League (SLL), led by Gerry Healy, had worked as an entryist faction within the Labour Party before leaving to become an independent party. It instructed its members to leave the Young Socialists when the leadership of the Labour Party began to take administrative measures to reassert its control. It later became the Workers Revolutionary Party.

6 The Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) was a branch of British Trotskyism which strongly believed that a future economic crisis would radically change the Labour Party’s fortunes, leading to an influx of new members. Consequently, it sought to establish itself within the Labour Party with the long-term aim of taking it over. In order to avoid exclusion, its members described themselves as supporters of the RSL’s newspaper Militant.

7 The full list is as follows: Peter Doyle (1972-1974); Nick Bradley (1974-1978); Tony Saunois (1978-1981); Laurence Coates (1981-1983); Steve Morgan (1983-1984); Frances Curran (1984-1986); Linda Douglas (1986-1988); and Hannah Sell (1988-1989). Michael Crick, The March of Militant, London, Faber and Faber, 1986, p. 65.

8 Michael Foot led the Party from 1980 to 1983, while his immediate successor Neil Kinnock remained leader until 1992.

9 Joe Ashton was a Labour MP and a member of the NEC. Politically, he was on the right of the Labour Party.

10 Red Wedge was created by musicians led by Billy Bragg and Paul Weller and organized concerts in support of the Labour Party in the run-up to the 1987 general election. The reaction of the LPYS to such initiatives was ambiguous. The singer and political commentator Billy Bragg has suggested that some Militant-inspired members attempted to sabotage Red Wedge concerts in order to discredit the party leadership (Collins 1988: 159).

11 Created in 1884, the Fabian Society participated in the foundation of the Labour Party. It acts as a think tank, organizing conferences and publishing pamphlets.

12 Mann had been a member of Labour’s Youth Sub-committee, while Woolas was a former president of the National Union of Students (NUS).

13 Tom Sawyer was at the time a leading figure in the National Union of Public Employees as well as a member of the Labour Party’s NEC. He later became general secretary of the Labour Party.

14 The NEC did, however, raise the upper age-limit to 23.

15 Peter Mandelson was Labour MP for Hartlepool. Having run the Party’s 1987 general election campaign and participated in the internal reforms adopted by Neil Kinnock, he became a key figure in the transformation of the Labour Party in the 1990s. He served twice as a government minister and is currently a member of the House of Lords.

16 Interview with Chris Read (a leading YL activist in Yorkshire), Rotherham, 29/08/2010.

17 The Young Labour website was, in fact, not updated for over a year between September 2009 and September 2010, suggesting that, at least nationally, it lacks campaigning dynamism and motivation. The election of new chair Sam Tarry in 2009 seemed to have made little difference.

18 Interview with Chris Read (29/08/2010). Few attempts have been made to recruit new members. Little national recruitment material is available, and the impact of the £1 membership fee for first time members would appear to have been limited. The fall in the number of YL members is a reflection of a broader decline in Labour Party membership and is linked to a more general demobilization (April 2007: 116-121).

19 The upper age-limit for membership is currently 27.

20 The ‘loony left’ was a term frequently used by the right-wing press to refer to more left-wing elements of the Labour Party, particularly in London.

21 He was elected leader in 1984.

22 Tony Blair took to calling the Party ‘New Labour’ in the mid-1990s in order to emphasize the extent to which it had changed and broken with the past.

23 John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and won the 1992 general election. He governed until 1997. The events of 16 September 1992, when the United Kingdom was forced to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), were an important turning point and dented the Conservatives’ reputation in economic matters. The following years saw numerous ‘sleaze’ scandals involving Conservative ministers and MPs.

24 Interview with Chris Read (29/08/2010).

25 For a detailed discussion of the consensus, see Richard Heffernan, 2001, New Labour and Thatcherism, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

26 Interview with Chris Read (29/08/2010).

27 There is no evidence to suggest that youth organizations of the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party, Respect, or the Communist Party of Britain have succeeded in recruiting young people in large numbers.

28 Especially since the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which has played a major role in Love Music Hate Racism, has frequently stated that the electoral success of the British National Party (BNP) was due to Labour’s shift to the right and its abandoning of its traditional working class electorate.

29 Labour’s growing problems with young people was exemplified by the fact that whereas 57% of the 18-24 age group voted for the Labour Party in 1997, only 45% voted Labour in 2001 (Denver 2002: 22). The figure fell to 42% in 2005 (Fielding 2005: 40).

Auteur

Senior lecturer at the University of Nancy, where he teaches mainly contemporary British history, politics and culture. His main research interests are the radical left, social movements, and political music. He is a member of the IDEA research group (Interdisciplinarité dans les Études Anglophones).

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012

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