Left network launched
Dave Isaacson reports on the January 13 launch conference of Socialist Youth Network, the Labour Representation Committee’s youth organisation, at the University of London Union
The conference started with an opening speech from John McDonnell. He said that one of the primary tasks for young socialists over “the next couple of decades” was working towards defining what “the principles of socialism are”. He argued that we should seek to learn from the failures of the last century in order to work out a new “21st century socialism”. Despite the clear nod in the direction of Hugo Chávez that this phrase implies (comrades from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty were clearly wincing), the need to learn the lessons of the 20th century is clear enough.
Comrade McDonnell talked about launching a “project to get us into power”, without being at all clear about whether he meant the Labour left or the working class – though for many in the room these two are almost synonymous. He encouraged comrades to put themselves forward for election – for councillor, MP, shop steward, as well as positions within the Labour Party.
Following these opening remarks and ratification of the SYN constitution, conference moved on to consider the 19 policy motions before it. It is a positive sign that, despite this comparatively large number, the chairs were still willing to allow a reasonable amount of debate (far more than at a Respect conference at any rate), with Communist Students and AWL speakers being allowed to put their two-pennyworth in on a regular basis.
The first motion, calling for SYN to build the ‘John for Leader’ campaign, was passed unopposed. Second up was a call for a “young people’s manifesto”, which consisted mostly of supportable, albeit very limited, demands. However, there was one point that comrade Ben Lewis of Communist Students spoke against, concerning “the democratisation of the British state”. The call for the replacement of “the archaic House of Lords with a ‘House of the People’” was wrong, argued Ben. Second chambers, no matter how they are constituted, exist as a check on democracy and should be opposed. He also noted that the motion did not oppose the constitutional monarchy system lock, stock and barrel (in fact the monarchy was not mentioned) or call for a democratic republic. Despite these arguments, the motion passed.
Next on the agenda were two uncontroversial motions defending the trade union link and the NHS. A motion on secondary education was criticised for only making the limited call for the ending of charitable status, not the immediate abolition of private schools. Comrade Robin Sivapalan added that we need to be more imaginative than simply advocating state schools as they are now as the solution: “We need to think about the liberation of young children.”
The AWL’s motion on free education caused some debate when returning officer Vino Sangarapillai attempted to remove the call for a “non-means-tested grant of at least £150 a week for every student in FE and HE; an end to business involvement in education; and taxation of the rich and business to fund education and public services”. In its place Vino suggested “the restoration of a student grant – to be funded by progressive taxation”. This amendment was soundly defeated, and rightly so, as it was a step back, but it did raise the question of how we work out what level of grant or minimum wage socialists campaign for.
A Communist Students-drafted amendment to the next motion on employment rights addressed this very question in relation to the minimum wage. The motion at hand argued for a “living wage of at least £8 an hour”, whereas our amendment called for it to be based not on “what capital can afford”, but “what the working people and oppressed sections of the population actually need to reproduce themselves physically and culturally”.
Despite the fact that the majority of delegates present would have described themselves as Marxists of some sort, the language here obviously created considerable confusion. Niklas Albin Svensson of Socialist Appeal obviously had not been introduced to Marx’s writings on need, as he thought we were asking for something less than the wording in the original motion – “the level of subsistence”. Angus Hebenton argued that the £8 level was not arbitrary, but “based on two thirds of the average wage, and is supported by the Low Pay Unit”. Why two thirds was a less arbitrary figure than, say, three quarters, was not mentioned. One comrade even went so far as to claim that “capital can’t afford £8 an hour”. It was left to comrades from CS and a couple of others to try and talk some sense. Comrade Sivapalan correctly remarked that “our role isn’t just to up what others come up with”.
A motion on a woman’s right to choose was overwhelmingly passed despite one comrade’s concerns about abortion on demand. However, it was left to CS comrade James Turley to point out that the motion did not actually challenge the 24-week time limit and was therefore not really advocating abortion on demand.
It was good to see that a CS amendment calling for SYN to “campaign for an end to all immigration controls and for open borders” was overwhelmingly passed. It was positively welcomed by Tim Flatman, who moved the original motion on asylum and immigration rights. Opposition to Trident and support for votes from the age of 16 were both voted through without opposition.
Another CS amendment, to a Socialist Appeal motion on nationalisation, also won the overwhelming support of conference. The amendment added that “nationalisation alone, however, is not enough. Those who use and those who work in those key industries should exercise control over them … in other words the socialisation of the key industries”. It is an excellent sign that these amendments of ours were passed so comfortably – they would not go through so easily in Respect, for example – if at all!
A motion on women’s liberation and socialist feminism caused some debate when an amendment tried to strike the last point calling for SYN “to work with the International Union of Sex Workers and the English Collective of Prostitutes on the basis that decriminalisation and unionisation is the only way to enable sex workers to fight the exploitation they face”. Those who wanted to drop this had little more to say than ‘Prostitution is wrong’. Both Mary Partington and the AWL’s Laura Schwartz said they were against prostitution, but to oppose the unionisation of sex workers on this basis was senseless: “The best way to fight exploitation is to help those who are exploited to win back control over their lives themselves,” argued comrade Schwartz.
The final motions were focused on international issues. A general statement on international workers’ solidarity was overwhelmingly passed. There were two amendments to a motion from co-chair Owen Jones on Iraq. The AWL proposed a limited amendment, which did not outline the organisation’s full position, but called for support for workers’ struggles in Iraq and opposition to “both the occupation and the sectarian militias”. Our own amendment simply added the word “immediate” in the sentence committing us to “campaign for the withdrawal of occupation troops”. This was accepted by comrade Jones and only Sacha Ismail of the AWL spoke against, arguing that to withdraw the troops now would create a bloodbath.
By now, time was very short and two motions with quite different positions on Venezuela (from Socialist Appeal and the AWL) were both passed. Our own final motion on Iran was moved by CS comrade James Turley, calling for SYN to oppose not only any attack on Iran, but also the theocratic regime. It demanded solidarity with the Iranian people, not the islamic republic. Unfortunately this only passed after Owen Jones successfully amended out the call to support the new Hands Off the People of Iran campaign on the incorrect basis that it is a CPGB front.
CS members barred
Last week this paper reported that Owen Jones, one of the conference co-chairs, had led an attempt to bar a number of members of Communist Students from joining SYN and attending the conference as delegates.
Owen had sent me an email containing a blacklist of CSers who were also members of Respect, and one who had signed the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party declaration. None of these comrades, he insisted, could join SYN or attend as delegates. The fact that a number of these comrades were also members of the Labour Party (and at least one a full LRC member) was completely overlooked. The fact that the Labour Party itself had not felt the need to expel these comrades did not matter one bit to Owen – he would take the jobs of policeman and bureaucrat on himself (despite his avowed Marxism) and make sure these comrades did not make it onto the conference floor as delegates. The only concession our initial requests for a rethink gained was a change of mind in the case of the comrade who signed the CNWP declaration.
As was made clear in last week’s report, the membership criteria outlined on the SYN website’s homepage could hardly be considered accurate, given the practice of comrade Jones. Considering this, we drafted an emergency motion based upon this SYN homepage statement and added a paragraph to make the position unmistakably clear.
Our emergency motion read: “SYN is for anyone who wants to fight for a working class voice in British politics, whether or not you are a member of the Labour Party. It is open to people under the age of 30 and to students of any age.
“We want to reach out to young people in the student movement, in trade unions and in precarious jobs, those who feel disillusioned and marginalised by the lack of opportunity for socialist debate in British politics. We aim to be a vibrant campaigning force on a number of fronts, revitalising youth activism, sweeping away apathy and creating a strong sense of class consciousness.
“Everybody, whether they are members of other organisations or parties or not, is welcome to become a full SYN member, with speaking and voting rights at conference. We are against bans and proscriptions.”
In hindsight it has become clear to us that the passing of this motion could have provoked SYN’s disaffiliation from the Labour Party- something we do not want. Unfortunately, simply pointing this fact out (if they were aware of it themselves) was not the approach taken by the conference organisers – Owen Jones, co-chair Marsha-Jane Thompson, and returning officer Vino Sangarapillai.
Two days prior to the conference comrade Vino informed SYN members: “The emergency motion proposed by Communist Students is incompetent for conference to consider, as it changes the nature of the organisation, which was created as a youth wing of the LRC at a fringe meeting at LRC conference last year.
“Furthermore, even if conference was competent to hear it, the motion is not an emergency. An emergency motion would be an issue that has arisen since the closing date for motions. This is not such an issue.”
Of course, Owen’s insistence on blacklisting our comrades and the fact that those organising the conference were not sticking to the membership criteria advertised on the website only became clear after the closing date for motions, so this final point is just plain wrong. And the first point is not quite accurate either, as the (unintended and unforeseen) consequence of passing our emergency motion might have been to revoke SYN’s affiliation to the Labour Party, not the LRC – obviously the LRC would maintain its link to the Labour Party above SYN if forced to make a choice. But, of course, we would not nt such a break to occur – Communist Students thinks it is a positive thing that SYN is a Labour-oriented group which fights for socialism within the Labour Party as well as without.
However, in the discussion concerning our emergency motion on the SYN email discussion list Owen Jones led the charge, saying that it was an attempt to “wreck” and “destroy” SYN, that it would allow the Socialist Workers Party to swamp the organisation, and that he would resign if it were passed. Melodramatic scaremongering pure and simple.
Anyway the motion was ruled out of order, and by this time we had seen the flaw within it, so left the ruling unchallenged and drafted a different statement concerning these issues which we have asked the incoming SYN executive to discuss.
This reads: “The incoming executive committee of the Socialist Youth Network should initiate a debate on the urgent need for principled working class political-organisational unity and the implications this should have for the affiliate structure of the Labour Party.
“SYN opposes both left sectarianism and official bans and proscriptions. Both fragment and weaken us. We will seek principled working cooperation with other comrades and political trends in the workers’ movement. Unity is strength.”