Breaking Them In
The Labour Party has always been unlucky with its youth sections. Before the war it lost control to the so-called Communists and, more recently, to assorted Trotskyists.
By 1960 the leaders of the Labour Party had regained enough courage to set up a national youth section again, this time called the “Young Socialists”. That they lost control of this within two or three years was partly their own fault. The Labour Party has no principles or theory. Its policy is shaped entirely by electoral considerations. Indeed party officials tend to be suspicious of anything that smacks of theory. Hence the emptiness of their appeals for support.
Consider this passage from a leaflet now given out by Labour to new electors:
“The Labour Party provides commonsense government with an eye on the future. Modern government, with the conviction and determination to press ahead, making all the changes essential in today’s fast moving world. Government with a heart, conscious of the problems of the young and the old, the weak and the needy”.
How could this appeal to anybody?
But, worse, the Labour leaders were determined to give no power to the YS in deciding party policy. They tried instead to harness the time and energy of its members to going around cadging for votes. The position is well summed up in a study on “Young Activists in British Politics” by Philip Abrams and Alan Little in the British Journal of Sociology for December 1965:
The Young Socialists, then, are expected to be political but powerless; ‘servants of the party’ who will carry the burden of constituency work without presuming to meddle with policy. The movement is not allowed to edit its own journal. Its national committee has little contact with Labour leaders and that it has is usually formal and to do with matters of discipline. No notice is taken by the Party of resolutions passed by the Young Socialist Conference unless, again, they are felt to be an occasion for discipline. At the same time, little positive effort is made to supervise the political education of the Young Socialists. The political work wanted from the movement is practical not speculative.
It was against this background that the Trotskyists moved in. They filled the theoretical vacuum and gave the YS members a practical purpose beyond vote-catching. Their papers such as Keep Left, Rally, Rebel, Young Guard and Militant—all save Keep Left really produced by YS members—were lively and interesting compared with the stodgy and little read publications of Transport House New Advance and now Focus.
But to give the Labour youth managers their due, they didn’t stand a chance against the so-called Socialist Labour League, the premier Trotskyist group in Britain. It is no exaggeration to say that for a number of years the national committee of the YS was controlled by the SLL through its nominees. The SLL had a secret organisation, complete with membership cards, within the YS. In other words, in true Bolshevik fashion, it was out to control the YS. The other Trotskyist groups didn’t stand a chance either. However much they might envy the success of the SLL they could not match its conspiratorial methods (which included violence and intimidation). It is doubtful if they really wanted to for their supporters were, and still are, loose groupings without central discipline or outside control.
Naturally the Labour Party was not going to put up with this for long. They proscribed Keep Left and later, after the 1964 YC Conference, launched an attack on the SLL nominees. Many were expelled. The rest, taking many of the YS branches with them, broke away and held a conference of their own at Morecambe in 1965. The Labour leaders must have been relieved but they still faced the problem of what to do with the remains of their youth section. They forced the unofficial papers to swear allegiance to the Labour Party, further weakened the powers of the YS and change the name to “Labour Party Young Socialists”. (It is important to realise that now there are two bodies calling themselves “Young Socialists”. One, the YS, is the youth section of the SLL. The other is the LPYS).
However, YS conferences since 1964, even without Keep Left, have continued to reject Party policies and to call for more nationalisation, ban the bomb, support the Vietcong and the like. But the Labour leaders are not worried. They know that there is no closely-knit Bolshevik-type organisation trying to take over. They know, in fact, that slowly but surely they are winning the battle to break in their unruly young members to the ways of Labourism. Abrams and Little well describes how it works:
The Young Socialist movement thus functions as a school of conservatism. It takes the raw material of a new generation of activists—people eager to re-define the terms of political conflict—and teaches them to walk in the established paths. If one agrees to work ‘within the Party’ one quickly agrees also to accept the Party’s terms on policy and procedure. The alternative is a return to the wilderness of sectarian impotence. As he learns to prefer the possible to the ideal the young activist tends to move away from the Young Socialists and to devote his energies directly to the Party.
The sad thing is that, while Labour is changing them, they think they are changing the Labour Party.
This article was part of a special issue of the Socialist Standard. Other articles in the special issue include:
Young Communist League: The YCL’s Land of Hope and Glory
Young Conservatives: Dances, Jumble Sales, Table Tennis
Young Liberals: Britain’s “Red Guards”