Comment: Youth politics could be the left’s salvation

We need the idealism and energy of young activists more than ever


It’s that time of year again. The lights have been lit on Oxford Street. The John Lewis Christmas advert is tugging at heartstrings. And young activists are seeking election to positions of responsibility in political organisations across the country.

Off the top of my head, some of these important organisations which have just elected, or are about to elect, new chairs and committees include: the Young Fabians, Young Labour, London Young Labour, and GMB Young London. There are many more besides.

This matters. It matters now, more than ever, because young activists bring with them hope and idealism and energy. And these are qualities badly needed as we face a majority Tory government that has little or no regard for the futures of young people.

Which is why it’s important that the structures of youth organisations are designed to harness the talents of all of their members. Too often I feel that they don’t. Too often they tend towards personality contests, a narcissism of small differences and attempts to burnish CVs.

None of this is a criticism of any individual. Indeed, the current chair of London Young Labour, Ria Bernard, has been a quite remarkable servant to the organisation this past year. Rather – it is a criticism of structures. And it is a criticism with a purpose.

Because youth organisations, when properly structured, can deliver remarkable things for the left and the people who need us. And that is why we young activists join such organisations, is it not?

To provide a powerful campaigning force to effect change and to reach parts of society older generations could not.

Let me give you two examples of youth organisations that have gone against the grain of hierarchical, personality-focused structures. Since last year I have been heavily involved with GMB Young London, which includes members up to the age of 30.

Importantly, while there is a nominal chair, recently the organisation has moved away hierarchical structures and so the role of ‘chair’ is primarily administrative.

We are even considering doing away with a permanent chair altogether. This is what is termed a ‘flat’ or ‘horizontal’ structure, whereby members of the committee all have an equal say and feed that say into the chair, who acts more as a secretary than a leader.

This approach has so far delivered spectacular results. Beginning as half a dozen activists, we organised to pressure the government over the widespread practice of ‘Revenge Evictions’, picketing parliament and achieving coverage in the national press.

This campaign showed what a properly motivated, engaged group of activists can achieve when they are unleashed as individuals.

Similarly, as chair of The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness, after initially assigning volunteers various titles, I realised this was restrictive.

Giving someone five bullet points outlining what they could or couldn’t influence was no way to tap into their true potential. We quickly agreed to forget about titles.

So while I remain the chair for the purpose of being the primary contact for outside organisations and new volunteers, members of our steering group offer their ideas and energy on the areas where they feel they can make the biggest impact.

Whether that means speaking at events, policy research or organising rallies, our volunteers are not obligated – they are empowered. This will be vital in sustaining our efforts over the coming years as we seek not to be a policy forum or a think tank, but a movement for change.

Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing victory in the Labour leadership election this year was delivered on a wave of enthusiasm and activism from young people. Many thousands of them have now become members of the Labour party.

With every weapon in the Tory arsenal now arrayed against the Labour movement, it is vital that we provide these new young members with the structures to make their impact on our politics as profound and lasting as we, the youth, know it can be.

As Bevan was fond of saying, “The purpose of winning power is to give it away.” Labour’s next group of young leaders should keep those wise words in mind.

Sam Stopp is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Brent and is the Chair of The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness

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