This morning, Ed Miliband Lincoln launched Labour's first ever "youth manifesto", with a raft of recent pledges aimed at first-time voters. He would, he promised, cut tuition fees to £6,000 a year, guarantee jobs for unemployed youngsters and crack down on rogue landlords, among other things.
This is hardly a surprising strategy: David Cameron is planning to ride to victory on an OAP's shiny new mobility scooter, powered by the tears of a thousand young workers who can't get housing benefits. And so it follows that Ed Miliband is getting the young on side by offering them some policies that make their future seem less bleak while reminding them that they hate Nick Clegg. The thing is, in launching this manifesto, Labour has ignored the relatively small number of young people who are really invested in the party – who knock on doors, send tweets and try to convince their mates to vote Labour. In its supposed attempt to give young people a voice, Labour has silenced its own young members.
In February, Miliband, along with Labour MPs Ivan Lewis and Lisa Nandy, launched a consultation called "#ShapeYourFuture". They asked young people to come forward and offer ideas for the youth manifesto in an online free-for-all. When Lewis came to address members of Young Labour – the party's youth wing – last August, he indicated there would be little room for spending commitments or anything that conflicted with existing party policy. That sort of makes you wonder what the point of the consultation really was and how we were really being allowed to "#ShapeOurFutures". In any case, the trouble was, young members had already put their ideas forward. Not through tweeting at a hashtag, but through having a proper conference – with motions and policies and voting and talking to people in real life – in February 2014. The rules ensured it couldn't just be an echo chamber for small numbers of out-of-touch politicos. Each of the 20-odd motions had to be signed by ten different individuals – more than could fit into the draughty rugby stadium in Bradford where we gathered. But what we had come up with hadn't best pleased party chiefs. As a member of Young Labour's national committee, I know this all too well.
At the conference, we voted through a series of radical policy motions that would supposedly feed into the manifesto process. We were pretty much ignored.
This week's Labour manifesto, with its accompanying pledge that every commitment is fully costed, says the tuition fee cut will be "funded by restricting tax relief on pension contributions for the highest earners and clamping down on tax avoidance". The Compulsory Jobs Guarantee will be funded by a tax on bankers' bonuses. That's fine, but young members voted for a tax that party bigwigs wouldn't touch with a bargepole: a one-off 10 percent levy on the wealth of Britain's top 10 percent of individuals. The Mail would throw an absolute fit, but this idea was supported by a huge 75 percent when YouGov asked) in 2010. But Labour ignored us.
I put forward a motion, which was passed, on the housing crisis calling for the end of Right to Buy – the Thatcher-era scheme allowing council tenants to buy their homes at a significant discount, which has caused the destruction of the social housing stock. When David Cameron announced this week that the programme would be extended to housing associations, to widespread criticism, Ed Miliband spoke out. But he didn't say that, like his young members, he thought it was a terrible idea in general, just to say the figures didn't "add up". "We're perfectly supportive of the Right to Buy, but it's got to be done in the right way," he said. Another motion called for a ban on bosses forcing workers to cancel strikes on technicalities – a tactic recently deployed against striking fire-fighters and National Gallery staff. We were ignored again. Labour's main manifesto mentions trade unions just once – a vague assertion that they act as "an essential force for a decent society and as guarantors of skills and fair wages" – compared to 35 mentions of business. One idea that did make the final cut was compulsory sex education – though Labour had already attempted to put this on the statute book when it was voted on by young members.
At a committee meeting in August, I asked Ivan Lewis, one of the shadow cabinet members put in charge of the youth consultation, if Young Labour's official policies would be considered for the manifesto. He dodged the question. After the matter was raised at successive committee meetings, a party staffer emailed a list of motions to Lewis and Nandy, including several that there wasn't time to discuss at the conference and, mysteriously, excluding the wealth tax.
Apart from reports on blogs and social media at the time of the conference, no one outside the room would even know Young Labour had policies. It's not mentioned on the website. When a previous youth conference voted to support building a million council homes and providing sites for traveller communities, these commitments were cynically absent from campaign documents.
Such are Labour's policy-making processes that once something goes in, it's rarely seen again. Members of the party's national policy forum put in hundreds of amendments to policy documents in July last year – all but one were withdrawn in favour of "consensus wording" largely written by party staff. Basically it was watered down. Numerous amendments called for taking the railways back into public ownership – another policy young members had voted to support, which is popular among the public – but the leadership had announced in advance a "level playing field" of private companies and the state bidding against each other. The month before, the pledge to cut off jobseekers' allowance for untrained under-21s was also announced on the hoof. There was no attempt to engage with young members, who had voted earlier in the year to support free bus travel for the unemployed – providing a carrot to look for work, rather than a "scrounger" beating stick. I'm not saying that Young Labour should snap its fingers with a demand and the party should simply comply. But in other European countries, such as Spain, the youth wings of centre-left parties draw up their own manifestoes, which candidates can then sign up to. Why can't we have that here? Given how much Labour relies on young activists to pound the streets handing out leaflets and talking to voters in marginal seats ("You're my footsoldiers," as one MP tactlessly put it), it seems only fair that we should have a real voice. And it would change the party's power dynamic beyond recognition, which would be a good thing. After years of a hefty lead among 18 to 24-year-olds, the latest YouGov poll has Labour level-pegging with the Tories on 30 percent of the vote. The Greens are now taking 16 percent of this demographic, and incidentally they favour hiking up taxes on the rich, renationalising the railways, ending Right to Buy and scrapping anti-union laws – things that Young Labour want, which our own party ignored.
The contrast between Labour's youth manifesto and the policies Young Labour actually voted for just shows how spin has triumphed over substance and how much the party really cares about the concerns of young people. A process where every young member was invited to contribute to the manifesto was quietly dropped in favour of an unaccountable internet free-for-all and a hashtag. Party officials seemed to pretend the democratically-chosen policies didn't exist at all – until it was too late for anything but cheapskate tinkering. Labour has effectively told its young members to stay in their box, and not bother themselves with issues outside the narrow bracket of "youth", even issues that are very important to young people. All the "big" issues are decided in advance – by someone else – and Labour's young members barely get a look in.
Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial reporter and a member of Young Labour's national committee.
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