Written by TT19 Secretary, Morgan Jones (written January 2019)
Like the onset of food poisoning or that day with all the flying ants, it’s one of those things you sense coming before you quite register it. But then it arrives, and it is everywhere, and as such, I regret to inform you that Labour Students election season has come round again, puce and acrimonious and laden with hashtags. The first wave of fulsome endorsements and invitations to like campaign pages is already settling on newsfeeds from Inverness to Falmouth.
This year, however, things will be different on several counts. In the first instance, several years after the 2016 vote to adopt One Member One Vote (OMOV), and following much wrangling, we are now facing into our first set of elections with this new system. Hold ups in the roll out of OMOV have been attributed to the administrative challenges it presents; as Labour Students is a separate organisation from the party itself, no one seemed quite sure what its membership databases constitutes, if it had one at all, and how an electorate might be identified.
While these administrative problems were no doubt a reality and a headache for the three full time officers (Chair, National Secretary, and Campaigns and Membership Secretary) who are elected at Labour Students Conference each year, few believe that they are the sole cause of the delay in instituting OMOV. Put simply, the current voting system- with clubs sending delegates to conference, previously varying by the size of a club’s membership, more recently fixed to four delegates per club- benefits the right of the party, who have long held dominion over Labour Students.
While Momentum-aligned candidates may win out in the more minor positions- regional reps, vice chairs, etc- the full time, paid positions have been won exclusively by candidates affiliated to more traditionally more centrist, right wing or “Blairite” elements within the party, such as Community Union or Progress. Labour Students- known until the early 1990s as the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) and still frequently referred to by this acronym- has a long pedigree as home to the right of the party. Politicians including Jacqui Smith, Tom Watson and John Mann started out as NOLS officers; arguably the most infamous chapter in this history came in the form of the “icepick express”, when Scottish Labour Students arrived to NOLS conference in 1975 with an icepick (the weapon that killed Trotsky) attached to the front of their bus, ready to take on the left wing factions.
Given the swinging defeats inflicted upon slates backed by the likes of Progress, Open Labour and Labour First in recent internal elections conducted with OMOV (be that for the NEC, Young Labour or, most notably, during Owen Smith’s disastrous 2016 leadership challenge) the passing of OMOV looked set to loosen the right’s grip on Labour Students. As such, the delay in rolling out OMOV by several successive centrist chairs was read by many, from all wings of the party, as a skin saving exercise. The OMOV which will be used to conduct this year’s elections is widely regarded as a watered down version, derisively nicknamed “JoeMOV” after the 2018-19 Labour Students Chair Joe Dharampal Hornby. This version was slammed as a half measure by, among others, Durham University Labour Club (Dharampal-Hornby’s own alma matter) and NEC Youth Rep Lara McNeill
Nonetheless, JoeMOV will likely prove better than NoMOV, with left wing slates now more likely than ever to take control of Labour Students. However, like the remains of a kebab that you felt sure you’d wanted at 3am, but in the cold light of morning just reminds you of the chaos of the night before, now that it has Labour Students within its grasp, the left is not particularly interested. Indeed, amongst the many shifts that have taken place as the party fully settles itself into Corbynism- whatever this might ultimately come to mean- was the quiet withdrawal of funding from Labour Students; what are currently three full time, paid positions will, this cycle, become voluntary. So, while Labour Students’ Left’s candidate, current London Regional Rep Zainab Mohammed, is considered likely to triumph over Rania Ramli, presently Labour Students BAME officer, in the chair’s election, the stakes- at the very least in financial terms- are lower than in previous races. But even given these reduced stakes, this race offers possibility of a sea change in Labour Students, with Mohammed promising full OMOV- whatever that might look like- should she be elected chair.
Often described dismissively by many Momentum types as something along the lines of “a bizarre political wormhole that leads to 2006”, this is likely to be Labour Students’ last year doing the time warp. Whether hails of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” replace the traditional “Things can only get better” at Labour Students disco remains to be seen; but it’s entirely possible that things are about to change rather drastically in the world of Labour Students.