An Interview with Young Labour

The Activist’s Rafi Ash talked with Hasan Patel, a socialist member of the British Labour Party and elected leader of the party’s youth section known as Young Labour, about the recent political turmoil in the United Kingdom and the future of the British left.

Rafi: Can you introduce yourself and describe your role within Young Labour?

Hasan: My name is Hasan Patel, I’m 19 years old. I’m from London and I’m currently studying sociology in Manchester. I’m the London representative on Young Labour’s National Committee. I was elected this summer. That also means I’m chair of the regional London Young Labour group as well. There’s about 6000 Young Labour members in London who I help organize.

Rafi: Can you tell us about Young Labour’s relation to the Labour Party and to the Left?

Hasan: Young Labour is a part of the Labour Party. Any member who’s under the age of 27 is automatically a member of the youth wing. We’re not separate from the party in any way. We are financed and run by the party as well, so we have very little autonomy. At the peak, under [Jeremy] Corbyn, because there was a big youth surge in politics and socialist politics in particular, [Young Labour] had over 100,000 members. At the time this was more than the entire membership of the Conservative (Tory) Party in the UK, which is the governing party. It was quite an exciting time. 

But in 2019, we suffered a huge defeat electorally in the general election and Labour’s number of seats in parliament went down dramatically. Keir Starmer became the leader of the Labour Party in the subsequent leadership election. Since then there has been a huge push back against the Left and a purge – an expulsion of left-wing activists and voices from the party. There’s been huge disillusionment and general apathy created from that. We’ve seen a huge number of people, disproportionately young people, move away from the party, because they just feel so hopeless. 

At the peak, the Labour Party, under Corbyn, had a membership of up to 600,000 people. Since then, we’ve lost at least 250,000 people. And those were mostly people on the Left who’d joined because they were excited by Corbyn, who probably hadn’t been involved in politics before. It was very hard because of how sudden and how big the defeat was, and then the move to the right [from the party leadership], that we couldn’t retain many young members. We don’t know the official number for Young Labour members, but we think it’s gone down by at least 50 percent. We have an estimate of around 50,000 members. 

Young Labour also gets to send delegates to the Labour Party’s National Conference. Jake [Colosa], one of your co-chairs, came as a visitor to our conference in September. I was one of two delegates for Young Labour to the conference. We tried to push forward a motion to call on the Labour Party to strengthen its position on workers’ rights and supporting trade unions. It didn’t go through, which is unsurprising given the direction of the Labour Party at the moment. But we were able to go up to the podium and make our case very clearly about how supporting workers’ struggle and building the trade union movement is the way forward for socialist politics in the United Kingdom. 

We are very much in retreat at the moment and in defensive mode rather than on the offensive. I joined the Labour Party in 2017, at the start of the peak of the Corbyn-era, when we won. We did really well in the general election, and [former Conservative Party Prime Minister] Theresa May lost her majority, and there was a hung parliament. We were ahead in the polls. We actually were able to get across our arguments on issues like re-nationalization of public utilities, proper funding for public services, increase in pay, building council housing, and fighting the climate crisis. 

But at the moment we can’t even do that, we’re just basically trying to defend ourselves from the onslaught from both the [Conservative Party] and the general political situation in the United Kingdom, as well as from within our own party. The leadership of the party is doing everything it can to silence Young Labour.  Young Labour is the last bastion of the Left institutionally within the Labour Party. It’s the only body in the party that is still held by the Left. We got re-elected with a supermajority on the National Committee. 

Young Labour was put under special measures by the General Secretary – the person who runs the party – in February this year. At the time I was on the previous committee as the under-18’s  officer representing around 10,000 of our youngest members across the country. The party leadership removed access to Young Labour’s social media accounts. YDSA put out a statement of solidarity, which we’re very grateful for. The Left has been in control of Young Labour for at least the past four years. But Young Labour remains organizationally underdeveloped. In the last half decade, we’ve not produced the 500 local branches that existed at the height of the Labour Party Young Socialists – Young Labour’s predecessor back in the 80s. This notwithstanding, young grassroots members continue to identify and coordinate policies, and there’s clearly a continued basis of control. 

One exciting thing that happened this year was that the Labour Students Committee for the first time was democratically elected with “one member, one vote.” Before, people were being appointed and just given positions. It was a route for careerism for the right wing of the party. A lot of the people who ran Labour Students ended up becoming [Members of Parliament] (MPs) and now are in the shadow cabinet and waging the war on the Left. In our internal election, 14 out of 25 positions on the Labour Students Committee were won by the Left slate, which is supported by Momentum and some of the trade unions. However, we did lose the Chair and Secretary positions to the Right. That’s a problem in turning the majority into effective control because they can try to run the committee by themselves. 

In terms of strategy, Young Labour is not necessarily an organization. We have a committee, but it’s not got any established physical or material branches across the country where things can be done or organized. We need to rectify that. Turning Young Labour into identifiable organizations, from the local to national level is the most effective way in which we can identify and recruit promising young members who will keep the flame of socialism alive in the party. That’s the only way to make sustainable an effort to reproduce Young Labour and Labour Students as socialist organizations. 

This is the really important part because for the [former Labour Party Prime Minister Tony] Blair-ite wing of the party, the right wing of the party, the previous Labour Students organization was central to the reproduction of their faction within the Labour Party – the Labour right – as a source of activists but especiallyMPs and councilors at every level. If the Labour left is to chart a path back towards power in the Labour Party, the current left-controlled Young Labour and Labour Students is where that will begin. 

The priority for us is building actual groups. In London, I’m fighting the local Labour party at the moment to help restart London Young Labour. Under Corbyn, it was quite active and did a lot of solidarity work and political education. I want to future-proof the union link between the trade unions, the Labour Party, and the Labour left. We want to keep getting members active and mentoring young members who have joined the party to keep them on the Left and hopefully, they can take positions one day as well. 

The prospect at the moment is quite bleak. Building an organization might not seem like the most radical thing. The Labour Party isn’t necessarily very “labor-y” at the moment, it’s quite neoliberal. But the reality is that the Labour Party is still the biggest organization of the organized Left in the country. There’s not a way for us in the United Kingdom to build socialism without using the Labour Party. There are fifteen million people in the United Kingdom who look towards the Labour Party for their solutions to the crises we face and who always vote for Labour. They’re majority working class; they’re from ethnic minorities. This is the support coalition of the party. We can’t give up on all of those people and on that platform that you can have. 

Right now, abolishing our committee would be very easy for the Labour Party. But if we were to actually build a grassroots level organization, that is much harder for the party to expel us. Given the current situation of the Left, that’s not something that we can ignore. It has to be a priority for the next few years. 

Rafi: Let’s talk about the current political situation. We’ve seen a series of leadership crises and blunders from Tory leadership, from Boris Johnson two months ago to Liz Truss recently. How should international leftists understand the corruption that we see is rampant in the Tory party? How is this linked to conservative politics and broader neoliberal systems that encourage this corruption and ineptitude? 

This level of crisis in many political situations would give a really strong hand to opposition parties, what is Labour doing to take advantage of the situation? What would Labour be doing if it had a more militant organizational structure? How would a Corbyn-led Labour response be different to the current Starmer response? 

Hasan: The last two months have been very tumultuous for British politics. But this crisis goes back to the last forty-five years since [Margaret] Thatcher came to power. Since the ascent of neoliberalism, we’ve seen the selling off of council housing and the privatizing of all of our public industries. The disgusting profiteering that we’ve seen in the last forty years, has only been exacerbated recently by the COVID pandemic. We’ve seen billions of pounds being siphoned to the top and none of it being redistributed. 

The last two months is the result of that and everything that’s ongoing as well. We are in the midst of a really bad cost of living crisis at the moment and within the next few months, a majority of households are not going to be able to afford to pay their own energy bills. People are already having to make really bleak choices about whether they can heat their home or feed their children. 

It’s getting so bleak that charities, churches, and other religious organizations have to open what they call “warm banks,” which are places where people can go to keep themselves warm, because they can’t heat their own houses. Food bank use is at an all time high, we’re giving out four million food parcels every year, where ten years ago it was closer to like one hundred thousand.  The Conservative Party doesn’t have any answers to these problems. That’s why they’re in crisis. Whoever the leader is, they’re going to keep facing that problem. 

The bigger question for socialists in the Labour Party and the broader UK left is how do we fight back against all of this? The Labour Party isn’t offering the bold solutions we need to any of these problems. At the Labour party conference, you saw a few hints of things that might be quite good, like starting an energy company that’s publicly owned. But again, there’s no specific details on any of these things. 

What we’ve also seen this summer is a big resurgence in militant trade union activity. We’ve seen a summer of solidarity, where the [National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers] (RMT) has been leading the way calling for action from workers and trade unions. We’ve seen action on the national train network and that’s still an ongoing dispute. In the past, when the RMT have gone on strike they haven’t received that level of public support. This time,  there’s something really special happening where they’re commanding the support of the public. That doesn’t just include Labour Party voters, even Conservative Party voters are overwhelmingly supporting workers taking strike action. 

We’re seeing that escalate and build into a bigger coalition of workers. Currently there are teachers, paramedics and ambulance services, and fire services balloting for strike action. Lecturers and research academics in universities just won a national ballot for strike action so they will be taking strike action this month. Criminal barristers, local government workers, and the postal service have taken strike action as well. It’s really getting quite big. 

There are even people in more precarious workplaces, such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo that are doing wildcat strikes. We’ve seen in Amazon warehouses, lots of wildcat strikes spreading around. So there is something building. There’s obviously an appetite amongst the British public for wholesale change to our economy and the way the political system works, because it’s just failing most people. 

It’s the role of the Labour Party to translate that into actual politics and policies, so that we can put forward a coherent program of socialist politics that actually address inequality and injustice in the United Kingdom. But obviously, the Labour Party is not doing any of that moment, they have just totally relied on the incompetence of the Tory party to deliver on anything. Last month, the Labour Party got a polling lead of almost 40 percent when Liz Truss was prime minister, which is something that’s never been seen before. 

That makes the Labour Party seem quite comfortable. But as soon as we got Rishi Sunak, it was a return to “sensible” Tory politics. You can see that they’re rebounding straightaway, quite immediately. It’s just not going to be as easy as it sounds for the Labour Party to win an election. Even if they win an election, the question remains: what are you going to do with the power or the mandate you’ve been given? If you can’t deliver any sort of change for people, people are just going to become even more disillusioned, and it’s going to be even harder for you next time to win an election. 

As a young person, I’m in the Labour Party, but it’s a one foot in, one foot out approach where I spend a lot more of my time and energy supporting the trade union movement, because that is where the real fight is happening against all the greed and profiteering.  People like Mick Lynch – leading RMT – have done extremely well talking about the real issues facing working class people in the United Kingdom. Whereas Starmer, even though there might be a huge lead for the Labour Party right now, that’s not because the Labour Party is reaching out to voters. It’s just in opposition to the Tory party or Tory voters staying at home. 

For the Left of the Labour Party and the United Kingdom,, things like Enough is Enough, are an encouraging sign, but not enough in themselves. We’ve seen a few rallies happen around the country advocating a very clear set of demands such as housing for all, fair pay for everyone, and ending food poverty. It’s a good start and I think that’s a program that the Left should unite behind across the United Kingdom. That’s quite a powerful set of demands that you can’t really argue against. 

The issue at the moment is that it’s not translating into any real working class organization. A set of  celebrities sitting in a backroom, deciding what we’re going to do is just not going to  work – it’s quite futile. 

Things like actually building the trade union movement, getting people into unions, and politically educating people across the country are going to be very important. As well as building renters’ unions. We’re luckily seeing quite an encouraging sign of militancy in that way, where renters are taking action themselves to stand together and help each other. When people get evicted they have eviction resistance, where they turn up in front of someone’s house and they’ll create a picket line effectively, where the bailiffs can’t even go in to kick someone out. That sort of stuff is very encouraging because it’s that real life activity that educates people about injustice and about how their own worries or concerns are translated into bigger political questions. 

Within the Labour Party at the moment, politically it’s looking quite shit, to be honest, it’s very neoliberal, very status quo. They just want to get into power for the sake of getting into power and are not feeling confident enough to have any sort of solutions or policies. But obviously, you have people like Zarah Sultana MP eloquently telling the electorate and the media what sort of things we do want to see. Very immediate things such as wealth taxes, just raising taxes on the rich, windfall taxes on energy companies, nationalization of our trains and buses, renationalising our National Health Service because at the moment it’s being stolen by American companies. 

It’s very simple things that can do so much to resonate with people, but also to dramatically change people’s lives. It feels like an open goal at the moment, because it’s never been so obvious that things need to change. The difference this time around is that this cost of living crisis is not just affecting the poorest, it’s affecting people who are actually normally quite well off. It’s affecting middle class families in the United Kingdom. 

That’s why there’s been such anger at the Tory Party – at their incompetence, but also just total disregard. Truss thought she could get away with her bonanza for the rich like cutting taxes for the rich and getting rid of bankers’ bonuses, at a time where people literally can’t afford to eat. That was never going to work. It got to a point where even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was saying: you can’t really cut taxes on the rich. When you get to a position like that, you know that something is very fundamentally broken with the way British society is working at the moment.

Rafi: Thinking about Sunak and “respectable conservatism,” there’s a liberal obsession with thinking the problem withTrump is that he speaks so rudely. And that’s not the problem, that’s so far from the main problem.

Hasan: There’s no material analysis of anything.

Rafi: Exactly. We end up with liberals who get very into very conservative politicians who are just a little bit more polite. We saw that with Liz Cheney a lot and Sunak may be a parallel to that.

Hasan: Also with Sunak there is obviously the historic thing about him being the first person of color to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, given that it was the founding father of colonialism, racism, and imperialism. One of the key things to take away from that is that people like Starmer himself were saying: this is a great day for British history and politics because a brown person was able to become prime minister. But that totally avoids the fact that the guy is a billionaire, went to a private school, and was a banker that helped cause the crash in 2008 and still made lots of money off it. He also ran our finances for the last two years, which has led us into this mess right now. Totally avoiding that fact. 

Falling into that trap of saying that the United Kingdom is a meritocracy, where if you work hard, you can achieve anything you want, but it just shows you how pervasive that neoliberal ideology is, even in the Labour Party. As soon as you get into the whole social mobility myth, you start to shy away from questions of fundamental change in the economy. They’re going to use that a lot to try to say that we live in a post-racial society or that if you work hard, you can you can get wherever you want, but there’s just no class analysis. 

We have the Socialist Campaign Group within the Labour Party, which is a group of around 30 MPs who don’t necessarily agree on everything, but are the left-wingers. It includes MPs such as Corbyn, John McDonell, Zarah Sultana, and Nadia Whittome – who’s the youngest MP in Parliament and is of Indian origin. Whittome put out a tweet saying that  Sunak becoming Prime Minister is not a win for Asian representation because of his class background and Starmer forced her to delete that tweet. 

It just shows you that there’s a total silence of any debate, you aren’t allowed to have a different opinion. You can get kicked out of the party and you lose your seat in Parliament effectively, which is really quite McCarthyist. It’s a real purge happening. Any analysis of the UK left has to take into account that within the Labour Party, we are just under attack from every direction. They tried to kick me out of the party twice last year, and they failed both times. But it just shows you a lot of our energy has been spent just trying to defend ourselves from random threats or accusations. 

But it’s also silencing opposition, especially on internationalist issues, such as Palestine. Young Labour passed a historic motion last year, which said that we agreed with all the reports coming from human rights organization sacross the world and Amnesty International, which called Israel an apartheid state and said we need to do more to support Palestinian human rights and call out Israel for its wrongdoings. The party then ignored the motion. We’ve just moved backwards on all internationalist issues. There’s not been any steps taken towards Palestinian liberation, it’s been the total opposite. One of the difficulties the party has is that at the moment, politically, they’re just quiet. We’re not anti-imperialist at all. You might hear vague words about human rights and peacekeeping and stuff, but you won’t get any farther than that. 

We’ve just totally rolled back on like most issues, which is one of the reasons why people were drawn to Corbyn because he was seen as the only MP in Parliament over the last 40 years who has always stood in solidarity with oppressed people across the world, in the Global South, especially. He was one of the only MPs to stand with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the United Kingdom on their marches, whenever they called one when something was happening in Palestine that had to be spoken out against. 

That just couldn’t be tolerated by the British establishment and by the Labour Party as well. That’s one of the big reasons why there’s been such a big purge of the Left now, because they don’t want to ever see that again. There were people who actually had proper politics, and were showing that there’s an alternative to the status quo. Whereas now we’ve gone back to where the Labour Party just disagrees with the Conservative Party on how they do things, not about what they’re actually doing or the substance of what’s actually going on. It’s just the way they present themselves. It’s questions of competence and about appearance rather than actual policy and material analysis of people’s lives.

Rafi: With the end of Corbyn’s leadership and Starmer taking power, the membership has been dropping, definitely the militancy in the streets and the organized nature of the party has been weakening. You get to a point of asking: is this a party that’s interested in winning? That’s definitely something we discuss with the Democratic Party, when Democrats who present a left material and economic message end up performing better. Do you believe that they think this strategy is gonna win? How are they just shooting themselves in the foot?

Hasan: I think after that humongous defeat in 2019, because of many factors, including the entire media  being against the Left, basically, and internal sabotage in the party. The Labour Party bureaucracy, even under Corbyn, was still held by the right-wing of the party. The Labour Party nationally hasn’t been in government for the last thirteen years now. 

But the Mayor of London, for example, is a Labour mayor. Most of the metro mayors across the country in big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, the region of West Yorkshire, they’re all Labour mayors. They all are held by Labour. There are many local boroughs and councils across the country which are still obviously Labour-held and there’s local councilors representing people across the country at all levels, who are still Labour councilors.  There are certain areas where our support is strong, like urbanized areas where you’ve got a multiracial working class, that’s our base at the moment. You still have Labour winning them and performing really well. 

In terms of nationally getting into government, I think once Starmer got into power, their immediate concern was purging the Left. It’s an ongoing thing, but they have been quite effective at it because all you need to do is make it a very hostile, unwelcome place for left-wing members and people will voluntarily leave. They’ll think: why am I keeping myself in this self-hate relationship with the party, there’s literally no point for me when I can be putting my energy somewhere else. The economic situation in the country is so bleak, a lot of people just don’t have the energy or time to be focused on staying in the Labour Party. 

The Labour Party does want to win, but we just want different things. U Starmer, they want to be in government, but they don’t really want to change much. There was a big spread in the Telegraph – which is one of our big newspapers – the other week about Rachel Reeves, our Shadow Chancellor, and how confident she was recently. She recently went to this big dinner at one of our big museums in London, where she was mingling with all the big banks and all of those people. Sunak was there with all of the businessmen, big bankers, and all these people from across the establishment who were mingling and having food and drinking wine Reeves, but not talking to Sunak. 

That they’re that comfortable with each other just shows you how different the Labour Party is, because under Corbyn that just wouldn’t ever happen at all. We’ve reached the point where the people that we should be up against and fighting are like mingling and being best friends with the Labour establishment. It shows you that once we get into government, there’s not going to be that much change, the people who are meant to be confronting, like big interests and big money, are just not worried about the prospects of a Labour government. 

The Labour Party has an easier way of winning now, but at what cost? We can’t deliver any agenda for working class people that is lasting or transformative. More immediately the Tory Party is going to try and keep an election as far away as possible. It might not happen until January 2025. 

In those two years, so much could still happen. The Tory Party is calling for extra restrictions on trade unions, making it even harder for them to go on strike, attacking the right to strike, attacking democracy, and attacking the right to protest. Climate change activists are taking more drastic action to try and bring attention to the climate crisis and you’re seeing more restrictions on all of that, all of those sort of democratic rights. 

The Tory Party is also taking a steeper turn to the right in terms of its view on immigrants and border policy. There’s been pictures and videos coming out from one of the detention centers on the English Channel, which borders France, where you’ve had children being recorded, saying chants of freedom, and “please help us.” Videos of kids sleeping on the floor with no proper food and being extremely limited in where they can go during the day if they’re allowed to go outside. We’re seeing all this xenophobic rhetoric. The language of the far-right is now incorporated by the Tory Party and that’s really scary in the immediate term for the next two years.

If you don’t have any real opposition to that from the Labour Party, they can just get on with that, knowing that the Tory Party won’t win the next election. Things are getting worse. The Labour Party is saying it shouldn’t happen, but not really offering an alternative. They’re not confident enough in their ideas. They’re just not brave enough to actually hold any politics. The only real opposition being offered in the country right now is from the trade union movement fighting for cost of living pay increases and also fighting for  democratic rights because there’s a big assault happening on that front as well.

Rafi: Do you have any final message? 

Hasan: Watch out for a bigger wave of strike action this winter and into next year because I think teachers and National Health Service workers are all going to be going on strike at the same time. Coordinated strike action is illegal in the United Kingdom, but trade unions are informally coordinating their strikes at the same dates without actually doing it officially. That’s exciting. It’s nowhere near a general strike, but you’re seeing that militancy is on the increase. The conditions are forcing people to take it into their own hands to change things. Everything we’re seeing in America with the Starbucks and Amazon organizing is very exciting. We  are looking up to you guys as well to inspire us. Solidarity.