Are Unite, the union, abusing the inaccessibility of the 2016 Young Labour Conference by funding travel and accommodation for delegates who have either openly supported or are affiliated with groups who have supported their preferred candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee Youth Representative? This is a question I’ve been pondering since Monday, when I was offered travel and accommodation as a Labour Students Delegate for Oxford Brookes Labour Club (OBLC), paid for by Unite, and offered to all of the youth delegates in Oxford – regional and students, not just Unite’s own.
Just before the end of the Autumn/Winter university semester in 2015, my university’s Labour club held a meeting to elect a new chair, as well as our club’s delegates for the Young Labour conference in Scarborough, at the end of February 2016. I was one of the three delegates selected. Afterwards, one of the club’s members told us that he’d heard that there would be funding for travel and accommodation for “the right kind of people”. That seemed a little iffy, to say the least. Who are the right kind of people? I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it.
At some point in the meeting it was also suggested that we endorse a particular candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee Youth Representative. We only heard the one name, and a brief summary of why we should support them. There was no mention made of other candidates standing. Enough people in the room agreed that we should support this candidate, so the motion was passed.
A day or so later, the other delegates and I were introduced, on Facebook, to someone from Oxford University Labour Club (OULC), a club who also endorsed the same NEC candidate. The previous chair of OBLC mentions that we’ve decided to endorse the candidate. We’re told there will be the chance to get expenses for accommodation from “the unions”, and OULC will be organising a coach to take us to Scarborough. That was a bit of a relief, because I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d get to Scarborough otherwise, and didn’t think anything more of it.
Fast forward to Monday. I was added to a group conversation on Facebook with regional, union, and Labour Students delegates to the Youth Conference from the Oxford area. We were told there was good news – Unite will be paying for our accommodation and travel up to Scarborough, to “encourage youth participation”. The conference is far from accessible: tickets are £30 (£40 for Labour Students delegates), plus there’s travel and accommodation for a whole weekend to organise and pay for. Trains from Oxford, even with a railcard, are £75 return. Coaches are no good either, due to being 10 hour journeys and costing about the same. We were asked to fill in a form, provided by Unite, to register for travel and accommodation support.
Later in the evening, a friend brought up that OBLC had decided to endorse the aforementioned candidate. After trying to remember how and when that had been decided, I was reminded that it was at the chair/delegate election meeting in November. I visited the candidate’s Facebook page, and noticed that they’d been endorsed by Unite.
Hang on a second – Unite are paying for our travel and accommodation. Is this what was meant by “the right people”? Are Unite only paying for us to go to the conference because our university Labour clubs have also endorsed their preferred candidate? I tried finding out if any other groups of delegates have been offered the same arrangement, but I couldn’t find any that had. I’ve seen many, many people complain about the inaccessibility of the Young Labour conference – people who legitimately won delegate places, friends who have said they can no longer afford to go, and people who are likely to be unable to attend the conference due to the high cost of tickets, travel, and accommodation. Some groups are even having to crowdfund absurd amounts of money to be able to attend the conference, though the Oxford group have said that they are trying to help one of the groups backing the same candidate too. However, I’ve heard from friends in other Labour clubs – ones who haven’t backed the candidate – who have approached unions, but haven’t been given any assistance to attend. It beggars belief that our Labour Party – with all their new members, and the additional funding that brings in – won’t do more to subsidise the Young Labour conference to make it accessible to elected delegates at the very least. In the words of the candidate themselves:
With a registration fee of £40, and delegates expected to arrange their own travel and accommodation, and no sight of a hardship bursary, I fear that the conference will only be accessible to those with the means to pay.
Those with families, or being paid below the living wage, or struggling with high rents, or on Jobseekers’ Allowance, will struggle to afford this huge costs without financial assistance.
If we are to have a truly democratic and autonomous Young Labour, then we can’t price members out of our democracy.
The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that Unite are trying to abuse this inaccessibility by providing travel and accommodation for those who have been affiliated in some way with, or have openly endorsed their candidate, ensuring they’ll be there to vote for Unite’s preferred candidate whilst not concerning themselves with other delegates who may not. The candidate themself benefits from the travel and accommodation doubly – not only because they’re guaranteed a certain number of declared supporters, but they attend the University of Oxford and therefore will also be getting free transport and accommodation. There’s no way of knowing if the candidate has any idea about this arrangement, other than that it’s providing free travel and accommodation to delegates from the Oxford area.
It seems very much like Unite are trying to indirectly buy more influence in the Labour party by paying for “the right kind” of delegates to attend the conference so they can vote for Unite’s preferred candidate to be elected onto Labour’s National Executive Committee; and they offered the chance to me due to my club’s endorsement. To me, that is unacceptable. The position of NEC Youth Representative shouldn’t be won because an interested group paid out to guarantee the attendance of supporters of their candidate, but should be a decision for all people who won delegate positions. Everyone should be made able to attend, as the Chair and NEC candidates have all argued, regardless of who they support. I voted for Corbyn in the leadership election, and know how important unions are. For all the talk of ‘a new kind of politics’ and expanding democracy within the Labour party, the complete opposite is surfacing here. The base problem of inaccessibility isn’t caused by Unite, but if they’re willing to exploit it to their benefit, it draws into question everything they claim to stand for on democracy and accessibility.