The choice won’t be a difficult one when it comes to electing the National Chair of Young Labour at the conference on 18 April. Sam Tarry has captured the enthusiasm of a broad swathe of young people in the Labour Party clamouring for change. It is this ability to build a popular coalition of supporters which is the surest proof of his suitability to lead our movement: Sam ‘gets it’ when it comes to youth politics and we should have every faith in him as a leader.
The reasons for Sam’s success to date are not just his policies, but his character. Sam understands the frustrations felt by many young people within and outside the Labour Party: that they don’t seem to have an organisation that will mobilise them for more than door-knocking and use its influence to campaign for real social change, whether on student debt, the climate crisis or fair wages for young workers.
Labour’s youth movement has to be about more than reducing VAT on condoms. Nobody joined the party for that, noble a goal though it is. Sam has political intelligence: he understands the dynamics at play and recognises that what encourages young people to get involved in left-of-centre politics is a belief in something bigger than themselves and a desire to change society for the better.
They therefore want a party and a youth organisation that will take on the controversial issues of our time and not pander to defeatists who think the UK is just too right-wing. This could be our last chance for years to influence the government in a progressive direction; our last chance to build national campaigns around issues such as the living wage while still having real potential to impact on policy.
By now it is clear that Sam has both the popular support and necessary abilities to transform Young Labour into a campaigning organisation that really stands up for young members and makes more than just a token gesture to youth representation.
Look at the endorsements on his website. People across the country, men and women, both within and outside the Labour Party, are expressing their enthusiasm for Sam with similar descriptions: that he is an energetic leader with genuine principles; someone who is independent minded and can inspire others around him.
Of course, we should expect endorsements to be full of platitudes by friends wheeled out for public flattery. But Sam’s often high profile supporters could have chosen other words. They give us a good picture of what he is not: a policy wonk who’s studied all the focus groups and who will ultimately do whatever the central party tells him.
Sam is comfortable being left-wing and actually has principles: something that can be found in abundance in young single-issue campaigners, but is all too obviously lacking in many of those who today go down the route of party power politics (there are of course notable exceptions).
He also has a personal story which grounds these principles: his background in Dagenham where he’s seen at first hand the effects of racists trying to tear communities apart. Sam’s work fighting the BNP in East London is important, not just because it shows he has the experience necessary to lead campaigns for Young Labour, but because of what it tells us about his character: that he’s a compassionate and inspirational leader.
One of the most misinformed and damaging explanations of New Labour’s initial electoral success was that it was achieved by simply taking a ‘middle-of-the-road’ position on ‘the issues’. This does not win elections, as evidenced by the US Democrats’ losses through the first half of this decade despite being on the ‘right’ side of public opinion as far as their polls, focus groups and dispassionate strategists were concerned.
As elucidated by Drew Westen in his excellent book ‘The Political Brain’, campaigns are won and lost through appeals to people’s emotions, activating ‘gut feelings’ in ways that get voters thinking “this person understands me and my concerns; I trust him/her to lead”, even when they may not see eye-to-eye in terms of detailed policy. Sam ‘gets’ this in a way that too many in the Labour hierarchy have been blind to see.
I hope Sam has an opportunity to project his political intelligence with a speech this Saturday in Gillingham. Should he win the support of the conference, this will undoubtedly reflect a desire in Labour’s youth movement for a Young Labour that punches above its weight and jumps into the policy and campaigning field. It will also present a new opportunity to rejuvenate the Labour Party.
By Luke Pearce – Battersea CLP Youth & Student Officer, London Young Labour Executive