REVEALED: How the ruling body of Labour's youth wing is tearing itself apart

Posted On: 
6th March 2019

Splits at the top of Young Labour have led to allegations of bullying and abuse, PoliticsHome can reveal.

Young Labour chair Miriam Mirwitch has faced a battle with her committee - especially over its Twitter policy
Credit: 
@AnastasiaZaw

When Enield North MP Joan Ryan quit the Labour party to join the Independent Group last month, it revealed a bitter divide at the top of its youth wing. A post from the Young Labour official Twitter account said “Joan Ryan gone - Palestine lives,” with a little emoji of the Palestinian flag for good measure. The tweet was on the internet for only a few minutes before Young Labour chair Miriam Mirwitch deleted it. Shortly afterwards, she tweeted from her personal account: “To make crystal clear, I did not send the tweet about Joan Ryan from the Young Labour Twitter account and I utterly condemn it.”

The row - as well as spats over other tweets around the same time - revealed the deep divisions in the group for Labour members aged 14 to 26. Those divisions have been raging for more than a year. Politically isolated on the Young Labour national executive committee, Mirwitch has been forced to accept she has little to no control over not only the group's Twitter account, but almost everything it says and does. The divisions between the Young Labour top team are said to be characterised by hostility and abuse - with multiple sources, including Labour MP Wes Streeting, arguing Mirwitch is being bullied by her colleagues.

In March last year, LSE graduate Mirwitch won a surprise victory when she beat the Momentum-backed candidate for the chairmanship, Leigh Drennan, by fewer than 100 votes. But Momentum hopefuls secured almost all the other seats on its board, including that of the crucial youth representative who gets to sit on the National Executive Committee of the central Labour party - won by Lara McNeill. Mirwitch - a former Young Labour disability officer who backed Owen Smith in the 2016 Labour leadership election - has since struggled to put any of her plans into action against a committee which rejects almost every proposal she makes. Not only that, but the splits have led to angry exchanges and fuelled anti-semitic abuse online against the Jewish 25-year-old.

“What came out on Twitter last month was one of the few times it has become public, but this stuff has been happening for a year,” a Young Labour source told PoliticsHome. “It’s driven by a small minority on the committee who are very influential and are being quite aggressive and negative. It’s difficult to get past when they have so much dominance over the other people on the committee.” Another source raised concerns that the struggle could impact the mental health of the chair. But a committee member on the other side of the debate rejected the claims of bullying.

'IT WAS INDEED TENSE'

The first major row on the committee came in May last year when Mirwitch and then-Labour Students chair Melantha Chittenden signed a letter calling on Jeremy Corbyn to back a second EU referendum. Mirwitch is said to be more pro-EU than many others on the committee and was backed in her campaign to be chair by the Labour Movement for Europe. Her stunt prompted a swift backlash from the other members, who issued a statement on the official Young Labour Twitter account disowning the demand and stating a “strong opposition to a second referendum on British membership” of the EU. The committee felt that Mirwitch should not have taken a unilateral decision to "condescend Leave voters" and undermine the leadership, and should have instead held a vote to decide the policy. Without its own constitution, the processes of the group when it comes to policy and disagreements are a constant source of contention.

The committee held a tense meeting on the issue, at which the various positions were thrashed out. “They spent a huge amount of time just shouting at Miriam about how she should not have signed the letter,” one source said. But the claim of shouting was dismissed as “complete bollocks” by another source, who added: “We went for a pint afterwards, but it was indeed tense.”

The row over the letter bubbled up again recently when one of the Young Labour committee members shared a video on the official Twitter feed in support of US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. It was thought that since Young Labour is a member of the International Union of Socialist Youth - which includes the Sanders-backing Young Democratic Socialists of America - the UK group should be showing solidarity with a sister party. But Mirwitch wanted it deleted, since it had not been agreed by the committee, leading to fraught exchanges on the Young Labour committee Facebook group. “It’s complete double standards,” a source said. “It’s one rule for them and another rule for Miriam.”

On one occasion, Mirwitch proposed a statement condemning posters put up on London bus shelters that said 'Israel is a racist endeavor'. They were placed there by a pro-Palestine group around the time Labour was debating whether or not to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-semitism. But the committee rejected her wording and instead agreed a motion of solidarity with the Jewish community that did not mention the bus shelters - although it did say it wanted to "stand firm against the scourge of anti-semitism". They argued their proposal was "more proactive in solidarity with the community rather than reactive".

Another time, the committee took her to task after she made a Young Labour banner for the TUC New Deal For Workers march last year - arguing they should have been consulted. In another incident, the committee wanted to put a motion to party conference supporting mandatory reselection of MPs. Mirwitch asked Young Labour members for suggestions on an alternative motion and a majority said mental health policy, so she went with that. “That was quite a big flashpoint of anger,” one committee member said. “But most of the meetings have been hostile. There a lot of comments said by people under their breath - it’s quite difficult.”

The committee has even been known to fight with Labour HQ. On one occasion it condemned then-Labour MP John Woodcock over an interview he had given in 2017 to Turkish magazine the Daily Sabah. Members felt he had praised the authoritarian Recep Erdoğan regime and painted Kurds as terrorists. An official from the central Labour party, tasked with overseeing the work of the youth wing, argued the group had no right to attack a Labour MP. But in a testy email exchange, members argued the official could not stop them, since their job was to facilitate the elected group rather than obstruct it.

“We go into these positions as Young Labour and we want to push our socialist politics,” a committee source in the anti-Mirwitch camp argued - pointing to the conference in October 2017 at which the group called for withdrawal from Nato and nationalisation of all banks. “We believe in standing on strong mandates so we can push for a certain type of politics. That obviously contradicts the right’s understanding of what Young Labour should be, which is effectively a pluralist welfare organisation.”

'COWARDS FLINCH'

One committee member said the body is so divided that “what we seem to be doing at the moment is managing a Twitter account by committee and not much else”. Indeed, the row about the “Palestine lives” tweet was sandwiched by two others. After the first seven Labour MPs quit the party to join the Independent Group, a member of the board used the official Twitter account to post a line from the Red Flag - the anthem sung for decades at the end of the Labour party annual conference: “Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here.” Mirwitch disowned the comment publicly and said it was the "incorrect response". Just days later, the account shared a tweet by Asa Winstanley - a writer for the Electronic Intifada who has accused Mirwitch of belonging to a front group for the Israeli embassy. Both incidents sparked a fervid debate on the Young Labour committee Facebook group.

The Twitter issue arose after Mirwitch shared the login details with NEC rep Lara McNeill, who is then said to have shared them with others in the group - leaving nobody accountable. McNeill could not be reached by PoliticsHome, and the committee is currently in talks about codifying the social media policy. The committee member who complained about the Twitter rows said: “Someone was using our Twitter account, with its huge following, to bully and pick on a chair who they don’t like because of her politics. They have too much cowardice to own up and say they did it.” They added: “I don’t think the other members of the committee are exclusively horrible people who are out to get Miriam. But they were all elected on one political slate and they are obviously all quite young. And there are one or two bad apples and the others are afraid to stand up to them.”

A concerned observer from another Labour youth group said: “Miriam has different politics to the rest of the committee but at those meetings and in the group chat they are really abusive. They are completely trying to hound her out as the chair.” Asked if they would characterise the behaviour as bullying, the source said: "Yes I would. It’s not the fact that they disagree on the politics or the policy - it’s the way that they speak to her and the way they target her. It makes her go off online spaces. It shuts her out of things. I’m sure it’s affecting her mental health as well. I think if you are abused all day every day online, not just by people who are anti-semites, but also from the committee members you are meant to be working with having a go at you for the tiniest of things, that’s going to pile on together and have an impact.”

A source on the committee said: “A lot of people use the phrase bullying in different situations but it must be difficult psychologically to be in a room where everyone is shouting at you.” A source from a different Labour group agreed with the characterisation that Mirwitch was being bullied, adding: “They just don’t like the fact she is a young, Jewish woman.”

Labour MP Wes Streeting told PoliticsHome: “I think it’s been plain to see on social media that the chair of Young Labour has been subjected to a degree of bullying that no one - let alone someone in her position - should have to put up with. I am regularly in awe at Miriam’s courage and resilience, but these should not be necessary requirements for this role. Public solidarity from the top of the party wouldn’t go amiss. Jewish women in the PLP have already been badly let down. Let’s hope we take better care of our young members.”

'BLAIRITE TACTIC'

But the committee member in the anti-Mirwitch camp said: “This bullying notion should be put to bed. It’s is really insulting that if we have strong political opinions on something we get accused of bullying. It’s a traditional tactic of the Blairites… It’s very silly and I don’t think people who have experienced real bullying would ever say that.” They added: “In any organisation which is so wildly imbalanced there will be sources of tension…  You have these disagreements because Young Labour is an organisation full of passionate young people who actually really care about things and want to change things. It’s unhealthy to characterise these things as somehow beyond politics. All that means in practise is the loudest people who shout accusations of bullying inevitably get their way.”

The source insisted that members of the committee are united on “most things”. They pointed to the campaigns around train fare rises and wages for young people that the committee agreed to and worked on together. “What we do, broadly speaking, is positive,” they added. “I don’t think Miriam is a massively obstructive presence on the committee.”

Another committee member told PoliticsHome that "the harassment does seem to have subsided" on at least some of the channels of communication. "I’m guessing some people on the committee became aware that they had properly crossed a line... Previously, any time Miriam wrote anything on the shared group, multiple members of the committee would write comments attacking her."

Mirwitch told the Jewish Chronicle last month: "It is exhausting and I am not going to pretend it is great, it isn’t, but I maintain that our actual membership are much more progressive that committee members. The messages I get from ordinary Young Labour members shows the strength of feeling that what is happening isn’t ok. They are the reason I keep going.” But since the term of the Young Labour chair and committee lasts for two years, leading some to believe the current setup is unsustainable without intervention from the top of the party. “The leader’s office need to get in touch with the Young Labour national committee and have a word with them and talk to them about their behaviour,” the source from another Labour youth group said. “Jennie Formby needs to step in and take a role in it as well.” 

But another source argued the Labour leadership has been complicit in the difficulties Mirwitch has faced. “The other committee members have got full organisational support in what they are doing,” they said. “They are encouraged by the central Labour party.”

PoliticsHome understands the Labour party has received no official complaints of bullying from the Young Labour committee. A Labour party spokesman said: “Jennie Formby was made aware of the abuse that Miriam has received on social media and she has contacted her to express support and offer a meeting. There is no place for bullying and abuse in politics.”   

UPDATE: This article was amended on 7 March 2019 to remove a line that said the committee refused to pass a motion condemning anti-semitic attacks on bus shelters unless it added a caveat condemning "all forms of racism". It was replaced with the above account of the incident.