Do we need a new party to reflect the working people of Britain?
Guardian 9 September 2013
Do we need a new party to reflect the working people of Britain? As Labour prepares for a bruising clash with the unions, could a left-wing UKIP become a reality? asks The Guardian's John Harris at http://www. theguardian.com /politics/2013/ sep/09/ time-for-leftwing-ukip-labour
Ever since the general election of 2010, British politics has been in a very curious state of flux. Public mistrust in politicians runs rampant. After one inconclusive contest, the idea that neither Labour nor the Tories will have a majority of seats in 2015 is now common currency. What will happen to the Lib Dems is uncertain: they will almost certainly be thumped at the ballot box, but could once again hold the balance of power. Next year sees both the Scottish referendum on independence, and the European elections that might see Ukip finishing first.
Which brings us to crafty old Nigel Farage: slightly diminished since his party's watershed breakthrough earlier this year, but still breathing the mixed aroma of Rothmans and real ale down the Tories' collective neck, and maintaining the sense that he may stand between David Cameron's ambitions and Conservative success.
Lincolm TUSC Against Cuts, photo by Lincoln TUSC (Click to enlarge)
Leaving aside the battles between Labour and the Scottish National party (and, to be fair, its Welsh equivalent Plaid Cymru), one big assumption runs through the picture painted above: the idea that though the Tories are being menaced by a force on their own side of politics, Labour has managed to maintain its dominance of the left. There have been sporadic successes for such figures as the Green party's Caroline Lucas and Respect's George Galloway, and an upsurge in leftwing activism - but no real break with an iron rule of politics: that the electoral territory to the left of Labour is a desert.
Across Europe, though, something is definitely up. In Greece, Syriza - AKA the Coalition of the Radical Left, or the Unitary Social Front - is now the second-largest party in parliament, and the main opposition. In the French presidential elections of 2012, the new Left Front's Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon began the campaign on around 5% of the vote, and ended up more than doubling it. In Germany there is Die Linke (The Left), a rum coalition of hard-lefties and old East German communists founded in 2007, which scored nearly 12% of the vote at the last parliamentary elections. There are also thriving left parties in the Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Portugal and others: all part of the fallout from the 2008 crash and an ongoing revolt against political establishments.
Though it has taken a while, the UK left suddenly now seems to be experiencing its own rumbles of change. Over the summer, Ed Miliband announced the drastic reinvention of his party's relationship with the trade unions which he will try to sell to his audience on Tuesday at the Trades Union Congress in Bournemouth. The first response to his ideas came last week, when the 600,000-strong GMB said it would slash donations to the party by 90%.
Bob Crow speaking in support of the TUSC candidate for the mayor of Doncaster, Mary Jackson, who polled 1,916 votes in Ed Milibandâ€™s backyard (Click to enlarge)
This was widely interpreted as a ploy intended to push Miliband into rowing back on his plans, but some people read it slightly differently. One GMB source told the BBC that the move "could well be the beginning of the end" for the union's relationship with Labour, and the hopes of those who dream of a new workers' party - among them Bob Crow, leader of the transport union the RMT, who views the modern Labour party the way that vegans view McDonald's - were therefore suddenly raised.
A few weeks before the GMB's move, I interviewed the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, whose huge union was at the centre of the controversy about candidate selection in Falkirk that first sparked Miliband's reforms, and once again exploded over the weekend. Though he is broadly positive about what Miliband is trying to do, McCluskey talked more openly than ever about life beyond Labour, claiming that the party could be on the verge of a watershed debate and a possible split-off on its left, akin to the creation of the SDP in the early 1980s.
If the Tories won in 2015, he said, "I fear for the existence of the Labour party. None of us know what would happen after a defeat of that nature. And it won't necessarily be the normal process of the leader stepping down, and a new leader taking over". Could he rule out Unite walking away from the party? "I wouldn't rule anything out," he said. "In extraordinary times, extraordinary things happen".
They certainly do - and now, a new political party is about to be born. Created by a gaggle of disillusioned lefties including the film director Ken Loach, Left Unity claims it already has the support of around 10,000 people. Its founding conference will take place in London on 30 November: its initial supporters include not just Loach, but the renowned "weird fiction" author China Mieville, and Roger Lloyd-Pack (AKA Trigger from Only Fools And Horses), as well as scores of activists and trade unionists. The people behind it say they support "a new political formation which rejects austerity and war, advocates a greater democratisation of our society and institutions, and poses a new way of organising everyday life". Some of them are also talking about Labour facing "the threat of its own Ukip".
"The GMB's move was very shrewd, it was very useful," says 28-year-old Salman Shaheen, a member of Left Unity's national co-ordinating group, who has previously put in spells of activism for both the Greens and Respect, and has recently been punting around the Ukip comparison. "It's saying: 'If you're not listening to us, we'll reduce our funding accordingly, and maybe look at other campaigns.' That's not to say they're going to throw that ÂŁ1.1m they've taken away from Labour at a smaller leftwing party. Of course not: other parties need to prove themselves before they can attract that kind of backing. But we're reaching out to the trade unions , and I hope we can attract union funding as time goes on".
Waltham Forest TUSC Local elections 2014 press launch, photo Senan (Click to enlarge)
Now that Labour has vowed to "work within" George Osborne's spending plans up to 2016 and grown fonder of the rhetoric of austerity, Shaheen talks about a "gravity swell" that could favour a new party. Though the Greens "are doing some great work out there", he says it's time for a force "with a more radical manifesto ... I want to see a party standing up for old Labour values: a party by and for workers. And I don't think we have that at the moment. So when Left Unity came along, I thought: 'This is worth one more shot.'"
How does he feel about splitting the left vote - as happened when the SDP broke away from Labour in the early 80s - and thereby making the Tories' lives much easier?
"The fact is, Labour is not offering us what we need," he says. "If we want something different, we have to stand up and fight for it and build it. Otherwise we're never going to have it".
Even if you end up with a very nasty Tory government rather than a Labour administration that might have its faults but would surely be preferable?
"Yeah. The point has come where many people feel that that's something they're prepared to do".
Kate Hudson came to Left Unity after tumbling from the long-defunct Communist party, into the Labour party, on in turn to the Communist Party Of Britain, and from there to Respect - for whom she initially stood in last year's Manchester Central by-election, before George Galloway's views about Julian Assange and rape ("not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion," he said, elegantly) pushed her out. She's also the general secretary of CND. "The intention of Left Unity is to engage very widely with the British population, and to speak to people who've become disillusioned with Labour and no longer feel they have a political voice," she tells me. "We're not orientated towards seeking the support of already-existing left activists or people already involved in left groups, or even people who are primarily trade unionists. We want to get out to a new audience".
Among the people who signed a recent letter to the Guardian publicising Left Unity's first manoeuvres was the broadcaster, poet, children's writer and education campaigner Michael Rosen, a veteran of the non-Labour left. "I got involved because those of us in this position have waited 50 years or more for Labour to rediscover some of the spirit of 1945, and it's never happened," he says. "And for those of us who have moved around various groups on the left ... well, I think the time's up for that as well in many respects - they seem to keep playing the same gramophone record.
"So this seemed like an interesting initiative, with people trying to say: 'Well, there must be unity, and there must be some basic principles.' It's all to be thrashed out. It's early days. But there are possibilities there".
And is he comfortable with the idea of some kind of leftwing equivalent of Ukip? "No, not really. That's Westminster talk. Ukip, by and large, are still banging a single issue and then using immigration as a lever to get votes. "It's very dangerous to sit around and talk about that. So, no, for various reasons, the left shouldn't start talking like that".
It may not need to. Just to prove that politics is getting ever more complicated at speed, a one-time founder of Ukip itself is now aiming at starting a party of the "centre-left", committed not just to EU withdrawal and the repeal of the bedroom tax. New Deal is the brainchild of Alan Sked , the former LSE professor who now thinks Ukip has become unconscionably rightwing. At the weekend, he told the Sunday Times he would stand against Ed Miliband in his Doncaster seat, while another so-far-unnamed recruit would challenge Nick Clegg in Sheffield. On the face of it, this is not much for Labour to worry about; then again, that hasn't stopped people before.
In recent years, challenges to Labour have been a regular feature of UK elections, but never really amounted to much, thanks partly to the far left's apparent belief in an age-old socialist maxim: why have one party when 59 will suffice? In 2001, the electorate was offered the chance to support the Socialist Alliance, who managed to bag a titanic 0.2% of the vote. Four years later, a challenge to Labour was mounted by the Respect Coalition, who got George Galloway elected in east London and come second in three other seats - but split in 2007, when Galloway fell out with the Socialist Workers party. Respect carried on - but went through another convulsion, when Galloway's comments about Julian Assange and the nature of rape led to yet another split.
Elsewhere, there are a multitude of parties: the enduring SWP (recently torn apart by its own rape scandal), the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Labour party (founded and led by former miners' leader Arthur Scargill), the Alliance for Green Socialism, and more. Following the fate of these groups can feel a bit like an eccentric game rather than anything political: it might be a good laugh, but it doesn't actually count for much.
Left Unity claims to be aiming higher, but it is not the only organisation hoping to bring the non-Labour left together and give Miliband a fright. Since 2010, members of the SWP, the Socialist Party, the Scottish group Solidarity and scores of trade unionists have been involved in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), whoseÂ modest highpoint thus far came in 2012, when the Trotskyist political veteran Tony Mulhearn stood to be mayor of Liverpool and got 4,792 votes: a mere 4.86% of the total poll, but enough to beat both the Tories and Ukip. Its nadir arrived in February this year at the Eastleigh byelection, when a candidate called Daz Proctor got 62 votes, finishing two places behind a candidate representing something called Elvis Loves Pets.
There are plenty of people from trade unions involved in TUSC (indeed, insiders claim that TUSC candidates have been helped by donations from local branches of big unions affiliated to Labour). At next year's local elections, they are aiming to field around 400 candidates. The idea that this skeletal organisation might be the foundation of some ambitious new party, though, seems doubtful. "We're not saying that TUSC is the finished formula, by a long shot," says its national agent, Clive Heemskerk. "We could just be a herald of what's to come. If there was a serious move by big trade unions to form their own party, we'd welcome that. But in lieu of that, there are still battles for usÂ to fight."
One person who isn't nearly so cautious is the RMT leader Bob Crow, aÂ member of TUSC's national steering committee. To nobody's great surprise, his union was expelled from the Labour Party in 2004, afterÂ some of its Scottish branches affiliated themselves to the far-left Scottish Socialist party. Since then, the RMT has given money to a handful of parties on the non-Labour left, as well as establishing what an RMT spokesman calls "close political working relationships" with Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens.
Now, Crow has responded to Miliband's plans for the Labour-trade union relationship and the discontent they have sparked by loudly encouraging other unions to start working towards a new party, a call he has been in the habit of making for several years. Some people at the top of the big unions tend to respond to such talk with groans rather than serious interest. As they see it, even if such unions as the GMB finally split with Labour, the chances of them founding a new party remain slim. But, not entirely surprisingly, Crow is sticking to his guns.
"Over 100 years ago, my union and most unions supported the Liberal party, and they were told: 'You've got to stay in the Liberal party and turn it around,'" he tells me. "They broke with that and formed the Independent Labour party, because the Liberals weren't representing people that were working, unemployed, and in social deprivation. They set up the Labour party. And I think, 100 years later, what trade unions are realising is that the three main parties all support privatisation, all support anti-trade union laws, and all support, from time to time, illegal wars around the world."
Miliband's recent moves on Syria, it seems, have not counted for much at all. So when does Crow think a New Workers' party might materialise?
"I don't think it's imminent, like next week. I think what it is, at the end of the day, you can't just go out and say, 'I'm forming a new party.' People are saying to themselves, they're not getting value for money from the Labour party ... IÂ think, eventually, people will turn around and say, 'Well hang on a minute - no one's representing our class of people.' And they'll come together and say, there ought to be a new political party - a new party of working people, unemployed, pensioners. All the people not being represented, but the majority of people in this country. That's the significance of it. They'll come together and form a political party that fights on behalf of working-class people."
What does he make of Left Unity? "Well, it's another group of people. Good luck to 'em. But there's not enough people on the left to start having two or three campaigns. There needs to be one party, speaking on behalf of workers."
Beyond the insistence that any new force will have to grow out of the unions, exactly what Crow has in mind is unclear. These are still early days, perhaps. But his basic conviction is obvious: despite the failure of all those previous attempts, Britain is due a new party of the left, and sooner or later, it will get one. "It will happen," he says. "When it's ready to happen, it will."