Why doesn’t Labour face a UKIP of the left?

The loyalty of the trade unions to Labour, the rebirth of street politics and, in Scotland and Wales, Plaid Cymru and the SNP help explain why the party faces no effective challenge from the left.

Notwithstanding the defection of UKIP MEP Martina Andreason last Saturday, the Tories look set to lose the Eastleigh by-election on Thursday thanks to a surge by Nigel Farage's party.

Now routinely hitting 8-12 per cent in national polls, UKIP’s rise might not be enough to break our three-party system, but it may see them improve on their position in next year’s European elections and perhaps deprive the Tories of an overall majority in 2015 by splitting the centre-right vote as the Cameroon Tory party tacks to the centre; leaving UKIP space to pick up alienated social conservatives with a penchant for small-state solutions and a disavowal of all things European.

But why does this not work on the other side of the political aisle? Why is there no effective leftist challenge eating away at Labour’s core support? On the face of it, it seems anomalous. As Labour moved to the right under Tony Blair from 1994 onwards, enormous amounts of political space opened up on the left.

Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, born of the decision to scrap the Clause IV commitment to large-scale nationalisation, was the first to try and fill it back in 1995. Both the Socialist Alliance and George Galloway’s Respect party have also unsuccessfully attempted to occupy Labour’s left flank. Granted, Galloway has now poked Labour in the eye on two memorable occasions; beating pro-Iraq war Blairite Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and then, last March, winning the Bradford West by-election. But these were aberrations and no wider breakthrough has followed.

There’s a reason for that. Well, actually there are three. The first is organisational. Setting up a political party requires cash – rather a lot of it. Without hefty benefactors, this is an insurmountable problem for left-wing pretenders. The trade unions offer Labour both finance and organisation. Those who see the relationship as solely monetary miss the point. Labour’s affiliated unions supplement the party’s activist base with a reserve army of committed, well-organised and politically-motivated supporters. Without the trade unions, no left-wing alternative to Labour stands a chance.

The second reason is that idealists have simply taken to the streets. From the Stop The War movement through to UK Uncut, new grassroots movements, relying on social media, rather than union funding, are reinventing the left as oppositional mass protest. The compromises of constitutional politics, as Ed Miliband’s Marxist theorist father, Ralph, noted in his book, Parliamentary Socialism, means that many left-wing idealists, who would in previous years have caused problems for Labour’s moderate leadership, are now happy to bypass party politics altogether.

The third reason Labour faces no effective challenge from the left is down to existing choice, at least for voters on the Celtic fringe. Although Labour would never admit it, both Plaid Cymru and the SNP are essentially social democratic parties, offering a viable, centre-left, anti-Tory alternative to wavering Labour voters. The choice for English voters though is essentially one of stick or twist; with twist in this instance being the option of not voting at all.

As UKIP threatens to reshape British politics by taking up permanent residence on the Tories’ right flank, David Cameron can perhaps be forgiven for wishing disgruntled Tories simply stayed at home too.  

Protesters occupy the Fortnum and Mason department store in London on March 26, 2011, during a mass demonstration against government spending cuts. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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