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. 

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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