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.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide