Why Left Unity could become Labour's UKIP

Undominated by a central charismatic figure, and uncontrolled by a single far-left group, Left Unity is a movement that is being built from the bottom up.

"There is a spectre haunting Britain," Ken Loach warned a packed conference hall at the first national meeting of a political movement in its genesis. "It’s called Nigel Farage."

There will be few more haunted by the spectre of Farage’s UKIP than David Cameron as he heads into conference season. With the European Parliament elections looming – traditional high ground for UKIP – the Prime Minister will not be able to ignore a boisterous Tory right, both nervous and emboldened by Farage’s forward march and all the more dangerous for it.

Ed Miliband, by comparison, has had a relatively easy ride from the Labour left, comfortable in the assumption that there is no alternative. Miliband matches Conservative spending plans and where is the left? He refuses to pledge to repeal the bedroom tax and where is the left? He turns his back on the trade unionists who supported his leadership bid and where is the left?

Unfortunately for the working class people most devastated by the cuts, and for democracy as a whole, we now have three main parties fully signed up to an austerity agenda, while UKIP’s rise tugs the national debate even further to the right.

The left, divided and weak, has not yet been able to change the course of that debate, to make the case that it was not welfare spending that wrecked the economy, but a crisis of unfettered capitalism. But things are beginning to change.

In response to an appeal by Loach, almost 10,000 people have signed up to the Left Unity campaign to form a new party of the left, with around 100 local groups springing up organically across the country.

While for many this is not their first shot at uniting a fractured left and the painful experiences of the Socialist Alliance and George Galloway’s Respect are still fresh in their mind, there is a sense that there is something different about Left Unity. Undominated by a central charismatic figure, and uncontrolled by a single Trot group such as the SWP, Left Unity is a movement that is genuinely being built from the bottom up by local activists sick of austerity and fearful of the future of the NHS.

As Left Unity moves towards its founding conference at London’s Royal National Hotel on 30 November, the task of harmonising such a large choir of angry voices will not be easy. But the space is certainly there for a left-wing party to fill.

At the beginning of this year, when Cameron was attempting to see off the UKIP threat and blindside Labour by promising a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, Miliband tacked to the left with a 10p tax rate funded by a mansion tax. The result of failed austerity and Labour offering the glimmer of an alternative was an 11-point poll lead for Miliband’s party. Since Labour’s capitulation to the Tory agenda and a summer of silence, that poll lead has collapsed.
 
The space is there to the left, the votes are there, and if Labour will not fill it, then Left Unity will. 
 
Under first-past-the-post, parties to the left of Labour face an uphill struggle to gain electoral representation. But if Left Unity achieves what Loach and 10,000 others hope it will – struggling every day among the communities most affected by the cuts, defending public services, making a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable people in society and making the case for a more equal society – then it will make Labour fight hard for every single working class vote. 
 
Labour may soon face the threat of its own UKIP. And if the left can just hold it together, then it will no longer go ignored. 
 
Salman Shaheen is a journalist who has written for the Times of India, New Statesman, New Internationalist, Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era