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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