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.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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