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Labour must watch its left flank in months to come – new party Left Unity is on the move

Left Unity, the new party founded in November with the support of Ken Loach, held its first national conference in Manchester this weekend.

A demonstration against privatisation of the NHS in May 2013. Photo: Getty
A demonstration against privatisation of the NHS in May 2013. Photo: Getty

Left Unity is the hottest thing on the left right now. In a few short months, it has attracted more than 1,800 members. With a new member joining every 10 minutes over the weekend, the party is going from strength to strength.

On Saturday, Left Unity held its first national conference in Manchester. After a day of open, democratic debate around a series of motions sent in by branches and members around the country, the party agreed that it would launch its challenge to the Tory-led government and weak Labour opposition by campaigning against austerity, poverty pay, zero-hour contracts and privatisation.

Left Unity is committed to introducing a mandatory living wage and a 35-hour working week with no loss of pay to support people struggling with their work-life balance.  

It will campaign to bring the railways and the energy companies back into public ownership, policies that big business-backed Labour will not even consider even though they are supported by the vast majority of British people. The best Miliband is willing to offer, despite rightly pointing to a cost of living crisis, is a temporary price freeze on energy bills. But neither the energy companies nor the railways – which could only ever be run as monopolies in private hands – have delivered the promised and overly vaunted choice and competition that the deified ultra free market philosophy would have us believe gives the best deal for consumers. Bringing them back into public ownership would not only allow such companies to be run in the interests of their workers, but also their consumers, the poorest of which are being crippled by soaring costs.

The party committed itself to defending the NHS from creeping back-door privatisation, to campaigning against the bedroom tax and campaigning to build a million new affordable, spacious social homes while reigning in rocketing private rents.

Conference supported a push not only for many more green jobs, but many more purple jobs as well. The term refers to jobs in the caring sectors which are being remorselessly cut by local authorities as a result of national government reductions in their funding. Left Unity not only wants to reverse those cuts, but significantly expand the public sector, ensuring that labour necessary for society no longer faces low wages and increasingly casualised and precarious conditions of employment. These are jobs which are critical to support disabled people, the sick and the rapidly growing numbers of older pensioners. They are also jobs in childcare, which the party agreed should be provided free to all those with children below school age. Fundamentally, the purpose of purple job creation is to free women from primary caring responsibilities which have led to their concentration in part-time work, discontinuous labour, and involuntary underemployment. Ending segregation of the labour market where women are consigned to low pay and underemployment to enable them to provide care for children, sick, disabled people and the elderly, these jobs will enable men and women to work in this sector. This is a step towards ending women’s unpaid personal labour at home, allowing their full participation in employment and their access to education, personal development and economic independence.

Left Unity is opposed to fracking. As yet, the evidence for the safety of pumping chemicals into the ground to extract gas from shale is sketchy. And even if, in the fullness of time, fracking is proved safe, it ties us into further exploitation of fossil fuels, hampering efforts to bring carbon emissions down and distracting us from the need to be massively expanding renewable energy.

Now that Left Unity has agreed a core set of policies, the hard work of campaigning can begin. The party has had an encouraging start for an organisation that emerged from nowhere to be built from the bottom-up by independent activists fed up with the political status quo. But for Left Unity to succeed, it will now have to turn outwards. It will need to campaign on the streets, in the workplaces and in the unions. It will have to support – not hijack – local campaigns across the country to save hospitals and libraries, to shut down fracking sites, to oppose the bedroom tax and to stop the racist EDL. Only when Left Unity has done all of these things, when it has actively tried to make a difference to the lives of poor, vulnerable and oppressed people, will it have the right to ask for their vote.

Ukip may be making the headlines as we approach the European elections next month, threatening to steal thousands of votes from the Conservatives and forcing them to watch their right flank. But Labour will have to watch its left flank in the months and years to come. Because Left Unity is on the move.

Salman Shaheen is a Principal Speaker for Left Unity