Russell Brand addresses an anti-austerity rally in Parliament Square in June 2014. Photo: Getty
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Many voters are to the left of Labour on the big issues. So why isn’t there a “Ukip of the left”?

There is certainly space in British politics for a party beyond the edge of Labour, but a left-wing alternative has yet to emerge.

For all the barrels of ink spilled and pixels pressed into service predicting the outcome of next year’s election, there are only two trends that matter. The first is the rise of Ukip, gouging support from the Tories’ right flank; the second is the evaporation of the Liberal Democrats, who won 23.6 per cent of the vote at the last general election but could poll in single digits at the next one.

Both trends should give Labour’s spin doctors pause, because when those refugee Lib Dems were looking for somewhere else to go, relatively few of them headed Milibandwards. (A 2011 analysis by Mark Pack found that, of the previous year’s Lib Dem voters, a quarter had stayed loyal, a quarter had shifted to Labour, a quarter had switched to “don’t know” and the rest were “scattered across the other options”.) Is the lack of a left-wing alternative to Labour something the party can count on in future parliaments, or just a fluke of this one? Will there ever be a “Ukip of the left”?

On the face of it, there is certainly space in British politics for a party beyond the edge of Labour. Roughly two-thirds of the public want the railways renationalised but Ed Miliband is only prepared to offer a state company the ability to bid alongside private firms. A similar proportion of people want the utilities taken back into public ownership. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP has recently sold itself explicitly as a left-wing party, willing to fund goodies that would have George Osborne crying “spendthrift” at Ed Balls. When Leanne Wood became the leader of Plaid Cymru in 2012, she proudly described herself as a socialist, adding: “I think there’s a natural left-ness in Wales that is reflected in Plaid Cymru.”

“The radical left has remained constrained by its tendency to focus on esoteric economic arguments, to implode due to infighting and generally steer clear of highly salient issues that it is uncomfortable addressing, like concerns over migration and national identity,” says Matthew Goodwin, an academic who has studied the rise of Ukip. “But there is still ample potential support for a radical left alternative, particularly if it launched a populist critique of Labour’s timidity and the failure of established political and financial elites to address issues like inequality.”

At this point, some of you will be picking up your pens to remind me of the existence of the Green Party. Sheathe them, please. Generous predictions have it on 6-8 per cent of the vote and it is struggling to hold on to its only MP, Caroline Lucas, against a Labour charge in Brighton Pavilion. To survive, Lucas has had to distance herself from the Green-led council, which has been plagued by the kind of “loony left” headlines that damaged Labour in the 1980s. “A ban on bacon butties,” roared the Daily Mail in April: “Traffic-calming sheep . . . the all-too-real story of how Britain’s loopiest party took over Brighton”. (It reported that the Greens were split between moderate “mangos” – yellow on the inside, like Lib Dems – or leftist “watermelons”, who are secretly red.)

A few months earlier, the more sympathetic Guardian had reported on Lucas siding with striking binmen against her colleagues on the council and asked: “Have the Greens blown it in Brighton?” So much for hopes that the Greens might emulate Charles Kennedy’s strategy of rolling the pitch for parliamentary candidates by building support at council level.

Of course, Lucas is not the national leader of the Greens – she was succeeded in 2012 by Natalie Bennett, a former journalist. But few people, even in the Westminster bubble, are aware of that, which points to another problem that the Greens have, compared to Ukip and Nigel Farage. (You can get a long way in British politics with the ability to be funny on Have I Got News for You.) Bennett’s decision to stand again in Holborn and St Pancras, where she got 2.7 per cent of the vote last time, has provoked grass-roots grumbling: why divert resources from a winnable seat to an unwinnable one?

Outside the Greens, the prospects for a radical left are even bleaker. The old hard-left organisations have collapsed, with the Socialist Workers Party imploding after rape allegations against a senior member and with a potential successor, the International Socialist Network, folding over discussions of baroque sexual practices on Facebook. The People’s Assembly Against Austerity has held successful rallies across the country, including one in June headlined by Russell Brand and attended by 50,000 people, but it has no aspirations to become a formal party and sees itself as a broader counterweight to austerity narratives.

Perhaps the fate of the National Health Action Party gives us a clue where the problem is. The group focuses on the NHS, which makes voters reliably misty-eyed; it is run by doctors and nurses; and it has the affable comedian Rufus Hound to sell its message in the media – yet it came only ninth in the European elections in London. That’s the difference between a grumble and a howl of betrayal. Voters might think Labour isn’t doing enough to protect the Health Service from those dastardly Tories but their exasperation hasn’t reached a sufficient pitch for them to give up on the party entirely. Similarly, the country might be to the left of Labour on rail and utilities but people don’t feel strongly enough about those issues for it to affect voting intentions.

There is one final factor: money. In recent years, Ukip has benefited from wealthy donors such as Paul Sykes, who spent £1.5m on a poster campaign for the party in April. There is a dearth of left-wing multimillionaires desperate to pour money into a new party and so far Miliband has managed to keep the big unions onside. If either of those things changes, we might get an answer to the question: “What on earth would a left-wing Nigel Farage look like?” 

Read responses to this article from the Green party and Left Unity.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/