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.

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

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?” 

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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.