The director and socialist Ken Loach launched a campaign for a new left-wing part, Left Unity, last year. Photo: Flickr/Bryce Edwards
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A successful radical left party should be anti-Ukip and not just picking up on Labour's failings

Without a strong left presence, there is no one to counter the rightward march of British politics.

This article was written in response to a column by Helen Lewis asking "Why isn’t there a 'Ukip of the left'?" Read the Green party's response to the column here.
 

It is a common cliché that the task of the modern left is like that of Sisyphus rolling his boulder up a hill time after time only to watch it roll back down again. Repetitive, thankless and ultimately fruitless. I prefer to think of another similarly tortured ancient Greek character in relation to the left: Atlas. Struggling for a better world is not an easy task, but I’m glad there’s someone there to do it.

Without a strong left presence, there is no one to counter the rightward march of British politics, the consensus among mainstream parties of the need for austerity, the scapegoating of immigrants and benefits claimants in place of the bankers who really wrecked the global economy, the rush to privatisation of our vital public services despite the vast majority of people wanting a return to public ownership.

Helen Lewis is absolutely right in her article, ‘Many voters are to the left of Labour on the big issues. So why isn’t there a “Ukip of the left”’, to say that there is space in British politics beyond the edge of Labour. That party was founded at the end of November last year and is rapidly growing to occupy the space Labour long ago vacated: Left Unity.

Left Unity began with a question very similar to the one Lewis raises, asked by Ken Loach on Question Time in February last year: Why isn’t there a Ukip of the left?

“A lot of people in this country share a lot of thoughts,” Loach said. “They hate the breakup of the National Health Service. They hate the privatisations and the outsourcings and the labour agencies and the low wages. They hate the mass unemployment. And there isn’t a broad party that they can vote for…  Ukip has done it for the right. I disagree with almost everything that Ukip stands for, but we need a broad movement of the left.”

Loach, of course, is not arguing for some party with economically left-wing views bound up with euroscepticism and a tough line on immigration. That might be the easy option, the populist option, but that would be to sacrifice principles for a shot at power. We already have one Labour party.

Instead, where Left Unity can play an important role is by helping to provide a counterbalance to Ukip. Where Ukip’s threat to Tory votes has served to pull the government and in turn the entire centre of politics to the right, by challenging Labour where it fails to stand upon the principles on which it was founded, Left Unity can help pull the centre of politics back to the left. It was exactly this kind of public pressure from Left Unity and many other organisations that forced Ed Miliband to pledge to repeal the toxic bedroom tax after months of refusals.

But being a "Ukip of the left" - that is, a successful radical left party - means more than just picking Labour up on its failings. It also means being the anti-Ukip. Where Ukip scapegoats immigrants, Left Unity welcomes them. Where they sow division, Left Unity wants to rebuild solidarity. Where they line up behind a charismatic leader who has the ability to be funny on Have I Got News for You, Left Unity was built on grassroots democracy.

That so many people have turned to vote for the ultra-Thatcherites of Ukip in disillusionment with mainstream politics must serve as a wakeup call to the traditionally fractured left. Politics as usual, with its offering of identikit politicians and stale cloned policies, cannot beat Ukip. The left needs to offer a radical alternative and a united one.

It's undoubtedly true that the politicians have lost touch. We have a government of millionaires who can never speak for the millions. Ukip has been successful in exploiting this disillusionment, but it is the left that holds the answers. All the main political parties support austerity, all have been complicit in the gradual selling off of the NHS, all have increased student tuition fees in office.

Left Unity stands in opposition to these policies. And it stands for policies the other parties - including Ukip - won't touch, such as bringing the railways and energy companies back into public ownership to throw out the profiteers, in turn bringing down prices and offering a better service.

None of this should be hard to achieve, yet it’s a daily struggle against a right-of-centre political mainstream being dragged ever further right by Ukip. But it is pessimistic to only see a boulder rolling down a hill. The left can and has achieved many victories – imagine where we’d be without any kind of opposition. It must continue, like Atlas, to hold firm. Because the alternative would be so much worse for so many people.

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist 

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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