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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.