Can the Greens become the "Ukip of the left"? Photo: Getty
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The very nature of left-wing policies and party funding means there isn't a Ukip of the left

Instead of asking why there isn't a feasible left-of-centre party, we should be asking why, when support for their policies is so high, only 1 per cent of voters crossed the Greens' box in May 2010.

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

This week has been a good one for the website voteforpolicies.org.uk. The team have finally hit their fundraising target meaning they will now be able to replicate their popular 2010 site for next year's general election. As described by a Channel 4 reviewer, posted with pride on the site, "Vote for Policies is an interesting survey based on policies alone - allowing  users to find out who they would vote for if the policies were anonymous."

And as the Conservatives "won" the last election with 36 per cent of the UK vote, it was also the Conservatives who came up on top on voteforpolicies.org.uk in 2010, right? Wrong. In fact, it was the Greens who came top, with 25 per cent identifying most closely to their policies - ahead of second-place Labour by a margin of 5 per cent, and ahead of the Tories by over 10 per cent.

Using visitors to one website as a representative sample of Britons is not without its flaws - perhaps the half-a-million people who took the survey happened to be more left-wing than the general population? But as the New Statesman's deputy editor, Helen Lewis, wrote last week "there is certainly space in British politics for a party beyond the edge of Labour."

Helen and I are in agreement that the electorate is crying out for a party that represents their views on a range of issues from nationalisation to the living wage. Helen is also not alone in calling for a "UKIP of the left" - here she is joined by Russell BrandKen Loach of Left Unity and a plethora of founders who have set up their parties because of a perceived "vacuum" in British politics. But the reason I asked her to grant me the column inches for this article - which, by the way, went directly against the plea in her article for affronted Greens to "sheath our pens", so I am very grateful to her for humouring me! - is that, as I have argued elsewhere, I believe nothing will be gained by creating another leftist party when so much activist time has been spent on one already.

One of the lessons we can learn from Vote for Policies is that the public are already behind the Greens' political aims. The Greens' already boast three MEPs, an MP, a working peer, two London Assembly Members and 162 Councillors (plus two MSPs north of the border). In addition, the struggle involved in becoming an elected Green means that a) the power hungry need not apply and b) those who make it are at the top of their game. Just check-out the number of political awards Caroline Lucas MP has totted up for a list to make you feel inadequate.

I believe that the very nature of left-wing policies and the current party-funding structure and media environment means that there will never be a "Ukip of the left". Creating a new "Green Party. v2" will simply mean spending time building up a party which will ultimately repeat the Greens' modest electoral history - if indeed if ever manages to match a party that punches so far above its weight.

So instead of asking why there isn't a feasible left-of-centre party, we should be asking why, when support for their policies is so high, only 1 per cent of voters crossed the Greens' box in May 2010.

Rich businessmen and media magnates have a vested interest in pushing the political discussion to the right in order, consciously or otherwise, to preserve their own wealthy and privileged lifestyles and that of their descendants. This is why they can often be found bankrolling and publicising parties that maintain the status quo, both politically and economically. It is unsurprising that voters, who despite the great work of campaigns such as Vote for Policies, still gain the majority of their political information from the mainstream media, go on to vote these parties into power.

To combat this problem, the Green Party advocates public funding for political parties, allocated on the basis of previous performance in proportional elections (as have others here). Amid the ongoing cash-for-peerages scandal, reform was promised at the start of this government - but given who benefits from the current system, it is hardly surprising that reform was not forthcoming. How can there ever be a "Ukip of the left" whilst Ukip are allowed to receive a £1m donation from one single supporter's company? It is hardly likely that there are similar millionaire donors waiting in the wings to donate to or to use their news-sheets to publicise a party that would see them give up much of their wealth to help those less fortunate in society. Similarly, it is unlikely that a party that relies on such donations would produce legislation to reduce wealth inequality - how on earth would it fund its next election campaign?

Just as Vote for Policies found it needed capital to reach its audience, political parties can't pay for their election campaigns using just goodwill. It costs cold hard cash to fund press staff, pay for candidate's deposits, pay for leaflets and advertising. Without a fairer system of party funding, no party that dares challenge the super-rich can ever compete.

Clare Phipps is editor of the London Green Party website and is studying for a PhD in gender and health

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser