Ingestre Court, an occupied Soho building, hosted Left Unity's manifesto launch.
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A manifesto launch with a difference: Left Unity attacks Labour from a Soho squat

The new party of the left, Left Unity, launched its manifesto at a squat in Soho with a speech by Ken Loach condemning the main parties.

Ingestre Court, a towerblock of crumbling concrete reaching out from the heart of London’s Soho, has some new residents. Squatters, from a campaign group called Love Activists London, moved in five weeks ago.

This is the seventeenth large prominent building in the capital the group has occupied since December last year. The squatters have already been turfed out of such big vacant spaces as the former RBS offices, the ex-Nikelodeon TV HQ, and the former Institute of Directors building on Pall Mall (labelled “London’s poshest squat”). They expect the bailiffs any day now.

Rav, a 23-year-old clean-shaven and softly-spoken man in a grey jumper, is making an enormous pot of porridge on a portable stove in the squat’s makeshift kitchen. “In central London, you’re usually given two weeks. We’ve been here five,” he smiles. “So I’m prepared to be packing pretty quick.”

Why does he think the 40 or 50 squatters here have a right to live in these places? “There are so many empty buildings in London. And we’re using it to do positive things. To house homeless people, to feed them, and for events and political discussions like this one.”

A hazel brown boxer dog wanders placidly around the ground floor space, which is festooned with sleeping bags, Palestinian flags, socialist stickers and graffiti slogans (“One Solution!”). A man sleeps soundly beside a fire extinguisher against the wall, in spite of the enormous black speaker placed directly in front of him, pulsating beats through the building.

But it’s not just morning naps here today. The squatters are hosting the manifesto launch of a new leftwing party, Left Unity. It is running ten candidates in the general election, in a variety of places, from Vauxhall to Bristol West, and Edinburgh to Ellesmere Port. In the press conference are a smattering of reporters, a handful of curious squatters, and a shopping trolley containing mystery fabrics in the corner.

Ken Loach, the famed socialist film director and one of the high-profile founders of Left Unity, is launching the manifesto. For a leftwing firebrand, he is certainly mild-mannered.

Posing tentatively for photos in front of a wall of Left Unity campaign posters (“Don’t blame immigration: blame the bankers”; “No more evictions: housing is a right”) in a casual blue suit and brown brogues, he says: “I'm only a rank and file member; please don't present me as the leader”.

The National Secretary (and CND leader), Kate Hudson, explains her choice of venue: “A key part of our manifesto is the terrible crisis of homelessness in Britain today… and we support the legalisation of squatting in empty buildings.” Applause ensues. Ellesmere Port and Neston candidate, Felicity Dowling, who does a speech about housing, adds: "This will be a manifesto launch with a difference. Instead of using a glitzy venue like the main parties, we want to highlight the growing crisis of homelessness."

Loach gives a fluent speech about Left Unity’s anti-market aims – all the other parties “base themselves on the idea of the market”. The manifesto provides an alternative to all the narratives we hear from mainstream parties. It is pro-immigration, anti-markets, calls for full employment, and advocates power of the individual over banks and multinationals. Yet the most notable passages of Loach's speech include his disappointment in Labour, and his comments about the trade union movement.

He questions how Labour can call itself a “leftwing party” and sees “no sign the Labour party will end the privatisation and subcontracting in the health service” – kicking Ed Miliband where it hurts; the NHS. “The left is not a crowded place I’m afraid,” he says, sadly. “The left is quite sparse.”

Loach condemns the mainstream parties in the election campaign as “bald men arguing over the comb… a fine point discussion between people who have no real answers”. He believes they “underestimate that there’s a huge anger amongst people”.

When I ask about the role of trade unions, Loach is forthright but critical. He starts by telling the room: “Everyone should be in a trade union; that is our strength.”

But after taking a straw poll of who present is a trade union member, and calling it an “absolute disgrace” that one freelance cameraman isn’t signed up, Loach calls on our unions to take more action, because at the moment the TUC is “just an empty phrase”. He also calls Labour’s “depth of ignorance” about the trade union movement “shocking”.

“This is where we need the strength of working people,” he says. “We need stronger trade unions with stronger leaders that don’t just give money to the Labour party for the Labour party to cut its throat.”

Although it's unsurprising that those with socialist values feel betrayed by Labour, it’s a symptom of the shattered left that the trade union movement is also no longer untouchable.

Norbert, a 59-year-old squatter sipping coffee out of a Cadbury Creme Egg mug, and a rare older member of Love Activists, tells me he used to be a Labour member, but left on Tony Blair’s arrival – “so there’s no blood on my hands”.

He has been squatting since the Seventies, always in London, “because of the housing crisis”. “Rather than just sit in an armchair, being an armchair activist, I’m a foot soldier,” he says.

“I’m the oldest one, it’s mostly young people, and I see them as victims of the banking crisis, and the failure of our established politicians to do anything about it.

“I’m not a supporter of Left Unity, but it’s a progressive political party and I’m happy for it to use this space to launch its manifesto.

“Mainstream politicians should stop bailing out the banks, and use those resources to put into housing. Council housing under control of those representatives elected by the people. We’ve had enough of Thatcher’s legacy.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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6 times government ministers have contradicted each other over Brexit

Getting your line straight is slightly more complex than a moon landing. 

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Theresa May told Jeremy Paxman during the 2017 general election campaign. Almost exactly two months on, her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has declared the UK will seek a transitional deal that could last three years.

Hammond’s comments come a day after government ministers contradicted themselves over when free movement could end. “Strong and stable”, the Tory campaign slogan, has gone the way of Labour’s Ed Stone. 

Here’s a selection of times government ministers have contradicted each other over Brexit.

1. Free movement

Brandon Lewis vs Amber Rudd and Michael Gove

The immigration minister Brandon Lewis declared on 27 July that a new immigration system would be in place from the spring of 2019.

But his departmental boss, the home secretary Amber Rudd, said the same day that there would be an “implementation period” while the flow of EU workers continued and there would be no cliff edge.

Meanwhile, environment secretary Michael Gove and non-expert Brexiteer said days earlier that there was likely to be a transitional period where free movement continued for two years.

2. Chlorinated chicken

Michael Gove vs Liam Fox

One question emerging from discussion of a potential UK-US trade deal was whether chlorine-washed chicken would be allowed into British supermarkets. The international trade secretary Liam Fox said such chicken was “perfectly safe”.

He may not have been round to Michael Gove’s recently for dinner, then. The environment secretary said he opposed the import of chlorine-washed chicken and that “we are not going to dilute our high food-safety standards” in pursuit of “any trade deal”. 

3. Moon landings

David Davis vs Liam Fox

In June, Brexit secretary David Davis suggested the negotiations to leave the EU were more complicated than landing on the moon.

His fellow Brexiteer Liam Fox, on the other hand, said in July that a future UK-EU trade deal should be “the easiest in human history”. Then again, maybe he just has a different definition of easy.

4. Single market and customs union

David Davis vs Philip Hammond

Perhaps one reason the Brexit secretary is finding it so tricky is that on 27 June he told a conference he plans to leave the single market and customs union by March 2019

But the Chancellor, aka the Mopper Up of Economic Mess, stressed Britain was heading down a “smooth and orderly path”. 

5. EU army

Michael Fallon vs Boris Johnson

In 2016, fresh from a Leave campaign which warned of the dangers of an EU army, foreign secretary Boris Johnson voiced his support for… an EU army.

Defence secretary Michael Fallon, though, had previously said the UK would continue to resist any rival to Nato. 

6. The migration cap

Theresa May vs David Davis and Philip Hammond

As home secretary, Theresa May defended the net migration cap, an idea the Tories thought up while in opposition, even though in practice it was widely criticised and never met. Even though, according to the George Osborne-edited Evening Standard, none of her colleagues privately back the target, it has stayed under her premiership. 

Some ministers have publicly questioned it as well. As early as March, Davis said immigration might go up after the UK leaves the EU.  In June, Hammond said the system for businesses recruiting foreign workers would not be more “onerous” than it is at present. 

(You can see all the ministers in the Brexit government that have realised reducing immigration might be a problem for them here)

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.