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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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution