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