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 Brand, Ken 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