“A softer, more hipsterish form of hard-left socialism.” This is Labour activist and former candidate Kate Godfrey’s recent description of the fringe leftwing party Left Unity. And although she was being tongue-in-cheek, there is something to it.
The new party emerged from the veteran director of working-class films Ken Loach calling for a socialist alternative to Labour in 2013. And because it was brand new, and because Loach is arty and a bit middle-class, it has managed to avoid associations with the familiar crusty old splinter and fringe groups that have long been attempting to tug Labour to the left.
Its willingness to criticise trade unions has also helped with its more modern image. When I interviewed Loach last year, he told me: “Agitation in other countries has been much greater. I think it’s partly to do with the trade union leadership not leading our struggle.” This year, he added: “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.”
The party’s 2015 manifesto launch was held in a Soho squat. Bassy electronic music pounded away from a giant speaker in the background, as young activists and squatters cheered the party’s policies and booed heartily whenever TTIP or the Tories were mentioned.
But now the new kids on the socialist block are a bit stuck. Following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the party has been unsure about its relationship with the suddenly more socialist opposition.
Since Corbyn arrived on the scene, the party has lost “several hundred” members to Labour, according to a Left Unity spokesperson, and is now down to 1,500 official members. It has had to put the vote to its conference whether to continue existing as a political party (it voted yes) and whether to stand candidates against Labour MPs in parliamentary elections while Corbyn is leader (it voted no). It has yet to decide whether or not to stand candidates in local elections against Labour.
It also voted to support the movement born of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, Momentum: “Left Unity welcomes the establishment of the grassroots network called Momentum. Left Unity encourages members to join the network.”
But Momentum has troubles of its own regarding relationships with other parties. A national organiser, Paul Klug, recently said, “absolutely no members of other political parties are welcome at Momentum [decision-making] meetings”.
Momentum is trying to avoid other parties – such as the Socialist party, which has caused controversy by calling for individual Labour MPs to be deselected at Momentum meetings – using its campaign to push their own agendas, rather than helping Labour’s electoral chances.
“They have to be careful not to launch all their fire on the left,” warns Left Unity membership and communications officer Simon Hardy. “At the moment, Momentum isn’t organised in a democratic way. The members should get together and decide what kind of organisation they want it to be before they start excluding people . . . That’s not really the new politics that people are talking about.”
Hardy adds: “We would like to go to the meetings and take part in discussions.”
Although Left Unity isn’t the main leftist party Momentum is concerned about, Left Unity members will still be blocked from its internal meetings under its new code of conduct. I hear from a Momentum source that the organisation does “feel bad” for Left Unity members and has never “had any problem” with them, but practicalities must prevail as it “still counts” as another political party that has no electoral agreement with Labour.
But if Left Unity’s so keen to be involved, why not join the Corbyn-run Labour party instead?
“There are some things that Left Unity can say and do that the Labour left can’t do,” says Hardy. “The Labour left is part of the Labour party and so they have to be much more sensitive to the internal dynamics . . . We don’t have to have arguments with the right that you do have to in the Labour party.”
Left Unity principal speaker Felicity Dowling, 65, who was one of the Militant Liverpool councillors expelled from Labour in the Eighties, won’t be joining her old party any time soon: “I’m delighted to have a Labour leader in support of socialist ideas, but I think it’s a long way before the Labour party is all standing with the hardest hit, and they still see themselves as being part of a political class that administers what the 1 per cent really want.”
Perhaps that can be translated as: I won’t join until all the Labour MPs are Corbynites. And Left Unity is not against deselection. “If leftwing Labour members want to get rid of particularly rightwing Labour MPs then I think they should do that,” says Hardy. “That’s part of the process of trying to make the Labour party a more accountable party, but also a party that’s standing up for ordinary people against big business, corporate interests and so on.”
But to have a say in who gets to stand as a Labour candidate, you have to be a Labour member. And despite Left Unity’s warmth towards Corbyn and Momentum, it has not been welcomed. “You won’t be welcome,” former frontbencher Alan Johnson MP repeatedly told Hardy during a recent debate on the BBC’s Daily Politics.
“Labour seems quite willing to have war criminals like Tony Blair as members,” Hardy says. “And the awful, rightwing, pro-market Henry Jackson Society, Progress with all that money from Lord Sainsbury, hedgefunds, and ex-Tory MPs like Shaun Woodward. All those people are welcome, but then you get someone who’s anti-war and pro-trade union and anti-austerity, and some people on the Labour right make it quite publicly clear that they don’t really want you as members.”
Now listen to Anoosh Chakelian discuss Momentum with George Eaton and Stephen Bush, on this week’s New Statesman podcast…