Friday 25 January 2013

Is a 'Left UKIP' Possible?

One of the welcome outcomes of the SWP's self-immolation has been a resumption of strategic debate among the 'inside' and 'outside' left. Andy Newman has written about a socialist campaign for Labour victory, Owen Jones has discussed a new movement of the left, and this in turn has spurred responses from Alex Snowden and the inimitable Luke Akehurst.

One of the things to come out of the exchange of polemic is the idea of a 'left UKIP'. This isn't literally a left wing europhobic organisation, but rather a small left populist party outside Labour that could pose just enough of a threat to drag its politics and that of wider society in a socialist direction. Just as UKIP has managed from the right with its toxic brand of little englandism.

Before looking at the viability of a populist left alternative, allow me an aside. In case there is a smidgen of doubt, I remain firmly of the view that the best place for socialists is inside Labour. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. Nor do I share the view that a left UKIP is particularly desirable. The energy expended in building something new would, in my opinion, be better channelled into renewing and deepening the thousands of formal and informal links Labour has with the trade unions and the working class at large, as well as articulating the sorts of socialist policies that can appeal to enough people to make Labour the electorate's preferred party of government. If you are broadly of that view and aren't a party member yet, join here.

But, as many people are fond of saying, we are where we are. And it is a fact of life there are thousands of active trade unionists, community campaigners, and activists (not to mention many more who are inactive, for whatever reason) outside Labour and Britain's marginalised far left who aren't likely to join either any time soon. And having once been among their ranks, I know many would quite like a political home. So there is a desire, but do the means exist for a left alternative to come together?

Yes. And no. I want to concentrate here on two aspects of what is a multi-faceted question: organisation, and electoral/political space.

I suppose the first question to ask is if the left alternative exists already? There are certainly alternatives. Groups that resulted from some kind of rapprochement process on the far left regularly turn up in by-elections. Respect is probably the best known, but the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Socialist Labour Party, and Scottish Socialist Party are also out there vying for votes. But each have a chief weakness (or weaknesses) that hold back their development. Without expending too much time and trying the reader's patience, Respect's chief strength and weakness is George Galloway. At his best he's an articulate enemy of the rich and powerful. And at his worst, well, he's at his worst. Galloway is far too much a marmite figure for the Outside Left to rally around. The SLP is pretty much an organisation that exists only on paper, its potential squandered in a successive purging of activists who earned King Arthur's ire. With the collapse of Tommy Sheridan's Solidarity into nothing and the retreat of his backers (Socialist Party Scotland and the SWP) into their own projects, the SSP more or less has the far left electoral space north of the border to itself. The heady days of 2003 and six MSPs are a long way off now, so it remains to be seen whether it can overcome the trauma Sheridan inflicted on what was a project that briefly broke out the left ghetto. And lastly, TUSC is basically the old Campaign for a New Workers' Party (remember that?) with the RMT, SWP and sundry independents bolted on as semi-detatched affiliates. It is unlikely to become more than the sum of its parts because TUSC remains an optional extra to the party-building projects of the SP and SWP.

I don't think any of these could become a home for the bulk of the outside left because of their reputations, their histories, and their likely trajectories. But should a new formation arise independently existing organisations would have to be dealt with via yet another alliance of convenience, or outright absorption. The former, though possible, could still see Life of Brian-style competition - the 135 candidates fielded across 120 seats in the 2010 general election says it all (particularly so as the SLP is constitutionally bound not to enter into alliances with others). But also, because of the differences, the egos, and the self-righteous rectitude of many leading members within the actually-existing organisations/alliances, only a mass movement of tens of thousands would sweep them into a new left alternative. And even then, it's by no means certain. The SP and SWP Greek co-thinkers, for example, are both outside SYRIZA where, to all intents and purpose, a new left alternative has displaced the traditional social democratic party of Greece's working class.

If thousands of left wingers find what's presently on offer unpalatable - and they do - there is nothing else for them to cohere around. 'Sexy' movements like UK Uncut are unlikely to embark upon an electoral turn, and trade unions just do not command the kinds of active political identification among working people that enabled them to set the Labour Party up over a hundred years ago. The RMT's backing has brought TUSC (and before it, No2EU) little joy, for example. And the left inside Labour is amorphous and diffuse (a post on that another time) and will not desert the big tent for the deadening chill of electoral oblivion outside. There may be some will. But is there a way?

So much for organisation. What about political and electoral space? Only the most blinkered would believe nothing has changed with the election of our grotesquely incompetent and openly sectional LibDem-supported Tory government. Since May 2010, Labour has been the main beneficiary of the anti-Tory, anti-LibDem protest vote. The axis of anti-government politics has swung away from railing against the centre left to the centre right. So the electoral space for left-wing disaffection is smaller than it was in the Blair/Brown years. But a space there is.

I've often noted that when it comes to elections, the far left can reasonably expect something in the one to two per cent range. If they get below, by their own standards they're failing. If they get above, then they're doing well. If you look at the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition's results for the 2012 local elections, TUSC did well polling 6.2% across the 133 English and Welsh wards they contested (even if you strip out the "TUSC" candidates who stood under other names, or were their top performers, they still polled well above 2%). If anything, Respect's vote is even more uneven, ranging from winning seats to trailing the Monster Raving Loonies. So existing performance indicators are suggestive of an electoral space - the kinds of votes already being achieved are not qualitatively behind the BNP at its height, for example.

But electoral space and political space do not quite map onto each other. The profile the BNP had, and the wave UKIP are currently riding was/is overwhelming the result of the fuel the media are pouring into them. If Farage was banished from Newsnight and Question Time, if the media chose to obsess over the NHS, the economy, or crime in the same way it indulges Europe, UKIP would wither on the vine. Similarly, despite having much less of a political presence, the Greens have an MP, actually run a council, and possess many more local authority representatives than UKIP does.

A left alternative would have to find a way of presenting an identifiable presence in both. Respect have to a degree, as did the SSP - but for both they were as one-man bands. UKIP have managed it on the basis of pushing a charismatic leader (Farage, and before him Kilroy), cornering an issue that plays well with the media's preoccupations and is also a source of deep differences in a mainstream party. Iraq may have done that 10 years ago for Labour, but what does now? True, TUSC have tried to corner 'no cuts', but face competition from the media-friendly (and media-savvy) UK Uncut, the hundreds of campaigns that have sprung up around the defence of one particular service and indifference in the face of wide acceptance that cuts "have to be made".

So, by way of a quick summary, the numbers of activists exist to make a left UKIP a real proposition. In fact, I would hazard a guess that there is a potential pool larger than that commanded by UKIP itself. There is clearly some level of support for electoral Outside Left activity beyond the 1-2% far left range. And there are organisations with experience of tackling its inhospitable terrain. But the existence of those organisations present a barrier to be overcome, or a challenge to be negated. The issues they are fighting on do not translate into votes at present, and the bulk of the unaligned Outside Left are not enamoured with what the four existing parties/alliances have to offer for a whole host of reasons.

That is my reading of the left-of-Labour space as it stands now, and is always subject to events. These constellation of factors are freeze frame snippets of a continuing process, but the ultimate fate of that process, whether it produces something new or leads into a political cul de sac will largely be determined by developments elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

"The SP and SWP Greek co-thinkers, for example, are both outside SYRIZA"

This is a gray area truth. The SP "co-thinkers" operate, as you know, under the umbrella of the Committee for a Workers International. The Greek section of this organization is called Xekinima. While Xekinima formally exited SYRIZA in 2011 after a number of years in the coalition, it has since continued close relations with SYRIZA, and may reenter in the future.

A bit of an aside, however a split from the Greek SWP- the DEA- is supported by the US ISO, with similar politics to the SWP. The DEA does work in SYRIZA.

Phil said...

I just find it bizarre that a group committed to new workers' parties/left formations decided to depart from one of its most successful examples just as it hit the big time.

mjog said...

It is interesting to compare the proposal for a “left UKIP” to the situation in Australia, where over the last decade the socially-left Greens party have provided some contrast for one of the big-two parties here — Labor. While Labor have traditionally been seen as the “left wing” party in Australian politics, they have (has as seems all to common these days) drifted towards the centre in if not policy, then in implementation since the 1980's.

With the arrival of the Greens over the last decade as the third party in Australian politics with some electoral victories, mostly at the expense of traditional Labour seats, one would think that perhaps Labor would take this sudden outburst of competition as prompting a return to its roots. Rather, they have sought to distance themselves from the Greens' policies and viewpoints in union with the other major party, the firmly-right Liberals. The picture painted by Labor is for the most part of the Greens as being feral hippies.

So on those grounds, I wonder if a “left-UKIP” with some support from the electorate would be a terribly good thing, or if it would in fact push Labour in the UK further right, as the Greens have done here. Not that I would rather not have the Greens, but it seems that any gains that they going to win for Australian society will be from having Members in seats, not from inspiring Labor to pick up its game.

WELSHMAN said...

Perhaps the problem is that those drawn to far-left activism are complete bellends? Maybe that's why they can never command a level of support amongst the public?

Phil said...

It all very much depends on the constellation of forces, mjog. I imagine that if a left UKIP achieved some degree of success and implantation in the labour movement, Labour would have to respond to prevent a serious rival to it emerging in the unions. Plus because of the link that still exists between the party and organised workers, if it was firing a left mood among wide layers of trade unionists that would be reflected in the party too.

Still, influencing from the outside isn't that productive when the space exists to do so from within.

Phil said...

Welshman, that doesn't explain how the LibDems get elected.

EFComrade said...

CWI in greece left syriza awhile ago before it hit the big time. When syriza was in a lull. The decision to do so was by no means unanimous at the time and has since been publicly acknowledged as a tactical mistake hence the re orientation towards syriza

Evan said...

I think the hope of competition on the left pulling Labour leftwards is fraught if Labour still thinks there are more votes to be gained from potential Tory voters than from the left/Greens/etc. In both the UK and Australia, Labour/Labor have long been under the assumption that the left vote has nowhere really else to go besides Labour/Labor and thus have moved rightwards to try to siphon off the centre-right vote. When a presence has challenged Labour/Labor from the left (such as Militant in the Uk in the 1980s, or the Greens now in Australia), the big party has sought to 'destroy' this competition rather than shift to the left.

Anonymous said...

It amazes me that people can proclaim themselves Marxists without any whiff of embarrassment. He could not have been more wrong about how history and society would develop. Socialists have to get to grips with reality first before they can move forward. That hasn't happened, as we are always debating the sacred texts.

The left alternative does exist, perfectly rational arguments have been put forward but people only rally to anti immigration and attacks on welfare 'cheats'. Those at the bottom are there because they are fucking stupid, the idea that these degenerates could build something as beautiful as a communist society is ridiculous.

Good luck trying to turn water into wine!

Phil said...

That's fair enough, Glyn. Cheers for the clarification.

The big difference though, Evan, was in the 80s Militant was part of Labour. It moved to eradicate it because a) internal fractiousness is an electoral liability, b) their unfettered operation was perceived to count towards Labour's inability to win elections. While the latter point didn't seem to be much of an issue on Merseyside itself, it's hard to determine if it was the case elsewhere.

Phil said...

Ah, another anonymous full of the arrogance of the ignorant.

Chris said...

Having read his article I have to conclude that Akehurst is a very unpleasant human being.

If you are a socialist and in New Labour, you are still a bloody marginal sect. You are not engaging with the 'real' working class or breaking free from bureaucratic centralism or anything like that. You are in a party opposed to socialism and one that speaks for business and in their interests.

So stop pretending you are different to the rest of us.

Phil said...

"If you are a socialist and in New Labour, you are still a bloody marginal sect. You are not engaging with the 'real' working class"

I very much disagree. Thinking of two local councillors I know, one bery New Labour, one a trade unionist and a socialist, both attend their union branches, residents' associations, and hold ward surgeries. They have a closer relationship with the "real" working class than your typical Trotskyist who does a petition and paper stall on a Saturday.

Labour affords an opportunity to speak and *listen* to working class people. Whether all Labour members and representatives utilise that opportunity is up to them.

Phil said...

Of relevance to the discussion above, TUSC are experiencing some ructions (it's like the Socialist Alliance all over again), and to all intents and purposes the United Left Alliance in Ireland has collapsed.