Left Unity media officer Tom Walker says we can’t let UKIP be the only option for the disenchanted
I’m going to come right out and say it: we can’t wish away the rise of UKIP. Yes, I’m as annoyed as anyone else that Nigel Farage is on Question Time every other week. Yes, plenty of other things happened in these elections, not least a body blow to the Lib Dems. But we are kidding ourselves if we think the UKIP vote is all media fluff.
We might expect the hard right to do well in the European elections and the Tory shires, but UKIP took 10 out of 21 local council seats up for election in Rotherham – Rotherham! Seven seats in Dudley. Three in Walsall. Two in Wakefield. And so on down the grim list.
If the left was getting results like this we’d be dancing in the streets. ‘News’ is called that because it doesn’t report things that have stayed the same, but things that are new – and this political situation is new. We need to have a serious analysis of why it has happened and what we can do about it.
Any answer has to start from the deep sickness of mainstream politics. All the pundits now agree that there is an “anti-politics mood”, but this is a strange phrase – if anything it is an anti-politician mood. While the roots go back further, this climate started to become noticeable around the MPs’ expenses scandal, and is reflected in the various polls that find politicians are less trusted than estate agents and such. It is encapsulated in popular phrases such as ‘the political class’.
Low turnouts reflect the widespread feeling that there is little point in voting, as politicians are all out for themselves, on the take, and never keep their election promises. Not only is there “no one else to vote for”, but it seems a significant number of people vote for whoever is most likely to wind up ‘the politicians’. UKIP fuses this sentiment with a right wing populism that takes aim at tabloid targets: immigrants, benefits and so on.
It is important to get this the right way around: while UKIP does attract a hard racist vote, for their softer support it is alienation from ‘politics’ that creates the space, then racist and anti-poor (or ultra-neoliberal) ideas that fill it. In the run-up to the founding of Left Unity we sometimes spoke of a ‘space on the left’, and that remains, but in truth there is a vast space all the way around the edges of the increasingly embattled, narrow ‘centre’. We have a Tory-Liberal coalition and a Labour opposition that doesn’t oppose anything. While the main parties fight over a few votes in marginal seats, their historic bases continue to crumble.
Shaping the debate
Elections matter – if I need to make this explicit – because they drag the entire political debate behind them, not just reflecting but fuelling the vicious circle of right wing ideas in society. So we see the Labour leadership falling over themselves to pander to racism.
Already we have seen Ed Balls saying we need “tough controls on immigration” and Sadiq Khan writing a grovelling apology to UKIP voters, saying “we were too quick to dismiss concerns about immigration, or even worse – accused people of prejudice”. Today Ed Miliband said “it’s not prejudiced to worry about immigration, it’s understandable.”
This is not only surrendering to the politics of scapegoating, but will fail on its own terms. UKIP’s anti-politician voters will not return to an anti-immigration Labour Party – but Labour’s base will be further pushed away by such rhetoric. Meanwhile, the 2015 election on the horizon has only two possible outcomes: either Labour will win and implement austerity (the notion it wouldn’t do this is a fantasy), or it will lose and draw the conclusion that it needs to move further onto Tory and UKIP territory.
That’s where we come in. As Labour moves to the right, Left Unity can grow by standing up for left principle – and make an appeal on a progressive basis to those who are fed up with politicians of all stripes.
Our first few local election results are, as Wigan Left Unity candidate Stephen Hall wrote, “modest beginnings” – though picking up 8.8% in Wigan West for a brand new party is pretty good in my book. In the round, the results show that we cannot expect immediate breakthroughs, but which new party has ever won a seat from a standing start?
The question for us is how to build on these results. If we accept my argument above that people want to stick it to the politicians, then what kind of message should we be putting across? Seumas Milne writes that “the only antidote to the growth of the far right is a populism of the left: one that targets class and corporate power instead of foreigners”. While some may bristle at the word ‘populism’, it’s not too difficult to see that the left could be channelling and expressing the popular discontent towards our kinds of targets – bankers, bosses, the super-rich, tax dodgers, energy companies, corrupt politicians, ‘the 1%’.
Among the current options to the left of Labour, including the Greens, none is currently able to project itself as the choice for the disenchanted in the way UKIP does. This is not a question of moaning about media blackouts but of having a story to tell that resonates with people. Yes, we need positive policies, on housing, jobs, healthcare and more besides, and we’re doing well on that front so far. But we can’t let UKIP be the only party for the pissed off. We need to follow the example of Syriza in Greece, and construct a party that can do on the left what UKIP has done on the right.
Left Unity must not be another ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ left project, but a party that works over years and decades to become that left force. Good things come to parties that build branches, nurture local bases, get known for campaigning work in their communities – and stay the course. While this is certainly no easy road, more is at stake than a few council seats: success for Left Unity could pull the entire political narrative kicking and screaming in our direction.
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