Last Saturday, a new socialist party, Left Unity- founded on the call for a new leftist voice- met for its first policy conference. By all accounts it was as productive as all left-wing splinter groups tend to be. The day before the conference the party still wasn’t sure who would be attending, and during it they debated on policies such as those to disband the army in favour of ‘arming the people’. On the whole, the conference itself was an omnishambles of disorganised motion debates and fractious internal elections.
There is an unwritten rule in politics that nothing is inevitable until it happens. However, I think it’s necessary to make a special exception for Left Unity. This organisation is doomed to fail. Despite pretense of being modern and dynamic, Unity is merely a hangover of Militant Tendency, which plagued the electoral efforts of the sensible left in the 1980s and thus paved Margaret Thatcher’s path to power.
Indeed, you only have to look at the 1983 election to understand why the left faired so dismally when it was divided. The vote was split between a variety of parties whose names were permutations of the words ‘revolutionary’, ‘independent’, ‘communist’ and ‘militant’. Certainly no way to do politics.
In an interview on Daily Politics, Unity’s principle speaker- the ever charismatic Salman Shaheen- was asked whether the party’s aim was to fight against the Labour Party or pull it to the left. His reply was an exacerbating “both”; ignorantly defying the paradox. In the Labour Party, there’s no room at the table for those who stand candidates against it. If Left Unity take Labour voters who are further on the left, then it will simply make the party more centre-ground, failing one of Shaheen’s professed aims. Once again demonstrating the contradiction in terms which is Left Unity.
The reason for the founding of Left Unity goes back to the film director Ken Loach and his call for a new political party of the working class to compete against the Labour Party. I’m a big fan of Loach’s work; a particular favourite of mine is a film called ‘Land and Freedom’ on the Spanish Civil War (an area in which I have intense interest), about a fictional young socialist from Liverpool who goes to Spain to fight for the Republic against the right-wing rebels.
As such, Ken Loach should understand better than anyone else how damaging it is when left-wing groups splinter away from each other. The reason the progressive forces in Spain lost the Spanish Civil War to the Nationalists was because of division amongst left and centrist groups. The main groups included the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) who were in tense coalition with the PCE (Spanish Communist Party) and the left Republicans (also in conflict with liberal Republicans), but opposed the POUM (Marxist Unification Worker’s Party) as well as the Anarchists, who didn’t like the POUM also. Confused yet? Most of Spain certainly was at the time.
There’s a particularly poignant part in the film where PSOE and POUM militants are fighting each other in Barcelona. An old woman gets caught up in the crossfire and, exacerbated at the infighting, shouts at the militants “shouldn’t you be fighting Franco?”
I could replace the word ‘Franco’ with ‘Tories’ and say the very same about Loach’s Left Unity group. With so much at stake in 2015, we can’t risk losing like we did in 1983 because we aren’t really sure what strand of socialism we want to offer the public. Labour has already pushed the boundaries of palatable left populism – with policies like the energy price freeze – so that we can still appeal to the middle classes, whose vote are so crucial for victory. Left Unity’s constitution looks more like a new ‘longest suicide note in history’ than a genuine political program for change. As Marx said: “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
The need for Labour to win over the centrists has always been very clear. History has taught us that when we abandon middle-class people in favour of far left policies, Labour tends to lose. Michael Foot learnt this lesson the hard way in the 1980s whilst Tony Blair capitalised on this opportunity for progress in 1997, excluding the Tories from office for over a decade.
And, although it is currently fashionable for members of the left to resent Blair, it was New Labour that gave us the minimum wage, EMA and tax credits – all of which helped to support some of the poorest people in our country. Britain doesn’t need “a new party of the left” just for the sake of it, with no real direction. The only real aim of Left Unity is to damage the electoral prospects of the Labour Party and pave the way for a Conservative majority in 2015.
By Jake Pitt