The more radical left-wing fringes of British politics can seem a strange and alien world. Meetings in dingy rooms where comrades cite Lenin and Trotsky during long excurses on the “objective conditions” of revolutionary struggle are hardly a recipe for political success.
So it should come as little surprise that the recent history of the radical left in Britain is, to a large extent, one of limited political influence and minimal coverage in the mainstream media.
And yet, there are changes afoot. Shifts in the political landscape are presenting new opportunities for the left. Disaffection with Labour, and Westminster politics more broadly, has given rise to a left-wing populism of sorts. But so far it has been expressed more by media figures such as Russell Brand than by politicians.
In the UK, the Green Party has, with some success, given a voice to left-wing anti-establishment sentiment. And now a party called Left Unity is trying to win support by casting itself as the definitive left-wing voice in British politics.
Founded in November 2013 following a call by film director Ken Loach for a new left-wing political party, Left Unity now has a membership of around 2,000 people. It’s not huge, but respectable.
Its short term goal is to occupy the vacant political space between the Labour Left and established (but small) far-left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain.
The party’s slogan is “Doing Politics Differently” and its members have watched closely as Podemos and Syriza have risen up the ranks in their own countries. At a recent conference, members collectively developed policies on housing, environment, crime and justice, education and foreign affairs, as well as an electoral strategy.
Despite the organisational challenges involved, Left Unity has managed to consolidate itself as a political party with a viable structure and a solid membership base.
And even though the party represents people with a broad sweep of political views – from former Labour Party members through to hardened revolutionary socialists – discussion about the party’s political direction has been generally good natured.
Broadening the appeal
There are some significant obstacles that will need to be overcome if Left Unity is to realise its ambition of becoming the definitive left-wing voice in British politics though.
At the most recent Left Unity conference, numbers of women, ethnic minorities and the under 30s were down on previous conferences. There have been signs that the party’s active membership is consolidating around a hardcore of experienced left-wing activists, most of them older men.
This has meant that the party’s ideological centre of gravity has shifted since it first started out. In the beginning, Left Unity went to great lengths to distance itself from the orthodoxies of established hard-left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, by emphasising pluralism, inclusiveness and a rejection of traditional left-wing jargon. It embraced feminism, environmentalism and anti-racism.
But more orthodox socialism and Marxism seem to have been gaining ground recently, partly because the Communist Platform – a grouping within Left Unity – has been trying to steer the movement towards hardline Marxism. This is a concern for those hoping Left Unity will become the UK’s answer to Podemos.
It also appeared at the conference that feminist issues were less prominent than in the past. Gender equality was scarcely mentioned and delegates voted against a “safe spaces” policy, seen by some as the cornerstone of Left Unity’s feminism.
And even if these internal difficulties were to be addressed, Left Unity would continue to face an inhospitable political climate. UKIP’s recent success notwithstanding, the British electoral system is notoriously unforgiving for newcomers. Despite this, Left Unity plans to field around 12 candidates in 2015, targeting seats held by Blairite Labour Party candidates.
The Greens, in consolidating their position on the left of Westminster politics, have also perhaps neutralised the demand for a new left alternative to Labour, and have a well established party apparatus which Left Unity can’t compete with at the moment.
But even if it doesn’t feature on your local electoral roll in May, the progress made by Left Unity, and the breadth of its ambition, are admirable.
To tap into the available support in the wake of Labour’s rightward drift, Left Unity needs to resist the temptation of drifting into the familiar and reassuring, but politically ineffectual, terrain of orthodox Marxism. To do so would be to the detriment not only of Left Unity, but of the health of UK democracy, which urgently needs a broader range of voices.
Jonathan Dean receives funding from the British Aacademy/Leverhulme Small Grants scheme for his current research project on gender and British left-wing politics..