Listen to this article
At the Old Black Lion in Northampton, mild is on tap and revolution is in the air. The pub is the weekly meeting venue for the local branch of Left Unity, a new political party aiming to fuse Britain’s fissiparous socialists. Ahead of its founding conference in London on Saturday, I went to the shoemaking town to see what, according to Salman Shaheen, a journalist and member of Left Unity’s national committee, should represent a typical local party meeting. “It’s [in] the back room of a pub in a deprived area,” he added.
In fact, the Unite union has booked the back room, so we meet in the main bar area. Five regulars keep the bartender company. A television plays The Paul O’Grady Show on mute while speakers blare a Trevor Nelson Spotify mix. Bianca Todd, the local Left Unity co-ordinator, tries to make herself heard over the beats, explaining how this party will be different to the rest.
“I think people are fed up with protesting,” she tells me. Todd, a sparky, hoodie-wearing 36-year-old who runs a charity for ex-offenders, favours practical action over beardy chats about the Russian Revolution. She has a sense of fun. In a stunt to publicise the founding of the Northampton branch, she distributed “guerrilla gardening” kits complete with seeds and bulbs to nearby residents. “We can’t spend our time talking about Marx, Trotsky and Lenin.”
Yet, within a few minutes of the meeting starting, a familiar division emerges. There are 10 people around the table, including Todd, her partner, her mother and her father (her grandfather was general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union). The latter has a problem with David Smith, another attendee, who is accused of being insufficiently working class (he went to university.) The mood quickly darkens. If Northampton is indicative of Left Unity’s future then, according to one attendee, “it could dissolve on the basis of what happened at Kronstadt”.
Since its launch in March by the film-maker Ken Loach and other activists, Left Unity has self-consciously presented itself as “the Ukip of the left”. Shaheen says this is only a “metaphor” that expresses the need for “a gravitational pull” on Labour from the left, in a similar sense to how Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence party moves the Tories to the right.
The parallel is misguided, according to Robert Ford, a professor of politics at Manchester university. “It took Ukip the best part of 15 years and a very charismatic leader to get their heads off the canvas,” he says. “They have learnt how to campaign.” Ford predicts Ukip will finish first in next year’s European elections before winning seats in Westminster.
The idea of Left Unity as socialist Faragism also misses how the party “has no grounding in popular sentiment”, argues Nick Pearce, director of IPPR, a centre-left think-tank. In part this is because the far left and Ukip are not speaking to different audiences. Ford says: “Ukip is the most working-class party in Britain.” Its typical supporter is not the southern stockbroker of caricature but the “sixtysomething voter from the Midlands and the north of England who left school without qualifications”.
John Allen, a member of the Northampton branch of Ukip, is a case in point. Allen, a third-generation military veteran, has been out of work for five years. The 63-year-old puts this down to a mix of age discrimination and immigration. “If we had control over our borders, then the jobs issue would be dead in the water,” he says. “I’m looking at Ukip on the same basis as the wartime campaign my father fought.”
For Ukip voters, immigration is a more important issue than the EU. They are often uncomfortable with recent cultural changes in modern Britain, says Anthony Painter, author of the recent book Left Without a Future. Ford believes “the voters Ukip are winning are the voters that are losing in the recession”.
This reflects a deeper problem, according to American academic Francis Fukuyama, who in early 2012 wrote of “the absent left”. Since the financial crisis, he argued, rightwing populist politicians who tapped into anxieties about globalisation and cultural change have flourished in Europe and the US, while their opponents struggled.
Many on the left agree with Fukuyama’s premise. Owen Jones, author of Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class, and at 29 perhaps the most influential of a new generation of leftwing commentators, tells me he is fond of Milton Friedman’s insight about how, when crisis occurs, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”. And in 2008, he says, there was “a vacuum on the left”.
Nearly two years on from Fukuyama’s article, has anything changed? If one sees the left as synonymous with parties such as Left Unity, then the answer seems to be No. As Fukuyama wrote dismissively: “The left has not been able to make a plausible case for an agenda other than a return to an unaffordable form of old-fashioned social democracy.”
But if one thinks of the left as a broader movement, defined by a belief in collective action to bring about greater equality (other definitions are available from good second hand bookshops), then there are signs of life, including at the top of the Labour party.
Contemporary feminism, for example, is vibrant. Young writers such as Laurie Penny, Holly Baxter, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Helen Lewis are evidence that, in the latter’s words, “there’s a critical mass of women who just won’t shut up about the things they care about”. Campaigns such as End Violence Against Women and No More Page Three are gaining prominence. So too Everyday Sexism, a project highlighting the pervasiveness of gender discrimination, which this year forced Facebook to drop some target adverts that featured next to offensive posts.
Laura Bates, 27, who founded Everyday Sexism in April 2012, says this is an “incredibly exciting moment for feminism in the UK”. Nevertheless, she says, “I don’t feel like it is currently a deeply politicised movement – the idea of being on the left doesn’t feel like it is particularly at the heart of this resurgence.” Bates describes the movement as “very pragmatic and down-to-earth”. Though, as Melissa Benn points out in the IPPR journal Juncture, “What’s most striking about this new wave . . . is how predominantly cultural the concerns are.”
There is a pragmatic and fragmented quality to the economic pressure groups that have arisen on the left. UK Uncut, founded in 2010, stages acts of civil disobedience to highlight tax avoidance. Campaigners against cuts to the legal aid budget or the so-called “bedroom tax” focus on single issues. Community organisers, such as Citizens UK, have put the living wage higher up the agenda of all mainstream political parties. Groups such as Occupy deliberately emphasise means over ends.
The most recent attempt to bring these disparate groups into a movement against the government’s spending cuts is the People’s Assembly, which launched this year and is part-funded by big trade unions. At a recent meeting of activists in Manchester, Penny Hicks, local organiser, argues: “Those groups that aren’t willing to work together are being marginalised.” She says it is too soon to tell whether it will be a mass movement. Jones, one of the Assembly’s founders, is more optimistic, citing hundreds at recent meetings. However, he adds: “If it’s seen as a party, then it disintegrates. People won’t have anything to do with it.”
Despite Jones’s optimism, the People’s Assembly is for now at least a modest smorgasbord of curious newcomers and stalwart activists. However, the young commentator has been corresponding with the comedian Russell Brand, who in a recent essay for the New Statesman called for a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system”. An accompanying BBC Newsnight interview has been viewed more than 9m times on YouTube.
The comedian’s intervention seems to have captured what Prof Ford describes as “a feeling of voicelessness and a feeling of powerlessness” that has grown since the financial crisis. Scandals in parliament, the media and the police have reduced trust in established institutions, according to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey. The study found that 75 per cent of Britons agree with the statement that “the political system is not working for them”.
Ford believes this “cross-party, cross-ideological loss of faith in the way of doing things” also presents an opportunity. There is, he says, “a groundswell for something politically new”, which offers succour to these Britons’ economic insecurities and cultural attitudes.
The pledge by Ed Miliband at this year’s Labour conference to freeze energy prices was, his supporters argue, an answer to those who accuse the left of having had no intellectual response to the crisis – and to the accusation that politics does not matter to people’s lives.
Lord Stewart Wood, an adviser to the opposition leader, says: “You have to ask: what kind of centre-left faced the crisis in 2008? It was a left that felt there were certain fundamentals about the market economy that you couldn’t question.”
Five years on, he says, “the rules of the game have changed”. Real incomes have been stagnant or worse since 2003 and the Labour party is making a political bet on its hypothesis that even as macroeconomic growth returns, microeconomic fortunes will remain detached and, therefore, voters will be open to a less deferential approach to markets. Jones agrees, saying “the public consciousness has shifted”.
Critics of what Miliband calls “responsible capitalism” say his philosophy is no more than a return to the old-fashioned socialism that Fukuyama disdains, and which belongs in the Old Black Lion pub. Miliband’s supporters dispute this. “The policy has more in common with early 20th-century progressivism than postwar statism,” one shadow cabinet minister tells me.
Miliband will also need a cultural message to complement his economic one, Anthony Painter says. “Traditionally Labour has spoken to the economically anxious; Conservatives to the culturally anxious. Now it is not so clear-cut.” Ukip’s success shows that populist sentiment does not obey a simple left-right spectrum. Yet Miliband’s bet that the public will give his arguments a listen is a sign that the left is finding a voice again. It has yet to prove it is popular but it is no longer absent.
John McDermott is an FT commentator
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published