Ukip’s sensational advances in the county council elections have confirmed that the tectonic plates are shifting in British politics.
The Conservative/Liberal coalition is in a very bad place. This is fundamentally because its austerity policies have demonstrably failed.
Even if the British economy didn’t shrink in the first quarter of 2013, it continues to stagnate.
What the Financial Times calls “austerity fatigue” is growing, not simply in Britain but across Europe.
The case for slashing public spending has been intellectually discredited. And even European Commission president Manuel Barroso has admitted that austerity “has reached its limits” politically.
Ukip’s advances have underlined that the Tories are in electoral trouble. Former Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft recently revealed the results of a survey of 19,000 voters in 213 marginal constituencies.
It predicted that Labour would win an 84 seat majority in the next general election, now set for 7 May 2015.
Ukip’s rise is part of a much broader phenomenon, which has seen voters elsewhere in Europe revolt against the political establishment. Thus Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy won a quarter of the vote in February’s elections.
But while Grillo sometimes plays with left wing themes, Ukip is much more unambiguously a right wing populist party. It rejects not just the European Union but also immigration and multiculturalism.
Asked what was good about Britain, a focus group of Ukip voters replied, “Its past”.
The election results will exacerbate tensions within both the coalition and the Tory party itself.
The Thatcherite right, increasingly alienated from David Cameron’s leadership, was already campaigning for a bill promising a referendum on EU membership in the next parliament. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has admitted that Cameron has been bending to these pressures and shifting rightwards.
But Ukip’s rise will also pull Labour rightwards. Ed Miliband has already been blowing hot and cold over whether he would scrap the bedroom tax.
Labour is matching Cameron’s plan to cut benefits for migrants with its own proposals.
Ukip seems to be winning support from manual working class voters who should be Labour’s natural constituency.
This will reinforce fears that Labour’s lead in the opinion polls is too soft to guarantee a general election victory.
There are bitter memories of how mid-term leads dissolved into defeats in 1987 and 1992.
So it’s not surprising that Miliband has been coming under attack from Tony Blair and his ex-cabinet ministers for retreating into Labour’s “comfort zone” of opposing austerity and for not continuing the New Labour “modernising project”.
But Miliband is also under pressure from the left.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, has warned him “to take no notice of the siren voices from the boardrooms of JP Morgan”.
McCluskey told the New Statesman Miliband faces “the dustbin of history … if he goes to the electorate with an austerity-lite programme”.
Miliband’s office replied, “This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible.”
But McCluskey is playing an increasingly pivotal role on the British left.
He has managed avoid the odium of the sellout of the pensions strikes—even though he did nothing to block the surrender.
At the same time, McCluskey is driving the biggest revival of the Labour left since the heyday of Tony Benn in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Owen Jones has rocketed to prominence as a critic of austerity and champion of reclaiming Labour from the right thanks in part to McCluskey’s support.
And McCluskey has taken other steps to sponsor a revival of the left, setting up Unite community branches for unemployed workers and supporting campaigns such as UK Uncut.
McCluskey and Unite are among the main backers of the People’s Assembly against Austerity, which takes place in London on 22 June. Its initial call was for “a movement of opposition broad enough and powerful enough to generate successful coordinated action, including strike action”.
All the signs are that the People’s Assembly will be very big.
It comes at a moment when, even in the more left wing public sector unions, the campaign for strikes over pensions and pay has stalled.
At the same time anger over cuts is growing.
This is evident in the wave of local demonstrations against the bedroom tax and threats to the NHS.
So the idea of a national framework for resisting austerity has captured many people’s imagination.
But it is worth asking what are the broader politics of the People’s Assembly. The truth is that it encompasses more than one political project.
For McCluskey and Jones, the key battle is to reclaim Labour. But others involved in the People’s Assembly back Ken Loach’s “Left Unity” call for “a new political party of the Left to bring together those who wish to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity”.
This initiative has also met with considerable support. It reflects widespread dissatisfaction with Labour’s failure to offer a real alternative to austerity. But it also expresses a hunger for unity after a period when the radical and revolutionary left has experienced a process of fragmentation.
George Galloway and Respect captured these aspirations as recently as his sensational victory in the Bradford West by-election in March 2012.
He showed that popular disaffection with the establishment doesn’t have to be captured by Ukip on the right.
But Galloway was unable to capitalise on this achievement and has marginalised himself on the radical left.
The Left Unity initiative also speaks to those who were inspired by the sensational advances made by Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in the Greek elections of May and June 2012.
Loach’s call expresses the hope of a British Syriza.
These sentiments are admirable. The British left needs a serious alternative to Labour that can stop Ukip from soaking up the discontent caused by austerity.
But, as the various crises of Respect show, creating such an alternative isn’t easy.
The founders of Left Unity still have to define their relationship with existing formations of the radical left.
In any case, the People’s Assembly encompasses incompatible political projects.
In itself, this doesn’t matter. The Anti Nazi League, the Stop the War Coalition, and Unite against Fascism are examples of very successful initiatives that brought together supporters of Labour and of the revolutionary left.
The People’s Assembly could be a valuable forum for thrashing out more effective action against the coalition. But what form should this action take?
The call supports “coordinated action, including strike action”. McCluskey told the New Statesman, “I very much doubt the TUC will name a day [for a general strike] … But some unions, including Unite, might go away and talk among themselves about whether there is anything else they might wish to do, over and above the collective decision of the TUC.”
The trouble is that there has been endless talk among trade union leaders, but no real action since the public sector general strike of 30 November 2011.
Many trade union activists feel impatience about this gap between words and deeds.
This was expressed in the remarkable vote—nearly 80,000, 36 percent—that left wing challenger Jerry Hicks recently won when McCluskey stood for re-election.
There is a debate within the left of the British labour movement over whether we can simply put our faith in trade union leaders even as left wing as McCluskey.
Unite the Resistance was founded in 2011 to bring together those union officials and rank and file activists who wanted to campaign to press their leaders into action.
The Unite election results show the scale of the potential audience for this approach. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) campaigned strongly for Hicks.
For many backers of the People’s Assembly a party rooted in the revolutionary Marxist tradition that can influence broader movements and struggles is an anomaly that shouldn’t exist.
They put their hopes in a broader left reformist party, whether it is reclaimed Labour or Left Unity.
The SWP is building the People’s Assembly. But we won’t be there simply to cheer the speeches from the top table.
We will be there as part of a class struggle left wing seeking to strengthen the forces that want to escalate the fight against the coalition.
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