In England, all three main parties are fully signed up to an austerity agenda. The Left, divided and weak, has not yet been able to change the course of that debate, to make the case that it was not welfare spending that wrecked the economy, but a crisis of unfettered capitalism.
Labour may be trying to move on from the failures of ‘New Labour’, but it is doing so slowly. In the midst of government austerity, it is failed to make the case for an alternative. Thus, there is a large gap for a left-wing party to fill.
In March of this year, responding to an appeal by film director Ken Loach, a campaign to form a new, united party of the Left was launched, under the name Left Unity. Around 10,000 people have signed up on its website so far, and about 100 local groups have sprung up throughout the country.
While not all of these signatories have come to meetings, people previously uninvolved in politics have been inspired to join the movement. I myself have witnessed this, meeting people who are disenchanted with the political system and desperately want to forge an alternative to the neoliberal agenda.
Volunteers, some with previous political experience and some without, offered to be points of contact in order to bring people together. Left Unity does include some members of previously unsuccessful attempts to create a united socialist alternative to the main political parties, as critics like to point out. However, it has also emphasised from the start the need for grassroots-led, bottom up approaches and democratic procedures.
There is a sense that there is something different about Left Unity. It is not dominated by a central charismatic figure, as other movements have been, and is not controlled by a single interest group. It is making a sincere attempt to build itself from the bottom up, encouraging the participation of local activists and unions sick of austerity and fearful of the future of the NHS. Those attending Left Unity meetings have ranged from socialists to anarchists, members of the Green Party, the Left of the Labour Party, and many others. The impression is that it will become a broad and inclusive movement of almost all sectors of the Left.
Its founding conference will take place at London’s Royal National Hotel on 30 November. Here, it will agree on a party platform, likely to centre around the rejection of austerity and war, defence of public services, and an attempt to encourage greater democratisation of our society and political institutions.
The trade unions, feeling betrayed by the Labour Party, will almost certainly switch its support as soon as a viable socialist alternative presents itself. Evidence of this is that prominent unionists are already backing the Left Unity campaign. Another initiative from this year, known as the People’s Assembly, has tried to bring together activists and unions against austerity, regardless of political affiliation. However, the majority of those involved in the People’s Assembly events would be natural supporters of a united socialist party which Left Unity may turn out to be.
One worry for many seems to be splitting the left-wing vote (which would usually support Labour against the Coalition) in the 2015 elections. However, Left Unity supporters believe it is much better to lay the groundwork for a new party now rather than sit back and hope that the Labour Party changes radically in the next couple of years (which seems an unlikely prospect).
The Left Unity movement is still in its early stages, and will face many obstacles ahead. However, if it manages to gain real support in communities around the country, it could, at the very least, unify people against the mainstream austerity policies supported by the establishment political parties. Even if Left Unity doesn’t gain enough strength to win elections, it will surely make Labour fight hard for every single working class vote.