Left Unity’s General Election challenge

Veronica Fagan

The forthcoming general election held on May 7 will be the first since Left Unity was launched in December 2013 as a broad left party to the left of Labour. As such it will be an important test for this new socialist feminist and environmentalist party.
Left Unity has achieved a lot since it was formally launched in December 2013 but it has a steep rock face to climb given the failure of the left in Britain over the last decade and more to build a united and democratic party to the left of a Labour Party.

In Spain with Podemos and in particular in Greece with Syriza we have seen Left Unity’s sister parties having a huge appeal both at the ballot box and in the struggles of communities against austerity. While the attacks faced by people here are less sharp than in those countries it is never the less frustrating that as the political space to put forward radical ideas becomes more favorable, past mistakes make the job more difficult.

In that situation it’s not surprising that more established parties such as the Greens across Britain as well as the SNP have benefited from the surge in anti-austerity sentiment. Left Unity does not have the prospect of getting any MPs elected on May 8 – but the election is never the less and important opportunity.
Left Unity has developed a whole range of policies on the key questions that will be fiercely debated in the election campaign – and on which progressive answers are key for all those who have been wounded by the hammer blows of neoliberalism and alienated by the mainstream political parties.

These have been well summarized in the well-designed Left Unity manifesto, which hit the streets before the official election campaign started on March 30. (on line and available in print from www.leftunity.org). It was pleasing to see that Left Unity’s press conference to formally launch the manifesto on March 30 got extensive press coverage.

Left Unity is not a party which only gets its message across at the ballot box; it’s active in campaigns against austerity, in defence of the NHS, for affordable social housing for all, against benefit cuts and sanctions, for abortion rights and free childcare, against fracking and for a million climate jobs, in support of the Palestinian people and so much more. It has been involved in the White Flowers campaign against child sexual abuse, giving voice to survivors and raised the way in which children are paying the price for putting profit before people.

Left Unity stands against racism and also in defence of migrants, against all immigration controls and for the free movement of people. Left Unity points out that women, disabled people, black people, LGBTQ people and young people are at the sharp end of the attacks meted out by this Condem government – and which Labour under Milliband is committed to continue.

But elections, even under the disgracefully undemocratic first past the post system, give parties like Left Unity a chance to get our radical message across to a greater number of people than is the case at other times.

Back in autumn 2014 Left Unity set itself a modest target of standing twelve candidates in the General Election as well as in a number of council seats.
As parliament dissolved ten Parliamentary candidates are going forward. Three of these will stand as Left Unity per se; John Pearson in Stockport, Stewart Weston in Bristol West and Simon Hardy in Vauxhall ( in Lambeth south London). Bruce Whitehead in Edinburgh North and Leith, Feliciity Dowling in Neston and Ellesmere Port, Steve Hall in Leigh, Ed Potts in Exeter, Kingsley Abrams in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Glynn Robbins in Bethnal Green and Bow and Nick Wrack in Camberwell and Peckham are standing on a joint Left Unity and Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) platform.

This is a positive development overall and will help Left Unity to develop as a stronger national organisation as well as give a particular opportunity to build the party and its branches on the ground in the areas in which its standing.
But there are some things that need to be improved in future.

For a feminist party, and one which in its own constitution ensures that at least half of its leadership structures are made up of women, it’s unfortunate to have only one woman out of ten as a general election candidate.

Of course the way that women and men are socialized differently in our society which means that without positive measures both to build women’s confidence and to ensure they are selected, the male dominance of politics as a whole, including on the left, is likely to be replicated. In that way Left Unity needs to discuss the measures that other political parties (including sister parties in the Party of the European Left which Left Unity supports) have adopted to promote women as candidates for public office as well as internally and decide which of those are appropriate.

But there is also a broader question which Left Unity needs to address; the balance between national decision making and the input by local branches which impacts on the involvement of women but has repercussions beyond it. The decision as to whether to put forward general election candidates was left to branches with the National Council then endorsing them.

These discussions took place in the context of decisions about Left Unity’s approach to the forthcoming general election at both its national conferences and meetings of its National Council. The decision to support candidates standing on a joint platform with TUSC was taken at the national conference in November 2014. Left Unity also agreed to avoid electoral clashes with other parties on the left and to hold discussions with such parties to forward this work.
In retrospect it would have been better to identify target seats nationally, as set out in one of the motions agreed in spring 2014 and then discuss with the relevant branches. Unfortunately this did not happen in practice and led to a number of problems.

Socialist Resistance’s did not support Nick Wrack’s candidature in Camberwell and Peckham, because he is standing both against the National Health Action Party’s Rebecca Fox and against a left Green Party member, now their Deputy Leader, Amelia Womack. This doesn’t strengthen the impact of the left at this General Election, it weakens it.

The National Health Action Party (NHAP) is fielding 13 candidates in the General Election in a very focused campaign. Louise Irvine is standing against Jeremy Hunt and Dr Clive Peedell is challenging David Cameron. Richard Taylor, twice elected as an MP for Wyre Forest on a ticket of defending the local hospital is another candidate. In a situation where for the majority of potential voters the NHS is at the top of people’s list of deciding issues, the NHAP should clearly be an ally for a party like Left Unity. And NHAP does not only talk about health, though clearly this is at the centre of their work. They take a clear stand against austerity in general, and promote positive policies such as a massive house building programme and an end to student fees.

It is positive that TUSC has surpassed its target of 100 candidates at this General Election – with the list currently standing at 120 as the formal nomination period opens. The difficulty remains however that, in many parts of Britain, TUSC does not exist outside the election period. Neither the Socialist Party nor the SWP, the two main organisations who make up TUSC act in its name in local campaigns on a week to week basis. And even where local TUSC branches exist – which they certainly don’t in most places – people who don’t support either of the two main blocks have no real input because TUSC does not have a democratic structure. TUSC is a federal organisation where the SWP and the SP together with the RMT and the Independent Socialist Network all have a right of veto. This means TUSC is unable to build on whatever election successes it has and have a local presence afterwards in the way Left Unity is able to.

This again underlines why a party like Left Unity, where every member has an input at both national and local level, which campaigns in communities as well as at the ballot box is so important. Whatever the outcome of the too close to call election a socialist, feminist and environmentalist voice will be needed just as much afterwards as it is today.

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