One of the welcome outcomes of the SWP's self-immolation has been a resumption of strategic debate among the 'inside' and 'outside' left. Andy Newman has written about a socialist campaign for Labour victory, Owen Jones has discussed a new movement of the left, and this in turn has spurred responses from Alex Snowden and the inimitable Luke Akehurst.
One of the things to come out of the exchange of polemic is the idea of a 'left UKIP'. This isn't literally a left wing europhobic organisation, but rather a small left populist party outside Labour that could pose just enough of a threat to drag its politics and that of wider society in a socialist direction. Just as UKIP has managed from the right with its toxic brand of little englandism.
Before looking at the viability of a populist left alternative, allow me an aside. In case there is a smidgen of doubt, I remain firmly of the view that the best place for socialists is inside Labour. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. Nor do I share the view that a left UKIP is particularly desirable. The energy expended in building something new would, in my opinion, be better channelled into renewing and deepening the thousands of formal and informal links Labour has with the trade unions and the working class at large, as well as articulating the sorts of socialist policies that can appeal to enough people to make Labour the electorate's preferred party of government. If you are broadly of that view and aren't a party member yet, join here.
But, as many people are fond of saying, we are where we are. And it is a fact of life there are thousands of active trade unionists, community campaigners, and activists (not to mention many more who are inactive, for whatever reason) outside Labour and Britain's marginalised far left who aren't likely to join either any time soon. And having once been among their ranks, I know many would quite like a political home. So there is a desire, but do the means exist for a left alternative to come together?
Yes. And no. I want to concentrate here on two aspects of what is a multi-faceted question: organisation, and electoral/political space.
I suppose the first question to ask is if the left alternative exists already? There are certainly alternatives. Groups that resulted from some kind of rapprochement process on the far left regularly turn up in by-elections. Respect is probably the best known, but the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Socialist Labour Party, and Scottish Socialist Party are also out there vying for votes. But each have a chief weakness (or weaknesses) that hold back their development. Without expending too much time and trying the reader's patience, Respect's chief strength and weakness is George Galloway. At his best he's an articulate enemy of the rich and powerful. And at his worst, well, he's at his worst. Galloway is far too much a marmite figure for the Outside Left to rally around. The SLP is pretty much an organisation that exists only on paper, its potential squandered in a successive purging of activists who earned King Arthur's ire. With the collapse of Tommy Sheridan's Solidarity into nothing and the retreat of his backers (Socialist Party Scotland and the SWP) into their own projects, the SSP more or less has the far left electoral space north of the border to itself. The heady days of 2003 and six MSPs are a long way off now, so it remains to be seen whether it can overcome the trauma Sheridan inflicted on what was a project that briefly broke out the left ghetto. And lastly, TUSC is basically the old Campaign for a New Workers' Party (remember that?) with the RMT, SWP and sundry independents bolted on as semi-detatched affiliates. It is unlikely to become more than the sum of its parts because TUSC remains an optional extra to the party-building projects of the SP and SWP.
I don't think any of these could become a home for the bulk of the outside left because of their reputations, their histories, and their likely trajectories. But should a new formation arise independently existing organisations would have to be dealt with via yet another alliance of convenience, or outright absorption. The former, though possible, could still see Life of Brian-style competition - the 135 candidates fielded across 120 seats in the 2010 general election says it all (particularly so as the SLP is constitutionally bound not to enter into alliances with others). But also, because of the differences, the egos, and the self-righteous rectitude of many leading members within the actually-existing organisations/alliances, only a mass movement of tens of thousands would sweep them into a new left alternative. And even then, it's by no means certain. The SP and SWP Greek co-thinkers, for example, are both outside SYRIZA where, to all intents and purpose, a new left alternative has displaced the traditional social democratic party of Greece's working class.
If thousands of left wingers find what's presently on offer unpalatable - and they do - there is nothing else for them to cohere around. 'Sexy' movements like UK Uncut are unlikely to embark upon an electoral turn, and trade unions just do not command the kinds of active political identification among working people that enabled them to set the Labour Party up over a hundred years ago. The RMT's backing has brought TUSC (and before it, No2EU) little joy, for example. And the left inside Labour is amorphous and diffuse (a post on that another time) and will not desert the big tent for the deadening chill of electoral oblivion outside. There may be some will. But is there a way?
So much for organisation. What about political and electoral space? Only the most blinkered would believe nothing has changed with the election of our grotesquely incompetent and openly sectional LibDem-supported Tory government. Since May 2010, Labour has been the main beneficiary of the anti-Tory, anti-LibDem protest vote. The axis of anti-government politics has swung away from railing against the centre left to the centre right. So the electoral space for left-wing disaffection is smaller than it was in the Blair/Brown years. But a space there is.
I've often noted that when it comes to elections, the far left can reasonably expect something in the one to two per cent range. If they get below, by their own standards they're failing. If they get above, then they're doing well. If you look at the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition's results for the 2012 local elections, TUSC did well polling 6.2% across the 133 English and Welsh wards they contested (even if you strip out the "TUSC" candidates who stood under other names, or were their top performers, they still polled well above 2%). If anything, Respect's vote is even more uneven, ranging from winning seats to trailing the Monster Raving Loonies. So existing performance indicators are suggestive of an electoral space - the kinds of votes already being achieved are not qualitatively behind the BNP at its height, for example.
But electoral space and political space do not quite map onto each other. The profile the BNP had, and the wave UKIP are currently riding was/is overwhelming the result of the fuel the media are pouring into them. If Farage was banished from Newsnight and Question Time, if the media chose to obsess over the NHS, the economy, or crime in the same way it indulges Europe, UKIP would wither on the vine. Similarly, despite having much less of a political presence, the Greens have an MP, actually run a council, and possess many more local authority representatives than UKIP does.
A left alternative would have to find a way of presenting an identifiable presence in both. Respect have to a degree, as did the SSP - but for both they were as one-man bands. UKIP have managed it on the basis of pushing a charismatic leader (Farage, and before him Kilroy), cornering an issue that plays well with the media's preoccupations and is also a source of deep differences in a mainstream party. Iraq may have done that 10 years ago for Labour, but what does now? True, TUSC have tried to corner 'no cuts', but face competition from the media-friendly (and media-savvy) UK Uncut, the hundreds of campaigns that have sprung up around the defence of one particular service and indifference in the face of wide acceptance that cuts "have to be made".
So, by way of a quick summary, the numbers of activists exist to make a left UKIP a real proposition. In fact, I would hazard a guess that there is a potential pool larger than that commanded by UKIP itself. There is clearly some level of support for electoral Outside Left activity beyond the 1-2% far left range. And there are organisations with experience of tackling its inhospitable terrain. But the existence of those organisations present a barrier to be overcome, or a challenge to be negated. The issues they are fighting on do not translate into votes at present, and the bulk of the unaligned Outside Left are not enamoured with what the four existing parties/alliances have to offer for a whole host of reasons.
That is my reading of the left-of-Labour space as it stands now, and is always subject to events. These constellation of factors are freeze frame snippets of a continuing process, but the ultimate fate of that process, whether it produces something new or leads into a political cul de sac will largely be determined by developments elsewhere.