The Radical Left in Britain
During the 1990s, Europe saw the emergence of electorally significant radical left parties, drawing from the communist and other left and progressive traditions to form qualitatively new political formations. These parties challenged the conventional wisdom that the left as a significant political current was dead, post-1989. They survived the existential crisis of that supposed ‘end of history’1 moment and evolved into viable political forces which were able to occupy the space to the left of social democracy as it moved rapidly to the right, embracing neoliberalism.
Their coherent articulation of opposition to the Maastricht Treaty, and their defence of living standards, government spending, and the welfare state, ensured a credible level of parliamentary support – often up to 10% -- in key countries, such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany, where the French Communist Party (PCF), Izquierda Unida, Rifondazione Comunista, and Die Linke played significant national or regional roles. Internal reform and theoretical development led to a new type of left politics, often linking up with social movements, and self-defined as socialist, feminist, and environmentalist. Later in the 1990s, their identity evolved as part of the developing anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movement, and they subsequently played a significant role in anti-war and anti-austerity movements.
This post-1989 European radical left current has not found organizational expression in Britain in the same way. A number of factors account for that: notably, the first-past-the-post electoral system which means that smaller parties find it almost impossible to break into the mainstream as a vote for a small party is seen as a wasted vote; and the historical development of the Labour Party, founded by the trade unions, as a ‘broad church’, still deemed by many to be the party of the working class – although this perception has declined significantly since Tony Blair’s New Labour project. These two factors historically ensured that the Communist Party of Great Britain – the mainstream Soviet-linked party throughout what Eric Hobsbawm described as ‘the short twentieth century’2 – never achieved the political significance that its sister parties did in western Europe. Nevertheless, it served as an anchor to the left in the labour movement and its dissolution in 1991 removed from the British political stage the organizational force that could have brought together a radical left in Britain.
But other European political trends were played out in a Britain-specific way. The collapse of the Soviet system had unforeseen consequences for social policy in Europe. Extensive welfare provision and progressive taxation were reviled by the right as artefacts of the Cold War and, already under attack from Thatcherism in the 1980s, the long process of dismantling them completely – currently in its extreme neoliberal phase – was accelerated. The social democratic parties were generally responsible for the introduction of welfare states after World War II, but now they proved unable or unwilling to resist the move to a more US-influenced model of social provision. The speed with which they embraced the economic and social philosophy of Reagan and Thatcher was remarkable, embracing the idea that socialism as a philosophy was fatally flawed and so by association was social democracy.
Tony Blair, the leader of the British Labour Party from 1994, went further than most, implying that the very formation of the Labour Party had been a mistake. He suggested that it had split Britain’s progressive liberal tradition, and he launched his ‘project’ of a return to nineteenth-century Gladstonian liberalism. Writers such as Anthony Giddens set out to provide this with a theoretical basis, declaring bluntly that socialism had been dissolved and as ‘Social Democracy was always linked to Socialism. What should its orientation be in a world where there are no historic alternatives to capitalism?’3 The flagship approach of social democracy post-1989 was the Third Way of Blair and Schroeder – subsequently joined by Jospin – which argued that the market worked and just needed to be accompanied by a better distribution of wealth. This notion has since collapsed.
On becoming leader of the Labour Party in 1994, Blair began its transformation into New Labour, winning a landslide victory in 1997 as the Conservatives were finally ousted from power after eighteen years in office. Although there was opposition to the Blairite turn within the Party, electoral success kept serious dissent off the agenda. The first organizational expression of the rejection of New Labour politics came in 1996 with the launching of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). Led by the former miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, the SLP aimed to ‘build on the heritage of all the movements of resistance to the free-market offensive in Britain over the past two decades’,4 seeing itself as the heir to the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the diverse and remarkable solidarity movement that it inspired. But while the support groups for the miners – notably the women’s groups and from the lesbian and gay community – broke new radical social ground, the SLP itself neither emerged as a radical left party, nor built the support in the working class and labour movement that would enable it to be a genuine challenge to Labour. During the 1990s, small currents from the former Communist Party, together with others from revolutionary socialist traditions, were aware of the new developments in Europe and sought to relate to them, via the New European Left Forum,5 but their impact was negligible in terms of British politics as a whole.
However, social movement organizations began to strengthen, first in terms of the anti-globalization movement in the late 1990s, and then, far more significantly, in terms of the anti-war movement of the early twenty-first century. It was in this context that the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)6 was founded in 1999, around a core of former Militant (Trotskyist) members of the Labour Party. The Scottish electoral system operates on a form of proportional representation, so the SSP was able to win 6 seats in the 2003 Holyrood elections with 130,000 votes. Their success was due both to their role in opposing the Iraq war, and their militant class struggle approach to politics, but it subsequently lost its advantage in Scottish politics when its former leader Tommy Sheridan was jailed for perjury and its radical nationalism was upstaged by a resurgent Scottish National Party (SNP).
Yet, although Britain as a whole could not develop and sustain a radical left party, it did give rise to a huge movement which challenged the government over its Iraq war policy and contributed to the vast global anti-war campaign. From 2001, the anti-war movement comprised the new far left-led Stop the War Coalition, working in alliance with the more traditional peace movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Muslim Association of Britain, organizing Britain’s Muslim communities against the war. This triple alliance was a development of historic significance and enabled an unprecedented scale of mobilization.
It was from the radical opposition to the war that a second attempt came to develop a new political organization to the left of Labour. In 2004, the Respect coalition was founded, standing for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community and Trade Unionism.7 Over the subsequent decade, Respect was to have some significant levels of support, particularly amongst the Muslim communities, with prominent anti-war activist Salma Yaqoob narrowly missing the parliamentary seat in Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath in 2005. Respect won one parliamentary seat – taken by former Labour MP George Galloway – and a number of local council seats but it eventually faced internal tensions, notably between the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – the largest organizational component – and George Galloway, as the most prominent individual figure. These tensions led eventually to splits and fragmentation. Refounded as the Respect Party in 2012, after George Galloway’s enormous victory in the Bradford West by-election, Respect became an individual membership organization but was unable to establish itself as a credible left alternative, in spite of a range of popular radical left policies.
The ousting of Blair from the leadership of the Labour Party in 2007 and his replacement by Chancellor Gordon Brown was an indicator of Blair’s inability to recover from the public opprobrium heaped on his Iraq war policy. After some initial popularity, the Brown leadership was hit by the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, leading to a hung parliament in the 2010 general election, out of which was negotiated a coalition government formed by the Conservative Party with the Liberal Democrats as junior partner.
The coalition government embarked on an ideologically driven programme of government spending cuts, corresponding to the harsh austerity policies pursued across Europe. The Tory narrative blamed a supposedly profligate Labour government that had spent Britain into huge debt, which now had to be paid off through a collective tightening of belts. The reality of the global economic crisis was neglected, leaving all blame at Labour’s door. Labour failed to challenge this misreading of events or the neoliberal medicine that the coalition sought to apply. The radical left critique that emerged was that the coalition was using the economic crisis to restructure the British economy, redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, and privatizing and destroying the welfare system that had underpinned Britain’s social democratic transformation in the post-second world war period.8 Some early stages of the process had actually been initiated under the Blair leadership, and Labour’s clear failure to defend its great post-war achievement – the National Health Service (NHS) – led to an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction with the Labour Party and the development of grassroots activism to defend specific local services.
These local campaigns – often to keep open NHS facilities, libraries, or other community services – were the most dynamic expressions of anti-austerity sentiment in the early years of the coalition government. National initiatives, such as Keep Our NHS Public (KONP)9 and the founding of the National Health Action Party (NHA),10 demonstrated the centrality of the NHS to public anti-cuts mobilization. Attempts to build national anti-austerity movements linking these local initiatives together, however, met with limited success, although one of these, the Coalition of Resistance, founded in the autumn of 2010, played a more significant role. Unlike its counterparts, it was particularly strongly orientated towards Europe-wide solidarity and campaigning – especially in relation to the struggle against the extreme manifestation of neoliberalism in Greece – recognizing that austerity was not a national problem but an international one.
A turning point in the European orientation of significant parts of the anti-austerity movement, which eventually led to the founding of Left Unity, a consciously ‘radical left’ party in Britain, was the ‘Europe against Austerity’ conference, organized by the Coalition of Resistance in London in October 2011. Attended by some 700 people, with around a third of them coming from Europe, this was the first major exposure in Britain of the parties of the European left, to both the movement and trade unions. The conference was addressed by Pierre Laurent, chair of the European Left Party, as well as representatives from Die Linke, Bloco de Esquerda, the PCF, the Parti de Gauche, SYRIZA, and many others. Following this event, links with the left and movements in Greece increased, and in early 2012, the Greece Solidarity Campaign was founded, strengthening relations between the anti-austerity movements in Britain and Greece. Debates on the left intensified throughout 2012 as Greece went to the polls twice and the call for unity of the left in Greece also impacted on the movement in Britain.
This was an unusual development in a traditionally insular British labour movement but it was driven by the rightwards move of the Labour Party, the inspiration drawn from the successes of Syriza and other left parties in Europe, and the need to unite in the face of extreme neoliberalism and the rise of the far right across Europe. The British Trade Union Congress (TUC) itself began to engage in the Europe-wide movement, speaking out in support of the Greek people’s struggle against austerity and backing the first coordinated European-wide general strike and day of action against austerity on 14 November 2012.11
This day of action was a significant moment in the attempt to build a radical left party in Britain sharing the politics of the parties of the European left. The first public expression of this initiative was a call for left unity launched that day via social media. Subsequently boosted by an appeal for a new party of the left by filmmaker Ken Loach, Left Unity was founded in 2013, as a socialist, feminist, and environmentalist party, eventually seeking observer status with the European Left Party. Left Unity has established itself as a small but stable force on the left of British politics, hindered in its efforts primarily by the electoral system.12
The general election of May 2015 resulted in an unexpected narrow majority for the Conservative Party. Polls had predicted a hung parliament, with expectations of a minority Labour government sustained by a number of smaller anti-austerity parties – the SNP, Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales), and the Green Party. In the event, the Conservative Party won with 331 seats and 36.9% of the vote, surprising even themselves,13 and forming a majority government for the first time since the 1992-97 government of John Major. In fact, the Conservatives won on the smallest share of the popular vote for decades, but insufficient numbers of voters were prepared to vote Labour because of their austerity-lite programme.14 Many former Labour supporters voted to the left of Labour, for the smaller anti-austerity parties, in what could be described as a deflected radical left vote.
There were two significant factors to this election. Firstly, the SNP which took 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland, mostly at the expense of Labour – previously dominant in Scotland and now reduced to one seat. The SNP previously held 6 seats, but now became the third largest party in the UK. Since the No vote in the Scottish referendum campaign in 2014,15 there has been an extraordinary resurgence in grassroots political activism and engagement in Scotland, based around the Yes campaign, manifested in a kind of radical nationalist awakening which resulted in this transformative vote. Radical left currents have also emerged, such as the Scottish Left Project as well as the continuing SSP. But in the context of the general election, many on the left backed the SNP to enable it to break the constraints of the first-past-the-post electoral system. The SNP was successful partly because of the nature of its policies and the continuing strong sentiment on independence, but also because it had already formed the government in the devolved Scottish parliament where a form of proportional representation is in operation. From that start, it was possible to break the mould in the Westminster election.
Secondly, the election can be understood as the latest stage in the ongoing crisis of Britain’s electoral system. Under the current system, large numbers of voters are completely unrepresented in parliament and this election has made it very clear. The number of seats gained by the SNP would suggest that they won virtually all the votes, but in fact they polled about half the votes cast. Two other parties surged in support during the election: the far-right UK Independence Party got the third highest share of the vote – 12.6% or almost 4 million votes but took only one seat; and the Green Party, which experienced a massive surge in membership prior to the election, took 3.8% or around a million votes but only one seat. (A range of small socialist parties, including Left Unity standing in a very small number of seats on its first general election outing, polled negligible results.) The demand for electoral reform is now accelerating; forms of proportional representation already exist in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, in the European elections, and in the Greater London Authority election. So, it will be increasingly difficult for the government to hold onto the transparently unfair first-past-the-post system. There are calls for a constitutional convention, and Labour may have understood why change is necessary – with proportional representation, it would not have lost virtually all its seats in Scotland.16
Immediately following the May election, Britain saw an upsurge in protest at the prospect of five more years of austerity enacted by a government with very low levels of actual voter support. An ‘End Austerity Now’ demonstration, organized by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity (PAAA) – the successor to the Coalition of Resistance – and backed by trade unions and campaigning organizations, mobilized up to 250,000 protestors.17 But the most significant post-election development indicating the scale of support for radical left policies has been the contest for the Labour Party leadership, following the election defeat. Against all expectations, Labour left-winger Jeremy Corbyn secured a place on the nomination paper against an outright Blairite and two centre candidates. The Corbyn campaign built an enormous basis of support, both inside and outside the Labour Party, in a situation where people can register to vote as ‘supporters’ of the party, without having to be full members. All votes count equally rather than the previous weighted system.
As of July 2015, some polls forecast Corbyn to win and also show enormous public support for the policies which he espouses – many of them the policies of the radical left.18 This is a further manifestation of the deflected radical left vote, where the electoral system has not allowed a clear radical left option, but opposition to the neoliberal consensus of the mainstream parties, together with revulsion for the corruption at the heart of the establishment, has burst out: whether in support for radical nationalism, the perceived anti-austerity nature of the Green Party, or the clear left policies of a Labour outsider.
It is unlikely that the Labour Party – having thoroughly embraced neoliberalism – can now buck the European trend and revert to some form of social democracy. But the reality is that large sections of the British electorate now reject the austerity narrative, to the point where its hegemonic nature can be questioned. How the alternative – posed by Corbyn, Left Unity, movements like the PAAA, and some of the trade unions – can be best articulated and most effectively achieve organizational form under the current electoral system, is the most important question facing the left in Britain today.
1. A thesis that the end of the cold war also marked the end of humankind’s ideological development with the universalization of western liberal democracy, elaborated in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man published in 1992.
2. A term used by Eric Hobsbawm in Age of Extremes, published in 1995, to describe the period from the October Revolution in 1917 to the end of the Soviet Union.
3. A. Giddens, The Third Way (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), 24.
5. K. Hudson, European Communism since 1989 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 10.
15. The Scottish Referendum resulted in a No vote, with 2,001,926 or 55.3% voting against independence and 1,617,989 or 44.7% voting in favour. The turnout was high at 84.6%.