“There is nothing more divisive on the left than a call for unity”. These wise words came, I am told, from the ever witty Scottish Socialist Party leader Colin Fox after the launch of Ken Loach’s new outfit, Left Unity.
He is, of course, right. The prospect that, in the short term, all of the parties to the left of Labour will forget our differences and merge is unlikely. But you don’t need to be holding hands in order to avoid treading on each other’s toes.
Whether you call them affinity groups or vanguards or tenancies or groupings; or traditions or factions or currents or sects; or parties – or just ‘people who read a newspaper’ – splitting into clusters of activists who strongly agree with each other is a sensible idea in many contexts.
But when the plan is to win a seat in a first past the post election – as it is some of the time – then it’s pretty useful not to squabble with fellow travellers over small patches of soil. With less than two years until the next general election, there’s some time to plan. So let’s survey the landscape.
Britain’s left electoralists
There are, of course, lots of left wing parties in the UK. But most of them don’t focus on elections. The list of those who do is a little shorter.
Left Unity is one of at least two new parties to be forged from the widefelt anger rising from the wounds of the stomping boot of austerity. It’s rumoured to have an impressive 90 local branches.
The other, the National Health Action Party have a single issue feel. But it is the one issue which has consistently won elections. Local hospital closures have successfully delivered three constituency victories to independent UK parliamentarians in recent years – I can’t think of any parallel.
They haven’t romped to any sort of victory so far. But if they were to stand in one of the seats with a major hospital closure on the cards, I don’t see why they couldn’t win – after all, if their co-leader could secure a seat in Westminster in 2001 & 2005, why not now?
Then there are the more established electoral parties. The largest in England is, of course, the Green Party (of which I am a member). Other than the Greens, there are two parties to the left of Labour who have reasonable levels electoral success in England: Respect and the Liberal Party.
Respect have five councillors in Bradford and George Galloway in Parliament (though whether we count him as left wing is a matter for another day).
The Liberal Party, who refused to merge with the pro-nuclear Social Democrats in 1989, have 21 councillors (up from 16 in two years), and a raft of solid left of centre policies.,
If we are to include a third English example, it is surely the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and the various groups who collaborate through it (many of whom are better known for their activities outside elections). They haven’t won much (a Town Council seat in March), but their ability to stand in an impressive number of seats shows a network and resource which we shouldn’t ignore, and the Socialist Party, who organise through them, had until 2012 a councillor in Coventry (the former Labour MP).
Outside England, there are more parties who sit to the left of Labour, and regularly contest elections – most notably, perhaps, Plaid Cymru, Mebyon Kernow, The Scottish Socialist Party, the SNP, and, Sinn Fein(2). The latter two will be familiar to most readers, and are unlikely candidates for electoral pacts for very different reasons.
Plaid Cymru, on the other hand, define themselves in their constitution as ‘decentralist socialists’ and have a pretty strong track record on most issues. Their newish leader, Leanne Wood, is the kind of politician we certainly need more of. They have 3 MPs, 10 Welsh Assembly Members, 166 councillors and an MEP.
Mebyon Kernow, the party of Cornwall, hold four county council seats and a good cluster of city, town, and parish councillors. They describe themselves as ‘Cornish, Green, Left of Centre, Decentralist’. They also make sure we remember not to count Cornwall as part of England.
The Scottish Socialists had 6 MSPs not so long ago, but have had a pretty sad story since then. Interestingly, their leader, Colin Fox (he of the witty turn of phrase) chose not to stand in a recent by-election in his home ward, and instead backed the Green candidate, Alys Mumford.
Scotland is also home to the broader Radical Independence movement whose activists have brought impressive ideas, energy, organisation and a remarkable degree of collaboration to the left in Scotland in the run up to the referendum next year. The result is that Scotland gets the ‘one to watch’ prize when it comes to co-operation among radicals.
Putting aside the SNP and Sinn Fein, the rest of the parties above are all, at least, worth having a chat with. Each of these parties has a somewhat different set of politics. Some are radical socialist. Some are firmly centre left. Some are democratic centralists, others are decentralists. With one or two, it isn’t clear where they sit on most issues. But each comes from a position to the left of Labour.
This leaves us Greens (and everyone else listed above) with an interesting question. To what extent should we consider co-operation? There is some history to this.
The first Green Party backed MP wasn’t Caroline Lucas. It was Cynog Dafis(2). Though a member of Plaid Cymru, he was supported by the Welsh Greens in 1992. His researcher, as part of the pact, was Victor Anderson – later a Green London Assembly Member (and now occasion Bright Green contributor).
Likewise, in 2005, the Green Party and Mebyon Kernow co-operated in Cornwall, with the latter not standing in St Ives in favour of the Greens(3).
In 2009, Respect backed the Greens in the North West Euro elections, and in 2010, the Greens gave Respect a clean run in Birmingham Sparkbrook (Salma Yaqoob’s seat) and Manchester, Blackley and Broughton.
Of course, in every case above, there will be significant trip hazards on the path to collaboration. If there weren’t we’d all be in the same happy party. But if we are serious about changing British politics, surely it’s time to start exploring conversations about the 2015 elections?
In practical terms, it’s pretty important to Greens that Left Unity or Respect or TUSC don’t run major campaigns in Brighton Pavillion, and we should be willing to offer them something they want in exchange.
Political pacts are messy, complex and difficult. They involve complex relationships between local and national parties from both sides. But they are, at the very least, worth a few conversations.
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood recently said: “A broad network in England, united behind a core set of progressive values could well include the Greens and other environmentalists. It could include the trade union movement, many in the churches and other faith organisations, the new People’s Assembly movement, our sister party Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall, refugees from Labour and the Lib Dems and, yes, refugees from Respect and the SWP, too.”
We don’t need to unite into one party to start having such conversations, and, if they are likely to take time, they need to start now.
(1)You could include the SDLP in here, and some might argue for Alliance. But they sit with Labour and the Lib Dems respectively so any attempt to woo them seems fated.
(2)In fact, there is another example of this. In 2010, the local Green Party backed Cheltenham Lib Dem candidate/MP Martin Horwood (though there was no formal deal). Because he was re-elected moments before Caroline Lucas, he occasionally claims to have been the first Green MP, but that certainly isn’t true.
(3) and my memory from 2004 insists that Greens and MK ran a joint list in that year’s Euro elections, but I can’t find a reference to it online. We did, though, certainly have a candidate from the now defunct Gibraltar Reform Party on the list.