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The UK election in 2015 and the British Left. An interview with Luke March.

Source: The Guardian
Source: The Guardian

Note from the LeftEast editors: this interview with political analyst Luke March (University of Edinburgh) was made by Artem Koretsky and Rouslan Kostiouk. It has originally been published by RabKor collective in Russian

RK: In May there will be parliamentary elections in the UK. After the last general elections in 2010, your country has faced an unusual situation for British politics: the existence of a two-party coalition government. How do you assess the current balance of forces leading the political parties? It possible to repeat a version of the coalition cabinet after new the elections?

LM: It is now widely understood that this will be the most unpredictable of all UK election in recent memory. Neither of the two leading parties (Conservatives or Labour) has more than 30-35% in opinion polls. The Liberal Democrats’ vote will be at least halved, and there is wide support for new forces (UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Greens), although it is difficult for the latter to break through into the UK’s electoral system, which discriminates against smaller parties. So an exact repeat of the coalition government is unlikely, mainly because the Lib Dems will hardly have as great role, and will be far weaker in any future new coalition. Some form of coalition is probable as it is difficult to see any one party getting a majority. But whether it will be Conservative-Lib Dem, Labour-Lib Dem or even Conservative-UKIP is entirely unclear at this point.

RK: The polls show the possibility of the victory of the Labour Party. Is this possibility real? With what “ideological baggage” does the Labour Party enter the election process this time around?

LM: Labour might still win, if only because the distribution of the electoral system (with a lot more seats in some urban areas with a high concentration of Labour voters) means that Labour can win more seats with a smaller share of the vote than the Conservatives. However, polls in the last 2-3 months have shown Labour gradually losing its slender lead and in some the Conservatives are now ahead. Generally, the opposition needs to be 10 percent or more ahead at this stage to guarantee victory, and that simply isn’t happening at the moment. So, if I were to put money on it right now, I would say that the Conservatives will win. This is, as you say, in part because of ‘baggage’ although not just ideological baggage. Yes, Labour was thoroughly implicated in the policies that brought about the economic crisis, and it has struggled to come up with a convincing alternative to neo-liberal austerity that satisfies its traditional supporters. In fact it has no alternative – it has gone out of its way to tell the electorate it will be a responsible party that may focus more on growth, but essentially offers a slower, gentler version of austerity. At the same time the Conservatives have managed to dominate the narrative, and significant numbers of the electorate believe that it was Labour and the state sector of the economy that caused the huge national debt and economic crash, rather than the lack of market recognition, fetishisation of consumer culture and irresponsible lending that the Conservatives themselves fully supported before 2010 while in opposition. So Labour really has an image problem – too ‘economically irresponsible’ to win floating voters from the Conservatives, but too much like the Conservatives to win votes of those really hit by the crisis. In addition, Ed Miliband has a further image problem – David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives is much better at presenting himself as Prime Ministerial calibre, even if he has few actual policy achievements. Add to this the perception of economic growth and the draining of protest votes to UKIP and Greens and Labour is in a much worse position than it should be after 5 years of economic misery inflicted by the government. It should also be added that the Scottish National Party is performing so strongly in Scotland that it threatens to destroy Labour’s Scottish stronghold and deprive it of any chance of forming the UK government – the SNP is currently perceived as both a much more consistent social-democratic force, and a better defender of Scottish Interests in the UK than Labour is currently.

RK: Unexpectedly for many in Europe, the European elections in the UK in 2014 were marked by a victory of UK’s Independence Party (UKIP). It takes a clearly “anti-European” position. In this situation, how important is the role that the theme of the EU plays in the electoral strategy of Labour and more left-wing forces?

LM: UKIP does exploit the EU issue, but equally important in its rise is its exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment and the general level of anger expressed by elements of the electorate, which is often directed at immigrants as a deflection from the reality that it is the goverment who is responsible for the economic state of the country. Europe is part of this debate – undoubtedly there are problems at the heart of the EU but it is blamed as the root of all evil for many issues that the national government doesn’t want to accept responsibility for. So anti-EU sentiment is more important for the right (UKIP and Conservatives) than the left. The Left is more divided on the issue and it is of less importance to their supporters so they highlight it much less (and indeed a Labour government wouldn’t hold a Referendum on EU membership as would the Conservatives).  Until the economic crisis, Labour was much more pro-European, but they have downplayed the issue now that ‘Europe’ has become much more toxic. For the various parties to the left of Labour – they are also divided. Parties like the Greens are pro-European but want certain powers repatriated from Brussels. Other smaller groups are vociferously anti-EU, e.g. the No2EU coalition of trade Unions and the Communist Party that has unsuccessfully contested several elections.

RK: Traditionally, UK falls into the group of Western European countries, where the forces on the left of social democracy are – sorry to say – rather marginal at the national level. Have there been any attempts to create a working coalition of radical left parties before the election in 2015 throughout the UK or in England?

LM: Yes- there have been attempts at doing this since the 1990s- the most successful were the Scottish Socialist Party and the Respect Party, which got some momentum and popularity in the early 2000s. However, after some success they split acrimoniously, and this set back the radical left to the beginning. Now there are at least three processes driving attempts to create a new radical left a) the poor performance of Labour in opposition – many had hoped that after the end of Blairism it would at least return to more authentic social democratic positions and act as a more consistent opposition. They have been disappointed; b) the resurgence of grassroots politics in Scotland as party of the 2014 referendum campaign has given new initiatives such as the Radical Independence Campaign, and left-wing parties have been gaining members and support; c) the success of Syriza in Greece, even before its recent election victory, has been prompting solidarity initiatives and demands that ‘we need a British Syriza’.

On the other hand, there is no reason to be very optimistic about the prospects for 2015 because a) the only new radical left force on the electoral stage is the Left Unity party which formed in 2013 and has hardly run in any elections to date; b) the radical left is still very split among a number of microparties (Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Communist Party, etc.) who detest each other and often don’t join new initiatives; c) the radical left space is partially occupied by the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Greens, who take a (relatively) anti-austerity and left position and include many left-wing activists; d) many left wing actors (including more famous ones like the writer Owen Jones) continue to identify with the Labour Party; e) in sum, the radical left vote is split among many different political parties, and given the electoral system, only the Greens are likely to get any seats. I don’t think that is a bad thing – in many respects they are a positive force – but many in the more sectarian left won’t ever make common cause with such a ‘bourgeois’ party.

RK: In some regions of your country some parties which are more left-wing than Labour have strong positions or even have access to the regional executive authorities: e.g. the SNP in Scotland and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. If we evaluate these regional government experiments, do these strong positions work for the benefit of these parties? Could these parties use their positions to impact more “social” and shared internal policies within their regions?

LM: Yes, I think this has proved to be the case – the regional parties have generally had a more genuinely social democratic agenda than the UK-wide parties. Certainly, Labour in Wales has always had a more traditionalist programme than UK Labour, while the Plaid Cymru party is still more socialist – competition between them tends to pull the party system to the left. One can debate whether Sinn Fein is really left – they are still strongly nationalist in many respects, but they certainly see themselves as such and are campaigning hard on an anti-austerity stance (especially in the Republic of Ireland). In Scotland, one reason for the SNP’s success is that they have outflanked Labour to the left, and have made issues such as no student tuition fees, free medical prescriptions and opposition to the privatisation of healthcare their own.

RK: And the last question. It is known that the British Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats hold  quite tough stance on the sanctions against Russia. Are there differences in the approaches of Labour and more left-wing parties on this subject?

LM: This issue isn’t especially salient in British politics, in part because the Conservatives, despite their tough rhetoric, haven’t pursued a very activist foreign policy (in general, but also as regards Russia – it’s notable that France and Germany have led the EU side at the Minsk talks, whereas the UK, as signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, really has a right and a duty to be part of that discussion).  Most parties are now focussed on the UK election, and policy towards Russia isn’t likely to be an electoral issue. Politics in the UK has generally got more parochial during the crisis and foreign policy issues (apart from the EU) won’t feature much.

The left is more nuanced, but also more divided. There is certainly more debate on the left about whether we should make more efforts to understand the Russian position, and also concern about possible Western hypocrisy and the dangers of getting drawn into a provocative conflict or impulsively re-arming NATO. Nevertheless, much of the left for a long time now has been vocally critical of the Russian authorities over human rights issues and so isn’t particularly sympathetic to Putin’s Russia, and certainly doesn’t deviate much from an overall consensus that Russia has overplayed its hand in Ukraine, and needs to be stopped (somehow).

Among some of the parties further to the left there is definitely a much more uncritically pro-Russia position, which generally accords almost completely with the official Russian line (i.e. Ukraine crisis = caused by Western/NATO/Fascist plot). Such groups include the Stop the War Coalition and Respect (after all, George Galloway, the Respect leader, is a host on RT’s Sputnik programme).

If we want to broaden the focus more widely, there are big divisions in the European left over Russia. The mainstream social democrats and the Greens tend to be very critical – seeing Russian policy as aggressively undemocratic and being concerned with Russian transgression of human/minority rights. The more radical left tends to be more critical of Western positions and tends to see Russian policy as both understandable and defensive.

In my view, and speaking as someone who is on the radical left, there is a big issue in how one deals with such complex issues without resorting to simplistic binaries. For instance, much of the radical left tends to support Russia out of an instinctive ‘campism’ – i.e. as a protester against the unipolar power of US ‘imperialism’. This assumes that everything that comes out of the ‘West’ is motivated by nefarious interests and to me is problematic because it assumes that Russia is still somehow a socialist state without its own imperialist proclivities, whereas in fact much of the criticism rightly directed at the US could also be focussed on Russia itself, not least the treatment of its own domestic left. So the challenge is to come up with an informed analysis that doesn’t simply resort to Cold War stereotypes that we often (however correctly) accuse our opponents of.