James: You’re standing for parliament for Left Unity in the Vauxhall constituency in south-west London. What are you aiming to achieve by standing?
Simon: We want to use the election to highlight the main problems facing people in Britain today: the housing crisis, low wages, privatisation of the NHS and the constant attacks on immigration. I want to get a socialist argument out there about these issues.
I see Left Unity as a really important part of trying to reorientate the left – the lack of a credible left party in Britain means we are miles behind our European brothers and sisters. Obviously, with first-past-the-post it is going to be hard to win many elections this time around, but Left Unity is a long term project to build a credible alternative to Labour so for us it is less about votes and more about letting people know we exist and talking to them about our policies.
You seem quite engaged in local community campaigns ….
It’s so important to be involved in local campaigns where you can be part of the resistance to neoliberalism and austerity. Left Unity in Lambeth has always tried to strike the balance between building a party and supporting social movements.
We have been involved in housing issues, the Lambeth college dispute and the Ritzy living wage campaign by promoting their actions and attending the protests. Currently we are involved in Reclaim:Brixton, a protest against gentrification in Lambeth.
We are using the election campaign to help build the campaign to save Lambeth libraries, whose budget is going to be slashed by 50 per cent by the council, and highlight the plight of people in places like Knight’s Walk – homes threatened with demolition by the council to make way for more flats, only a small number of which will be allegedly affordable.
Left Unity has been officially launched for about a year and a half now. How do you think it’s going?
Left Unity is doing well, considering how divided and weak the state of the left was when we launched our party. There is a good spread of people in Left Unity from a range of backgrounds and it is very exciting to be part of an organisation which is trying to do something new. This isn’t just an electoral coalition or a front for some group or other – we are a party with a socialist perspective.
Simon with Left Unity campaigners in Vauxhall. Photo: Left Unity
The first years of Left Unity were a combination of getting things going on the ground as well as the inevitable internal debates over what kind of party we want to be. Now we have got our manifesto, we have gone through our initial policies so we are passed the opening gambit and onto the next phase – campaigning, better organisation and fine-tuning our policies and politics to carve out a clearer space on the left.
Left Unity has both implicitly and explicitly compared itself to parties in Europe such as Die Linke in Germany, Syriza in Greece and the Front de Gauche in France. But all those parties came about through fusions which included communist parties which still had a voter base in those countries. Where will Left Unity’s voter base come from?
Our voter base is those people disillusioned with Labour, angry at their failure to properly challenge the coalition and who feel closer to socialist values than what the Greens represent.
But you raise an important point about the forces available to build a party like Syriza. At the moment, it is hard to see where a large number of organised forces on the left will come from to create a larger left party. Britain has a peculiar history: we never had a mass party to the left of Labour and the various far left groups were very dominant in ways which were sometimes positive but also often negative to the long-term development of the left. In addition the Labour left is very weak, with no serious prospect for either reclaiming their party or leaving it to build something better.
In that situation, we don’t have a large Eurocommunist party of the prospect of a split from Labour. Personally I am sceptical that even the trade unions will make moves towards a new party in the next few years. Nevertheless, there is clearly an appetite for left-wing ideals and anticapitalist arguments. Some people are looking to the Greens or even the SNP to give the anti-austerity argument, but we have a particular message about the problems of market capitalism and how we can democratically plan the economy to meet our needs.
You mention the Greens and I’d argue one of the good news stories of this election for the left has been the ‘Green surge’. That growth in support has come from a variety of places, but it seems like a swathe of potential Left Unity members, people who see themselves as on the radical left, have now joined the Greens. Are you in competition, or can the parties be complementary?
The growth of the Greens as a party is certainly reflective of a wider space and appetite in Britain for left wing ideas. We work with the Greens in local campaigns but I think politically we have a different message. The Greens want to reform some of the worst aspects of capitalism, and return us to a more social democratic model – I would go further and say that without socialism, we can’t provide for people’s needs and we can’t save the planet. We need to build a left party which is clearly anticapitalist, not relying solely on Keynesian policies.Simon Hardy on the climate change demonstration in London last month.
I think the Greens are also largely focused on an electoralist strategy. They have a lot of good activists but they are not an activist party. Elections are an important arena of struggle but I think they are subordinate to the movement you build on the ground, in the communities and workplaces.
Left Unity seems to have been putting out mixed messages about the Greens, with a vague statement about not standing against ‘anti-austerity’ Greens, but actually fielding a candidate in Bristol West, which is the Greens’ number one target after holding Brighton Pavilion. What’s your take on this?
The statement about the anti-austerity alliance certainly caused some internal debates because a lot of people were unclear what precisely it was saying. There are different attitudes towards the Green party in Left Unity and it is a live debate – but mostly I think the statement was referring to people like Caroline Lucas who it would be very wrong to stand against because of her track record.
But in Bristol West their candidate is not particularly left wing – he criticised reductions in the defence budget for instance. The local Greens have also played a very dubious role of opposing but then helping to implement austerity in the local council. I totally understand why people are joining the Greens as a left-of-centre party, but their electoralist logic means they end up in impossible positions and doing what the Labour party do locally – voting for cuts with a heavy heart.
Left Unity was praised for embedding gender balance in all its elected bodies. But of the ten candidates you’re standing for parliament, nine are men. Isn’t that a step backwards?
As a feminist party we do need to do better on gender – the process this time was ad-hoc, candidates decided on a branch-by-branch basis, and we’re already working on fixing it. It’s a mistake, though, to just look at our general election candidates, as it is local council seats where we are likely to do much better.
To take one example, Hazel Duffy in Wigan West is our most successful candidate so far, gaining 8.8 per cent of the vote in Wigan West ward last year and beating the Tories. She is our lead candidate in the Wigan council elections this time and we are putting as much effort behind her as we are into the parliamentary seat.
What’s a realistic measure of success for Left Unity in these elections? And what’s the priority once the elections are over?
I think some of our local candidates could get a decent vote but I don’t think any of us are standing with the view we will have any kind of breakthrough electorally. Speaking for the Vauxhall campaign, it is more about letting people know we exist, letting people know we are campaigning and active and making links with local campaigns, housing activists and so on. It will take a long time to establish a credible left party in Britain and no one is naive about that.
If Left Unity comes out of the election with more active members and a better national profile then that will be worth it. It is also a very important experience to bring a new party together through talking to people and working out our politics in action.
Once the elections are over we will be deciding what the national priority is for us as an organisation. From my perspective it means developing our theory and strengthening our branches across the country. With slow annihilation of the welfare state and the continued unravelling of social democracy, there is real potential out there to build a significant socialist party.