The obvious answer isn't so obvious to some on the left, argues John Rees
You would think that the final destruction of UKIP would be a cause for celebration on the left. But some seem convinced that it doesn’t matter that much because ‘the Tory party are all UKIP now’. This analysis is wrong. Here’s why.
It matters in an absolutely fundamental way whether or not political currents of opinion that exist in society are actually represented in party political form. Let’s call this a Marxist theory of representation as it deals with the ways in which political consciousness comes to be represented, or misrepresented, in the form of political organisation.
Just think about it for a moment. Does it matter that the reformist current of opinion in the American working class is not represented by an independent Labour party but is corralled in the Democratic Party under a wholly pro-capitalist leadership and party structure? Of course it does. From at least the time of Frederick Engels' comments about the desirability of an independent party of labour being created in the US, it has been obvious that if workers were represented by an independent party, even a reformist party, not under the direct tutelage of sections of the capitalist class, this would be an advance.
Does it matter that Marine Le Pen’s National Front exists as a separate and independent party from the traditional republican right parties in France? Of course it does, because an independent party structure allows a political current to maximise its impact, amplify its message, and organise its supporters for action. Where no such party organisation exists, even if the exact same forces exist in numerical terms inside another political party, their messages are attenuated and their field of action reduced. In addition, they also become absorbed in internal party squabbles about the direction of the broader party.
UKIP could only ever command minority support. But being an independently existing party allowed it to propagandise an undiluted racist message, to organise its supporters, and, even without significant electoral gains, to drag the whole political spectrum to the right. Moreover, UKIP posed as an anti-establishment force which both their own leaders and the media could, quite falsely, portray as appealing to Labour voters and ‘as the real face of the working-class opinion’. The Tories have far less ability to disrupt a class-conscious narrative about the political representation of the working class.
Paradoxically, many of those now saying that the defeat of UKIP doesn’t matter were the first to warn that the creation of a distinct party on the populist right was indeed a threat to the whole left and to the Labour Party. Their first thought was right. It does matter that an open, declared, single-issue, racist populist party has been destroyed.
Certainly, the Tories will inherit the vote, but the Tory party is not the equivalent of UKIP. It has always had racists in it, from Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher. Theresa May is not qualitatively different. But the Tories are a much broader electoral formation than UKIP that does not and cannot survive on an undiluted racist diet.
The truth is that Brexit shot UKIP’s fox and it does matter that in the UK there is no longer an independently existing fascist or right-populist political party of any significance. That can change again. But, as of now, it is a defeat for the right.
Lessons for the left
This issue, the importance of currents of opinion gaining effective political representation, has much wider significance than the fate of UKIP.
Consider this: surveys show that there are about 7 million people in this country who identify as ‘left’ or ‘far left’. How are they politically represented?
At the moment, they are represented in two forms: the Labour Party and the organisations of the far left. The whole of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and especially the election campaign, have underlined the very significant limitations on representing these views through the Labour Party. The Labour right wing, especially in the Parliamentary Labour Party, do not and do not want to represent the left. In fact, they are absolutely hostile to it.
Even during the election campaign, they continue to attack Corbyn and are not in the least deterred by the damage this does to their own party’s chances of winning the election. How craven do you have to be, for instance, to issue a statement saying that Jeremy Corbyn helped get you elected but then refuse to attend a Corbyn rally in the city where you just became Mayor. But that’s what Andy Burnham did.
And there are many worse than Andy Burnham. Peter Mandelson is proud to boast that he spends ‘every day’ planning to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. So do Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, John Woodcock, Jess Philips and many, many others.
Just at the moment when the right-wing vote, because of the collapse of UKIP, is consolidating behind the Tories, the Labour right are frustrating unity behind Corbyn because they would rather lose than win on a left programme.
If the Labour right succeed in destroying the most left wing leadership the Labour Party has ever had it will pose the question of political representation in the exact mirror image of the way we have discussed it with regard to UKIP.
The left in Labour has historically failed for three reasons. First, the Labour right has always been more loyal to the establishment than it is to the Labour Party. Second, the Labour left has been more loyal to the idea of Labour Party unity than it is to its principles, and therefore never breaks from the right. Third, the Labour Party has always been a purely electoral party which pays too little attention to transformative extra-parliamentary strikes and mass movements where working class consciousness is altered, rather than elections where it is simply reflected.
Syriza, specifically formed on a left platform, did at least get into government without being destroyed by their own right wing. The story of how the Syriza leadership then collapsed in the face of a ruling class offensive is another matter. But at least the project advanced as far as any modern European left reformist party has done before the crisis struck.
There are also, of course, many weaknesses on the far left: even its largest organisations are far too small and actively engage far too few of the 7 million who have a reasonable degree of affinity with it ideologically. It is often too sectarian, to unengaged in mass movements, and too propagandistic.
In the months ahead we will all face unprecedented challenges. There is still everything to play for in this election. But whatever its outcome it will not be the last major struggle we face. A proper reckoning with the Labour right, both politically and organisationally, will be essential if we are not to be defeated in future struggles.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.