This May elections will be held all over the UK and, although the media likes to play up the drama of election results, the candidates that are chosen will set a lot of the political agenda even in Britain’s highly centralised political system. UKIP will undoubtedly make advances due to the prevailing discourse being focussed on the upcoming referendum on the European Union, but there are also a series of left-wing movements that have gained popularity in the hope of taking a new brand of populist leftism to the electorate. It is the growth of these movements in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland that I want to put a spotlight on with this piece.
Because of the heightened level of political interest from the Scottish electorate after the 2014 referendum, the most media buzz has been about the Holyrood elections. In the 2015 general election the SNP positioned themselves as a pro-independence party that was just as anti-austerity and left-wing as Labour. This strategy worked and polling suggests that the SNP are on course to win another overall majority in May. However the interesting thing is that many on the Left of the party have lost faith that the party represents a sufficiently radical alternative.
The SNP were seen as the only credible pro-independence party and that essentially locked up the 45% of the electorate that support independence. The problem for the SNP was that they wanted to offer an alternative to austerity whilst sticking to the centre-ground and continued the narrative of blaming Westminster for all woes. Whilst there is some truth in the anti-Westminster narrative of the SNP, especially when it is Tory rule from London, many Scottish voters that support independence want to see something more substantial than centre-left policies. There is a hunger for radical policies in Scotland this is where two political parties come in: the Scottish Greens and RISE.
Polling indicates that the Scottish Green Party are on course to increase their representation in the Scottish Parliament; after the 2011 election the Greens had 2 MSPs and, if polling holds true, they will gain an additional 4 or 5 MSPs. The opposition to the SNP needs to come from the Left and also should support independence. The Scottish Green Party are perfectly positioned to be an ideologically consistent left-wing alternative to people who support independence but also want to see a more radical programme of government.
As well as the Scottish Greens there is also a new political force in the form of RISE. This new political coalition was established in 2015 as a left-wing pro-independence coalition seeking to emulate the left-wing movements of Continental Europe like Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece. It must be said that it is unlikely that RISE will be successful in May but I applaud the desire to establish a radical coalition of the Left. RISE need to work to establish local networks of activists to get the message out about their brand of popular leftism because without this grassroots effort the movement will not gain traction.
As well as the growth of radical politics in Scotland, Wales has also seen a growth in left-wing activism. Although not a new force, Plaid Cymru has massively gained popularity under the leadership of Leanne Wood. Plaid Cymru are to the Left of the SNP ideologically speaking and therefore have positioned themselves well to attract disaffected Labour voters, young people, and more radical socialists. The rise of Plaid Cymru’s popularity has been a combination of different things and many like to point the 2015 general election. I personally disagree with this as much of the talk was focussed on the rise of the SNP and Plaid Cymru members were often asked why they weren’t doing as well as Nicola Sturgeon’s party.
Dissatisfaction with Labour in Wales has been growing for a long time and whilst it is true that many people in Wales are turning to the xenophobic rhetoric of UKIP, a lot of people are also turning to Plaid Cymru. Polling puts them neck and neck with the Conservatives and due to the diminished support of Welsh Labour this throws up two possible scenarios: either Plaid will be the junior partner in coalition or will become the official opposition. In relation to more recent political events, Plaid have been outspokenly in support of renationalising parts of the Welsh steel industry and this has gone down well in parts of Wales reliant on these industries, most notably the towns of Port Talbot and Llanwern.
Unfortunately Wales has not seen the mass politicisation of the people as has been seen in post-referendum Scotland, and as a result there is less of an organised grassroots movement that is exclusively concerned with Welsh politics. Having said that Plaid Cymru can be used as a socialist vessel to counteract the rise of UKIP and to make sure that socialist policies like the nationalisation of the steel industry and investment in renewable energy.
Plaid has yet to shift to the centre-ground and therefore a RISE-style response from the Welsh Left isn’t necessary. There is an internal tendency within Plaid Cymru that is seeking to move the party in a more social-democratic direction, and if this tendency is successful then a SYRIZA-like coalition of socialists and trade unionists may need to spring up to prevent Wales becoming another bastion of centrism.
Would I say that Plaid Cymru are radical enough for people like me? No because I am profoundly more left-wing than everybody in Plaid Cymru. However, would I vote for them over all the other credible options? Definitely.
Northern Irish politics is dominated by the divide between unionists on one side, and republicans and nationalists on the other; unfortunately, this divide often also goes does sectarian lines with Protestants largely identifying as unionists and Catholics largely not. Some commentators have been speaking about the rise in popularity of Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland as an indication of rising left-wing sentiment.
I disagree with this assessment as Sinn Féin’s popularity in the North has remained the same; the party is limited by religious divides and the designation of Sinn Féin as a ‘republican’ party. A left-wing party in Northern Ireland may ideologically agree with the concept of Irish unification but should not explicitly campaign on this platform.
The answer to this conundrum is to bring together unionists, republicans, and nationalists behind an unashamedly left-wing party, and I believe this party is the Workers Party. The Workers Party has put forward a genuinely radical platform to end austerity in Northern Ireland, extend the civil liberties of thousands of people, and invest in public services. Unfortunately I don’t believe that they will be massively successful as identity politics is very strong in Northern Ireland due to the nature of the political settlement.
The Workers Party needs to not simply be a political party, but needs to be a radical coalition of the Left that brings together trade unions and existing socialist groups. The elections to Stormont will probably won’t result in any gains for the Workers Party, but they are a great opportunity for the party to grow its image and to establish a network of activists. As I said the Workers Party shouldn’t campaign with Irish unification at the forefront of its party identity like Sinn Féin does and from what I’ve seen so far they haven’t been doing so.
Although not as radical as the Workers Party, the Northern Irish Green Party are also showing promise. The reason I believe this is the case is that the party has positioned itself as not taking an explicit position on the Union and instead sought to heal sectarian divisions by proposing an inclusive, left-wing policy agenda. The Green Party are currently polling are around 2.5% which isn’t great but it is an improvement on previous performances. The Greens should work with the Workers Party and other left-wing parties to prevent splitting the vote and possibly look to have electoral pacts with these parties to prevent the return of right-wing MLAs.
The main media narrative is that UKIP is on the rise and Britain is becoming more hostile towards immigrants. Whilst this may be true in certain areas there is also a rise of popular leftism that can counteract the xenophobia and fearmongering of the Right. Movements in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are in the process of winning over voters to support a left-wing policy agenda, and if socialist policies are going to be implemented in any of these places it will be because of the success of these groups. RISE and the Greens in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the Workers Party and the Greens in Northern Ireland need to work collaboratively to boost the wider socialist movement in these countries and bring about the change that working people desperately need.