Photo: protest for the Ritzy Campaign for Living Wage at BFI
The UK general elections in 2010 resulted in a very unusual scenario for British politics: a hung parliament.
This situation, in a country generally seen as an example of a functional two-party system, could happen again in the upcoming general election in May. And this time it is not certain that the Liberal Democrats will play a role as important as in 2010.
The press coverage of the Tories’ competitors on the right, Nigel Farage’s Ukip, has been and continues to be wide and massive, even when it comes to fiction, with the docu-fiction Ukip: the first 100 Days aired on Channel 4.
What can be said, therefore, about the progressive and radical debate in the country? The UK is far away from the eurozone dramas and the “long-term economic plan” rhetoric of the Tories seems to put the main ruling party in a more stable and trustworthy position.
The list of topics that favour progressive and radical debate is not short: housing and gentrification, fracking, the impact of the TTIP on the public sector, austerity as a whole and the fundamental struggle to tackle climate change. Let’s start with analysing one of the most pressing in London: the housing crisis.
The housing struggle
Housing represents one of the most intense fields for activism in the UK currently, and especially in London. The government’s Help to Buy scheme has helped to fuel London’s property bubble, according to USB economists. And there is a growing number of movements struggling for the right to housing.
The FocusE15 campaign was born in September 2013 by a group of mothers who were served eviction notices by East Thames Housing Association, following Newham Council’s funding cuts to the Focus E15 hostel for young homeless people.
Faced with the prospect of having to accept private rented accommodation if they wanted rehousing as far away as Manchester, the FocusE15 campaign started with the peaceful occupation in October 2014 of an empty block of council houses in Newham.
Aditya Chakraborty labelled the FocusE15 Mothers as heroes of 2014, on the ground of having put social housing at the top of the political agenda. The campaign continues to spread as much as possible the need for social housing and the related crisis. A recent action was called #EvictTheBailiffs and focused on attendees of the 2015 British Credit Awards, a gathering of bailiffs and debt collectors seen as central in the current rise of homelessness.
Another important campaign is the New Era estate in Hoxton, east London, which was endorsed and backed by the comedian-activist Russell Brand. The New Era estate was owned by Westbrook Partners, a US private investment company that planned to evict dozens of families and more than double the rents.
The movement sparked by these plans, which pushed mayor of London Boris Johnson to intervene, forced Westbrook Partners to change its plan and sell the estate to Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation, an affordable housing group.
The New Era estate is rightly seen as a successful example of social housing struggle, but it can also serve as an inspiration for other cases.
The biggest example of protest for social housing in London is currently the March for Homes, which ended in front of London City Hall on 31 January.
The social housing movement aims to reclaim decent, affordable housing in London and the struggle can be expected to go on far beyond May election. Housing does not appear to be for some parties a priority and the reason is unsurprising given the commitment of property tycoons in financing UK parties.
As Fanny Malinen investigates in her article Reclaim London: what solution to the housing crisis?, the connection between wealth investment and the housing crisis is fundamental in London and can only be expected to worsen in the coming years.
Solidarity with Greece
The success of Syriza has been seen as an inspiration beyond Greece’s borders. In terms of elections, the countries where the Troika intervention has been implemented will be called to the polls this year (Spain) and in 2016 (Ireland). In these two countries, the anti-austerity movements Podemos and Sinn Fein are expected to make important electoral gains.
Following the European Central Bank’s move to cut Greek banking funds and pressure from the Troika and European partners, solidarity rallies were held all over Europe.
In London, the rally was held on 15 February 15; on a day that seemed to belong more to the spring, rather than the winter, almost 600 people gathered in front of the National Gallery to express their solidarity with Syriza and the Greek people.
The rally was organised by Syriza London, Greece Solidarity Campaign and Left Unity, among others. Left Unity distributed a leaflet that contained an interesting message: “We need a Syriza here”.
Among the speakers were the journalist Owen Jones, the Labour MP for Islington Jeremy Corbyn, as well as Syriza ctivists such as Christos Giovanoupoulos, from the Greek group Solidarity for All. Russell Brand was also spotted in the crowd.
The message from the protest was meant to focus not just on Greece or the domestic situation, but on a larger scale, a European scale, against the widely spread consensus on austerity.
Jones closed his speech by saying: “We are coming for you, Merkel”, a remark that could be very widely interpreted.
The UK and Greek contexts are very different; for one thing, the UK stands outside the eurozone and is not experiencing a similar crisis to the Hellenic country. But, as we have already analysed, at this stage the absence of certain issues in the debate does not mean that they won’t be.
The political forces that can be seen as closest to Syriza’s stance in the UK are Left Unity and TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition).
Left Unity was founded in 2013, inspired by Ken Loach’s call for a New Party on the Left, and is currently led by political activist Kate Hudson, currently active in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the Greek Solidarity Campaign. She is also a former member of Respect party.
TUSC was founded in 2010 in order to enable socialists, trade unions and community campaigners to stand against the austerity measures promoted by the main parties.
There is still time to see if these two political forces will be able to capitalise on the growing radical wind that appears to be blowing all over Europe at the moment.
One thing is certain; the role of a progressive and radical agenda in Britain cannot be considered as solely a domestic issue.
Radical independence campaign
The Scottish referendum represented an unprecedented moment for the progressive and radical debate in the UK.
Unlike UKIP, the Scottish National Party’s agenda is much more progressive, pro-European and aimed at tackling austerity measures.
The Scottish question is expected to remain on the table; whoever manages to win the election, according to the current polls the SNP is expected to have an astonishing success, potentially even wiping Labour off the Scottish map.
In Scotland, the SNP is not the only force showing the way to a different Scotland. The Radical Independence Campaign must also be considered. The campaign , funded by Cat Boyd and Jonothon Shafi, supports an independent, radical left-wing platform. In the days after the referendum the campaign hosted a massive conference in Glasgow.
Shafi also discussed the role and plans of the Radical Independent Campaign during a debate on social movements, alongside other speakers such as the anthropologist David Graeber, at an event organised by Global Justice Now, “Take back our world”, on 21 February.
The challenge for a radically different Scotland, in terms of policies and vision is far from over - it will be important to see what will happens following the May election.
Following the Greek Solidarity Rally in Trafalgar Square, I walked to Parliament Square. There, at the end of Occupy Democracy protest I met George Barda of the group.
When it comes to the media’s coverage of radical and progressive debate, Barda quotes from the book Manufacturing Consent: The Economy of Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward S.Herman, underlining the five main filters described there.
Barda says the pivotal campaign is climate change: “Naomi Klein, in her This Changes Everything, sums up what we as climate activists have been saying for 10 years. We have to push for the opposite, which is a massive green New Deal based on equality and subsidiarity.”
In terms of green battles, the first party on the frontline is the Green Party.
The Green leader
I had the opportunity to speak with Natalie Bennett following a debate on TTIP organised by Global Justice Now, “Take back our world”.
Bennett defines as quite telling the choice of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to sign a climate change pledge, but she is sceptical on their choice of not committing for fracking and other issues.
In terms of the media coverage, she also underlines the positive: “It is great that we are going to see in the [election TV] debates three anti-austerity voices.” But media owners should heed climate change given that “we have an handful of media tycoons around the world that are the same people, across Australia and Britain”.
On the debate on energy, Bennet says: “The thing missing is energy conservation, as we have one of the poorest qualities of housing in western Europe,and the reason why you have a poverty problem is not about the cost energy, but the quality of housing and this part of the debate is entirely lacking.”
The debate on renewable energies is also sorely lacking. Bennett quotes the example of renewable sustained housing in Germany, which stands at 50%.
A fundamental issue in the May election will be the UK’s membership of the EU. Bennett says: “We will campaign to remain in Europe in that referendum (potentially 2017) but we want to reform Europe”, in a way aimed at supporting individuals and communities and not corporations, differently from David Cameron.
“We want to celebrate free movement of people, which offers huge potential for Britain and for people around Britain, and it enriches communities.”
On TTIP, Bennett notes two key areas: “One is the so-called harmonisation, which threatens the environment and labour, and the other is the Investor State Dispute Settlement Mechanism, which could basically stop democratic governments from making decisions in the interest of their people, through fear of being sued by multinational corporations.”
Another element of the TTIP debate underlined by Bennett is the need to spread information as much as possible and tackle the narrative that paints it as advantageous for jobs and growth.
Joseph Puruggannan of Focus on the Global South signals how the TTIP by extension will have an impact on Asia. He calls for local activism against TTIP in the UK. “What is really at stake here is if we want to give in to this corporate agenda. If TTIP succeeds it will establish the standards and it will lead to more agreements of such level of ambition. That would really mean the corporate agenda winning over the people’s agenda.”
We will have to wait to see the British progressive and radical response, but there is a wide space for action.