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Can the Labour Party be transformed?
10th June 2002
The humiliation of Labour in the 26 county general election was followed almost immediately by an article in the Irish Times by Mick O’Reilly, the secretary of the ATGWU - recently undemocratically dismissed for his criticisms of ICTU’s unconditional support for the current social partnership agreement. The solution to the crisis in labour is simple says Mick – rebuild labour as head of an alliance of the ‘radical alternative’. When Socialist democracy published its programme several years ago we called for a vote for Labour in the 26 counties. So today we would agree with Mick’s call. Right?
The goal of our programme was to aid the self organisation of workers so that the working class and oppressed can overthrow capitalism and take power. From this perspective we advanced the idea of support for Labour in the spirit of VI Lenin – we would support the Labour party as the rope supports the hanged man. The basis of this support would be Labour’s reformism. We would urge workers to support reforms and make further demands based on the needs of the working class in the expectation that Labour would in the end oppose the workers to support the interests of capital.
This analysis no longer applies because Labour is no longer a reformist party. It’s a party of the right, with little in the way of links to the working class and, even in opposition, unable to come up with more than a bit of ‘creative accounting’ that would fund only the most minimal cosmetic change in the health service. Other than this it had no ideas other than to be in government with whatever capitalist party would have it. Revolutionaries would have to be crazy to breathe life into this corpse. The task today is to build a new party of the working class around the demands of the class.
But what of Mick’s idea of a progressive alliance? Wouldn’t this be a good idea?
Well, Mick doesn’t define progressive. He rejects the standard opposition electoral alliance including Labour and Fine Gael advanced by Eamonn Gilmore, but later on hints that ‘progressive’ Fianna Gael members could join if they wished. The main focus is an alliance to vote no in the next Nice referendum. It’s a difficult project, to put it mildly, because Labour is currently for a yes vote and the Greens and Sinn Fein, while supporting a no vote, don’t do so from the standpoint of opposing a capitalist Europe or building independent activity by the working class. Calling this hodgepodge, if it could be built, a progressive alliance seems the wildest of exaggeration.
That’s the problem with this sort of electoralist realism. If you start with what already exists your real politick quickly turns to fantasy if the existing forces are not for the emancipation of the working class. It’s far more realistic in the long term to stand for a new revolutionary party of the working class and begin the serious long term work of building one. We should not be put off that such a party does not already exist. What does exist is a working class that despite its lack of class consciousness has shown itself in two recent referenda to be prepared to reject the present cosy establishment consensus and plans of the right. It will have many more opportunities to defend itself as the new government will only be able to afford its subsidies to multinational and native capital with cuts in public services, jobs and wages. Why lead it up a blind ally when many already looked at the Labour Party in 1992 and found it wanting.
The problem now is to disabuse workers of growing illusions in Sinn Fein and the Greens etc who promise another dead end. Real socialist unity around a working class programme would be a good start to this work but in its absence all Irish socialists must explore what grounds for united activity and discussion do exist to put their narrower organisational projects in their proper context. Where no fundamental programmatic differences exist then unity should immediately be on the agenda. This might involve very small forces at present but it is many times more realistic than to expect socialism from the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and the rest.