Irish elections see right shift
17 June 2009
The outcome of the Irish elections is best understood in the context of the wider European election, and the news from that election is bad news for socialists. Against the backdrop of the greatest financial crisis of modern times, with some of capitalism’s leading ideologues openly speculating about the prospects for the systems survival, the capitalists won through with ease. Individually the governing parties were punished, especially where there were indications of personal corruption, but the biggest trend was a move to the right, with conservative parties doing well and a localised tendency in some countries towards the far right and racist parties. The gains were not a triumph, being based on a sharp tendency towards a fall in the vote, strongest in the advanced capitalist countries. The fall in the vote indicates a widespread demoralisation amongst workers, but this represents no immediate danger to capitalism.
The big news in the election was the continued collapse of the social democratic parties. Where they were in power, as in Britain, they were hammered. Where they were in opposition they were seen as offering more of the same and lacking credibility as an opposition. A minor note was the failure of the socialist organisations. They were either unable to mount any electoral challenge or presented a pale pink alternative to the social democrats that garnered a relatively insignificant vote. They fell between two stools, unable to gain a large vote on the one hand and failing to advance a socialist program that could have established a class struggle current on the other.
The reason for this failure was the attachment of many groups to a policy of spontaneous action and opportunism. From this perspective the capitalist financial crisis was bound to lead to spontaneous rejection of the capitalists by the workers and all the socialists had to do was sympathise with the workers anger.
The survival of leaders such as France's Sarkozy and Italy's Berlusconi shows just how deluded the idea of spontaneous opposition is. The majority of workers, told that capitalism has collapsed, will express anger and outrage but will also seek ways to preserve it and in the process preserve their homes and jobs. If their trade union leaders tell them that they have to bear the pain they will accept that, as in the recent voter by RTE workers to accept a wage cut. In an election they will punish the government party but endorse a similar party promising to sort out the mess.
If socialists want to win workers to their cause then they have to put forward an alternative program and not wait for capitalism to fall of its own accord. Nothing could more clearly illustrate the difference between anger and class consciousness than the fall of British labour. There was widespread anger at the fiddling of expenses by MPs, yet no discussion of the millions flowing into the pockets of ex-PM Tony Blair - the mechanism of bribery through which capitalism routinely ensures that politicians meet the needs of capital. The personal dishonesty of MPs cost Labour dearer than the billions thrown at the golden circle cost Fianna Fail!
Against this background the major outcome of the Irish election was entirely predicable. Fianna Fail took a hammering, Fine Gael tweedledee surged forward with Labour in its slipstream. The stage is set for a Fine Gael - Labour coalition applying policies largely identical to those of the incumbent government.
There was one significant departure from the European pattern. The far right, represented by Ganley and Libertas, saw their potential vote evaporate, mainly because the right-wing component of the Irish no vote on the Lisbon treaty is collapsing in the face of the crisis.
Specifically Irish features of the election were also of significance. The Green party were annihilated for their role in coalition. This is the traditional outcome for coalition parties and a foretaste of Labour's future.
Equally significant is the failure of the Sinn Fein campaign and specifically their failure to get Mary-Lou Mcdonald elected in Dublin. Sinn Fein have been punished in advance for their dreams of junior partnership with Fianna Fail. More generally this marks the beginning of the end for Sinn Fein. Their version of Fianna Fail lite makes them irrelevant in the current situation and their situation is made worse by the resignation of Christy Burke, a leading Dublin activist, and of Wexford’s John Dwyer. The Provos point desperately at their poll-topping performance in the North, but this disguises a fall in their vote. Top position was due to unionist rivalry, but the rivalry was around competition over who would most decisively humiliate Sinn Fein and most quickly force them from government. The future for the Shinners looks bleak.
The claim is made that the local and European elections represented a left breakthrough and that the breakthrough rests on a growing left unity. This is delusion on a grand scale. At the local level a handful of activists won seats at the parish pump by taking up parish pump politics. During the same period the trade union leaderships managed to translate a demonstration of over 100,000 into zero resistance and attacks on the workers were stepped up. Constant claims of unity were not supported by any evidence - one unity candidate hedged her bets by standing as People before Profit (Independent). In a desperate attempt to appear relevant an imaginary left coalition was invented that included the army of independents, Greens, Sinn Fein and the Labour party.
This is a serious problem in the construction of a new working class movement. In the absence of a working class program the parish pump brigade are an irrelevance. The apolitical unity drive actually damages the prospects of a working class party because the Greens, Sinn Fein and Labour are not socialist organizations and their displacement is one of the tasks of a new movement. As it is, the Greens have been punished and Sinn Fein stymied, but socialists have had no impact in this process and, in their absence, the danger is of a further shift to the right.
Perhaps the most dramatic contest in the election was the last-minute surge that saw the Socialist Party's Joe Higgins elected as an MEP. The significance is that Joe actually spoke about socialism rather than the parish pump and established that a public commitment to a socialist alternative actually does strengthen the left. Because MEPs are generally seen to lack any real power, the election represents an opportunity to establish a working class tribune and unite working class activists around a program of class action. This opportunity creates a responsibility on Joe and the Socialist Party to look beyond their own organisation and establish the foundations of independent working class politics. It must be said frankly that the history of the Socialist Party does not make this a likely scenario, but it is an opportunity that must be pursued vigorously.