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The coming elections. Is there... Really no Alternative?
13th May 2002
Bertie Ahern has just lost two referenda and a string of by-elections including Tipperary where the defeat was huge and unprecedented. A great deal of time and energy was devoted to obtaining a majority in the abortion referendum – clearly meant to construct a new alliance of Fianna Fail and the Catholic right that would stabilise capitalist rule and guarantee a constant Fianna Fail presence in government. That attempt collapsed with the defeat of the referendum. Yet now his Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition is odds on favourite to win the general election. His odds on being the next Taoiseach are quoted as 1 to 6 on!
How on earth can these things be reconciled?
They can be explained by the existence of two quite contradictory political mechanisms. The first is quite widespread popular opposition to the transparent theft and dishonesty of capitalist parties in the 26 counties. This leaves the government open to protest and defeat on certain, specific issues. The other is the total absence of any political alternative leadership to the capitalists which means that on a broader scale the capitalists have a totally free hand and face no real opposition worthy of the name.
The majority of the electorate are angry and frustrated at the scandals that engulf the main parties, particularly Fianna Fail. They were angry when Ahern broke his promise to have a referendum on joining the militarist Partnership for Peace. They have been dismayed at the crumbling of public services, especially health, and outraged at his government’s cynical and callous treatment of children with disabilities, as in the Sinnott case. They have watched as his government ridiculed striking nurses while fawning over a war-mongering George Bush, promising blank-cheque support for his planned war on Iraq.
A widespread feeling of resentment exists despite the boom economy which has its origins in statistics that show a massive increase in inequality; the share of wages in the economy has shrunk and that of capital has risen – from 38% in 1992 to 46% in 2000. Yet the government has arrogantly boasted of its contempt for ‘creeping Jesus’s’ and is set for another victory. How do we explain this and how do we do something about it?
One part of the answer is that the victories that have been scored against the government have been partial, over single issues, while the defeats have been both more numerous and more comprehensive. They have arisen from the fact that over what most workers today consider the most important issue, their economic and social well being, they have supported and/or acquiesed in the policy that has led to rising inequality, poor public services and an arrogant and corrupt establishment. This policy is social partnership, and it has been responsible for the defeat of those workers who have consciously or unconsciously sought rights and rewards outside its strict parameters.
Thus while on individual issues, such as the abortion and Nice referendums, or in by-elections, the government have been beaten, when it comes to an overall alternative, an alternative government and political programme that is posed by all general elections, most workers see no alternative. They increasingly abstain from voting, vote for the devil they know – Fianna Fail, or register opposition and protest votes to Labour, Greens and Sinn Fein, none of whom actually offer this comprehnsive alternative. None for example opposes Social Partnership.
A second part of the answer can thus be seen – lack of a convincing alternative. We can see this in the projected collapse of Fine Gael. While in the past a tweedle-dum tweedle-dee merry go-round took place between the two biggest capitalist parties, many now see no point in an opposition party virtually indistinguishable from the government. This in itself is good news, it at least clarifies that Fine Gael really is no alternative at all to Fianna Fail. For example Fine Gael has signalled that the precipitous fall in public finances will be paid for by public sector workers through thousands of redundancies.
In many ways there is no need or room for an opposition capitalist party to check the one in government. The European Union commission reaction to the 2000 budget shows that globalisation increasingly means the real economic choices are determined by bureaucrats more directly tied to global capitalism. The EU now determines monetary policy, sets limits on fiscal policy (taxes and public spending), has taken away exchange rate policy, regulates industrial and regional policy and pushes forward privatisation and deregulation. All without having to bother about an electorate.
The Labour Party has been playing not very hard to get in terms of a coalition with Fine Gael that now looks a non-runner and have shown in the past that no matter how much they rail at Fianna Fail’s corruption and croneyism the height of their ambition is to be one of the cronies. Their only distinguishing policy is to raid the pension fund to pay for health expenditure.
What is needed is an alternative that asserts that the interests of workers facing unemployment or wage restraint, of young people seeking affordable accommodation, of women facing crisis pregnancies, of citizens concerned with racism and militarism, of parents seeking justice for their disabled children can only be championed by a socialist alternative. That these are common interests arising from the fact that working people have political interests separate and opposed to those of the capitalist class and its system represented by the main parties. What is required is a working class alternative.
Is there such an alternative on the horizon? Who might be the candidates? The Labour Party have made an historic claim to be a party of workers but their long history of subservience to the establishment and main parties and their desire to abandon any pretended independence in a coalition rob their claim of any legitimacy. Today it must be doubted how many workers vote for the Labour Party with any illusion that they vote for a variety of socialism, at least any variety that could claim some credibility.
Beyond Fine Gael and Labour the most dramatic
gains are expected from Sinn Fein who certainly attempt to strike a
radical image and who have concentrated their constituency work in working
class estates. However they do not claim to represent a specifically
working class interest and in fact their nationalism expresses precisely
the opposite claim, that there is a national interest that transcends
Their record in the North of collaborating in a sectarian agreement and implementing right wing inspired privatisation programmes show that even their radical sounding noises will give way to the same old policies when they get near government offices and mercs. They have loudly proclaimed that they are not committed to coalition with Fianna Fail but only the naive could be convinced. What possible obstacle could there be to a coalition with Fianna Fail to a party in coalition with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party?
For much the same reasons the Green Party are no alternative. They don’t claim to be a socialist or working class party, their policies do not fundamentally break from the system and they too have started to signal their willingness to go into coalition – ‘to implement some of their policies.’ As if all the most important policy decisions will not come from the major capitalist party. This is one reason why the promise of an independent slate on rights for the disabled and the health service is no real alternative. A high vote for such candidates would undoubtedly signal widespread disillusionment and anger but we already know this. The problem is how do we create a political alternative?
There are a number of candidates to the left of the Greens. Traditionally workers have seen these candidates as a variety of independent. Their socialism is of the parish pump variety. It is clearly understood that they offer no overall alternative and in fact openly sell their vote to the capitalists in return for local favours. The one opportunity to break out of this cycle was with the election of Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party, whose candidacy for the last Dail we supported. His election raised the possibility of another sort of TD – a tribune of the left who could organise across the country, unite all sorts of disparate struggles and begin the task of building a broader working-class alternative. Unfortunately this experiment has been a failure. Joe did not sell out for local favours, but neither did he turn outwards. He and his party explicitly rejected any form of socialist unity and set themselves the task of simply electing another clone of Joe who will have as much (or as little) impact.
The Socialist Workers Party are standing candidates, but are almost as violently committed in their literature to the gas and water socialism that the Socialist Party espouses and have just as decisively turned away from socialist unity and the big issues around which a working class programme would be built.
What is to be done?
If defeat in the abortion referendum does not prevent a Fianna Fail Victory then it stands to reason that a Fianna Fail victory in the election will not prevent workers giving them a bloody nose in the future. We can also hope a collapse in the Fine Gael vote will see the end of the tweedledum-tweedledee see-saw that gave workers the illusion of choice. It will be even clearer than before that we are offered no alternative to the corrupt administration of Fainna Fail and the pick and mix coalitions that it assembles. It will also be clearer than ever before that this administration is deeply resented by the majority of the working class.
However this should bring no joy to socialists. Instability without a radical work-class alternative can all to easily lead to forces of the far right emerging as they have in France and other areas of Europe. For socialists there really is no alternative to turning away from the sort of light-headed opportunism that characterises so much of the activity of left organisations in Ireland and beginning a serious battle for unity and for a coherent working class alternative.