The left reviews the election: A Survey
16 June 2007
The 2007 election has been a focus for the plans of the left for the last number of years and guided most of its activity. Almost universally the results have been regarded as disappointing. It therefore behoves the left to look at this election and to explain its results. In this article we will look at the initial analyses of the election by the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party and Irish Socialist Network.
The analysis provided by SWP leader Kieran Allen in ‘Socialist Worker’ no. 275 is confusing from the first sentence. Above a picture of Bertie Ahern up to his armpits in water we have the headline ‘Bertie: Not Waving, DROWNING’ yet we read in the first sentence that ‘the election results were a blow to anyone who wants to change Ireland to a more equitable and decent society.’
Allen might appear to escape the obvious contradiction by stating that ‘the scale of the blow, should not however, be exaggerated’ and points to the decimation of the PDs in order to argue that the right wing ‘triumph is not as solid as it looks.’ However the marginal nature of the PD vote and therefore the marginal nature of any shift in it in relation to the overall election vote is ignored.
Allen wants to answer the question of Fianna Fail – ‘how can their extraordinary hold over Irish voters be explained?’ He rubbishes, correctly, the view that there exists a ‘contented privileged majority’ and says that the main answer to the question is the failure of the mainstream left. The strength of Fianna Fail (and presumably of Fine Gael) is only the weakness of the left. The vacuity of such an explanation is obvious; did workers have nothing in their heads when they voted Fianna Fail besides the rottenness of the left? Why didn’t they abstain, spoil their vote or vote for independents including left candidates? Does their voting behaviour tell us nothing about their class consciousness, or lack of it?
Allen is of course correct to point out the weakness of the alternative provided by the Labour Party, Greens and Sinn Fein, and that this resulted in the debate being reduced to ‘who was the best economic manager, with no discussion on even what type of economic policies might be pursued.’ This is true, but what it means is that all these parties were more or less admitting they would pursue the same economic policies as Fianna Fail – reliance on foreign investment, ‘sound’ fiscal policies etc. To that extent they were more honest and up-front than the candidates of the SWP who said precisely nothing about what economic policies they wished to pursue. By Allen’s criteria the SWP also failed the test of providing an alternative.
The second part of his explanation is that workers reflected a ‘prevalent mood of economic insecurity’ and therefore voted for Ahern, giving him the benefit of the doubt when the alternative was Kenny.
Allen’s analysis therefore leaves workers as vacuums simply awaiting the presentation of a left for them to reject Fianna Fail. The subjective factor is more or less absent. But so too is the objective one. The economic and social conditions that exist have simply made workers insecure and the enormous changes that have taken place in Irish society as a result of the economic boom have played no other role worth mentioning. He says nothing about the role of the class struggle in the previous five years and how it may have a bearing on any explanation for the election result.
Allen argues that ‘for the moment at least, the mainstream parties are locked into a framework that chains them to the twin structures of social partnership and left-right coalitions. As long as it continues, there will be no left break through, despite the dramatic changes that have occurred in the last decade.’ If fact the ‘mainstream left’, as he calls it, only exist in Ireland to prop up the parties of the right. Waiting, hoping, or even fighting for them to stop doing so is a recipe for continual failure. It is not that socialists must seek to break the Greens, Labour and Sinn Fein from alliance with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael but that they must break workers from any illusion that these parties are an alternative. This means demonstrating that their collaboration with the parties of the right is not accidental or contingent but is inevitable. This means, for a start, a stop to calling them left and a stop to seeking an alliance with them, as the SWP have done.
In a radio programme after the election on the future of the left the interviewer put the logic of this quite starkly to Richard Boyd Barrett of the SWP. If you can push the Labour Party to the left why not join it? With the SWP’s perspectives there can be no principled objection to this.
Calling the Labour Party, Greens and Sinn Fein left tells us more about where the SWP is at this point than about these parties. This ‘leftism lite’is confirmed by the manifestos under which SWP members stood. The absence of the mere mention of socialism from them is proof of their retreat to the right. Their explicit project is now to unite those opposed to capitalism with those not opposed, on a programme acceptable to the latter. The populist type politics which speaks of people’s and community rights is far from a call for workers emancipation is not new and is as old a fraud as capitalism itself.
Before the election the SWP spoke of their involvement in campaigns that ‘reflect a new mood for people power and a change from below for which a new generation of public elected representatives are lacking.’ The elections blew away any illusions in such a new mood. The struggles that have taken place over the past five years demonstrate the need for socialist answers to the issues thrown up and socialist strategies for struggles to succeed. The SWP have explicitly abandoned such an approach. Tying their perspective to parties who are not left in any meaningful sense makes their project of less and less relevance to the creation of a genuine socialist alternative. The absence of any serious analysis of the election results reflects the absence of any serious socialist perspective.
The SP stand head and shoulders above the SWP for the simple fact that they don’t regard the Labour Party, Greens or Sinn Fein as left wing organisations or part of the future socialist movement. They argue on their web site that the election result reflects the reality that ‘people opted for the political status quo in the hope that that would be the best way to maintain economic growth.’ In the competition between the two big capitalist parties the SP was squeezed, just like all other small parties. They recognise that the defeats workers have suffered through privatisation and the sell out of mass mobilisations by the trade unions has affected ‘people’s mood and political attitudes.’
Still they argue that ‘it would be completely wrong to conclude that it (the election results) constitutes a major shift to the right in Irish society.’ While it would be a waste of time to argue over the precise meaning of ‘major’ in this description of a move to the right it appears that the SP is not really willing in any open way to recognise any shift. Later in their analysis they argue, in response to the assertions of the SWP that there now exists the potential to build a major left movement, that this ‘would be an equally imbalanced and an equally wrong conclusion to make as the idea of a shift to the right in this election.’
The SP argue that ‘the absence of activity and struggle by . . working class people at this point and the low levels of confidence made it a difficult task to maintain existing votes in this election, let alone establish a basis for a new workers party.’ They argue that the election confirmed their view that ‘we are at the early stages of the re-organisation and recovery of the working class..’ In the same article however they state that they went into the election arguing that ‘we will use our positions to launch a new party or movement that really represents working people.’
The SP can’t have it both ways. Either they were right going into the election that a new party could be launched and the SWP are now right (whatever differences there might be, or not be, about what the new party stands for) or they were wrong going into the election and the election represented a shift to the right such as to fundamentally change their perspective. If the launch of such a new movement requires the election of two SP TDs it raises legitimate questions about the electoralist foundations of such an initiative.
Essentially the SP want things to stand still because their perspective of getting two TDs into the Dail remains, despite the failure to keep the one they had and the way in which the election results demonstrate the fragility of such a perspective. Even had they succeeded the question would have been raised - what next? In the previous two elections the SP made it clear that the election of Joe Higgins was primarily a victory for the SP. When asked after each victory what they were going to do with a socialist TD they said they were going to try to build the SP. They kept their promise. Now however they want to make the loss of Joe’s seat a loss for all the left and, despite his good work around Gama and ripostes in the Dail debating chamber, it is unfortunately not the case that his loss to the wider socialist movement is as great as the SP would now like to pretend. As an alternative, the politics of the SP has serious deficiencies, most glaringly on the North where Joe Higgins has nothing of note to say different from the capitalist parties.
The manifesto of the SP was in no sense revolutionary, reflecting the historic reformist core to the politics of the international tendency to which the SP belongs. This centres around the idea of an enabling act in parliament being the key instrument in the transition to socialism. Social struggles are simply the backdrop to this perspective. Assertions about what good policies the SP had, added to abstract, even if correct, arguments for a socialist society do not make a revolutionary programme. Such a programme is not primarily an equally abstract call for ‘revolution’ as much as an uncompromising identification of the class interests of the working class on all issues, a strategy for struggle and a call to embark on such struggle. The manifesto of the SP did not do this.
In their post election analysis they state that workers’ defeats at the hands of the trade unions have led to the current low level of their mood and attitudes, yet social partnership, the central mechanism of this defeat, was not equally central to their manifesto, it got one very short sentence! The authors of the betrayal of workers struggles – the lCTU bureaucrats – get not a mention, yet defeating them is key to working class victories and creation of a new socialist movement. The SP also argue that the working class now face a huge offensive on their rights and conditions because of the changed economic conditions, precipitating working class struggle and allowing a swing away from the capitalist parties towards socialists. If this really is what faces workers why didn’t this feature at the top of their manifesto? It too wasn’t mentioned!
But that is not the major problem. While it may be true that economic problems will precipitate struggles and opportunities for the left there is no guarantee that these opportunities will be realised. We have already witnessed important struggles (over Irish Ferries, the nurses’ strike, bin tax and the anti-war mobilisations) which the left have been involved in, but their economistic and sectarian approach and unwillingness to challenge the bureaucracy has failed these struggles.
The election was a blow to the SP’s narrow perspective of growth through accretion of another TD. It has revealed the weak character of some of their support which shifted to Fianna Fail. The SP had nothing to say in answer to the propaganda of the right, which based policy on Ireland’s dependence on foreign capital and the need to maintain international competitiveness. Vulnerability on these issues by workers is also the weakness of the SP and this isn’t going to disappear in the next election. The complete absence of an understanding of their own political weakness makes them blind to the weakness of class consciousness in the Irish working class because their economism blinds them to the political character of such consciousness. Mere economic demands do not make workers class conscious. Nearly 40,000 nurses went into industrial dispute against the government but there is no evidence that political conclusions were drawn.
The SP can therefore say that the increased working class votes for Fianna Fail ‘does not mean that new layers of the population support capitalism or their policies.’ This is true only in a very literal sense. New layers do not support capitalism because they already supported capitalism before the election. They may recoil at certain policies but there is no constituency wedded to any socialist alternative, the only possible alternative to capitalism. Like the SWP the SP posits a working class prone to moods and emotions – of insecurity and fear – but hasn’t a clue that these are based on some ideas about how society works and the belief that it can only work in this way. It is on these beliefs alone that workers fears can be explained. The acceptance of the reality of capitalism and of how it works may be more or less formed or more or less reluctant but it exists.
The contribution from Colm Breathnach, a member of the ISN, is the only one of the three to accept and address this central reality. The SWP and SP both speak of a vacuum on the left as if the shift to the right of mainstream parties has left a following with left views just waiting for a leadership to arrive and declare themselves in front of them. The shift right over the past decades has affected all levels of politics including the consciousness of the working class. The ISN stands head and shoulders above the Socialist Party because it acknowledges this and puts it at the centre of analysis.
Breathnach says that ‘there’s no denying that this was a bad election for the left. . . The Fianna Fail victory and the rise of Fine Gael’s vote happened for a number of reasons but the key element seems to be that Irish capitalism has convinced the majority of people that it alone can deliver prosperity. . . The difficulty is that they (workers) do not connect everyday problems to the capitalist system nor do they see any genuine alternatives’
All this is true. A left that offers reforms that workers see as compatible with the existing system plus generalised and abstract messages about the value of a socialist society as an alternative do not connect everyday problems with the capitalist system and the need for an alternative. The task of socialists is to show the necessary failures of Irish capitalism and that reforms cannot solve them because these reforms either cannot be implemented or would fail even if adopted. What is necessary is a struggle by workers to defend themselves by measures that necessarily go beyond the existing society and which point the way to the new one. This is what is known as a revolutionary programme but the manifestos of the left do not adopt this approach. They have been fixated with community and local concerns in order to appear relevant.
Colm Breathnach gives two pointers to the way forward. The first is to ‘outline . . an alternative strategy rooted deeply in the participation of the mass of people and aimed at the revolutionary transformation… we also have to answer the difficult questions with something other than generalisations. What about the flight of capital and consequent economic crisis?’ This is correct.
He also explains the poor performance of the left in this way: ‘many left groups simply had not put down deep enough roots in working class communities,’ and refers to the bin tax as being insufficient. ‘By and large, the left failed to campaign consistently on issues that affected people directly.’ If we in Socialist Democracy read this correctly then it is a view with which we have much less sympathy.
In the debate on the ISN article on indymedia an SP supporter makes the absolutely correct point that ‘a small left organisation cannot pluck campaigns out of thin air’ although another SP supporter admits that the SP have repeatedly done exactly that – and failed: ‘we tried over and over again to get local campaigns going on all of the issues Colm mentioned.’ Such seeking after local campaigns is a result of trying to build a local base, local roots, and itself results from an electoralist strategy of seeking out a constituency to work in. Even when successful, as with Joe Higgins, the capitalist parties only have to redraw the boundaries or limit the number of seats and even by itself this can remove the big prize of getting a TD elected.
The left does not have to desperately seek out campaigns to build. For all their talk of grass roots, bottom up socialism and opposition to the vanguard politics of Leninism this approach is deeply substitutionist. The working class, even the Irish one with its recent history of relative passivity, throws up class struggles without those being picked for them by the left. The duty of the left is not to start class struggle but to intervene with politics when it starts. During the election there was a large strike by nurses. We have seen mobilisations over the war in Iraq, the race to the bottom in Irish Ferries and the bin charges struggle. The left’s response to each of these was inadequate, sometimes being determined by electoralist considerations – ‘building its local roots’ – and failing to intervene with the necessary level of politics. In the case of the bin charge campaign there was no collective accounting for failure of that struggle, indeed it refused for a long time even to admit the truth and acknowledge that the struggle had failed.
All this is important for a second reason.
The hegemony of bourgeois ideology is never absolute. It must struggle
for its success. In the last analysis it is antagonistic to the fundamental
interests of workers and must be imposed. It must protect itself
against attacks which workers will make on it, even without the workers
realising they are assaulting it. The key to enforcing and reinforcing
the power of bourgeois ideology are the current leaders of workers organisations
– the bureaucrats of ICTU and its policy of social partnership. Yet
social partnership was barely mentioned, if at all, by the left in the
election. The role of
The ISN author rightly ridicules the Greens and Labour Party who have performed their own role in reinforcing bourgeois ideology by pretending to be an alternative yet accepting the framework of capitalism, once more telling workers that radicalism must accept these parameters. He rightly refuses to define them as left or any part of a new socialist alternative. For some reason however he doesn’t include Sinn Fein in this category even though he notes their ‘rush to the right’ during the election. He appears to place hope in the fact that the Northern Adams leadership has not had to deal with internal opposition from southern leftists.
The problem is that Sinn Fein is just as irredeemable in relation to socialist politics as the Greens or Labour Party. They have become partners with Paisley in the North and have only vague and meaningless rhetoric left in the South. They were clearly positioning themselves for coalition with Fianna Fail and there is nothing to indicate they would not have had the same success in selling this to their members as the Greens. A much more battle scarred support in the North bought into Stormont so a successful Southern rebellion against the Adams leadership looks decidedly unlikely. In fact the failure of it is inevitable simply because it doesn’t have any alternative. Of course this doesn’t exclude individuals or groups leaving but as an organisation Sinn Fein is dead as far as the socialist project is concerned. It is the responsibility of socialists to convince the sincere in that organisation of that reality.
The ISN correctly rejects the SWP’s success as an example to follow, being based on a rejection of class politics, but point to Seamus Healy and Joan Collins as alternatives. In our view these candidates did not present the revolutionary politics that the ISN say is necessary for the left to move forward. In fact neither did the ISN. Just like the SWP and SP, which posits important things for the working class to realise after the election, e.g. a coming economic offensive or stating what economic alternative they had, they didn’t do this themselves during the election. Their manifesto wasn’t revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination – calling for local accountability of the Gardai and asking for working class areas not to be neglected by them – are scarcely revolutionary positions. To be fair the ISN did address the question of multinationals seeking out the lowest cost locations but their response was hardly good enough. They certainly didn’t raise the questions about flight of capital, economic crisis or EU state involvement that Colm Breathnach says is necessary to be a serious alternative.
It is also necessary to question a weakness of method of the ISN that they share with much of the left. That is the failure to look back honestly at their own actions and policies and learn from them. In this case the most extreme version of localism and electoralism was that expressed in the runup to the election was that professed by the Campaign for an Independent Left.
The CIL strategy failed absolutely, yet there is no mention anywhere by the ISN that the main activity of their organisation over a considerable period of time was the attempt to build this organisation or of their decision to part company with them.
In general the ISN author presents the most convincing analysis of the three but is let down by the evaluation of various political forces which he makes. Like the SWP and SP he makes statements about what is necessary to move forward but fails to notice that his own organisation failed to make these points during the election itself, when elections are precisely good opportunities to attempt to increase workers awareness.
The SWP make the correct point that the left should unite to face the challenges ahead, irrespective of whether the SP say now is not the right time to create a new movement, although the latter contradicted themselves on this. Unity is desirable even in bad times. This step forward however is totally negated by the SWP including in their definition of left those who have openly in the past, openly now, and openly promise in the future, to betray even a minimal notion of progressive politics.
The Socialist Party are 100% correct to reject the left credentials of the putative partners of the SWP but behind this they hide their own opposition to any sort of unity and pursuit of their own organisational agenda. The loss of Joe Higgins’ seat and assertion of business as usual makes their strategy for the left a new production of waiting for Godot. The idea of one TD, then another and then another hardly makes the parliamentary road to socialism look like a superhighway at broadband speed.
Those on the left know that neither of these organisations will accept the perspective of the other. Both have a history of sectarianism. It is important however to understand the roots of this sectarianism. Both believe that the socialist movement will be built through their own party building projects of which being elected is central to success, and demonstrating that success. Hence the emphasis on local campaigning and activity in order to build the necessary support in defined constituencies. This is why broad political questions have been ignored by them even while they acknowledge their importance afterwards.
Socialist Democracy believes that the socialist movement will be built out of workers own struggles, not artificial creations of the left which the latter seek to dominate or control. Revolutionary leadership in such struggles will be won to the extent that it meets the needs of workers. We believe that this requires a revolutionary approach which teaches workers to rely on their own strength even if they sometimes seek other means. It will be accepted or rejected but cannot be imposed.
By contrast the electoralist projects with their community campaigning in constituencies is reformist to the core. What is crucial in such situations is who leads the local campaigns and who can seek election out of them. That is what drives the sectarianism. It has its roots in the reformism of the left.
Unity of the left is important but if it is bought by electoralist non-aggression pacts, where even two left candidates standing against each other is held up as unity, it will be useless. If it is bought by burying the big political issues which are acknowledged after the election to be crucial, it will be useless.
The socialist organisations failed in this election, even by their own yardstick. The way forward is unity around clear political principles and on the key issues. For us this is social partnership and the shackles that it places on those workers compelled to fight for their interests. We are under no illusions that our proposed way forward will be generally accepted any more than the SWP’s People before Profit front will be accepted by the Socialist Party or that the former will see Joe Higgins returned to the Dail as the key for the left in the next election. The SWP dropped opposition to social partnership after the last deal and demanded a different social partnership deal.
We would appeal to other socialists to
review the results of these elections and accept that bourgeois ideas do
hegemonise the working class, and that the domination of two capitalist
parties proves it. We ask them to accept our argument that this ideology
is imposed and does not arise out of workers own self interest. We
ask them to accept that a key mechanism for this imposition is through
social partnership which asserts the identity of interests between bosses,
workers and the State and that it intervenes consistently through the trade
union bureaucracy to defeat workers who break, even if unconsciously, from
it. There is plenty of scope for a campaign against partnership which
can unite socialists while discussing the programmatic differences that
separate the various organisations. What this has going for it is
that its success depends principally on the ability of workers themselves
to engage in struggle and learn lessons from it. If it fails because
workers don’t learn lessons the socialist project is dead anyway.
The elections do not permit such a pessimistic conclusion.