If 2014 local and European elections was peak fragmentation of politics, 2019 arguably demands coherency and realignment. Yet the realignment has not happened in new formations but re-emergence of the old. Fianna Fail are most likely to lead the next government with Fine Gael sitting comfortably in opposition. It is almost like the bailout and crash of 2009-11 never happened.
Trajectory of the left
Many have wondered why Ireland’s political spectrum has failed to develop on a left- right spectrum as in other countries. Various theories have been posited to explain. In the past twenty five years, there has been the basis for the growth of a party of the left. Labour has been well placed to fill this role, but failed miserably to develop it.
It might have been very fair to write Labour off as a political force a year ago, but now the local elections apparently have breathed life into the party. While its European results were a disaster, it won twenty new local election seats. European candidate Alex White spoke of his relief that people were not has hostile to Labour, as they were in 2014-16. However, it is far off where it could be at this point.
Lack of hostility should not be interpreted as positive support as his poor performance showed. There is simply little confidence that Labour has anything to offer. No lessons appear to have been learned by Labour in government and no apologises for mistakes made.
The past decade has seen the fragmentation and the emergent of new formations on the left. There have been attempts to co-ordinate across parties before and even organise under alliances before and they have failed for one reason or other. The United Left Alliance emerged from the consistent campaigning work of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party in community campaigns and particularly around issues like the water charges and bin charges. The alliance brought in the Tipperary group supporting Seamus Healy and also included Joan Collins, who was both a People Before Profit TD but also an ex- Socialist Party member.
The ULA fragmented within a year of its formation in 2011, while the Right2Change coalition failed to coalesce the left in 2016. Historically, trade unions were close to the Labour Party but over the years the relationship has weakened and today the party has no affiliations.
The water charges campaign developed in earnest in 2014. After years of austerity, the issue was the straw that broke the camels back for many people . Importantly, it was an issue that people felt they could do something about. Water charges were defeated by a combination of political pressure of mass demonstrations but also mass non- payment. The mass demonstrations were championed by some unions but not all and the mass non- payment was championed by what was to become PBP-Solidarity. The election of Paul Murphy in the 2014 by-election shifted Sinn Fein to a more resolute position, which in turn impacted on Fianna Fail.
Fresh enough from success of their involvement in the Right2Water campaign, some of the unions involved launched Right2Change. The initiative co-ordinated mainly through the trade unions Unite and Mandate and involved the support of Sinn Fein, left independents and others.
Sinn Fein must be worried at reverting to micro party status at worst and a slightly depleted sense at best. They can console themselves knowing that they still have time to change course, but the route to surviving or progress as a significant political force is not clear. Labour while relieved that their vote has not got any worse must hardly be optimistic at their medium term prospects, especially given their poor European performance. Solidarity People Before Profit won a local election base in 2014, when voters punished Labour and switched, but in 2019 they stayed home. Their way has proved not to have been the ‘true road’.
The Social Democrats increased their number of seats from 6 to 19 and outpolled Labour in the European election. However, their challenge is to be distinct amid a fragmented political landscape. Independents for change candidates and members identify as left and won significant support but voters do not necessarily view this group as being left, rather they identify it as independent. The success of Clare Daly and co cannot be claimed by the left, rather it is the legacy of work years previous and her own effective interventions for being seen to ‘say it as it is’. Linked to the election of independents is the question of future legacy.
The Green Party dropped all the way back to just three council seats in 2009 and lost their Dail representation in 2011 before re-grinding out their vote again in 2014 winning 14 seats and surfing the Green surge in 2019 gaining a total of 49 seats and European representation. They can expect to win increased Dail representation in the next election.
In discussing prospects of the left, it is important to note that the Greens do not identify as a left party, even though some of their activists do identify as such. Meanwhile, all the other parties discussed above identify as left but each define left differently. The voters have demonstrated forgiveness of the Greens, although the Greens do not appear to have learned many lessons from their time in government.
Prognosis for the left
Log on to any social media channel and we see activists in their echo chambers bashing the hell out of eachother online but not talking in real life. Social Democrats, Labour and Sinn Fein bash Socialist Party/Solidarity PBP as ‘Trots’, while Socialist Party/ Solidarity PBP bash Sinn Fein as nationalist and sectarian and Labour as irredeemable sell-outs, and the Social Democrats are castigated by some as Labour mark two.
Yet, anyone who canvasses door to door knows that truly the real enemy is apathy and paralysis not the one slightly more or less angry than you. The fragmentation described above is an unacceptable position. All of the above parties have blown opportunities for progress and while those who have become independent might be credited with leaving behind toxic party politics but can the country or the planet cannot afford for elected representatives to walk off the pitch, while holding their ball.
The PR STV system happily allows for various minority parties and micro parties sit side by side and maintain their own structures, each sure in their own minds that they are on the true path to progress. Each party of the left finds itself with its own challenge, so now is time for reflection on what is needed. I believe it is time for re-alignment, defragmentation and to build a new cohesive coherent party of the left.
A new party for working people to defend and develop the welfare state is needed. A party that is anti- racist and socially progressive is needed. A party that can accommodate diversity of political perspectives but develop coherence is needed.
A new party accommodating Sinn Fein, Labour, Solidarity, People Before Profit, Social Democrats and independent lefts is needed. Creating such a party would mean compromise on the part of all of the above in so many ways.
It would mean a strategy that takes them back from risk of marching over the cliff into irrelevance. If the will was there combined with the strategic position of the Right2Change unions, perhaps we would see the development of a real party of labour in Ireland. Party activism which drives union recruitment and in turn union commitment drives party activism. This has been the experience of Momentum and Labour after the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. It is the basis for sustained progress and it is what we need in this country.
I have 18 years of active experience within the Socialist Party (now Solidarity PBP), some inactivity and activity as a lone independent and more recently in the last number of years, I have been involved in the Social Democrats and was a candidate in the local elections for the Balbriggan ward of Fingal County Council.