The 2016 general election has been hailed as delivering a ‘sensational’ result, although this is disputed, and has led to some difficulty in forming a new Government. Apparently only one party, Fine Gael, wants to be part of one, partly as a result of the horrendous results for the governing parties in the last two contests.
In this election the two Governing parties, holding a record majority, lost heavily: the Fine Gael vote fell from 36.1% to 25.5%, while the Labour Party was decimated, losing more than three quarter of its seats, its vote falling from 19.5% to 6.6%. The biggest apparent gainers were Fianna Fail mainly because of a striking reversal of fortune, increasing its vote from 17.5% in 2011 to over 24.3%, and Sinn Fein, which increased its vote from 9.9% to over 13.8%. This performance however will be seen as disappointing, coming nowhere near the 20% it recorded in polls beforehand.
The governing parties stood in the election on the basis that their painful austerity medicine had worked and that there was now a remarkable recovery, the fruits of which would allow tax cuts and improvement in public services. And the truth is that there has indeed been a recovery; new austerity measures have generally ceased and for some people incomes are rising, either through getting a job or pay increases.
Unfortunately for the Governing parties their arrogant declarations of success rankled with a population fully appreciative of the slenderness of the improvement, which for some has been non-existent, while the more they declared the scale of the success the more it appeared to contrast with the experience of the majority. The Government claimed credit for the improvement but it was a long time coming and the Irish people are aware enough of the vulnerability of their economic circumstances not to be inclined to credit the Government with creating it or of letting the possibility of a new recession escape their minds.
Above all, the accumulated austerity measures inflicted by the Government have not at all been reversed, the huge cuts and tax increases of the last seven or more years are still being felt, the price is still being paid, and smug and arrogant claims of achievement angered a population weary of austerity and aware of too recent and continuing attacks, including water charges.
Fine Gael won the previous election on the back of the then Government’s perceived responsibility for a disastrous economic collapse, a promise that its policy would be different and that the existing ‘no bondholder left behind’ approach would be challenged. Labour campaigned on the grounds that there was a choice between Labour’s way and Frankfurt’s way. Of course these promises were hollow and no coherent policy alternative was put forward, a more politically aware population would have understood this, but the immediate task was to punish the egregious Fianna Fail and a Fine Gael/Labour coalition has been its historic alternative. What this meant, as one commentator has put it, was that in that election they took the least radical option for change, just as they have almost done so again, while in between they voted to accept austerity in the 2012 EU referendum.
So the 2016 election has been hailed as a vote against austerity and an Irish reflection of the forces that have produced Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US.
But the vote in 2011 was also in part a vote against austerity, although driven mainly by the desire for revenge through a massive vote against Fianna Fail, which rocked that traditional hegemonic party of the Irish State and led many to wonder whether it was finished. It has now had something of a comeback in yet another anti-austerity election. In the 2011 election the Labour Party did extremely well on an anti-austerity ticket, at one point believing it might end up the largest party. So what exactly is the nature of a ‘new’ anti-austerity vote that sees the bounce-back of Fianna Fail and the continued development of Fianna Fail nua in the shape of Sinn Fein?
The general election has been characterised by some as a demand for social democracy, an anti-austerity alternative, that was reflected in Fianna Fail’s emphasis on the fruits of the recovery being spent on public services and not on tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich. The claimed new consciousness is also supposed to be reflected in the increased vote for Sinn Fein, which emphasised that it was in favour of a ‘fair’ recovery in which the better off paid most, and in the showing of new formations such as the Social Democrats, which did moderately well arguing that US tax levels were not compatible with a European standard of public services.
There is therefore a case to be made that the election was a vote against austerity, a vote for some sort of social democracy and even a move towards a more conventional right/left political division, now that the more or less identical Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties together have declined to just under half the vote. There is also an obvious case to be made that this is a reflection in Ireland of a wider international phenomenon. But it is more an Irish reflection of this phenomenon rather than a reflection of the phenomenon in Ireland.
So we have an initial clear problem that the recovery in the vote for Fianna Fail is evidence of the move towards social democracy while its savaging in 2011 was also such an example. We have a move to a left/right divide while the historically largest civil war party made a strong recovery.
This does not invalidate the argument but simply demonstrates its limitations and the weakness of the shift. But that a shift is taking place is nevertheless still the case. The long term decline of the civil war parties continues, as recently as 1997 they received 78% of the vote and in 2011 73%. The 2016 vote was a vote against austerity, but not yet a vote for an alternative, at least not a real alternative because neither Fianna Fail nor Sinn Fein are a real alternative and neither are the majority of right wing independents coming, as they say, from the Fianna Fail or Fine Gael gene pool.
The social democratic tone of the likes of Fianna Fail reflects more an improved economy and not any more basic shift in economic policy. Fianna Fail is still widely blamed for sharing a large degree of responsibility for the economic crisis while Sinn Fein voted to bail out the bankers and bondholders. Fianna Fail has a long history of populist rhetoric and actions, which may be called social democratic in a broad sense, but which has been successfully employed to prevent the development of a left/right divide in Irish politics. Without such a divide we have simply had a right/right division.
The case for a growing right/left split rests partly on the policy proposals of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, and their success, and partly on the pressure on Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to collaborate in order to allow creation of a new Government. There are no credible alternatives as the forces of ‘the left’ are too disparate and divided. Some informed commentary is that Fianna Fail will not allow such an alliance to happen partly to frustrate the development of such a divide, which would threaten its traditional role and base inside the working class.
The argument for the development of a left/right demarcation however mainly rests on the rise of Sinn Fein, understood broadly as a ‘left’ party, and the fortunes of the Social Democrats and some left independents. It also rests on the progress of the genuine left, most visibly in the shape of the Anti Austerity Alliance/People before Profit (AAA/PbP) alliance, the creation of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.
But Sinn Fein is not, it must be repeated again and again, a genuine left party. Have a look at austerity in the North if you find this hard to accept. Only by the most expansive definition can it be considered left wing, which might be useful as some sort of catch-all description in some circumstances but is misleading when it comes to any analysis.
Having a predominantly working class support does not make a working class party; Fianna Fail has had the largest support of any party within the working class for many decades until relatively recently. A working class party is one that not only is supported by the working class or part of it, but is composed of workers, is organised from within its ranks and in some way represents its separate interests to a greater or lesser degree.
So what constitutes ‘the left’ and how has it performed in this election? One commentator has argued that, if we include one third of the large number of independents elected, the left has hardly increased, amounting to about a third now compared to 35% in the outgoing Dail, although the composition of this left may be said to be more ‘left wing’. A second analysis defines Labour, Sinn Fein and United Left Alliance as the left in 2011, together receiving 31.5%, while Labour, Sinn Fein, AAA/PbP and Social Democrats are defined as left for the purposes of the 2016 election, receiving 27%. Another perspective groups the AAA/PbP and explicitly left independents together to arrive at a total of 141,890 votes, not very different from the Labour Party’s 140,898 – which is supposed to have had disastrous election. A narrower definition could take the TDs from the United left Alliance that went into the 2011 election and compare their performance in 2016 (while including the gains of the AAA/PbP) and arrive at a total of over 5%.
None of these show any dramatically increased vote for the left, however defined, and are certainly more convincing than some comments from the AAA/PbP, who have not unnaturally looked firstly at their own results. Richard Boyd Barrett has been quoted as stating that “we went from being newly formed to almost 4 per cent.”
However one delineates the left it is clear that the only consistent social democratic alternative offered has come from the AAA/PbP and the candidates who used to belong to the United Left Alliance and perhaps a handful of others.
There has therefore been no qualitative radicalisation but instead a longer irregular evolution of rejection of the traditional right wing parties but without an embrace of any consistently thought out alternative. This is therefore expressed in illusions in parties which peddle familiar solutions that may appear to a greater or lesser degree to be social democratic. When we see these include the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and even Fianna Fail what we don’t see is any sort of consistent social democracy.
to part 2