Twenty sixteen will see a general election in Ireland, one that will be a referendum on the policy of austerity and by implication the continued subordination of the Irish State to global multinational capital. Austerity will be hailed by the Government as a success and the policy of bailing out the banks and bondholders inevitable and unavoidable. Rising employment and falling unemployment; small reductions in taxes instead of large increases, and small increases in public expenditure will be held up as proof that the return of economic growth is no mere statistical artefact.
The policy of giving enormous tax breaks to the richest multinationals while Irish workers tightened their belt, or left the country, will continue to be hailed as successful and absolutely necessary. So, for example, the takeover of Allergan by Pfizer will result in hundreds of millions of tax Euros for the Irish State every year and is the latest illustration of its importance.
Yes, times were tough but we had to tough them out, and we did. This essentially will be the argument of the supporters of austerity and these are the arguments that those standing in the election will have to address. They will have to present a critique which means presenting an alternative.
Central to this alternative is the idea of creating a left Government. The strategy of most of the left in Ireland has centred on protest politics through single issue campaigns and building up constituency bases from which to launch a credible electoral campaign. The ultimate purpose of this is to get a left Government elected because without it there is an enormous hole in the strategy of the left organisations.
Single issue campaigns, such as over water charges, can push back attacks but the bulk of austerity caused by pay reductions, unemployment, tax increases and cuts in services will not be reversed by protest and are the results of the actions of the Government. This shows how central the perspective of entering government is to the left despite often protesting that it is subordinate to mass action by workers, although it is usually difficult to see by what mechanism mass action will achieve stated aims.
The left in Ireland has now developed to a scale where some electoral success is more than probable and such success can always be relied upon to cover up for deeper strategic failure and political weakness, such as failure to achieve a left Government or to satisfactorily address the arguments for austerity.
There will however be no left government elected in 2016, even by the widest interpretation of ‘left’. In December the Red C/Sunday Business Post opinion poll put Fine Gael on 32% [+1]; the Labour Party on 9% [+2]; Fianna Fail on 17% [-2]; Sinn Fein on 19% [+1] and Independents/Others on 23% [-2]. Of the last figure, independents were 14 % with the left Anti Austerity Alliance and People before Profit Alliance on 3% and, the Greens, Renua and the Social Democrats all at 2% support. In other words the three main parties that have implemented austerity are receiving 58% support, rising to well above 60% if we include the smaller right wing fragments of these parties and right wing independents.
Clearly the argument for an alternative has a long way to go. As it is obvious that there will be no left government elected in 2016 the left is beginning to address what the implications of this are.
Most obviously, the immediate prospect of a left government has no credibility if it does not include Sinn Fein. Of course the idea of ‘the left’ is a purely relative one and in the past has included the Green Party, which implemented the biggest single attack on workers in the history of the State through the bank bailout and consequent austerity. Sinn Fein itself has dropped much pretence of opposing austerity in the North, where it will implement most of it by itself in a coalition with the most reactionary party on the island, while handing powers back to the Tory Government in Britain to implement the bits it promised to defeat.
The idea of being on ‘the left’ is one easily appropriated and needs a clear context in which to be meaningful, but the traditional left organisations have for a long time sought to describe themselves in ways that they see as more immediately accessible to Irish workers, who have a very weak socialist tradition and low level of political class consciousness. They have led the way in diluting political descriptions so that all sorts of words are used to replace the traditional vocabulary. Misappropriation is one price to be paid for this.
There therefore exists a need to identify what exactly constitutes ‘left wing’, requiring a fight over ideas, which will ultimately be determined only when these are allied to a practice that demonstrates what they mean in reality. The relationship of Sinn Fein to the idea of a left Government means that the left has had to address this in order to retain the perspective of a left Government at the centre of its strategy.
In this series of posts I will look at two aspects of this – what the political weakness is of the left’s strategy and what proposals the two left organisations – the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party – have put forward in order to deal with the problems posed to their electoral approach.
On 9 December an article appeared in ‘The Irish Times’ by two TDs from the Socialist Party about their views on a possible alliance with Sinn Fein in the coming elections. The Socialist Workers Party has also published an analysis upon which it has constructed a policy on a left Government for its electoral front, People before Profit.
Two things stand out in ‘The Irish Times’ article. First is the decisive role “of a left Government that can mark a fundamental and radical shift away from a society dominated by the profits of the 1 per cent to one where the needs of the 99 per cent and the environment come first.”
Second is the definition of left Government as one that excludes the “traditional establishment parties” of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour but which does not immediately reject the participation of Sinn Fein. Instead, it is challenged to accept the following programme – that a left Government:
“would have to include the reversal of the cuts implemented over the last years, abolition of austerity taxes such as water charges and property tax, investment to resolve the housing crisis and increasing the minimum wage and improving working conditions. Implementing these policies means prioritising public services and housing over paying the bankers’ debts, shifting the burden of taxation on to the wealthy, corporations and high-income earners and challenging the straitjacket of the EU’s “Austerity Treaty”. A left government would also repeal the Eighth Amendment and challenge the oppression faced by women, Travellers, migrants and others.”
The Socialist Party TDs state that “Unfortunately, we have major doubts as to whether Sinn Féin would agree to such a programme.” The doubts are justified but this isn’t altogether the point. There is nothing on this list which one could immediately say Sinn Fein could not accept. This being the case the task would therefore logically be to fight to get an agreement with Sinn Fein to agree a programme for Government on these lines in order to maximise the chances of such a Government after the elections.
It could be argued that promises from Sinn Fein would be worthless and there’s a long history of broken promises in the North. However the North isn’t the South and the South isn’t the North and the very fact the anti-republican Socialist Party even raises the possibility of a Government with Sinn Fein acknowledges this. Challenging Sinn Fein and doing so in front of its supporters would help to either expose lack of seriousness in its proclaimed policies or pressure them to commit to formation of a left Government while setting out clearly the policies on which this would be based.
It could also be argued that Sinn Fein would not be prepared to take the steps advocated by the Socialist Party to the same extent; it would not raise taxes on the rich or increase state investment to the same extent. This objection however is only one of degree and not fundamental. If it is considered by the Socialist Party that the commitment of Sinn Fein is too weak it could state what level of taxation and state investment it would see as constituting a minimum anti-austerity platform – certainly for both it will be more than the effect of the 2016 budget, which is estimated to raise household disposable income by 0.7%.
Sinn Fein however has endorsed the Right2Water campaign’s policy principles which are supported by a number of significant trade unions within the anti-water charges campaign. Again these principles are vague but they do include a commitment to public investment of between €6 – €7 billion in water infrastructure alone, funded through progressive taxation, and they have provided a more detailed document setting out fiscal planning that envisages total spending of €9.4 billion from 2016 to 2020. This was written in June 2015 and will have come before the most recent economic growth so will probably understate the amount that the authors would commit to. In any case the amounts proposed appear to be the minimum they considered possible.
The Socialist Party’s own budget proposals contained in the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) statement involve increased expenditure of €12.8 billion funded by increased taxation and savings of €16.4 billion and are clearly more extensive, but again it is a question of degree not of qualitative or fundamental difference. For all the latter’s talk of “anti-capitalist” and “socialist measures” the budget proposals are in no sense qualitatively different from the former and the AAA budget is put forward only as “an illustration of how things could be organised differently”.
In terms of what is defined as a left Government there appears no decisive difference between the Socialist Party and Sinn Fein, regardless of what more radical ambitions to socialism the Socialist Party lay claim to. It is what the Socialist Party proposes as the minimum programme for a left Government that is at issue.
Sinn Fein’s manoeuvring around potential coalition with what the Socialist Party calls the establishment parties, particularly the Labour Party, does not absolve the Party from responsibility to test the claims of Sinn Fein and to fight to win it to a purely left Governmental programme.
None of this should be taken to mean that I endorse the strategic importance of a left Government as put forward by the Socialist Party or the rest of the left, or that I have any illusions in Sinn Fein. Nor should it be taken that I endorse the measures proposed by the Socialist Party in the AAA budget proposals as essentially socialist, or even the road to socialism – I do not.
What I do believe is that the formation of a left Government in the Irish state would be a step forward for the working class and present much improved conditions within which workers could fight to advance their own organisational capacity and political consciousness. This means that not only is the possible existence of such a Government important but so also is the programme on which it stands and the programme that it subsequently implements.
To simply damn the whole enterprise as reformist on the grounds that it will not see the overthrow of capitalism (which is true) is to abstain from the political issues as they present themselves and the struggles that are there. In addition, to condemn the left organisations that proclaim to be Marxist for adopting a non-Marxist approach (which again is true) is hardly sufficient since the bigger question is not the erroneous views of these organisations but the much wider number of workers who are (rightly) looking for an alternative and see this project as involving an alternative (again correctly).
All these considerations matter, even though it is clear there will be no left Government in Ireland in 2016.
Forward to part 2