The North of Ireland’s Anti-Brexit Election

Vote count at Titanic Belfast

No sooner is the general election over but the media hails the beginning of talks to resurrect the Assembly at Stormont and the power-sharing Executive.  The election has been hailed as a dramatic change yet the same old solution that cannot find a problem it can solve is put forward again.

We are expected to forget the rampant incompetence and corruption that characterised previous Stormont attempts.  However, it’s not quite everything changes but everything remains the same, because at the same time as we wake up to groundhog devolution day we are also informed that, just perhaps, real change is on its way – ‘United Ireland’ trended on Twitter.

In part this might appear as a result of Brexit getting done under Johnson, which will hasten a Scottish referendum that will lead to Scottish independence – shattering the ‘precious’ union upon which Irish Unionism depends. In part, it is because of the results of the election in Northern Ireland, which for the first time ever has elected more nationalist MPs to Westminster than Unionist – 9 to 8.

But caveats abound.  Johnson will not get Brexit done.  The UK may leave the EU at the end of January but the transition period means nothing will change – except losing its vote in the EU – until it ends at the end of the year, which is not long enough to determine the new arrangements between the UK and the EU.  These will be contentious despite the Irish Taoiseach warmly welcoming the result of the election as removing a worrying source of instability for the Irish state and its economy.  The value of Irish shares may have soared upon the result, especially those of the banks exposed to the British economy, and one right wing politician may have welcomed the election of another, but Brexit is by no means sorted and the North of Ireland (indeed Britain itself) has just voted against it.

If the Scottish Government elected by the people demands another separation referendum then it should have it, without this the national oppression that Scotland does not currently suffer from would become real.  But Brexit will involve the same, if not even greater problems, for any separate Scottish polity that puts itself outside its main economic partner, with a hard border between it and a Brexit England and Wales.  The austerity necessary for a separate Scotland would be made worse; it is not therefore a given that the Scottish people will change its mind.

In any case socialists should oppose the erection of borders, which divide workers, and oppose nationalism that frustrates class solidarity in favour of national allegiance.  Already nationalism has many Scottish workers voting for a Party that covers its right wing politics with nationalist rhetoric.  This has unfortunately led many on the left to support its cause, perhaps not so surprising since some have also capitulated to Brexit; populist nationalism has been on the march in a muted form for longer than Boris Johnson.

So the outcome of Brexit and Scotland are not clear, but if the Withdrawal Agreement continues in some form then a real difference will be created between the North of Ireland and Britain and real harmonisation between North and South.  A loyalist campaign that attempts to stymie this is not out of the question, but it is likely to be more isolated than previous mobilisations against Sunningdale in the 1970s and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s.  It will struggle to identify meaningful targets (which normally leads to its default disposition of attacking Catholics) and the British State lacks the incentive to indulge it.

The election results themselves have been taken to represent another step towards a United Ireland through a border poll, but again the situation is not so straightforward.  Sinn Fein, which shouts loudest for such a poll – calling for the Irish Government to create an All-Ireland Forum to advance the cause, performed badly, dropped by 6.7 percentage points.  It stood aside in a ‘Remain’ alliance in three seats, which partially explains the fall, but it also gained from the SDLP withdrawing in North Belfast, which returned a new Sinn Fein MP.  From three out of four MPs in Belfast being Unionist we now have three out of four Nationalists.

It dropped votes almost everywhere else, in West Belfast to People before Profit and spectacularly to the SDLP in Derry where its reverse was stunning.  On top of terrible results earlier this year in the local and European elections in the South, Sinn Fein has major problems.  The shine has long since come off it, it has little positive to say, and its abstentionist policy to Westminster has just cost it votes in the North.  It might have been assumed that as Irish unity appeared closer Sinn Fein would grow and benefit, but the opposite could well turn out to be the case.

It is one thing to stand out for the traditional aspiration of the majority of the Irish people when it appears you are alone in this, quite another to do anything positive to achieve it when it appears to become a realistic prospect, at least some time that isn’t the distant future.  The closer to Irish unity the less relevant appears a Party with nothing much to say about how it should be achieved or how it would actually entail a new progressive Ireland.  Previously, the SDLP suffered because it demanded the end of the IRA’s unpopular armed campaign but Sinn Fein gained from the peace process because republicans and not the SDLP could make it happen.  Sinn Fein will not make Irish unity happen, certainly not in any progressive manner.

In this election the SDLP came back from the dead to win two MPs with huge majorities in Derry and South Belfast.  Their opposition to Brexit was certainly a major factor in the latter, assisted by the fact that the sitting MP was from the DUP and Sinn Fein and the Green Party had stood aside.  Its vote however was much more than this assistance and represented more than mobilisation of a Catholic/Nationalist vote.  On the face of it this strengthens the push for restoration of Stormont since the SDLP is arguably its greatest supporter, although the sectarian carve up that is the lifeblood of Stormont faces challenges when there is competition not only between Orange and Green but also within each camp.

This is also the case in the Unionist camp where the threat to the DUP has come not from the Ulster Unionist Party, which has no real reason for existence, but from the Alliance Party – the biggest winner on the night. Like the footballer that is never off the subs bench while the team is crap, they get better the less they play, and the worse the team gets.  Alliance has benefited from appearing to stand above the sectarian incompetence and venality at Stormont but there is no indication that greater immersion into the devolution it also earnestly supports will not reveal its inadequacies as it has the others.  Its apparent opposition to the inevitable workings of Stormont will dissolve as it becomes an increasing part of it.

This however is not the major point to make about the rise of the Alliance Party.  It declares itself neither Orange nor Green although it has its origins within Unionism and has a pro-union policy.  This used to be much more obvious than it is now but has receded as the question has lost it sharpness following republican acceptance of the constitutional status-quo.  Its avowedly non-sectarian unionism has reflected its historic base inside the Protestant middle class, with an added smattering of aspiring middle class Catholics.  ‘Middle class’ here is used in the not very scientific sense to mean better paid workers and those with relatively higher standards of living.

It is now the third party in terms of votes with 17.4%, compared to the DUP with 31.6% and Sinn Fein with 23.6%, continuing its upwards trajectory following its success in getting the third MEP slot in this year’s European elections alongside one DUP and one Sinn Fein.

Much has been made of the overt sectarian arrangements at Stormont being predicated on balancing the Unionist/Protestant bloc against the Nationalist/Catholic one. This includes a veto wielding petition of concern available to each, which is blatantly undemocratic and discriminatory when a large number of representatives are defined simply as ’other’, which includes the Alliance Party.

This Alliance vote is a reflection of, but not identical to, increasing numbers of people who do not identify as unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic.  The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey reported that one in two identify neither as unionist or nationalist, although this seemed to me to be rather too big, confirmed by some colleagues in my office who are a generation younger than me and closer perhaps to those who might be sloughing off old identities.

This growth of ‘others’ dovetails with the growth of the Catholic population, which in the last census in 2011 reported 41% of the population as Catholic and 42% Protestant, with a Catholic majority among younger age cohorts.  Sectarian division is also influenced by the decreasing gap between Protestant and Catholic social indicators such as unemployment, and the obvious breakdown of large scale employment segregation. So society is changing in the North of Ireland, which gives credence to the idea that the union with Britain, by being less certain, is thereby closer.

Research has been done on the composition of this neither Orange nor Green population but I won’t go into it here.  Suffice to say that the majority of ‘neithers’ are in favour of the union with Britain, although one survey has reported that one third of Alliance voters have said that Brexit makes them more favourable to Irish unity.

What this shows, as if it needed pointing out, is that ‘other’ is not in itself a positive identity.  I am an ‘other’ in these terms, but I would never define myself as such because I am a socialist and do not define my views as simply other than Irish nationalism or Irish unionism.  It is pretty clear that the majority of ‘others’ do not have a coherent separate political identity beyond rejection of two major nationalisms suffused with religious identity.  And this is positive – as far as it goes.

But more importantly, this survey finding about Alliance voters shows that while ‘others’ do not define themselves as unionist or nationalist, there is no third position on the national question.  There are worlds of difference on how it might be solved, and how it might lead to more or less progressive outcomes, but increasing rejection of the old ideologies without a positive alternative leaves the old choice standing.

This does not mean that the growth of those rejecting the unionist and nationalist identities, probably because of the behaviour of the political movements that lead them, does not have an influence on the political situation or on prospective developments.  It has been remarked that these people will be pivotal in any border poll and will not be motivated by traditional war cries.  The majority are motivated by progressive impulses if only cohered in very primitive form (primitive as in undeveloped).  The struggle for a united Ireland will have to offer more than recovery of the fourth green field.

This does not mean that some economistic agenda is the way forward, for in essence this is still a political question that requires a political stand.  It is rather that what will become more and more important is what sort of transformational project will this political struggle involve – what sort of united Ireland is being fought for?

The setback for the DUP in the election is a blow to the most sectarian and reactionary Party and must be welcomed. The vote for the SDLP and Alliance is to a significant degree a vote against Brexit and again should be welcomed.  The shift of some unionists away from the parties of traditional Unionism is also a weakening of the unionist programme and acts to isolate the most extreme loyalist reactionaries, which again should be welcomed.

That Brexit has not overcome the traditional sectarian/political divide is not unexpected – in fact it is entirely to be expected that the reactionary politics of Brexit should find its natural base in unionism.  That opposition to Brexit has weakened the unionist parties and unionism is thus inevitable and once again to be welcomed.  Even the small gains by People before Profit could be welcomed were it not for the fact that it continues to fail to recognise the reactionary character of its support for Brexit and demonstrates an inability to learn from mistakes and correct them, which is more serious for it than the question itself.

What appears as significant political changes in the election are therefore, from a socialist point of view, relatively small steps forward.  They do however reflect more significant changes below the surface that socialists should be concerned to understand.

The Fall of the Red Wall

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What do you do when you are leader of a Party and the vast majority of your members support a policy that you oppose?  Well, you can’t very well allow them to control the party can you?  So you can’t ensure it operates democratically.

What do you do when the majority of your voters also support that policy?  Well, you dissemble, confuse, appear to sit on the fence and declare neutrality.

In the case of the membership you first prevent them getting their way by stopping them voting on it at conference.  The next year you so manage the policy that is voted on that you can effectively continue to push your own, while of course appearing to do something different and pretending that the members got what they wanted.

But since the new policy does not make much sense the party membership are still not happy and come back to the next conference in the next year and vote again on what they want – and this time they win!  So what do you do now?  This time your friends say to the membership – ‘You Lost’ – and they start singing your name at the conference.  And it’s a victory!

For the rest?  Well, for them it’s then like being at a party where people start singing, and you don’t feel like joining in, but you’re made to feel your spoiling it for everyone, and spoiling the fun, if you don’t join in.  You really don’t want to be a party-pooper so you’re invited to suck it up.  After all, this leader has had it tough.

He’s been accused of all sorts of things that were so ridiculous that your first response might have been to ignore it. But the slander and smearing goes on and on and you want to have a square-go at the traitors inside the Party who are telling these outrageous lies, but the leader can’t trust you, so you’re not allowed.  Remember, the leader can’t very well allow you to control the party.  It’s a ‘broad church’, and just like in church it’s your job to listen to the preacher and then go out and do God’s work.

But this goes on and on, so the leader says he’ll do something about it and these terrible things will be stopped, and again and again you hear the same record.  Some people wonder why he’s saying the same thing about how bad it is, yet he’s saying it again. Why is he having to say it again?  Surely it’s been sorted?  He’s told to apologise and effectively he does, but if this happens again and again why is he apologising and nothing is changing?

Then I hear on the radio that the new manifesto is going to empower people, and I think to myself – WTF, really?  The only thing you have had the power to lead to ’empowerment’ is the membership of the Party you lead, and you’ve stood in the way of it.  Instead you’ve allowed all these reactionary shits to accuse you of nonsensical crimes.  The last time I viewed such a nightmare I was reading ‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka, and it didn’t end well.  And this one doesn’t look like it will either.

In the election you’re facing a compulsive liar, whose own supporters don’t even trust.  They don’t believe him, but they do agree with him, and they are going to support him. But many people have gotten fed up with you.  You’re supposed to be different – he is what he is.  You are not what you have claimed to be. You’re supposed to be a conviction politician, who embodies honesty and sincerity and many people can see that you haven’t embodied either.

The dam that that held your so-called ‘red wall’ has just sprung two leaks and the first one is the enormous one. Just like a dam that you have seen in the films, your wall of support doesn’t break open only at this point, and other fractures appear in the edifice, and water spurts out of every one of them, everywhere – a hundred and one different cracks appear and it seems as if there are lots of reasons why this wall is going to fall.  When it falls it might seem difficult to say which one is responsible for the whole thing collapsing.  Lots of people look for more and more deep reasons for the collapse, the better to demonstrate their appreciation of the enormity of the collapse. But really the one big crack was vital in creating the rest.

There is a particular risk in immediately seeking the most profound reason for what has happened, although it’s not inevitably wrong and does not invalidate the attempt, but it does involve a risk.  It’s the risk that the explanation becomes so deep and meaningful that it can convey the impression that nothing could have been done about it.  We could never have won, the pressure against the wall of the dam was just too strong.

And this can lead to feeling sorry for the leader, who has been up against it all this time.  And I would feel this way too except I, like millions of others, is soaking wet and praying I’m not going to drown further down the line.  You can feel sorry for the leader if you want, my attitude involves rather more colourful expressions of emotion.

The historic defeat of the Labour Party was the result of a swing to the Tories of just 1.2 per cent and a swing away from Labour of 7.9 per cent.  The Tories won it because Labour lost it.

It lost it primarily because it lost voters loyalty on the big question that mattered – Brexit.  The machinations around it infected everything else Corbyn did, just like the real Brexit will determine so much else in the real world; limiting what good is possible and spurring on everything nasty, cruel and reactionary.

Sky called it the Brexit election, the Labour Party complained that it wasn’t, but now the Party leaders admit it was – a bit late to recognise the obvious.  The Political Studies Association reported polls asking about the issue ‘that will help you decide your vote’ and it was Health – 47% and the Economy – 35%; only 7% said Europe.

But that was in 2016.  In 2019 63% said Europe, while Health was 43% and the Economy 9%.

I could get even more annoyed now because I really dislike stupidity, especially in those who have no business being stupid.  But it wasn’t really stupidity – the reactionary position on Brexit and all its calamitous concomitants, such as suppressing Party democracy, is a sort of politics: ‘socialism from above’ is the kindest way of describing it even though there is no such sort of socialism.   It’s why it might be better to describe it as ‘state socialism’, or much more accurately, better to call it social-democracy and Stalinism.  (In this respect what was also worrying was the impression given by many socialists that the radical aspects of a social democratic programme was really socialism.). But to get back to the point.

What we saw was the nationalist politics of Brexit devour its misguided children, exemplified by Denis Skinner losing his seat to someone better able than him to embody the reactionary logic of Brexit. Unfortunately, these people brought down the rest, the majority, who have always known that Brexit had to be opposed.

If we want to look at the weaknesses of British social democracy we could do worse that start here – the narrow nationalism of the British left going back to Tony Benn or even further to Manny Shinwell and Aneurin Bevan.  Their opposition to ‘Europe’ resting on the Sterling Area and the Commonwealth, a bogus commitment to internationalism that rested entirely on the relics of Empire.

These weaknesses have been imbued by the radical left supporters of Brexit who think using one less letter and replacing one other makes a difference.  These people share the same conception of socialism – state ownership and a national state to implement and defend it from foreigners.  Entirely disappeared from consciousness is that we should be uniting with ‘foreign’ workers against our own state and theirs.  In fact, for a socialist, no worker is foreign, foreign to us is the nationalism that seeks to divide us.  Just like the Shinwell’s of old they condemn the narrowness and racism of Europe for not embracing the world while sailing on a boat that doesn’t leave the shores of Dungeness.

Labour lost 2,585,564 votes from 2017 to this election but the media narrative of the working class deserting Labour over its failure to support Brexit is a continuation of the distortions and lies that has been their staple.  Early estimates claim that over 1.1 million of this reduced vote was Labour Remainers voting for other remain Parties while perhaps 250,000 Labour Leave voters also transferred their vote to these Remain parties.

Antipathy and opposition to the figure of Jeremy Corbyn also seems to have played a major role but this is a combination of very different things that became important precisely because one person could be the focus of all of them.  For more than one reason the leadership is to blame – making Corbyn the sort of Presidential figure to the exclusion of other leaders in the campaign is probably the least important.

Anti-Corbyn hostility combined the opposition of Labour leavers; those prey to the calumny of the mass media; the failure to openly explain and discuss massive policy proposals dumped on the electorate at the last minute giving rise to some cynicism, and most of all duplicity over Brexit and apparent failure to take a position.  What price the one-day conference to discuss the Party’s Brexit policy now?

We need to stop talking about the Corbyn project in the Labour Party because clearly that project didn’t include opposing Brexit and didn’t include empowering the membership, which remain vital to any future progress.

One take on the election had a wonderful quote, ‘Disappointment is a trifle.  Disappointment is a luxury we cannot afford. The dilemma is simple but imperative. Whether to submit to mere fortune or to understand and take action.’  Perhaps not enough for the politically uninvolved but a good enough starter for the rest of us.

The struggle remains to fight Brexit, which hasn’t ceased to be the reactionary threat to the working class it has always been.  ‘Get Brexit Done’ is another lie to join everything else associated with that project.  Lies are ultimately useless because sooner or later they collide with reality.  The issue is who pays for them.  If there is one saving grace from the result it is escaping the embarrassment of an attempted Corbyn Brexit.  The Tory Brexit will fail its supporters and Labour must fight it and all of its consequences, including the disillusionment that its ‘success’ will provoke.

The second is to demand and fight for a democratic Labour Party. The mass membership has proved to be right, even if only negatively, and it must be confident in saying so.  The debate about responsibility for the defeat is not a distraction from fighting the Tories but an indispensable requirement.  Get it wrong, or lose it, and that fight will be hamstrung.  What to do depends on what is accepted as what went wrong, and there must be no truck with those who want to deal with defeat by following those who either led it or caused it.  We don’t want to tack right in pursuit of nationalists and racists and we don’t want another Corbyn who didn’t know how to fight either.

 

Who will I vote for?

UK general elections mean something different in the North of Ireland, and have usually revolved around the national question, whether there should be a united Ireland.  Latterly, the division has been one of squabbling over the detritus of incompetence and corruption that is the life blood of the local devolved administration.

The scandalous nepotism and waste uncovered in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was the trigger for Sinn Fein to eventually pull the plug on its participation in the Executive, but only after continuing to hold onto the coat tails of the DUP proved untenable.  Now the republicans have made clear that the architect of the RHI scandal, DUP leader Arlene Foster, will not have to go after all.  Sinn Fein would be happy to have this more-than-usual unpopular Unionist leader back as First Minister.

So now, with only haggling over the spoils at issue, the question of importance might appear to be whether to endorse another round of the sectarian settlement.

This time however the main issue is the same as that in Britain, albeit with very different ramifications and with many thinking it’s the old one in disguise.  It’s a Brexit election in the North. Just as it is a Brexit election in Britain; and when it comes to deciding how I am going to vote it is this that will determine whether, and who, I will be voting for on Thursday.

Brexit was supported by the majority of Protestants and opposed by the vast majority of Catholics, with the former voting Leave 60 / 40 and the latter voting Remain 85 / 15.  In terms of declared political identity the difference were even more marked, with 66% of Unionists supporting Brexit and 88% of nationalists supporting Remain.  Among those who defined themselves as neither Unionist or Nationalist – as ‘Other’ – the support for Remain was 70%.

Unionist support for Brexit is perfectly consistent with identification with an imperial nationalism and illusions in the power of Britain in the world, upon which their political position has always primarily rested.  It is not consistent with the real position of Britain in the world, which has been rammed home – to unionism’s discomfort – by Boris Johnson’s acceptance of Northern Ireland being de facto within the EU customs union and single market.  The same ideological blindness infects the same core constituency of the DUP as the Tories in Britain, while the pretence that they got Brexit right has been maintained despite the DUP having been shafted by Johnson.

If this was to be the position of the North of Ireland upon UK exit then it would mark a significant political defeat for unionism and a step towards a united Ireland.  But one, or even two steps, do not take you to your destination; although it points to one possible direction by which an objectively progressive resolution of the national question can be implemented by reactionary forces – the joint efforts of English nationalism that has no interest in Ireland and the European Union and the Irish State, which are progressive only relative to the former.

Much has been made by Sinn Fein of a border poll and increased support for a united Ireland because of Brexit but there is still no majority for a united Ireland and for that majority to arise the nationalist population has to grow significantly and/or the benefits of a united Ireland have to be demonstrated.  A border poll is not in itself an answer.

It is ironic that People before Profit (PbP) trumpet their differences with Sinn Fein but present a border poll in exactly the same way; while adding the vacuous call for a socialist Ireland, which means nothing outside of a wider programme that has to be internationalist to be socialist.

They have complained of Sinn Fein dirty tricks in putting up posters beside PbP ones stating that ‘People before Profit – Still Support Brexit’, which must be the first time a party has condemned a rival for putting up posters declaring its own policy.

Their complaint of course is that people will interpret this as support for the current Brexit, but unfortunately for them and for the rest of us a reactionary Brexit is the only one possible.  The current Tory Brexit was the only one proposed in the referendum – that they voted for – and the only one put forward now for implementation.  And it is still the case that People before Profit support leaving the EU – Brexit – and still see it as progressive.

So, if they now complain it is only because they know that the only Brexit in town is regarded by everyone as reactionary, and People before Profit condemns itself by not accepting that it is making a gross mistake by continuing to support this reactionary step backwards.

PbP complains that Sinn Fein allowed benefit cuts by agreeing that the decision on welfare should be handed back to the Tory Government in Westminster.  But this is exactly what it is doing by supporting Brexit and handing the power to inflict much greater damage on working people – throughout the UK – to an even more rapacious Tory administration that is salivating over the deregulated dystopia that is planned after Brexit.  There is no Brexit on earth that will not lead to cuts in welfare and attacks on pay that PbP claim they alone will fight.  The greater dependence on the State sector for employment in Northern Ireland will mean a greater impact from the cuts to this expenditure, which will be considered perfectly fine by a project sailing on the winds of English nationalism.

Whatever the benefits and drawbacks of the precise arrangements for the North under Brexit, it is not designed to further the interest of Irish workers: this much must be obvious even to PbP.  The same right-wing views associated with Brexit in Britain are reflected also in the North of Ireland, with those supporting Brexit more likely to have reactionary views on immigration, on the marriage rights of same-sex couples, and support for the most sectarian political parties.

A Brexit that will leave the North largely within the EU trading arrangements will be less damaging than a hard border within the island, but it is obvious that this is a more realistic way to prevent a hard border than a Brexit with PbP protests at how unfair it all is; and that no Brexit at all is the best solution of all.

Brexit has also been opposed because it is claimed that it will raise sectarian tensions, which means that it will upset many loyalists and may lead it their violent mobilisation.  To argue this however is to accept the Unionist veto on progressive change that has made the Northern State the political slum that it is and has always been.  There is no step forward that will not excite the opposition of loyalism.  The Protestant support for Remain should instead be viewed as an objective acceptance that Unionism does not represent their long-term interest; this progressive step should be supported rather than seek to pander to the most reactionary sections of the Protestant population.

So, if Brexit is the issue, who shall I vote for?

A couple of months ago I bumped into a Sinn Fein supporter I have known for years who after a couple of minutes launched into a defence of Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy in relation to Westminster.  We hadn’t discussed politics up to then and I just listened to his poor apologetics for an obviously indefensible position. It has been widely criticised in Ireland and his defensiveness should not have been a surprise.  For a movement that was so wedded to theological shibboleths, from the IRA army council being the legitimate government of Ireland; to abstention from the Dail and Stormont; to not recognising the courts even though it meant longer sentences; to the sanctity of armed struggle; it’s as if one totem of their republican credentials must be retained to convince themselves they are still the republicans of old.

But this is a long way of saying there’s no point opposing Brexit by voting Sinn Fein because Sinn Fein will not be voting against it.  In the event of a Westminster hung parliament the SF position should be strung up with it.

Since Sinn Fein have stood down in my constituency, I don’t have to bother with considering these arguments.  Sinn Fein have withdrawn their candidate while the SDLP have withdrawn theirs from North Belfast to give Sinn Fein an uncontested Nationalist in that constituency.  The ‘Remain’ alliance that has justified these actions can be denounced as purely sectarian solidarity, except that the Green Party has also stood aside and the SDLP candidate has put opposing Brexit to the fore.

The Alliance Party has not stood aside and is also anti-Brexit, and of course also claims to be non-sectarian.  It is also however a unionist party in all but name and has rightly been described as the party of the British Government’s Northern Ireland Office.  The sitting MP is from the DUP and of course a supporter of Brexit.

So, in this election I will be voting against Brexit by voting for the Stoop Down Low Party, as it was sometimes disparagingly called (a long time ago).  And I never thought I would do that.

It is necessary to vote against Brexit and necessary to have that vote carried forward into Westminster.  It is justified also in order to weaken, however slightly, the most reactionary and sectarian major party in the North, the one that has thrown its weight behind Brexit and all the reactionary politics that that project encompasses.

 

 

 

How the Many struck back against the Few

It’s only when you consider the situation on 18 April that you can truly appreciate the dramatic advance taken by the British working class during the general election.  Theresa May called the election when the Tories had a poll lead of over 20 percentage points and when her personal approval ratings were even higher.

It followed a Brexit referendum that had unleashed a wave of xenophobia and racism which the Tory Party planned to milk in order to crush and overwhelm any opposition.  We would then face Brexit negotiations where every rebuttal of Tory Brexit delusions would be used as an opportunity to whip up anti-foreigner rhetoric that would cement Tory hegemony.

Now that strategy lies in tatters, that project is in chaos and the initiative lies not with Brexit reaction but with a left-wing counter-offensive.  Far from being the impregnable leader and worthy inheritor of the mantle of the “Iron Lady”, May has rather quickly become a figure of fun.  In the campaign “Strong and Stable” came to be considered as the first words of a child – repeated endlessly in all the most out of place circumstances.  Maybot became the battery-driven toy that bangs into the wall and continues to bang into it because it cannot know any better.

Instead of the Tories’ Brexit hero, one Tory MP has described her thus – “We all fucking hate her. But there is nothing we can do. She has totally fucked us.”

The most important point of this little articulation of Tory comradeship is the bit where he says “but there is nothing we can do.”  Labour is now ahead in the polls and the Tories are terrified of another election that they simply can’t go into with Maybot in charge.

So how did all this happen?  First, it’s necessary to accept that the Tories huge lead in the polls was not a mirage, even if it may not have been so commanding as it appeared.  The polls were correct to show a narrowing of the Tory lead as the campaign went on and while some were ultimately more accurate than others, all showed an initial huge lead that in previous general elections would have meant a certain Tory victory.

The answer lies in understanding that Jeremy Cobyn’s success shows the correctness of the Marxist conception of politics, even if this was proven by a non-Marxist party.  In contrast, the media pundits have been floundering and cruelly exposed, not that you would have noticed it.  With a brass neck a blow-torch couldn’t mark they simultaneously expressed shock at the result and know-it-all opinion pieces on how they got it wrong.  As the saying goes: opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one, although it’s not everyone who expels such quantities of shite.

Even after the vote I came across this from the ‘Financial Times’ lead journalist covering the election.  When speaking of a possible Tory-DUP coalition he writes – “But all coalitions, formal or otherwise, require horse trading and compromise – something May is not naturally suited to. Her trademark skill is to decide on a policy position and stick it to.”  Bias becomes so ingrained it becomes an unthinking habit that kicks in when the world is not as you believe it is and you are unable to process the meaning of events.  Thus you end up with nonsense like this.

Now the media is attempting to undermine Corbyn by giving space to those Blairites and soft left figures in the Party who got it so spectacularly wrong but now claim that having won the left vote he now needs to tack to the centre.  While some of these people just denigrate his achievements others offer praise only to bury him later.  Meanwhile the media want to know is he going to give these losers prominent posts in the party now that their plans for another coup or for setting up a rival organisation are blown out of the water.

The election showed the impact of media bias and the effect of the relaxation of such bias that general elections allow. Election coverage means less filtered access to the policies and personalities of the parties so while Corbyn soared, Maybot tanked.  That the bias continued during the campaign also confirmed the limits of mainstream media spin.  It remains a barrier but one that can be overcome.

More importantly the elections showed the importance to politics of political programme, political leadership and mass mobilisation of workers.

For the first time in decades, and the first time ever for many younger voters, there actually appeared to be a difference in the policies being proposed by the different parties.  There can be no denying the impact and importance of the Labour manifesto; it became a reference point that exposed the vacuity of the Tory ‘alternative’ and its policies became the content of the campaign day after day.

It became the meat in the sandwich of the slogan ‘for the many not the few’.  It set out exactly what the Party’s policies were, which people could consider and make up their mind about, and made for something positive that they could read about or hear presented in television debates.  Presented properly it shone like a beacon set against inane Tory slogans and an empty Tory manifesto whose few policies that grabbed the headlines were either ditched quickly (sort of, like the dementia tax), were unpopular and divisive (grammar schools) or evoked a WTF reaction (foxhunting).

That the policies were presented properly was because of the Corbyn leadership.  He dominated the Labour campaign for the right reason, that he personified these policies and the principles that they were intended to proclaim.  As people got used to him his presentation became both better and less important as people didn’t expect slick presentation à la David Cameron and concentrated on what he said rather than on how he said it.

Early opposition by the most incorrigible Blairites more or less dissolved as the instinct for self-preservation kicked in and the BBC etc. realised it would not be possible to give equal coverage to the policies presented by the Conservative Party and the uselessness of Jeremy Corbyn as presented by the majority of the parliamentary Labour Party.

Only near the end of the campaign did more and more talking heads acknowledge the staying power of Corbyn and his attraction for many young people, and older Labour voters who had previously given up on Labour due to its Tory-lite policies.  Most of all, they were forced to acknowledge the massive enthusiasm his campaign had generated even when they covered two men and a dog ‘rallies’ by Maybot and ignored rallies of ten thousand held by Labour.  Despite paper talk that Labour candidates would fight local campaigns while claiming Corbyn was ‘nuthin to do with me guv’, it more and more became clear that a vote for the Labour Party was a vote for Corbyn and more and more an endorsement of his leadership of the Party.

Finally, the generation of a mass campaign, whose most prominent features were the Corbyn rallies, had an effect way beyond the large numbers attending.  Speaking in Scotland made the Scottish Labour Party relevant and his rally in Gateshead is reported to have rippled right across the North-East of England.  The rallies were designed not to be photo-ops for the TV but were genuine engagements with voters.

‘For the many not the few’ became more than a slogan but became reality in the infectious participation of working class people in the rallies and meetings.  Reports surfaced of Labour party activity in towns and villages that had not seen Labour Party activity before.  The participation of the young, the participation of working class families that don’t normally attend political events, and the extension of the Party to parts of the country not previously reached all demonstrated that this was a mass phenomenon.  And it was this mass sentiment that appeared in TV audiences that led Tory papers to accuse the broadcasters of bias in audience selection.

So, if these are the factors that led to the massive increase in the Labour vote not seen since 1945, it is obvious how further steps forward must now be taken.

Mass participation in the labour movement cannot depend on elections but must involve activity to build the movement and build the Labour Party, including a youth wing.  This includes union organisation, campaign groups and tenants and residents’ associations.   In one way the Corbyn movement has been lucky that one failed challenge to his leadership and then a general election have provided the opportunity to build upon his initial election. The real prospect of another election soon will provide another opportunity but relying on such events is not enough and the movement in and around the Labour Party has the chance to set the agenda and push through victories through building a permanent mass movement.

Political leadership of this movement is also a continuing process of political campaigning and democratic organisation.  Above all, the potential for the right and ‘soft’ left of the Party to usurp control of the party arising from any, even  minor, setback should be removed by a campaign to democratise the Party and the labour movement as a whole.  A truce with the right on the basis that the Labour Party is ‘a broad church’ should not come to mean tolerance of machine politics, undemocratic practices and rules, and open attempts at sabotage.

Finally, the most important question is one of politics.  Less than a week before the end of the election campaign the media suddenly woke up to the fact that the Brexit election had ignored Brexit.  But as the old adage goes – you can ignore Brexit but Brexit will not ignore you. The complexities of Brexit have been a foreign country for the mainstream media from the beginning and the issue is presented more and more as one resolved by opposition to the best trade deal possible on the grounds that the primary objective is limitation of immigration.

This is not the ground on which a working-class alternative can be built and it is not the common ground of those who voted Labour in the election. The implicit blaming of social ills on foreigners facilitates the explicit blame expressed in xenophobia and racism.  The identification of outsiders as those to blame for ‘our’ problems becomes the need to identify and suppress those inside who are ‘agents’ of these outsiders because they won’t blame immigrants for poor public services and won’t scapegoat immigrant labour for local capitalist exploitation.  It leads to paper headlines such as “Crush the Saboteurs”. If curbing immigration is part of a solution then it provides excuses for Tories, Blairites and racists to excuse their support for austerity.  Most importantly it undermines the unity of working people that is needed to take us forward.

The challenge to the Labour Party political leadership is to demonstrate that its policies are incompatible with racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating, is incompatible with an isolated country cut off from potential allies in the rest of Europe and is incompatible with the harm to be caused, being caused right now, by leaving the EU.

Just as during the election, this will mean confronting and largely bypassing the Tory media and mobilising Party members to convince uncertain supporters ,or even those opposed, that the social-democratic programme put forward by Corbyn that they support cannot be enacted in a Brexit Britain.

The election has opened up opportunities for British workers, but they must seize them like they grasped the election.  When Marx was asked what his idea of happiness was, he said “to fight’.  And that is what we must continue to do.

 

 

 

Question Time

I’ve just finished watching Question Time and the performances of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.  I can’t remember the last time I watched it and I haven’t a clue when the next time will be after having watched this one.

The expectations of May were so low she exceeded them – damned by faint praise I think it’s called.  Not quite so robotic but incapable of smiling without facial contortions that reveal she is anything but genuine in any emotion she shows; itself revealing she is anything but genuine in anything she says.  As time went on her answers became less credible and her performance less impressive.  Tonight, she was helped by a relatively healthy dose of predominantly old reactionaries in the audience.

Six weeks ago I wrote a post that said that “the election will truly have revealed the bankruptcy of the bourgeois electoral process if May can keep her mouth shut about what Brexit actually entails”.  Tonight, for the umpteenth time, she did exactly that.  Asked what a bad deal was like, that made no deal more attractive, she said nothing.

But I got it wrong – she has hardly said anything about anything and performing a U-turn on what she has said. Her strategy has been to pretend that Jeremy Corbyn is such a disaster that she looks good.  Unfortunately for her, the media has been forced to give Corbyn greater opportunity to present both himself and his policies without distortion; the political classes and its media have therefore been shocked to find that millions of people actually like him and like his policies even more.  Not only that, but the BBC has been unable to continue to report on Corbyn through has-been Blairites claiming that he’s a disaster; mainly because the Mandelson’s of this world and Blair himself no longer matter now that people have a real decision to make.

The claim that Theresa May should be Prime Minister because she is Theresa May has therefore worn out rather quickly.  What she has been forced to rely upon is Brexit and the right-wing swing in British politics that Brexit has represented and accelerated.  Reactionary nostrums against immigration, foreigners, the EU – because they’re foreigners –  the peculiar virtuousness of the British as the counterpoint to aggressive foreigners; all this has been presented with her own unique dead as a robot delivery, in a reactionary nationalist stew that relies on prejudice and ignorance to fill in the gaps where a coherent narrative should be.

It has to be said, that in this she has been assisted no end by the cluelessness of the British media.  Like its treatment of Corbyn, this is not simply due to establishment prejudice and conscious antipathy to socialist ideas.  It is also due to its own ignorance of the clusterfuck that Brexit will entail.  Despite all the dramatic changes in world politics over the last few years, the British chattering classes simply cannot conceive of Britain not being the country that it now is with its rather prominent role in the world.

So, it is when Theresa May is pushed into a corner about Brexit and she comes out with ‘we are not afraid to walk away with no deal – no deal is better than a bad deal’, that total incomprehension switches on.  The next question is perfectly obvious – so what happens when there is no deal?  Paxman and all the rest can go no further than this response because they simply cannot conceive that no deal means the cutting off of Britain from the rules and regulations, the trade deals and agreements with other countries that allow Britain to trade and exchange with the rest of the world.  From being allowed to fly over other countries airspace to landing at their airports to being credited with having safe food and medicines, all these collapse with no deal.

The absence of such mutual recognition threatens the UK being thrown off the proverbial cliff with no rubbish about this also being the fate of the EU – none of this “the UK and EU will both lose”, because one will indeed lose but it won’t find itself isolated.  The threat of no deal always assumes unthinkable that there will really be no deal, but actually assumes that the EU will offer concessions after being threatened and cough up a better compromise.

The virus that has engulfed the Tory Party is not simply a Tory pathogen but is one that resides in British society as a whole.  Especially the privately educated journalist profession that is parasitical on the Westminster village and the privately educated politicians who went to the same schools the journalists went to twenty or thirty years before them.

I had naively assumed that May and Corbyn would be asked the same question at the same time and would take turns in answering; instead it was a programme of two halves.  It was hard not to conclude that May left the first half pleased that she managed not to have parroted ‘strong and stable’ – yet another U-turn, which of course was yesterday’s inane drivel.

So, if May exceed expectations only by not being so crass, so robotic and so contorted, she nevertheless remained unimpressive.  She is a very limited politician who has looked even worse than these limitations might normally have revealed by moving decisively outside her comfort zone, where lies being Prime Minister and leading her country at a decisive turning point in its history.  What a pity she sells herself on her supposed unique innate ability to do just this.

If Jeremy Corbyn slightly disappointed it is only because (1) he has performed so well so far and (2) I’m a Marxist who believes there is such a stronger case for socialism than he can make.  Partly his weaknesses are those of his party and his very incomplete transformation of that party and its programme, but partly it is due to the limitations of his own politics.

During the questioning he was put on the back foot most when he refused to answer directly whether he would press the nuclear button if Britain itself was under nuclear attack.  At one point this looked like it might get quite frenzied – testament to a number of reactionaries in the audience who seemed to be fully paid up members of the fan club devoted to the film ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’.

It took one young woman to make the point that there was something wrong with so many people demanding the murder of millions of people.  Presumably these reactionaries would have been satisfied with an answer something like this – ok, we’re about to be vapourised by a nuclear attack but don’t get angry that I might not press the button because I’m going to kill millions of people as well, people who, just like you, had no hand in this attack and who don’t deserve to die.  Oh, and another thing, don’t worry, our missiles will hit the intended target and not go off in the wrong direction like one did recently.  Such is the degenerate politics of the Tory party and the diseased prejudices of its die-hard support.  There can be no doubt the nasty party is back.

In general the audience showed greater sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn and those in sympathy showed more enthusiasm.  I am reminded of the reaction of football players scoring a goal for my football team – they smile and cheer – expressing joy at scoring; while when those of their erstwhile rivals score they almost invariably snarl and gesticulate as if venting a deeply pent-up rage.  The supporters of Jeremy Corbyn applauded declarations of hope and promises of a better society while the Tory supporters acclaimed declarations of ‘toughness’ and meanness.  You know when you’re on the right side when the warmest of human emotions best expresses your political views.

When I wrote that “the election will truly have revealed the bankruptcy of the bourgeois electoral process if May can keep her mouth shut about what Brexit actually entails”, I also continued – “and Corbyn can maintain that he will defend workers’ rights without threatening Brexit.”  The major weakness of the whole Labour campaign is the same as that of the Tories – the claim that there can be a good Brexit.  For the Tories this has a massive plus side – the opportunity to burn workers’ rights and slash taxation for big business.  For workers Brexit has no up-side.

Brexit will entail economic dislocation and deep attacks on working people.  Victory for Jeremy Corbyn would see him inherit a policy that will do nothing to assist his social-democratic programme – he cannot decisively reverse inequality and improve the standard of living of British workers while leaving the EU.  Not because the EU is so wonderful but because exiting it is to step back from the current level of economic development and invites an alternative model that the Tories have correctly identified as an off-shore dumping ground of low corporate taxes, de-regulation and super-exploitation.  In such an environment taxes for workers will rise, wages will fall and welfare and other public services will shrivel while inequality will increase.

A Corbyn Government, if it was to attempt to increase living standards, increase public services and reduce inequality would also have to prevent the damage that Brexit would inflict.  It would also have to fight the xenophobic demands that immigration be strangled.  While much attention has focused on the damage to living standards arising from reductions in trade, reductions in immigration will have just the same effects, if not worse.

If young people do not come out to vote, as the pundits claim they might not do, and they are the key to a Labour victory as the pundits also claim, then the Tories will be leading us into Brexit and straight towards their deregulated ‘free-market’ utopia within a few days.  One commentator has called it a new ‘charge of the light-brigade’ and he is right.

Either way, it will be the task of socialists and everyone roused during the election to continue to mobilise and organise the enormous energy and enthusiasm evoked by the promise of a different society.  Already, the threat of a return to Blairite control of the Labour Party should be buried.  Corbyn must remain leader and the process of creating a mass, active Labour party truly representative of its members and supporters should be the task of everyone who considers themselves left.  The elections will signal the end of the Brexit phoney war and there will likely be no dress rehearsal allowed for building a workers’ campaign to ensure we win the real one.

 

Free Trade and Socialism part 2 – the UK general election

Thersa May’s call for a general election has been hailed by the ‘Financial Times’ as a smart move that will give her and the pragmatic Tories some room to negotiate a trade deal with the EU that would be opposed by the zealot Brexiteers.  Today’s paper has a column by the chair of the Institute of Directors praising May while calling for some time for business to adjust to Brexit.  The rise in value of the pound after the news is seen as the smartest guys in the room welcoming the election announcement on precisely these grounds.  Whether this works or not is quite another matter and a decisive victory based on making sure Brexit happens is just as likely to strengthen the rabid demands of those clamouring for a hard Brexit as strengthen its more pragmatic supporters.

The election is therefore set to be all about Brexit and trust in May’s ‘leadership’, or rather her Tory arrogance that is sold as no-nonsense competence, seriousness and proficiency, which a certain section of workers still buy into on the basis of the everyday nationalism and class deference fed to them by the media.  However, even the newly moderated claims for Brexit are undeliverable: she says that she wants “a deep and special partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world”.

The relationship after Brexit can’t be “as deep and special” as the current one so it’s a loss on that one, and the UK will not be “free to chart its own way in the world” no matter how hard it fantasises.  In an issue of the same pink paper last week (and also today) its readers learn that the EU are about to freeze-out British companies’ participation in the European space programme and other EU contracts and funding.  It sounds much better to the ears of Brexiteers when they threaten to just pull the plug and leave without a deal but not quite so comforting when it is reported that the EU bureaucracy is drawing up plans to do exactly the same.

It was also reported in the FT that yet another Minister was visiting India trying to sell it something; Sir Michael Fallon being the empty-handed messenger this time.  The paper reported that ‘military experts say it is a sign of how the UK has been left behind. “If you look at the main four or five players in India, the UK is not there at this point in time”, and It reports that British arms exports fell from £966m in 2010 to £34m in 2015.

So instead of selling arms, Britain now wants to sell India its “arms procurement expertise” because the British might “help them decide what they need.”   The same (or perhaps different) British official thinks reminding the Indians that “the Indian army was created from the British army” and “we share . . an overall ethos” is good sales patter.  This ‘expertise’, the Indians have pointed out, includes ordering two aircraft carriers “that are seven years late . . . (and) are running massively over budget”, and this is without also considering that other problem arising in this British procurement exercise – ordering another aircraft carrier without aircraft for it to carry.

So, Britain is not going to find it easy to chart its own way in the world”; in fact it’s going to find it so hard it’s going to be charting not its own but other, bigger player’s ways in the world, especially as everyone knows, the US way.

Even thinking from first principles – how can you make your “own way” with trade?  Surely you need someone to trade with, someone who will want some say on the rules that govern it; someone who is very likely to be bigger and more powerful than Britain, or will have joined a trading arrangement that makes them bigger and more powerful.  A common strategy – except now for the Brits!

In other words, even if the Financial Times and the money men were correct in the short term, which generally is how long they think about, that May will minimise the impact of Brexit, Britain is going to be worse off.  As I have said before, the threats of a deregulated UK after Brexit are an acknowledgement that the Tory way of attempting to pay the price of Brexit will be to deliver the bill to the working class.  This sugar coats the Brexit pill for business but there will be no sugar coating the poison for workers.

In my last post I argued against the view that the question of trade was one that socialists could not take a side on; or that it ‘depended’ on something else and was therefore perhaps of secondary importance.  In my exchange of views on Facebook set out in that post I said that something could be learned from what Karl Marx thought of free trade.  Then at least, we may have some clue as to what ‘depends’ actually depends on.  Marx obviously thought it was an important issue, just as it is now through the issue of Brexit, and he had a clear position on it.  But I will look at this in the next post.

It is important to understand first that Brexit is bad for trade and will therefore indirectly be bad for workers.  Many workers see the link much more directly – car workers hope that the cars they build can be exported easily into the rest of Europe; university staff seek maintenance of EU grants for their research work; airline staff hope the company retains its base in the UK; farmers hope that they continue to get subsidies; finance workers hope their firms don’t up sticks to Paris or Frankfurt or Brussels or wherever; the list is a very long one.

Because any deal can only be worse and the only thing worse than a bad deal is no deal, the more far-sighted Tories either oppose Brexit or seek a ‘soft’ one.  It is these people that the markets and the ‘Financial Times’ editor and commentators hope will come to the rescue.  Having backed the Tories in the last election, even though it was only they who could deliver them the disaster of Brexit, these people still cling to them again, even while the Tories swear to god that they will deliver it no matter what.  But even with the sugar-coated promise of deregulation, the Tories are going to dash their hopes – the Tories have already promised not to give them the single market or a customs union.  The continuing support of business for the Tories is yet more evidence of their wilful ideological blindness.

Their logic is completely without merit – if the balance of power lies with the EU and the pressure of time is all on Britain, this will very quickly become apparent, in fact it already has as May’s changed tone once article 50 was triggered has shown. May now talks not only the nonsense quoted above but also about a transitional deal, “controlling” immigration not lowering it, perhaps through voluntarily allowing cheap exploitable labour into agriculture when it is needed and then chucking it out afterwards.  Or allowing entry to skilled workers for companies that lobby for it.  Payments can still be made to the EU for some sort of trade access and EU courts will still have ultimate say.  To which it might be asked – what’s the point of leaving, although the Tories think that, with an election victory, answering such a question can at least be postponed.  After all, the May strategy in this election appears to be to say as little as possible.  And there’s a logic to this as well – the same logic.

The Tories cannot promise a ‘soft’ Brexit, or the detail of what it might involve, or even a transitional deal, which has become the favoured option of some business opinion who hope it might morph into something permanent that isn’t hard-on Brexit.  The Tories can’t do these things because those are decisions that are not theirs to take.

The EU will decide whether after less than two years the UK can get lost “making its own way”.  The EU will decide whether there is a transitional deal and what it will look like.  Making any sort of promise during an election would simply invite EU leaders to point out what the real situation is – ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all’ is therefore the only sensible thing to do.  It might make you look increasingly stupid during an election campaign but May is relying on an existing poll lead and a fully undeserved reputation for competence.  And, of course, a compliant media.  How could anyone believe that only she can be trusted to be a strong negotiator with the EU when she’s even afraid to negotiate her way round a TV studio in a leaders’ debate?

If a ‘soft’ Brexit does not exist for the Tories it cannot exist for Jeremy Corbyn either.  The defence of workers’ interests that is the Labour Party’s platform cannot be implemented while leaving the EU.  For those who believe that socialism arises simply from revolution against capitalism and that the EU is a neoliberal conspiracy this is incomprehensible. It is nevertheless true because socialism will be built upon the foundations of the productive forces of capitalism and from transforming its social relations, not merely overturning them.

The more Corbyn stands up for the living standards and rights of working people the more this will conflict with a Brexit agenda, although again and again he turns away from this truth and damages his own case and the prospects for winning over the Remain voters.  The election will truly have revealed the bankruptcy of the bourgeois electoral process if May can keep her mouth shut about what Brexit actually entails and Corbyn can maintain that he will defend workers’ rights without threatening Brexit.

As for the prospects for the election itself; at the start of the campaign the press is clear that Labour is finished.  It must become clear quickly that this is not the case and even by doing this Labour will have registered a success.  Simply by standing up it can continue to fight and by continuing to stand prove the pundits wrong.  Tory arrogance can then first be halted, then challenged, and then thrown back in their faces.  The worst sort of defeat is when you don’t fight, and if you fight there’s always the possibility to win.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Unity all round after the election

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Speculation continues about the formation of a new Government and that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will collaborate to ensure that it will be more or less stable for however long.  It would be a disturbing thing for many if the ship of State were to sail too long without what is considered to be the captain.  The Left repeats that there are no differences between the two parties and that they should unite, making it easier to present the opposition as the Left.   In doing so they remind me of regular sermons from Catholic and Protestant Churches in the North that its politicians should get over their differences, to which the latter’s reply should be – “ok, you go first.”

It is not that the Left are wrong, they are correct.  The historian Diarmaid Ferriter quoted Seán O’Faoláin in 1945 saying that “Irish politics today are not politics; our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political idea at all – warriors of destiny and race of the Gaels – silly romantic titles that confess a complete intellectual vacancy as far as the reality of political ideas are concerned.”

This is something of an exaggeration – he’s wrong to say that the two parties’ ideas are not the same.  There are no ideological differences between them and this is only partly due to their respective ignorant assumptions that they don’t have any ideology in the first place; they do, and it’s called nationalism, which is very good at hiding and accommodating reactionary ideological views, often under the cover of left wing opinions.

But the long dominance of the two parties, with meagre ideological convictions to motivate them and stunted political ideas, rests on a population reared on a similar basis.  Of course the parties have gone a long way to create the lack of political development in the population but both have deeper roots borne out of the country’s lack of economic and social development for much of its history and the resulting political weakness of its working class.  This in turn has resulted in a politically weak labour movement.  An examination of this was written some time ago and I don’t intend to repeat it here.

The point is that the two civil war parties are both creations and creators of the population that supports them and that they have governed.  The rebound of Fianna Fail despite its calamitous performance as the previous Government only arises because of its continuing deep roots in society, roots that give it a permanence, which while not invariable and everlasting, nevertheless gives it a strength that can sustain major blows.  This reflects the nature of class society in Ireland and the social structure that grants endurance to the Fianna Fail clientelist machine and its nationalist ideology.

The Left would normally be built on similar permanent features of class society such as trade unions and other political movements but these are themselves politically weak and do not involve the majority of the members in regular joint activity.  This only takes place among union members when at work and mainly in their role as employees and not as trade unionists.  The roots of the union movement have particularly atrophied, as with social partnership there is little need for shop-floor or office activism when the relationship between low and high level reps and management and State sorts out everything important.  The Left has grown but mainly in localities through electoralism, not in the unions and not through rebuilding an active labour movement.  Ephemeral campaigns are no substitute for the permanent structures on which the right wing parties are based.

One mechanism that lies wholly within the Left’s power to build is a real political party; as we noted at the start the fragments could unite and stop throwing stones at Fianna Fail and Fine Gael while still in the greenhouse.  An obvious lesson of the elections, which shouldn’t need an election to be discovered, is the need for unity.

Unfortunately the AAA/PbP grouping showcases a left that comes together for the purposes of elections while tolerating and defending disunity outside them on the basis of tactics in campaigns and dogmatic political traditions and theories that they often don’t even adhere to.  The AAA/PbP is not only based on unity but also on a split within the previous United Left Alliance.

So even attempting unity is a major task that threatens the component parts because they may lose control.  But any attempt to maintain control would only frustrate the potential, the creation of which a united party is meant to release.  The point would be lost.

As I have said before, the capacity of the component organisations in a united working class party to contain large numbers of workers is very much open to doubt and in my view could only be successful if their dogmatic and undemocratic culture was dissolved, shattered or whatever simile is best applied to the process that would see it disappear.

Part of this ought also to include rejection of ideological assumptions that rest on unquestioned parroting of political views that should burn in the mouths of anyone claiming to be Marxist.  The day before the election I was listening to Today FM and Richard Boyd Barrett of People before Profit telling listeners that even those not on the Left regard the AAA/PbP as “good for the Dail”, as if it were ever any job of Marxists to be good for the institutions of the capitalist state.

Here was me thinking their duty was to expose the hollowness and pretence of capitalist democracy, not to pretty it up and sell it better than its real owners.

A further example was provided by an ‘Irish Times’ interview with the retiring (as a TD only) Joe Higgins of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, who stated his faith in statist ‘socialism’ by saying that the solution to the financial crisis in 2008 was to take the banks into (democratic) public ownership, which was more or less what was done with their effective nationalisation, but which also meant taking ownership of their unpayable debts.  The idea that the socialist answer is working class, cooperative ownership was not mentioned.

No wonder so many commentators have felt able to allege that Fianna Fail “stole the left’s clothes”; a reflection of the grubby character of the clothes rather than the daring of Fianna Fail.  A promise by the latter to legislate for workers’ rights to ownership of their place of work would really have been a bold and brave step, one the Left itself hasn’t contemplated.

A left that claims to be Marxist believes that it can and has held out against the world wide right wing trend of the last decades and the even longer period of absence of revolutionary circumstances in the most advanced capitalist countries.   Of course it has not and had it done so it would, ironically, disprove Marxism, which believes that social consciousness is determined by social being, including political consciousness being conditioned by material economic, social and political circumstances.   Not simply by ideological fealty to a particular set of theories.

It would be strange if, this being the case, small and weak political formations were not subject to such forces and extraordinary if there were no examples of its effects.  Once again, ironically, the disparagement of the need for ideological debate is one such example.

While the divisions on the right are built upon denial of common ideological views that are actually there, the divisions on the Left are due to presumed ideological divisions that aren’t.  This presumption helps prevent the required political debate necessary to develop the politics of the Left beyond reformist politics that facilitate allegations of theft.

Back to part 1