Dáil tactics when there is no Left Government

Dail images (13)With protest politics in single issue campaigns being inadequate to stem or reverse austerity, and with a party building strategy based on electoral intervention, there is no doubt that the obvious prospect of no left Government arising from the general election that is closing in leaves the Left with a problem in explaining what they’re going to do.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance proposes the following:

“In the case that no left programme for government can be agreed, but a government could be formed without the establishment parties, our TDs will vote in the Dáil to allow the formation of that alternative government. While we would not participate in a government without a left programme, we would allow that government to come to power and then vote to support measures that benefit working-class people and oppose ones that do not.”

Whether this addresses the problem satisfactorily we shall see.  First we should note the absolutely crucial role the project of forming a left Government plays, for the AAA says immediately after the above that:

“At the same time, we would seek to build a mass movement outside the Dáil to put pressure on the government to deliver on its promises and to achieve a genuine left government as soon as possible.”

It is not therefore just that protest politics on its own presents limits to potential impact, or that electoralism has eaten into any former recognition of the limits of parliamentary politics on transformational change; it is clear that forming a Government sitting at the top of the state is the route to their ultimate political objectives.  Since immediate achievement of a majority in the Dáil has never been possible and success in getting a few TDs elected can no longer be presented as success the problems of being a minority in the Dail unable to form an administration have to be addressed.

This is especially so given the enormous economic and political crisis that has hit the Irish State over the last 8 years or so.  Following scandals that robbed the political establishment, state institutions and the Church of much legitimacy the financial crisis saw the State go bankrupt in order to bailout bankers  who were exposed as treating the people with complete contempt.  The Irish State lost any pretence at undivided and exclusive sovereignty through the arrival of the Troika and austerity saw large reductions in peoples’ living standards, compelling tens of thousands to emigrate.  After all this the failure to elect parties no different from those that presided over the crisis, plus voting to endorse austerity by EU Treaty, have been blows to the Left view that their combination of protest and electoralism offers a long term alternative.  And here I will ignore the Left’s habit of always posing its answers with regard only to the short term.

The AAA says its TDs will allow the formation of a Government that does not contain the establishment parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour Party, but does this mean it will vote in the Dail for it or simply abstain? It then says it will vote to support measures that benefit working-class people and oppose ones that do not.  What if a proposed budget (for example) includes both?  What if voting against a measure will see this government fall with the likely alternative being formed by the establishment parties?

With a non-left Government in place there will be no pretence on its part to be introducing a non-capitalist alternative.  Does the AAA think it correct to keep such a Government in office?  How would their political responsibility in doing so be justified?  What measures by this Government would see the AAA vote against it regardless of the consequences in relation to its replacement?  Who would make such decisions?

If it would in effect allow a non-left government to remain in office how can it oppose an alliance with the trade unions in Right2Change on the basis that such an alliance will include Sinn Fein, when Sinn Fein would inevitably be in the non-left Government that the AAA would allow to be formed and would support in certain votes?  That it will not form an alliance is based on the claim that SF in government “will make compromises with the system . . .  that will undermine the whole basis of the initiative and lead to a dead end.”

Since socialists in parliament are obliged to vote for measures that benefit or strengthen workers, no matter who proposes them, it does not appear that the AAA is saying anything very new.  Except that it will be taking political responsibility for letting that Government take up office in the first place, and this on the basis that it is not formed of ‘establishment parties’, which is hardly a very rigorous political distinction on which to make such a judgement.

All this may be academic as at least one of these parties will be in government following the elections.   The main point is not that Dail tactics may be unclear and messy but that the admission that such tactics are now considered means the strategy of forming a left Government as the answer to the political challenges faced by workers will shortly be revealed to be worse than academic.  Worse because the reformist logic behind this perspective will not only not have any purchase on reality after the election but will prevent elaboration of a debate on what a socialist strategy should be.

That the logic of the AAA strategy is reformist is made clear by the passage quoted above – “At the same time, we would seek to build a mass movement outside the Dáil to put pressure on the government to deliver on its promises and to achieve a genuine left government as soon as possible.”  Such is the role of the workers – to put pressure on the capitalist politicians and then replace them with other better politicians.

All this being the result of “ mass movement”  does not make it better but in so far as it becomes the fixed and certain political perspective of the workers’ movement it is a strategy bound to mislead.

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with putting pressure on capitalist politicians and a left Government is preferable to a right-wing one.  The point is that this pressure should arise from a strategy of building up working class power and seeking to exploit a left Government to facilitate this further.  This is not the same as this pressure and a left Government actually being the strategy itself.

So why is this misleading?  Well the Socialist Workers Party, which leads the People before Profit electoral front, has written a short article setting out the history of the failure of such initiatives based on the traditional Marxist analysis that the capitalist state cannot be reformed, even with a left government sitting on top of it.  I will look at this in the final post.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

The exclusion of Sinn Fein from the idea of a Left Government

demo imagesSince there isn’t going to be a left government elected in 2016 the left has seen itself with two challenges.  Firstly how to defend themselves against the charge that it is they who are the barrier to such a prospect through ruling out an electoral alliance of some sort with Sinn Fein and the trade union organised Right2Water campaign and secondly, how do they explain their electoral strategy without a left Government; a plan B so to speak?

As I have argued in the three previous posts, the left programme for Government and that advocated by the Right2Water campaign are not so dissimilar and if they were serious about a broad alliance that included Sinn Fein there would have been more of an effort to pursue an agreed platform and having done so seek to split the trade unions from endorsing Sinn Fein if this effort proved fruitless.  The cause of the failure could then be held up as warranting the split of the unions from their endorsement  of the Sinners.  I have argued the grounds for the latter are narrow, although from my point of view this justifies more the creation of a different platform than accommodation with Sinn Fein.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance has attempted to do some weak imitation of this in a statement:

“The AAA is part of Right2Water and we believe that R2W and the trade unions behind it have played a very important role in mobilising people on many mass demonstrations.  We accept the positive intentions of the trade unions in initiating Right2Change but we believe having Sinn Fein at the centre of a new anti austerity political movement is a major mistake.”

The statement then goes on to make a number of points about the weak tactics of Sinn Fein in the anti-water charges campaign, their role in imposing austerity in the North, their signals to Fianna Fail (FF) that they may go into coalition with them and their own much more radical policies and reliance on working class self-activity.  Finally they bum up the potential for a left-led electoral intervention, dropping a figure of potentially 30 per cent support into the discussion.

As far as tactics go, tactics are tactics and not a strong basis to refuse alliance.  The criticism of Sinn Fein’s role in the North is bang-on; the question of coalition with FF would not arise if there was a wider left alliance and their claim to much more radical policies is not nearly as strong as they would like to believe.  Certainly, as the analysis of their budgetary proposals goes, it is a question of differences of degree only, which are important but not in themselves enough to rule out an alliance.  As for the question of workers’ self-activity – in the left’s strategy this the consistent practice of sponsoring campaign fronts consisting of protests over single issues.  The broader strategy remains one of electoral success backed up by such support outside, workers self-activity is therefore strategically subordinate.  And as far as the prospects for success go, the figure of 30 per cent is not a promise, not a forecast and not an analysis or fact on which to decide what has to be done.

In answering the specific questions posed by the Right2Change they argue as follows:

“Does the AAA support the Right2Change policy principles?

The AAA generally supports the reforms outlined in the policy principles. We believe that for these to be realised will necessitate going much further than the projected spending increases in the Fiscal Framework Document. These reforms are reasonable and necessary and provide the opportunity to win mass support for the radical change that is needed but they are beyond what the current system can offer.

Does the AAA agree now to form a progressive government based on this platform if the numbers allow?

The AAA is open to participate in government but not a government that includes any parties associated with austerity or a government whose policy is based on operating within the strict fiscal rules set by the EU or capitalism. We want a government that will scrap the unjust taxes and charges and reverse the draconian austerity cuts that have been implemented; a government that immediately sets about the transformation of the economy on the basis of democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy to ensure people’s needs not profit is the basis of society.”

What this means is that the AAA is not in favour of a left Government but what might be called an anti-capitalist Government in which case an alliance with Sinn Fein does not arise, and neither for that matter does an alliance with the trade unions in the anti-water charges campaign

In so far as the AAA pretends to an alliance with these trade unions it is on the basis that agreed reforms have simply to be made more extensive to inevitably lead to a break with the EU and capitalism and the working class that voted for these reforms will carry along supporting this break.  The left Government leads and the working class follows or, in the very left version of this strategy the left leads the workers in militant action that leads them to elect a left Government that the working class follows.  Not much hangs on the difference.  In either case the working class is expected to be a bit slow in realising that when it votes for reforms it really gets revolution, of a sort.

Except it won’t be getting socialism.

As Leon Trotsky so accurately put it “it would of course be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalisation by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer into the hands of the workers’ organisations.”

In essence the policy of the other organisation on the radical left, People before Profit (PbP), is no different from the Anti-Austerity Alliance:

“Sinn Fein is sending out conflicting signals. They talk about forming a ‘progressive government’ but also indicate that they are willing to join in coalition with Fianna Fail or Labour, provided they are the larger party. In view of the position we stated above, they

* would have to rule out coalition with the establishment parties –something they are very reluctant to do.

* would have to agree to an increase in corporation tax – even though they tried to reduce it in the North.

* would have to agree to writing down Ireland’s debt rather than just asking permission from the EU.

* would have to stop promoting austerity in the North while opposing it in the South.

* would have to join the active fight against water charges by promoting a boycott.

Working people who want real and significant change should query Sinn Fein on these issues.”

The PbP policy has all the strengths and weaknesses of the former but it combines it with its own political confusions which I will look at in the next post.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

Prospects for a left Government in 2016

10/12/2014 Anti Water Charges Protests. Pictured are members of the public protesting against water charges at the Right 2 Water event outside Government Buildings in Dublin today. Picture: Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland

10/12/2014 Anti Water Charges Protests. Pictured are members of the public protesting against water charges at the Right 2 Water event outside Government Buildings in Dublin today. Picture: Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland

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

Nationalist answers 1 – Scotland

scoty images (11)A common analysis on much of the left is that the EU is a capitalist club that pursues an imperialist agenda, just confirmed by its brutal treatment of Greece.  The socialist answer is therefore to be in favour of leaving it.

Many of these same people argue that the UK is a capitalist state that has just re-elected a Tory Government committed to further austerity.  The election has shown that it too, just like the EU, is unreformable and should be split up; so for example Scotland should separate from it.

The answer to both is therefore a nationalist one.  Let’s not be distracted by the bells and whistles attached.  The objective is a change in the nature of the state but in both cases this means a return to the nation state, a smaller state, is the answer.

Ironically, as a recent post I read noted, while the treatment of Greece by the EU in the name of austerity has been acknowledged by more or less everyone to be brutal, the reaction of some nationalists has been much more muted.

Thus the SNP who are portrayed as opponents of austerity have rallied much of the British left around its nationalist argument for separation on the basis of its opposition to UK austerity.  It argues that any move to get out of the EU will see it demand a new indy referendum so Scotland can stay in.  Yet the austerity inflicted by the EU on Greece is of a magnitude many times greater than that directed from London.

From a socialist point of view it gets worse.  Their answer to this exposure to the contradictions of nationalism is to be even more nationalist than the nationalists.  Many of them demand that the UK (or the Irish State for that matter) leave the EU.  Of course it is claimed all the new states created will not be like their old incarnations  but progressive, if not socialist, but if they were there would be no need for them to be separate and if they are separate they will be in the position all nation states are in, which is in competition with each other.

We see such competition in the proposals of the various nationalists and left nationalists to reduce corporation tax.  Sinn Fein and the left in Ireland want to keep the low 12.5% rate but want it to be the effective rate while the SNP want a lower rate than the rest of the UK, whatever it is, and the Tories have just cut it to 18 per cent, so it now has to be lower than this.  When the Tories took office with the Liberal Democrats it was 28 per cent.  If my sums are right I think this makes Sinn Fein, the Irish Left and the SNP softer on the big corporations than Tony Blair.  But this doesn’t fit the narrative so let’s stick with it.

In an earlier post I promised I would look at an article notified to me by a friend, on the Left’s attitude to the SNP, just before the UK General Election so I’ll do that here.  I’ll also look in a second part at one of the many responses on the Left seeking to learn the lessons from the Syriza U-turn in Greece.  What they have in common is an accommodation to nationalism.

What they also have in common is being written from the Socialist Workers Party tradition.  As I noted before, this tradition, through their forerunner of the International Socialists, used to have much better positions on both the EU and Scottish nationalism.  However the two articles show that accommodation has not yet become capitulation.

The article in ‘Jacobin’ is in the form of an interview and it is revelatory that the first question doesn’t ask the interviewee why he supported Yes in the independence referendum but “what did you see in the movement that made it worthy of support?”

As I noted during the campaign, many on the left voted yes because they liked the campaign for it rather than any very compelling reasons for having a campaign for such an objective in the first place.

In this sense they were guilty of what Marx warned against – “Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life. . “  Instead the Left supported a nationalist campaign, driven by social and economic concerns and desire for an alternative, and having done so declared it left wing.  It looked at itself in the mirror and liked what it saw.

Just like Sinn Fein in Ireland it does a grand job at telling itself and anyone else who will listen how great it is.  It might be something about nationalism.

I am also reminded by another less glorious figure in the history of the socialist movement who once declared “the movement means everything for me and . . . what is usually called “the final aim of socialism” is nothing.”

I exaggerate?  Well let’s look at the interview.  Davidson gives three reasons for changing his view to now supporting independence and, in his own words, he says that “the most important change was simply the nature of the campaign itself”

He says that “for many people it wasn’t about nationalism of any sort”. .  “It was about how to realise various social goals: an end to austerity, the removal of nuclear weapons, defence of the National Health Service”.  The fact that the answer to each of these problems is nationalism seems not to make the movement for it nationalist.

That the problems are not nationalist ones appears to mean that when the solution is national separation (“independence will improve their [workers’} situation immediately”) we don’t have to call it a nationalist solution.   Ironically if the problems were nationalist ones (like national oppression for example) a nationalist response might make more sense.

This self-regard leads to an exaggerated view of the role of the Left in the independence campaign, which, he says, dramatically changed its dynamic and drove the entire discussion of independence to the left.

In fact the landslide for the SNP in Scotland in the General election showed just who drove the campaign, who put independence on the agenda for decades before and who then benefited.

That the campaign for independence won the support of many working class people for a party Davidson admits is “on the extreme left of what I call “social neoliberalism” and “which broadly supports the neoliberal economic settlement”, i.e. austerity, is such an admission that it is simply staggering.

He supported separation because of the independence referendum campaign that led a neoliberal party to a landslide on the basis of that party claiming to lead opposition to austerity!

Davidson goes on to say that the SNP has moved to the left in economic terms “above all in rejection of austerity” and “is offering reforms” but also says they took up their “social democratic” position “in order to win votes” because “it would have been difficult to compete with New labour from the right”.

He accepts as good coin SNP claims of opposing austerity but fails utterly to examine its actual record in the Scottish Government, which would blow such claims out of the water.  Such an examination doesn’t fit the narrative.

In fact this narrative clashes obviously with reality.

He claims that the SNP sought an alliance with the Labour Party against the Tories, when in reality their strategy depended on destroying Labour in Scotland and keeping it to their right everywhere else.  Does he think the SNP would welcome a Jeremy Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership contest?

Why would it, since this would immediately demonstrate the efficacy of fighting together, that the Labour Party was not quite a dead loss and that there did actually exist a labour movement undivided by nationality.

He congratulates the SNP on their honesty, they’ll  never do a deal with the Tories he says, which means we can forget the one it had with them when in a minority administration in 2007 reliant on Tory support.

By supporting separation the pro-nationalist left has already separated itself from wider struggles.  In so far as there is a fight about austerity and its alternative in Britain today it is centred around the Corbyn campaign for leadership of the Labour Party.  I wondered on this blog whether the British Left would be part of it.  Were the unthinkable to happen and Corbyn actually win it could hardly be ignored.  Would an all-British movement against austerity in such circumstances be better than a purely Scottish one or would the Left insist on introducing national divisions where none were necessary?

It would appear that Davidson would answer the latter in the negative. “We must not give up the question of independence.  Unless a revolutionary situation emerges in England . . .”.  And of course Corbyn is far from being a revolutionary.

So it looks like English workers will have to deliver a revolutionary situation in England before the Scottish Left will be interested in political unity within one state.  (Talk about playing hard to get!) Not, mind you, that they are steaming ahead in the creation of a revolutionary party themselves because, Davidson says, “we are not in a position in Scotland to immediately set up a revolutionary party.”

Of course there are the ritualistic claims of wanting “solidarity” with English workers against the British State but not solidarity with English workers against a Scottish capitalist state which would replace the British one lording it over them come separation.  Joining with English workers to overthrow the Scottish state?  Now that really doesn’t fit the narrative.

Instead solidarity with English workers will mean we’ll demand the removal of Trident, which means moving these weapons to . . . err, England maybe?

And if the English follow this example and say that we’ll take the same position as you in Scotland and demand they’re not sited in our country, they can stay. . .err, in Scotland maybe?

What a splendid recipe for solidarity!

I mentioned that Davidson has accommodated to nationalism but not capitulated.  This is because although the article asks the question how the Left should relate to the SNP in advance of the General election he nowhere calls for a vote for the SNP.  The problem is, given what he says, I can’t see the reason for him not to.  Why not? given that he claims it opposes austerity, wants to introduce reforms, has moved to the Left and is now full of left-wing working class people who are ‘consolidating’ its position there.

It would be some slight comfort if it could be hoped that the reason for this is that, as a relatively recent convert to Scottish nationalism, at some level he just doesn’t quite believe his own argument.

Unfortunately the real reason may well be political sectarianism.  His reason appears to be that an SNP Government bent on reforms would face pressure and intransigence from capitalism when it would try to introduce its reforms.

He doesn’t say how this would not be the case in any other circumstance.  He doesn’t say how, what he might call a revolutionary party, would not face the same if not greater pressure.  He doesn’t say how it should be dealt with.  He doesn’t say why nationalist division prepares workers for such international capitalist intransigence and he does not say why this means that denial of support to the SNP now is justified by a future need for a revolutionary break, especially when he says the alternative party to be built now must not be revolutionary.  So how does he prepare all those inside and outside the SNP who must be prepared for this revolutionary break?

But what’s wrong with all this is not that Davidson should follow through on the implications of his analysis of the SNP and join it, but that his view of what is required of revolutionary politics now leads to a nationalist blind alley of supporting nationalist separatism now and being just as exposed to nationalist limitations when the grand day of revolutionary rupture might break out in the future.

His argument for national separation and endorsement of the SNP demand for independence falls apart because he refuses to support that party on the grounds that when it will be faced with international capitalist pressure it will be in no position to resist, most importantly because the working class will be divided by nationality whilst the capitalists won’t.

A convincing narrative or what?

What exactly divides the Irish Left?

ballot downloadIn the last article on the debate on the Left and its potential in the upcoming general election I said that I would look at the most important area in which the Left generally, despite the purported differences, were pretty much agreed.  Not on everything, but what they don’t agree on is in principle secondary.

The fundamental unity is on the nature of the new society the different groups want to bring about and the means to achieve it.

Taking the contributions quoted in the last post:

Sinn Fein: “We need to present a clear, coherent and credible programme for Government, based on an alternative model of social and economic development, that offers people well paid secure employment, high quality public and community services, fair and adequate taxation – all rooted in a strategy for economic growth that is environmentally sustainable and socially just.”

Rory Hearne:   “There is, despite the caricatures of division, much ground for agreement on policy amongst the diverse groups, for example, reversing water and household charges and austerity hitting the most vulnerable, standing up to the EU on Ireland’s debt, a write-down of mortgage arrears, a living wage, proper public health, housing, education and delivering human rights for all, direct democracy returning power to local areas and communities and a state and indigenous-led economic strategy away from overreliance on foreign multinationals, wealth taxes, expressing solidarity with Greece for a European debt conference and much more.”

The joint statement of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People before Profit and others is:

“. . . committing to oppose and organise to fight against any more austerity and for an immediate reversal of key austerity measures such as water charges, property tax, USC for those on average or low incomes, health, education and welfare cuts. It also means developing a strategy for repudiation of the bankers’ debt; for a write-down of residential mortgages; for taxation of wealth and big business profits; and against privatisation of public services and natural resources.  Instead of putting money into bank debt, we think there should be public investment in housing, healthcare, education, childcare, public transport, water services, renewable energy and environmental protection – as the start of re-orienting economic activity to meet social need and provide useful work for young people and the unemployed.”

So if there is broad agreement on a radical but not revolutionary policy there is also broad agreement on how to implement it.

Sinn Fein: “We need to translate all of this activism into change at the polls to break the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael stranglehold on the southern Irish state and install a left wing Government implementing a left wing programme – if such a Government is not possible after the upcoming general election we should maintain the momentum and keep building until we have secured the requisite public support.”

“So the immediate tasks for those of us on the Left who want to seriously challenge the Right for control of the state are clear.”

“We need to ensure that popular mobilisation continues if and when a left wing Government is installed to act as a guarantor of the promises made by progressive politicians at election time.”

Brendan Ogle Right2Water: “We will win this campaign. Of that I have no doubt whatsoever. We will return a Government that will be voted in to reverse the current crazy, wasteful, ideological, neo-liberal privatisation of our publicly owned water. And then what? Is that it? What about our right to housing, to a job and decent workers rights, to decent healthcare, to education? Do we, those in what has clearly become a ‘movement’ care about these things? And if so, can a water movement become a vehicle of real social and political change?”

“The anger, and mass mobilisation necessary to reclaim our nation for its citizens are present. The citizen’s hunger for their democracy back is present and the electoral means are present.”

The joint statement of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People before Profit, said of the alternative that:

“It should fight for a Left government committed to breaking the rules that impose austerity and that prioritise the restoration of the profits of banking and big business; for a government committed to restructuring the economy and society to meet the needs of people and to protect our environment  – including unilateral repudiation, if necessary, of bankers’ debt.”

In commenting on these joint statements Paul Murphy says that:

“These statements were a positive engagement with the process – in particular focused on three areas – calling for non-payment as part of a non-electoralist, struggle orientation; a call to rule out coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour; and a clear left programme, including commitment to debt repudiation and repeal of the 8th amendment.”

Ruling out coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour is a central part of this. The left needs to be ambitious and inspiring – this means not settling for the old mistakes of coalition with the right, and betraying and disappointing people in order to get Ministerial positions. Instead, it means fighting for a real left government.”

“A left government is not just one where people who describe themselves as left-wing are in government. It is one that implements a left programme – which reverses austerity measures, which pursues a strategy of debt repudiation, which stands up to bullying from the EU, which uses the wealth and resources of society for people’s needs rather than corporations’ profits and which tackles the oppression of women, migrants and LGBTQ people.”

However where Murphy claims to be in disagreement with the likes of Sinn Fein, and those in the Right2Water campaign who wish to see it as part of a left alternative Government, is his claim that a real left alternative is not so focused on elections and would not include the Labour Party.

For him the real left alternative is one that is less focused on the elections, in particular the next election, and is orientated more to both struggles outside of the Dail and to using elections and elected positions to assist the building of these movements.

Of Eoin Ó Broin’s contribution he says that “The embracing of the Labour Party by someone who has a profile of being on the left of Sinn Fein is significant. It is an illustration that unfortunately Sinn Fein is prepared to be part of a government that will continue with austerity.”

So despite similar programmes the Socialist Party opposes an alliance with the Labour Party and Sinn Fein, which means that the prospect of a ‘left’ Government after the next elections is practically zero.

It is in this sense that Burtenshaw’s argument that the population has rejected the left’s alternative is rather obviously true, so obviously true it is difficult to see how it can be denied.  A left Government in the next election that does not include Sinn Fein and/or the Labour Party is not going to happen.

In the next post I’ll look at what the Left might do, even with a reformist strategy.

The UK general election part 3: sectarianism and democracy

SF 1 downloadIn the final post on the UK general election I want to look at the results from my own little polity and the political slum that is Northern Ireland.  Like all slums the blame for its condition lies with the landlord, the British state.  As usual all the tenants hope and expect that the landlord will clean it up. But it never does.

There the analogy should rest.  The most recent election was notable for what the front page of the Northern nationalist paper, ‘The Irish News’, described as ‘Nationalists turn away from the polls’.  Their parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, collected 38.4% of the vote while the DUP and Ulster Unionists captured 41.7%.  The latter figure does not include the various other unionist parties such as Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP which brings the unionist total to 46.6%. If we include the Alliance Party, which is a unionist party in all but name, the unionist vote was 55.2%.

The message?  There isn’t going to be a United Ireland any time soon.  The Sinn Fein vote went down slightly by 1% even while the SDLP vote declined by 2.6% and it lost the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat, not the way they wanted to enter into the historic hundredth anniversary of the 1916 rising.  ‘The Irish News’ explained that the nationalist vote had declined to its lowest level since the 1992 Westminster vote, which is before the ceasefires. That is, before the current peace process ‘strategy’ of republicans was/is supposed to deliver a united Ireland.

None of this fits with the accepted story of a rising Catholic population and a more and more demoralised Protestant one.  Sooner or later, the story goes, there will be a Catholic majority that will vote in a united Ireland. The truth of this is accepted by many and, I would hazard a guess, by many who would deny it vehemently in public.  I remember my aunt, a Shankill Road Protestant, remark about 25 years ago that there would eventually be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  And she was at least half right in that.

Socialists have always supported self-determination for the Irish people as a whole, as the only democratic response to the Irish national question.  Not of course universally.  The Militant Tendency/Socialist Party tradition with its notoriously statist view of socialism, which incidentally has nothing to do with Marxism, has always managed to get it wrong.  Its statist view has seen it join left nationalist formations in Britain such as NO2EU, and it led the rightward collapse of the left in Scotland into Scottish nationalism.  In the North of Ireland on the other hand, entirely consistent with its accommodation to whatever nationalism is strongest, it has capitulated time and time again to loyalism and the British State.

This general response of socialist to the national question remains correct but the growth of nationalism in the North of Ireland, which now appears halted, has demonstrated that democracy is not a classless construct.  Bourgeois democracy in a society which has always been characterised by sectarianism has definite limits.

These limits are demonstrated in the more and more sectarian expression of northern nationalism.  This means that the expression of democracy by the working class can only be of a non-sectarian character, or it would fail to be a particular expression of the working class.  In other words the expression of a democratic alternative to partition must come from the working class and not from any nationalist formation.  It must therefore be non-sectarian, not in an unconscious sense, in which to be anti-imperialist is somehow also to be ‘objectively’ anti-sectarian, but in a conscious sense that this is the key objective – of uniting the working class.  Just like Scotland so must this be the case in Ireland, that socialism cannot be derived from what happens to be bad for the UK state but from the political unity of workers.

The degeneration of Sinn Fein and Irish republicanism demonstrates that fidelity to the belief in a united Ireland is no guarantee of progressive politics.  It used to be said that Irish republicanism was largely confined to Catholics because of sectarianism and this also remains true but it is also now the case that the Irish republicanism of Sinn Fein is confined to Catholics because it is sectarian.

Once the Provisionals stopped fighting the British and decided to join in the governance of its system, and started asking the landlord to sort out the slum – the landlord responsible for its creation – it stopped having any claim to progressive status.  It then became the most militant and vocal champion of Catholic rights, not civil rights, but sectarian rights.  This has been exposed in the case of a prominent Sinn Fein Minister and also in the recent election.

In North Belfast Sinn Fein put out an election leaflet that included a graphic showing the Catholic and Protestant proportions of the constituency, the none too subtle message being that the majority Catholic constituency should be electing a Sinn Fein MP.  But of course that also means that Protestants must vote for the sitting Unionist MP.

The Sinn Fein excuses for it only bury it deeper in the sectarian mire.  First the excuses arrived only after it spent weeks defending the leaflet.  Then it wanted, it said, to use the terms nationalist and unionist but the Post Office said census figures had to be couched in terms of Catholic and Protestant.  So what it is saying, after trying to blame the Post Office, is that  instead of rejecting the graphic it decided that yes indeed substitution of Nationalist and Unionist by Catholic and Protestant was fine.  Now we know what it means when it uses the former terms in future.

Oh, and one more thing.  It regretted its decision to include the graphic – as Mr Gerry Kelly said “I think, in retrospect, the decision then should probably have been to withdraw the graph, because it did give an argument to our opponents, whether that was the SDLP or unionists.”  Yes Gerry, you’re right about that.

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The reactionary position of Sinn Fein was also demonstrated in another graphic used on its leaflet for their candidate in South Belfast.  Having misleadingly described the candidate as ‘the poll topper’ – in fact the sitting MP was from the SDLP – it then said he was the ‘only Progressive Candidate who can win’ – clearly not the case since the SDLP were not listed by the leaflet as one of the five parties ‘united for austerity.’

These five parties were the Conservatives, DUP, UUP, UKIP and Alliance Parties. One of these parties stood out from the others – the DUP.  Why? – because Sinn Fein is in permanent coalition with this party.  And at the time the leaflet was put through the doors the Tories looked like they might be relying on the DUP to get them into power.

Wouldn’t that have looked lovely – the so-called anti-austerity Sinn Fein in Government with the DUP who were keeping the austerity-inflicting Tories in Government.  Don’t bother to try to work out how Sinn Fein would have justified it, they have been justifying inflicting one of the most right wing parties in Europe on this part of the continent for years.

‘The Irish News’ front page has reflected the disorientation of Northern nationalism following the election.  It produced some commentator to explain what had gone wrong.

Apparently  there is a ‘growing number of nationalists who appear switched off from the electoral process (reflecting) a community more at ease with Northern Ireland.’

The commentator said that “I think unionism is more highly strung about identity issues.  Nationalism is more happy in general with the status quo and there is a lack of competition between the parties.  Nationalism is suffering a retreat.”

Almost all of this is rubbish.

Yes, nationalism is suffering a retreat, it’s been retreating for years, and now endorses the legitimacy of partition and its institutions, the British nationality of Irish Protestants and the unionist veto on a united Ireland.

Contrary to its assertion, there is no lack of competition among nationalist parties and unlike unionism there was no electoral pact between the SDLP and Sinn Fein during the election.

Relatively high unionist participation in the election is not because they are more highly strung about identity; in fact the lack of unionist voter participation has been remarked upon for years.  Did they suddenly get a fit of the nerves just recently?  Newspapers have recently reported increasing numbers of parents from what is called ‘a Protestant background’ refusing to designate their children as Protestant at school.

The fall in the nationalist vote is not because nationalists are happy with the status quo but exactly the opposite.  The stench of nepotism, cronyism and corruption from Stormont is all the more repelling on the nationalist side given the claims to radical politics and progressive change from the nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Fein.

Instead the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition Government has been beset by crisis, incapacity, incompetence, secrecy, arrogance, lack of accountability, lack of transparency and financial scandal.  The simplest of questions don’t get answered for years (perhaps never) by Government departments with dozens of communications staff.

The latest such offerings are the revelation of the extent of the employment of Special Advisors (SPADS) employed by all the parties in office without any public recruitment process.  These SPADS are supposed to bring special skills to their political masters, the most prominent of which appears to be their close connection to the parties and their ability to hide any special skills.

freedom of information request revealed that in one financial year the Stormont Executive spent almost £2m on these SPADS, more than the Scottish and Welsh governments combined.  In 2013/2014, the pay bands and grades for these special advisers varied across the UK, going from £36,000 up to £91,000.  In Scotland, three of them were in the top pay band while at Stormont all 21 posts were.

The second is the scandal around a contractor to the Housing Executive which we reported on before here and here.  The SPAD at the centre of the controversy, far from being dumped has been promoted while it is reported that the DUP member who took a more principled stand is being subject to disciplinary action by the party.  At the end of an editorial dripping with scorn ‘The Irish News’ declared of the Stormont regime that “it is increasingly doubtful if the institutions are worth preserving in the first place.”

When the main voice of constitutional nationalism expresses exasperation with the peace process institutions it really does mean a lot of nationalists are thoroughly disillusioned.  This is one of the main results of the election.  In itself it is not a positive but it is certainly a prerequisite for one to develop.

 

The UK general election part 2: DIY austerity

8841963_origDuring the election, instead of selling themselves as a vote for independence the SNP presented themselves as the leaders of Scotland’s opposition to austerity who would make the new Labour Government keep true to its word of opposing austerity.  As I have and others have said, this was a lie.  The SNP opposed a vote for Labour in England and Wales since they supported the Greens and Plaid Cymru.  So where was this Labour Government to come from?

The SNP vote cannot therefore be characterised as any sort of left vote except in the sense I mentioned earlier: that workers often express their interests in very distorted form.  In this case in the form of nationalism that put forward the idea that Scots are uniquely opposed to austerity and the English not.  The SNP vote can also be said to be a nationalist one because a nationalist solution to austerity was proposed, even if it was supported by some who would not want to go as far as independence.

If the Scots were uniquely opposed to austerity they would also have demonstrated opposition to the cuts transmitted by their own Scottish parliament led by the SNP.

This party has slipped seamlessly from standing in order to put a backbone into a new Labour Government to the election being “a vote to make Scotland’s voice heard loudly” in Westminster.  Those who think there isn’t really any difference should read the last sentence again.  They should also consider if the SNP in any way contributed to getting the Tories out.  As I have also said before the only Tories they wanted out was the ‘red’ variety.

The absence of Labour in Government, which they said would be reliant on them, now means their real reliance on those in power in London is exposed.  Like the nationalists that they are the SNP demands privileges that they would not even consider for others.  So the new Tory Government has to listen to the ‘voice of Scotland’ even though they are 50 per cent of Scottish voices with 1.45 million votes.  UKIP on the other hand won 3.88 million votes, over two and half times the SNP vote. Should their voice not be louder?

However, now that the Conservatives are in Government the SNP will be seeking to cut a deal with them to increase devolved powers – so much for excoriating Labour and their promises not to do deals with the hated Tories.  The Guardian on Saturday reported an SNP advisor saying that Sturgeon will now negotiate with the Tories and that all the repeated promises that the party would never work with the Tories were based on the Conservatives forming a minority coalition government – not an outright majority.

Perhaps this approach seems obvious to SNP supporters but it isn’t at all obvious to anyone else.  If, as it claimed, it stood in this election against austerity why isn’t it trying to cut a deal on reducing austerity instead of more constitutional powers?

The election demonstrated that the SNP and Conservative Party were good for each other.  The inherently anti-English message of independence produced an anti-Scottish response led by the Tories and UKIP who were able to argue that a Labour Government in hock to a party bent on destruction of their nation was a mortal danger.  Both the Tories and SNP knew what they were doing in this mutual loathing.

Now, as the mutually beneficial conflict between the rival nationalisms continues to play itself out, it will become clear that English nationalism is bigger and uglier – because England is bigger and nationalism throwing its weight about is always ugly.

Boris Johnson has advocated giving the SNP greater devolved powers for the Scottish parliament – “some kind of federal offer”.  This is not such a novel departure since the Tories were already more radical than Labour before the referendum in what they promised as devolution in place of separation.

An offer by the Tories of full fiscal autonomy would call the SNP’s bluff since they know full well that Scotland could not afford such an arrangement given the fall in oil prices.  In effect it would be DIY austerity.

The SNP will argue that it wants any new arrangement to maintain current levels of financing.  In other words a settlement that allows Scotland the benefit of higher oil prices should they return but no down side when they don’t.  The English oppressors in the meantime will have to subsidise higher levels of public expenditure in Scotland.

When the Tories make mincemeat of these demands the SNP can then make the case that the dastardly anti-Scottish Tories are at it again and only independence will allow them to borrow more, make savings on Trident and make the independence sums add up again irrespective of the oil price.  Something they haven’t been very convincing at doing so far.

In the meantime increased tax and spending powers may allow the SNP led Scottish parliament to cut corporation tax, as will the Stormont administration in Belfast with the new tax varying powers that the Tories have already promised.  They can then unite with their Celtic cousins in the Irish State in a joint project of cutting each other’s throat.

The debate has begun on what the lessons are for Labour with the Blairites already dominating the media agenda that Ed Miliband was too left wing.

Such an argument hardly squares with the Labour rout in Scotland and nor with Labour gains in London.  It was obvious when Miliband became leader that he had to distance himself from the Blair legacy of the Iraq war and the obsequious defence to the city of London and the financial interests behind the crash.  We’re now asked to believe that a return to this politics is the way back.

Such a policy would have led the Labour Party into an even more confused message than it already had and would have left it with little or nothing to distinguish itself from a Tory Party promising deficit reduction, tax cuts and more money for the health service.

Even the rise of UKIP and the part of its vote that was taken from Labour cannot be seen as an endorsement of a move right.  In this case just how far right would you have to move to rival the xenophobic policies of that lot?

I remember two weeks ago listening to a vox pop on radio 4 from a constituency in the North of England.  A young man was saying he was voting UKIP as a protest against Labour even though he did not at all agree with UKIP policies because he wanted Labour to be more left wing!  I’m not for a moment suggesting that the working class UKIP vote is a left wing protest but some of it is a working class vote that is Labour’s to win.  These voters are not all irredeemably reactionary.  It is rather another example of some workers expressing their class interests as they see them, in a very distorted and disfigured way.

They are demoralised workers who blame immigrants, foreigners or Europe, or simply the establishment understood in some vague way, for the precarious position they find themselves in.

These people did not vote Tory and they did not do so because demoralised or not they don’t confuse their interest with those of the Tory classes and their smarmy representatives.  They just can’t identify their position with an uninhibited and robust defence of their class interests from a socialist perspective.  Perhaps because they haven’t been presented with it or because they have grown cynical with promises of it in the past that haven’t been delivered on.

There is no Blairite answer to workers who blame immigrants for lack of affordable housing, low wages, unemployment and failing health and education services.  There is a left wing answer and however weak it may be from a Marxist perspective it certainly makes more sense than voting UKIP.

The parliamentary arithmetic looks very bad for Labour, behind the Tories by almost 100 seats and suffering almost complete wipe-out in Scotland.  But that is only half the story.

Their vote increased by more than the Tories, and that despite the losses in Scotland.  They may trail by 99 seats but they lag only by 6.5 percentage points of the vote.  The Tories are not in as strong a position as they appear.

First they have a small majority and second they are about to go through a debate about Europe that has the potential to split them extremely badly.  This will take place most likely against the backdrop of gloomy economic news and growing unpopularity as the reality of their election promises come home to roost.  Cameron may seek to provide raw meat to the most Thatcherite elements of his party in order to provide himself with some room to keep the UK inside the EU.

Right now the opportunity exists to have a debate in front of working people about the wide range of policies that they need to advance their interests.  This arises from the debate on who will be the replacement leadership of the Labour Party.  It will not of course be a debate pitting a pure revolutionary programme (however understood) against a cowardly watered down Keynesianism.  But what could ever lead anyone to expect that?  This is where the working class is at and no amount of wishful thinking will make it otherwise.

Will those organisations claiming to be Marxist be able to place themselves in the middle of this debate?  Will they even want to? The debate will happen anyway and many will look to it for a new way forward beyond the despair that the new Tory regime will inevitably create.