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

How left does a Left Government have to be?

AAAdownloadThe weakness of the left’s strategy is revealed in the proposals upon which they would proclaim their difference from Sinn Fein and their preference not to seek a common platform.  If we look at the Anti-austerity Alliance (AAA) proposals for the 2016 budget we can see this illustrated in a number of ways. The gap in the strategy of the Left, evidenced in the AAA proposals, therefore also raises the question of how left the policies of a Left government have to be.

But first there is the reluctance of the AAA to accept that there is an economic recovery and one that many have benefited from, if only to the extent that the cuts appear to have relented.  Of course, that the rich do best is a permanent result in capitalism.  The issue here is not that the rich do best but the view that “for us, for working class people, for the majority of young people, unemployed people, pensioners and small farmers – there is no recovery.”  (AAA)

But this isn’t true.  Unemployment has fallen, and not just as a result of emigration, and wages are beginning to rise again while taxes are no longer increasing as before.  These things matter to people and go some way to explaining why there will be no left Government elected in 2016.

Stating otherwise allows the opponents of socialism to claim that socialism is politics for the poorest only.  It sits comfortably in right-wing rhetoric that socialists are only interested in those at the very bottom of society as opposed to better off or better placed workers.  It makes poverty the issue rather than the class inequalities and class divide in society.  It does not make one more of a socialist, or revolutionary, to deny that capitalism can improve the living standards of workers in particular ways, within particular limits and with regular crises that threaten the lifestyle that workers have slowly tried to create for themselves.

Worst of all, it fits with the view that socialism is created not out of the strength of the working class – that it has employment, that this employment is often skilled, that society is dependent on this skilled labour, that the working class is increasingly educated, and that it is not on desperation and oppression that socialism will be built but on hope, expectation and confidence of the working class in its potential power.

Above all, the unity of workers is based on shared interests regardless of more or less temporary differences in status and income.  The income inequalities within the working class are barriers to its political unity while the reformist emphasis on redistribution ignores what all workers share regardless of levels of income.

Poverty, unemployment and marginalisation are most important from a political point of view because they present barriers to a common class identity and unity.   Denying what little improvement there is robs whatever else is said by socialists of some credibility and it is not necessary to deny the growth of capitalism in order to argue for its greater failure and the need for an alternative.

When we move to the programme of the AAA the gap in the perspective of the left becomes apparent.  In proposals to repudiate the debt the case of Syriza’s attempt to renegotiate the Greek debt is recalled.  While it is proposed that “a left government in Ireland would demand a negotiated write-down of debt to a sustainable level” it is acknowledged that “if as the Greek experience indicates seems likely, it did not have success at the negotiating table, it (a left government) would then turn to the option of repudiation.”

The proposals state that this would involve an audit of the debt and that “it is reasonable to estimate that such a debt audit repudiation would result in a reduction of the total debt to at most 50% of GDP.”  The issues this proposal throw up – of opposition by the EU and of private capitalist measures that would be taken in retaliation, in other words of everything that makes this option a challenge, is unexplained.  The unwillingness to state how this would be successfully implemented and the opposition to it defeated hides an inability to explain how it could be carried out.

No amount of rhetoric will hide the failure to explain what needs to be done to implement the policy.  In a previous post I have looked at the lessons that the Greek experience might teach us, which elicited some discussion, but none of the potential lessons touched upon there are presented in the proposals of the Anti-Austerity Alliance.   Unfortunately problems are not overcome by ignoring them.

A second area in which purely reformist perspectives are evident is in the proposals for ‘Public Investment, Jobs and Decent Work’.  Here it is argued that “the state should not only be willing to employ people in public services, but rather should also invest and create jobs in “wealth creating’ sectors of the economy – construction, communications, natural resources.”

This proposal cannot be confused with the demand for employment presented in the Transitional Programme written by Leon Trotsky, which was written to “deal with the present catastrophic period” and which was not a perspective for long term development of the (capitalist) economy.  It was required in order to protect the working class “under the menace of its own disintegration.”  Its purpose was not primarily to protect living standards or to provide a long-term solution to the ravages of unemployment but was necessary because “the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. . . Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility.”  Its purpose was plainly mainly a political one, to put the workers in a better position to take over society, not to confuse such measures with socialism itself.

The proposal is mistaken not only on the grounds of principle, that it proposes, and expects, that the capitalist state  could “provide the investment necessary for the creation of a an economically and environmentally sustainable recovery”, in other words a more efficient and effective capitalism, but that its proposals are concentrated on development of infrastructure that private capitalism has been so bad at providing almost everywhere and on which it has often relied on the capitalist state to provide.  In other words state investment in infrastructure is complementary to private capitalism not a competitor to it, even if state ownership in itself could be so considered, which it can’t.

The specific proposals for investment make this clear, mostly directed to traditional state sectors – a public works programme based on the water and sewerage industries, healthcare and education; childcare and development of wind energy.  All are complementary to existing private capitalist accumulation and are supportive of it.  Even development of the wind industry is already well established and already has state companies at its core – ESB and EirGrid.

The most dynamic industries situated in Ireland are in the ICT and chemicals sectors (including pharmaceuticals).  Encouraging the setting up of workers cooperatives in these would signal a real appreciation of the possibility of a workers’ owned cooperative sector of the economy growing in competition with the private capitalist sector, laying the basis of a future economy totally based on cooperative principles.   But there is no evidence that this has been considered at all.

Finally, the AAA proposes not to raise the corporation tax rate but simply asks that the headline rate of 12.5 per cent becomes the effective rate.  It is obviously aware of the timidity of its approach despite saying that: “by maintaining a regime of low effective corporation tax to entice foreign multinational companies, Irish society pays a heavy price by depriving our wrecked public services of the funds they require to provide decent living conditions for all.”

Given its view of the paramount need to redistribute income from the richest corporations to workers it makes little sense to propose that these corporations incur a tax rate of 12.5 per cent while the lowest income tax rate for workers is 20 per cent (excluding the universal social charge).  The reluctance to even make them equal arises from the knowledge that such a rate would not be considered credible.  The AAA is unable to rebut the claims of establishment society that low corporate taxation is essential for the State’s economic sustainability:

“If it is truly the case – as claimed by the entire political establishment (as well as Sinn Féin, who support not only maintaining corporation tax at its current levels but extending that rate into the North) – that the slightest rise in effective corporation tax, to say fund the expansion our healthcare system and end the scandal of homelessness, would lead to a flight of companies out of Ireland then that is an indictment of their system, not a mark of economic irresponsibility on the part of the Anti-Austerity Alliance.”

So despite stating that “it is not simply a matter of tweaking with elements of the system here and there”; that a “rupture is needed”; “rules must be broken” and “a fundamental transformation of our society  . . needed”, it becomes clear that this rupture lacks foundation, except as a generalised declaration of the existence already of “the wealth and resources . . to deal with all the ongoing problems of the crisis”.

The calls for a “move to a socialist economy, with public ownership of the key sources of wealth, under democratic control of working people, and planned in the interests of the majority”, like the AAA “indictment of their system”, becomes a moral condemnation separated from a programme to achieve the goals desired.

If the AAA cannot have the confidence that multinational capital will not up-sticks and leave upon increased corporate taxes, never mind actively seek to sabotage a left Government’s plans, then what confidence can workers have?  More importantly – what will give workers this confidence to take steps to tax the rich, tax the corporations and slash corporate welfare?  The AAA itself admits that: “as was unfortunately demonstrated in Greece, the wealthy are unreconciled as a class of people to any encroachment on their privilege. . . . the rich . . . will attempt to do whatever it takes to avoid paying for the crisis in their system.”

Unfortunately the AAA comes nowhere near explaining just what “whatever it takes” means, or whatever it takes would mean for the working class to defeat this capitalist resistance.  A radical left Government that truly sought to introduce a socialist society could not do whatever it takes, and this wouldn’t be mainly because of the opposition of capitalism, but because socialism can only be the creation of the working class itself, not a left government sitting atop a capitalist state.  If multinational capital struck against a radical Irish state this state is not capable of taking over the production vacated even if it were able to sell internationally what it produced.

This demonstrates in a very practical way how reformist notions of a state-led transformation of capitalism into socialism cannot work.  Only working people themselves can take over production and organise it on a cooperative basis.  Only workers can implement a radical restructuring and development of a cooperative economy and only they can replace, if necessary, the production vacated by fleeing multinationals.  That no significant section of Irish workers sees this as a possibility, as a mission, is why they buy into the fear that to challenge multinational capital too hard would only invite a retaliation they would be unable to cope with.

All this is why the creation of workers’ cooperatives is so necessary – in order to establish in the minds of workers the realisation that they can own and control production themselves; that they can create their own firms, provide their own jobs, develop their own products and markets, and impose their own discipline in the workplace.  On such a basis the failure of capitalist production will more and more witness a successful rival that, as the cooperative sector grows, would provide a potential alternative to it, one based on more than simple propaganda or agitation.

This alternative would involve the realisation of workers that their future lies not in sacrifices for the capitalist system but the development of their own cooperative sector to cover the whole of production.  In this rival sector of working class power all firms would be under the ownership and control of their workforce, all jobs their creation and all products those that workers see a genuine need for.  Within this sector of the economy their own discipline would determine the relations of power which would more and more come into conflict with the relations of power across the rest of society.  Such an exercise of power would see them shed illusions in the neutral role of the state and would see them stop looking to the state as the solution to all their problems – a state that they can never control and that can never reflect their interests or will.

Unfortunately the AAA like many others present the state very differently, as all its proposals demonstrate.  I will not dwell here on whether its devotion to the capitalist state as the vehicle for socialist transformation is a result of electoralism, which posits a left government at the top of the state as the key task, or whether worship of the transformative power of the state makes pursuit of a left Government the only rational objective.  But even the AAA sometimes can’t help expose the contradictions in its whole approach, as when it states that: “the contrast between the state’s efforts to publicise its corporate welfare schemes and its miserly approach to social welfare claimants could not be starker, or more revealing of the capitalist interests the state exists to serve.”

So if the state exists to serve capitalist interests why would it tax a resistant capitalist class, provide jobs for workers and strengthen their bargaining power; attack corporate welfare; countenance the replacement of private capitalist investment for its own and agree to a programme that clams will lead to socialism?

Perhaps some defence of the AAA proposals is possible by recalling its statement that “the purpose of the Anti-Austerity Alliance budget statement is to give an illustration of how things could be organised differently – how the wealth exists to provide decent living standards for all.” Except that what it holds up is more than an illustration but is proposed as an important step on the road to a socialist society.  Of course socialists should not oppose the measure proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance but only because their implementation, even partially, would make taking the right steps on the right road to working class power easier.

One purpose of the examination of the AAA proposals has been to demonstrate that the conception of change held by the left is not so very different from that of Sinn Fein; one based on state led economic development directed by a left Government with popular support.  In the next post I will look at further proposals to separate the left from the Sinn Fein by People before Profit and what approaches the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party have for dealing with the situation after the election when there will not be the left Government they seek.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

The gap in the strategy of a Left Government

ireland IT map-480x360In the first part of this post on a left Government I stated that I did not believe that it was going to happen in the coming elections and also that this left a strategic gap in the perspectives of the left.  The fixation on electoral intervention and its potential success are therefore misplaced.    I have argued many times before in this blog that the reformist politics of the Left is inadequate to the objectives it professes to advance.

The focus on achieving a left government as the key to fighting austerity, and implementing policies that would mean a fairer capitalism, are misguided and bound for ultimate disappointment.  To put the argument at a very summary level: they fail to target the foundations of the capitalist system and avoid what is the root of the working class alternative.  The foundation of capitalism is the ownership of the means of producing everything we consume and rely upon for a remotely civilised existence by a separate class of capitalists and the resulting necessity of the working class to sell their labour power in order to earn the money to live. Workers do not own the product of their labour because it belongs to those who also own the means of production.

This is ABC for Marxists but unfortunately it is not carried forward to argue that the means of production should belong to the workers and thus support for measures that lead to this workers’ ownership of production, such as the formation of workers’ cooperatives.  Instead the Left argues for increased state ownership and argues that democratic control of the state and/or workers’ control under state ownership makes their programme different from the frequently employed policy of capitalist nationalisation.  I have argued differently here and here.  I have also addressed some arguments against workers’ cooperatives that are often advanced by the left here and here.

The Left’s alibi is that a revolution will accomplish the necessary transfer of property ownership, although this ignores a lesson of the Russian revolution that state ownership of property is not the same as workers’ ownership.  It also leaves the idea of a revolutionary approach, not as something that can grow today (before culminating in a transfer of power through creation of a new workers’ state after the capitalist one has been destroyed) but as something for the future, between now and which all sorts of very non-revolutionary methods are acceptable, if sometimes not actually desirable.

Because such non-revolutionary approaches are not in themselves fundamentally different from more or less radical alternatives that seek to reform capitalism a problem arises in distinguishing the proposals of the left parties from those of parties that do not seek to break from capitalism, such as left liberals or in Ireland – Sinn Fein.  As I have argued, this also leaves a strategic gap in perspectives aimed at fundamental transformation of society.

Again to summarise: without adequate preparation and prior strengthening of the working class through building strong trade unions, parties and workers’ cooperatives the fundamental break from the  diktats of capitalism becomes much harder and workers themselves,  as witnessed recently in Greece for example, are unwilling to consider a revolutionary leap.

Strengthening of the state, through state ownership and growing its power by increased taxation and spending does not increase the power of the working class but often leads to increased working class dependency on it.  Such dependency is something that should be argued against, not encouraged either directly or indirectly.  Workers doing it for themselves should be the maxim, not least because state initiatives proposed by the left are almost always national ones that are at best nationalist solutions.  It’s why nationalisation is nation-alisation.

Capitalist state ownership is not socialism and democratising the state does not make it socialist.

On practical grounds the reform of capitalism is easier to consider and to implement when the particular capitalist state is both strong economically and has greater political and social capacity to mobilise and organise wider society.  The relatively weak fundamentals of the native Irish economy reproduced also in the machinery of the Irish state, reflected in its endemic corruption and lack of developmental capacity, make the reformist development of a strong reforming state and dynamic economy less credible and more difficult to achieve.

This was the fundamental problem facing Syriza in Greece when it sought to confront the demands of the European Union led by Germany.  There was no strong Greek capitalism that it could rely upon both to increase the costs to the EU of any measures it might take against Greece or strong economic base on which to venture an alternative international economic strategy outside the EU.   This weakness of Greek capitalism is reflected in Greek consciousness through support for the Euro even while this was portrayed by many as the source of its disaster.

images (12)Similarly in Ireland the weakness of Irish capitalism is reflected in Irish workers acceptance of sycophantic policies towards the richest global corporations while suffering austerity themselves.  It is why the ability of the Irish State to set a low corporation tax and defend this policy against other countries’ opposition is held up as the peak of Irish sovereignty and is by and large accepted as such.

The latter view is in turn reflected in the policies of the left, which proposes not to raise the corporation tax rate but simply ask that the headline rate becomes the effective rate.  The existing rate of 12.5% thus lies below the rate of corporation tax that Thatcher found acceptable in Britain – when she resigned it was well over 30 per cent.  Such modesty must have an explanation.

This is only one aspect of the various proposals of the Left to increase state intervention which, of necessity, take into account the capacity of the capitalist economy to deliver.  We will see this again and again in the next post.

Finally, the necessity for international working class action to achieve socialism is clear when it is appreciated that a radicalised Irish state, even if it was not socialist, would be in a very weak position set against the ranks of the British State, its historic oppressors, occupiers of part of its territory; the European Union and its control of the currency; and the US, not least through its multinationals.  It is well known that the US, in the person of its treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, vetoed haircuts to senior bondholders of the insolvent Irish banks, which would have hugely reduced the burden on Irish workers.

It hardly needs saying that in a socialist society international economic links with the rest of the world will increase and so dependency on the outside world will also increase.  A hostile capitalist world would not see a radical Irish state survive in its radical state very long.

The left’s approach leaves a strategic gap which even the existence of a left Government does not fill because it is not a answer to these problems.  The gap is further evident in the separation (or lack of it) of the left’s proposals from that of non-anti-capitalist forces such as Sinn Fein.  As I have said, fundamentally the difference in proposals between the Left and Sinn Fein is one of degree and not fundamental.  This does not make the differences unimportant but it is not the difference between socialism and ‘progressive’ capitalism.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

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