The Socialist Party and Brexit 3 – Brexit borders and workers’ unity

The Socialist Party has stated that “the unity of working class people is our over-riding priority and we oppose any moves which tend to weaken that unity.”  This post is about the extent to which this is evident in the party’s support for Brexit.

Unity of the working class is not a bad place to start, although in the context of the EU this should mean concern about the unity of workers across Europe.  However, it is in relation to the unity of Ireland’s workers that the Party shows most concern, and then mostly in relation to unity within the North.

The Party points to the potential for increased sectarian tension and division, particularly arising from the possibility of a harder border between North and South or a new one of sorts between Northern Ireland and Britain.

The requirement for a new border arises inevitably from the departure of the UK from the EU and from its Customs Union and Single Market.  The only way to avoid one would be to maintain membership of both and if this were the case it has been correctly argued that there would appear to be no reason to leave the EU in the first place.

Certainly, Socialist Party opposition to the Single Market means that there has to be a border somewhere. To claim otherwise is not only untrue but places the Party alongside the most extreme Tory Brexiteers and DUP, who currently make this absurd claim.  It is therefore not at all true that “any hardening of borders is unnecessary.”  In so far as the Party considers that its opposition to the EU is more fundamental than other supporters of Brexit, the necessity for a border is stronger.

The Party claims that “the Socialist Party will always oppose any deal which is agreed in the interests of capitalism.”  But since any conceivable deal will be in the interests of capitalism this amounts to opposition to any possible deal.  How could the Party expect the hated EU to negotiate any other sort of deal? Even a Corbyn led Government would not seek to negotiate a deal that went beyond the interests of capitalism.

The Party would then be compelled to oppose any Brexit deal, except of course where there was no deal to oppose.  But since no deal is the worst form of Brexit from the point of view of creating borders, not only has the Party’s support for Brexit created the border problem, its opposition to any conceivable deal also pushes it to oppose any deal that would reduce its scope and impact.

The Party is thus led to advocate the cause of the problem it seeks to oppose without any reasonable policy that would prevent or mitigate it.

The Socialist Party notes that “Northern Ireland voted against withdrawing from Europe in the 2016 referendum by 56% to 44%. There was a clear difference in attitudes between Catholics and Protestants: Catholics voted overwhelmingly to stay by a proportion of 85% to 15% while Protestants voted to leave by a proportion of 60% to 40%.”

The Party also notes that “many Catholics, in particular the young, voted for the EU because for them it represents their outward-looking and internationalist approach to the world. This is a positive impulse, shared by many of the young Protestants who voted remain.”

On the other hand, it notes that many Protestants oppose “any East-West border, no matter how minor, [which] has come to represent a threat to the union between Northern Ireland and Britain.”  This opposition is compared to unionist reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and to the “widespread disorder that broke out when a mere emblem of the “Britishness” of Northern Ireland – the union flag over the City Hall in Belfast – was removed.”  Since the latter was clearly a reactionary mobilisation in defence of a symbol of sectarian supremacy it is not explained why such opposition should be conciliated instead of resisted.

The Party believes that “if there is a perception in the coming months and years that the British identity of Northern Ireland is being diminished street protests and street violence cannot be ruled out”, and also seems to believe that this is a legitimate obstacle to be accommodated rather than opposed.  In relation to this, the Party is currently involved in a debate on identity politics, but this capitulation to a form of the most reactionary identity politics should form part of its debate.

The Party has noted that “many Catholics, in particular the young, voted for the EU because for them it represents their outward-looking and internationalist approach to the world. This is a positive impulse, shared by many of the young Protestants who voted remain.”

It would seem obvious then that one basis on which working class unity could be advanced would be to build upon this common view of Brexit, and the positive impulses that have arisen among young Protestants and Catholics.  This certainly looks an infinitely more promising route than trying to build on a Brexit-supporting opposition based on sectarian identity, which has found previous expression in sectarian flag-waving.

Of course, support for Brexit blinds the Socialist Party to this possibility, and even if it didn’t, the Party could not contribute to advancing this potential because it believes that these young people are wrong.  But how does it think it will unite workers on the basis of Brexit?  This is the key question the Party has to answer but it has not even asked.

The Socialist Party and Brexit 2 – part of the programme?

Following economic recession the second possible consequence of Brexit predicted by the Socialist Party is increased division and instability in the North.

Increased division on the island is of course inevitable, since that is the purpose of Brexit – to exit the arrangements that entail the existing unity of the European Union that includes the whole island.  On exit the UK will become a ‘third country’ and the only question is the degree of separation.

Given that left supporters of Brexit see the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union as so harmful to the interests of the working class it must be expected that the sort of Brexit they seek involves a high degree of separation and therefore a meaningful and significant border.

It  doesn’t matter that left supporters of Brexit blame the EU for this – the Socialist Party says that “after a hard Brexit the logic of the workings of the EU is that a hard border would have to be put in place” – the result is the same.  The Party states that “a Labour government should seek to re-open negotiations and demand an entirely different relationship with the EU, based on the interests of working-class people, not the 1%.”

One has to ask however – why would the EU, if it is the irreformable neoliberal construction that is claimed, strike an agreement in the interests of the working class, whatever that might be?  If it were possible there would seem to be little reason to leave in the first place.   Why not use membership to effect such changes for the whole EU instead?

But this is not the perspective of the Socialist Party, which is wedded to a very particular scenario of the way forward, which is “the necessity of a left government having to carry through a rupture with capitalism and adopting a socialist programme.” This “rupture” with capitalism is to be achieved through the “democratic public ownership of the key sectors of the economy”; i.e. through nationalisation supported by the mass activity of the working class.  This must be carried out by each state separately as nationalisation is by definition the action of an individual state.

This essentially nationalist approach to socialism lies behind the Party’s support for Brexit.  At the immediate level this perspective takes shape in the following expected results:

“Socialists in Ireland would welcome the return of a Labour government in Britain. If such a government were to adopt a position of socialist opposition to the EU this would transform the situation. Corbyn should speak over the heads of the Commission, reaching out to working class people across Europe in rejecting neo-liberal rules, calling for co-ordinated action for Green Energy on a Europe wide basis, and popularising a socialist vision of Europe. A left Labour government would be able to call on workers throughout the continent to fight the ‘race to the bottom’ in their own countries and mobilise against attempts by their own governments or the EU to pursue punitive measures against other workers whether in Britain or elsewhere.”

Why a left movement in Britain would be more powerful in reaching out to the rest of Europe’s workers by leaving the EU, instead of remaining and seeking unity of the workers’ movement across Europe, is unexplained.  But this is precisely what supporters of Brexit would need to demonstrate – why an exit was necessary and why it would be more successful in achieving wider European unity. How would leaving assist “co-ordinated action for Green Energy on a Europe wide basis” for example?

Unity of Europe’s workers, through its trade unions, works councils, political parties and workers’ cooperatives is possible but it is made easier by being within a common EU framework, in which Europe’s capitalist classes are seeking their own form of unity.  Only from a perspective in which the rupture with capitalism must first come from national governments in each individual capitalist state is it possible to simply assume without argument that international workers’ unity must follow this and not be immanent from the start.

So at an abstract level the Socialist Party maintains its international socialist credentials by considering such unity only as an end result after almost all the problems have previously been solved:

“Socialists are in favour of a genuinely united Europe. This will only be possible when the socialist transformation of society allows the coming together of nations of Europe in a democratic, European-wide confederation.”

The Party considers its approach to be consistent with the approach of the transitional programme as codified by Leon Trotsky.  This can be stated rather briefly as a programme fought for by a revolutionary party that starts from today’s objective conditions and from the existing level of consciousness of the working class.  It demonstrates through the demands raised in today’s struggles the necessity to take ever more radical measures that culminate in the working class seeing the need for, and being organised to achieve, socialist revolution.

This is the transition that the programme is meant to achieve, as opposed to demands that simply reform aspects of capitalism but do not fundamentally change it, and the maximum programme which demands this fundamental change through demands for socialism and socialist revolution.

There are lots of issues bundled within such a view, and lots of Trotskyists who would hotly dispute that the Socialist Party’s version is consistent with Trotsky’s programme, but that is not what I want to discuss here.  Rather it is to question how support for Brexit can possibly be seen as being part of any transitional approach.  I have written many posts on why I think socialists should oppose Brexit so the purpose here is a much narrower one and is confined to the role that supporting Brexit plays in the Socialist Party’s politics.

The first problem in the Party’s support for Brexit is that it then either abstains or is confused on just what this policy entails.  So it says that:

“We say that whatever way the different capitalist vested interests resolve their business dispute, it must be done without any physical or repressive borders.”

So having voted for a Brexit, to be determined by a reactionary Tory Government and EU bureaucracy, the Party leaves it for these capitalist interests to decide what it means, to ‘resolve’ the issues (within certain limits).  How does this engage the working class in seeking to impose its own solutions?

The view that a Corbyn led Government could simply re-negotiate all the bad neo-liberal rules away and leave the same market access is even more delusional than the Boris Johnson idea that Great Britain can get Johnny foreigner to allow it to have cake and eat it.  Does the Socialist Party really think Jeremy Corbyn could negotiate away the bad bits of the Single Market and customs union for the whole EU, or even just for the UK? And if it was just for the UK, would this not mean that there wasn’t really a Single Market? And if only for the UK, what then for the rest of Europe’s workers, including the Irish?

Would those Irish workers not within the UK have to await its own left government, one that is not on the horizon, before it too would attempt to copy any Corbyn success? Or would it not make a lot more sense for a left Labour government in the UK to fight within the EU alongside allies across the continent, including in the Irish State?

Since we don’t have a left Labour Government in Britain or the short-term prospect of one in Ireland, what is the policy that the workers movement should fight for right now to make Brexit a ‘good’ Brexit, or does silence on this indicate that one does not exist?

So, the first problem is that the Socialist Party has advocated a policy of Brexit for which it has no concrete idea how to give any progressive content.

In an instinctive reaction against their own sterility members of the Party have made a virtue out of their impotence and argued that no positive policies should be put forward in this situation, but instead only negative demands:

“Deliberately not putting forward positive demands, or advocating a particular arrangement post-Brexit, has been correct, and broadly remains correct however. There are issues on which it is not for the worker’s movement to come forward with solutions which address the concerns of the ruling class, and in the main this is one such.”

But of course, a content will be given to Brexit and it will be a wholly reactionary one, and it is really not good enough to vote for a reactionary policy, saying it is progressive and a step forward, and then be unable to build positive demands out of it and arising from it.

The final illustration that the policy of Brexit has no place in any socialist programme is that the Socialist Party is totally silent on the most obvious of questions.  If Brexit is the right policy for the British working class, indeed for all the workers of the EU, why does the Party not follow up on the ‘success’ in Britain and call for the Irish State to leave the EU as well?

It would appear no one in the Party wants to do this, but it is not because they all believe it is wrong. Instead they have saddled themselves with a policy that they dare not proclaim. Every argument defending Brexit and every claim that it is necessary is but another demonstration of the dishonesty of the Party to workers that it proclaims require its leadership – because it is not actually asking the workers to follow it.  It is not leading but hiding.

Once again, the political impotence of the policy is so clear that it cannot be replicated: the nationalist nature of it imposes its own logic regardless of the left illusions of its supporters.  There is no transitional content whatsoever.

Brexit has thus exposed fundamental flaws in the state-socialist programme of the Party, a programme which identifies socialism with state ownership and the route to working class power with governmental office.  Since the state is a nation state this almost inevitably involves conceiving of socialism, and the road to it, in national terms.  And so the Party gets it totally wrong when it comes to key international questions such as the European Union and Brexit.

In the final post I will look at the national question and how the Party’s policy on Brexit fails the challenge of uniting Ireland’s workers.

 

The Irish Socialist Party and Brexit 1

The Irish Socialist Party, in common with the Socialist Workers and Communist Party, is a supporter of Brexit.  What makes its particular position worth discussing is the way it brings to the fore the consequences.

In an article last year the Socialist Party writer is right about these economic consequences. He writes that  “a sudden and sharp economic shock would result . . . an economic recession would almost certainly follow. . .  a fall in living standards would be most likely, as inflation would rise and wages fall in real terms. If the hard-right Brexiteers are by then the dominant force in the Tory government workers are right to fear a race to the bottom and attempts to create a low-tax, low-wage, unregulated economy.”

Yet none of this prevented the Party from supporting Brexit and being the force behind the union I am a member of endorsing it, much to the surprise of many of its members.  Given that it is the job of trade unions to prevent and resist such attacks it seems incredible that a trade union would invite them, but that is where we are.

In full awareness of these consequences the Socialist Party has said that “an emergency conference, with the widest participation of workers’ representatives from workplaces across Ireland, North and South, must be convened, in order to allow a full democratic discussion on how to best oppose both the EU and the attacks of the Fine Gael and Tory governments.”

As it makes clear, it is attacks from the British Government which will be the most immediate and swingeing and unfortunately while Brexit may be coming, there is no sign of the workers’ conference.  This should not come as a surprise.

The Socialist Party will know that Irish workers, particularly in the North, are not in a position to fight the effects of Brexit through any sort of militant action that might provide some minimal chance of success.  In the North the Stormont administration was able to impose years of austerity, real wage cuts and thousands of redundancies in the public sector with little difficulty.  Effective resistance to a much greater offensive can therefore hardly be anticipated with any degree of confidence.

What should have been expected instead is that, faced with such a threat, socialists in the trade unions would have opposed Brexit.  Certainly not invite the attack and then rely on a working class response.  This does not absolve socialists from now arguing for such a resistance, but it behoves us to have prevented it in the first place if we could. It is one thing to be up a creek without a paddle trying to do one’s best, and quite another to have wilfully decided to go up the creek and throw away the paddle.

There is some sort of argument in the article justifying support for Brexit through the remark that “workers’ rights have been won through struggle, and will be defended through struggle”; while we should have no illusions in the EU to defend our rights.

Unfortunately, while at a very general level it is true that workers’ rights will be won and defended through struggle, this is only a partial truth.  In other words, we have to ask ourselves whether in this particular situation and at this particular time – how do we defend working class interests?

It must therefore be recognised that at this particular time it happens to be the case, as the Socialist Party itself has acknowledged, that the EU is demanding that the:

“UK must observe “level playing field” commitments on competition, state aid, employment and environmental standards and tax. All of this is designed to ensure that UK businesses are not able to undercut EU industry. Brussels has also demanded “dynamic alignment” on state aid, which would oblige the UK parliament to simply cut and paste EU regulations as they are issued. “Non-regression clauses” will prevent the UK from bringing in lower standards on social, environmental and labour regulations such as working hours. These requirements are anathema to Tory Brexiteers, for whom leaving the EU represents an opportunity to head towards a low-tax, light-regulation economy such as that seen in Singapore.”

So at this particular time the EU, for its own reasons and purposes, wants to prevent the attacks on workers in the UK that Brexit is designed to carry out.  This is not to sow illusions in the EU but to accept the reality that the Socialist Party has recognised.

The argument put by the Party is that the rules of the EU prevent the British working class from moving forward. And this is true as far as it goes, as far as these rules – such as those relating to state aid – exist and can be applied.  There is certainly a debate as to the extent that this may be the case, while there is also the potential to struggle to change these rules or prevent their application.

But all this is also true of the rules of the British State.  Along with the other Member States it has major responsibility for the EU rules to which socialists object.  It makes no sense to prefer these Member States to the EU on such grounds.  Thatcherism’ is not a French or German word.  The anti-trade union laws, privatisation and austerity are as much British as EU creations, and what delivered the historic defeats of the British working class was not the EU but the British State.

There is an ancillary question whether, given Brexit, it is even possible to suggest that British workers today can take big strides forward, rather than accept that in such a situation the questions before them relate to defending rights and living standards already achieved.  The Socialist Party itself makes it clear that Brexit does not herald a period of advance but the necessity to organise defence on a scale not seen for a long time.

That is why the debate about Brexit has been about Brexit, about its effects, and not at all about how the British working class can move forward to take advantage of it.  So rather than call for a conference to resist these attacks it would have been far better to head them off before they could begin.

The idea of an all-island workers’ conference is a good one, but it is currently only a good idea.  Given the level of struggle and organisation of the Irish working class it was, and is, unrealistic to expect such a conference to both emerge and be adequate to the tasks that it would face. We know this from the inability of the working class to effectively resist the attacks it already faces, never mind a whole raft of new ones.

We cannot have expected the Irish trade union movement to organise such a conference, since it would not do so over water charges in the South. When sections of it did organise on this issue, they did so in their usual bureaucratic manner, which cripples a movement’s capacity before it has even started.

For the Irish Congress of Trade Unions there is no need for an all-island workers’ conference because that is considered, and indeed should be, the role of ICTU itself.  If the socialist movement is unable to turn the existing all-island organisation towards addressing the tasks presented by Brexit there can hardly be much reason to believe it would be able to create a real alternative from scratch.  Already ICTU has surrendered and accepted Theresa May’s take on what Brexit should mean and has abandoned opposition.

In any case, one of the first questions that would be posed to socialist organisations at such a conference would be why they supported Brexit in the first place?

One final point is worth making here in relation to the defense of workers’ living standards.  It is not true that only working class struggle can advance working class living standards.  Capitalism itself has given rise to increased living standards, with the potential for much greater increases in the future, and it is just such circumstances that Marxists believe gives rise to the potential for a socialist alternative.

This is an elementary Marxist understanding of capitalism and socialism but it is not one that, having accepted it for ‘theoretical’ purposes, one can then ignore it for political ones.  The dynamics of the capitalist system through which Marx believed this to be the case are still at work and must be taken into account.  Our opposition to capitalism comes from our understanding that there is a more progressive alternative, and not simply from the iniquities or barbarities of the current system, which can only finally be condemned if there is an alternative.

What this means in relation to the current situation is that Brexit is an attempt of one country to reverse the development of capitalism and reverse the international socialisation of production that has characterised it for many decades. It seeks that one country can compete with a much larger bloc on the basis of free market principles more applicable to the 19th century.  It is therefore wholly reactionary even from a modern capitalist viewpoint, and is an attempt to go backwards rather than forwards.

It is not in the interests of the working class to revert to an earlier stage of capitalism where, for example, regulations are torn up to the benefit of those capitalists willing and able to ignore them.  It is not to our benefit to see the costs of our labour power such as health and education imposed on individual workers as opposed to the socialisation of such costs by the capitalist state through organisations such as the National Health Service. It is not in our interest to heighten national division through greater separation of nation states in Europe, when such previous division has only resulted in alliances of the biggest powers in aggressive competition with each other.  Such alliances do not result in the freedom and independence of smaller nations but their subordination within the alliances of the great powers.

This is why the EU is a more advanced form of capitalist formation than a Europe of separate nation states and why the illusions of Brexit in Britain are the illusions of an earlier period of British capitalism and British history.

Of course the EU is a representation of big business.  Such multinational capital is a more advanced form of capitalism than the small private businesses of the 19th century.  Small business has no interest in regulations which it considers to be costly red tape, or minimum employment regulation, or environmental regulation or socialisation of its costs, which it would seek not to incur in any event.

The biggest companies however require state regulation, and regulation that covers multiple state jurisdictions, so that it can produce at the mass scale in as many markets across Europe as possible.  This requires uniform regulations to standardise production, while other costs are externalised and socialised such as health and education, provided by the state or by other private capitals.

This is why, as the Socialist Party says, the EU seeks:

“level playing field” commitments on competition, state aid, employment and environmental standards and tax. All of this is designed to ensure that UK businesses are not able to undercut EU industry. Brussels has also demanded “dynamic alignment” on state aid, which would oblige the UK parliament to simply cut and paste EU regulations as they are issued. “Non-regression clauses” will prevent the UK from bringing in lower standards on social, environmental and labour regulations such as working hours. These requirements are anathema to Tory Brexiteers, for whom leaving the EU represents an opportunity to head towards a low-tax, light-regulation economy such as that seen in Singapore.”

Were we simply anti-capitalists then it might be the case that we would not care which of these variants of capitalism we lived under.  But this is obviously not the case since we oppose austerity and fight in the short term for a different configuration of capitalism than the one austerity would impose.  Because we are socialists it is the development of capitalism, not its retrogression, which allows us to realistically put forward the alternative of socialism, and Brexit and our opposition to it is a demonstration of this.

In the next post I will look at how Brexit fits into the overall programme of the Socialist Party.

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 3

2014-10-18_iri_4011307_I1An old military maxim is that no battle plan survives engagement with the enemy.  And so it proved when the Government thought it could impose water charges on a population ground down by austerity. Unfortunately for them a sizeable section of the Irish working class decided it had had enough and that this was one bite of austerity that wouldn’t be taken.

As I said in a previous post, it began to appear in the last few months that this was a battle the Government was losing.  The announcement of further drastic changes to the Government’s plans this past week suggests that this is even truer now.

The charge that was provisionally priced at €176 in July is now €60 and is €160 for households with two or more adults – if the charge is paid and an absurdly name conservation rebate of €100 is claimed.  The cap on charges will be in place until the end of 2018 with the promise of continuing caps thereafter.  The introduction of charges is postponed for three months to January 2015; late/non payment penalties will be €30 for a single adult and €60 for other households.  PPS numbers will not be required and trickle water restrictions will not be imposed, with promises that court action will not be taken against non-payment.  Privatisation of Irish Water is off the agenda with other promises that legislation will be introduced to require a plebiscite before such action could be taken in future.

The Right2Water campaign noted “that the level of charges has been significantly reduced” and the Socialist Party TD Ruth Coppinger, interviewed on RTE Six One News, noted that they were low.  The Socialist Party has claimed that the non-payment charges will kick in at the time of the next general election and will become the major issue within the election campaign but then make the argument that the Government won’t be able to impose them.

The argument of the campaign is that the water charges need to be scrapped, that promises of future low levels of charging are worthless, that Irish Water should either be scraped as well or else it should be retained in ‘public’ ownership, and that promises not to privatise it are also worth nothing.

The argument can also be put that for many working people €160 is €160 they already can’t afford and for others it will tip them significantly into financial hardship.  The amount is not a lot but its impact is so much more painful the less it can be afforded.

None of this however may be enough; for now it is the campaign that is faced with its battle plan’s survival after further engagement with the enemy.  A campaign that has highlighted the cost of water charges and the tactic of non-payment now has to answer when the cost has been significantly reduced and a credible promise is made that it will not be increased quickly.  Can the campaign be maintained and can it grow and develop?

The current weakness of enforcement measures means that non-payment may not immediately have the intimidatory effect that they might have had, but the flip side of this is that the cost of paying for many is no longer prohibitive.  As I noticed in the previous post, given European Commission clearance the amount of money involved for the State is not unmanageable.  It can afford to retreat on this.

So as things stand the victory is not complete, but then no success is ever permanent until the final victory.  One small part of austerity has been rolled back but the decisive question is how the success that has been achieved can be copper fastened and advanced.

There is no silver bullet as an answer to this question or even a combination of answers such as sunlight, garlic and a wooden stake through the heart of the vampire.

But we do know that the answer lies with those who have been mobilised in the Right2Water campaign and the militant and active campaigns that have been organised at a local level.

The immediate requirement is to make the campaign a real coherent movement with democratic functioning so that all those involved can contribute to deciding what their collective attitude is to the Government’s concessions and what they are going to do next.  No one is going to decide for them. If they have the power to put the Government into disarray they should and must have the power to make their own decisions.  See the initiative launched here.

It is likely the case that the issue of water charging is still the struggle that will unite active opposition to austerity and that other issues might accrete to the campaign at a local level but cannot do so as part of an overall policy unless and until the democratic organisation into a State-wide campaign has been achieved.

Time now gained can be used to campaign among the trade unions and workers to boycott and black charging and create a real campaign against water charging within the union movement.

Despite the reduction in charges there is no reason that non-payment should not be a part of the campaign.  It should not however be allowed to become a means of dividing those opposed to the charges and should not be made into a loyalty test of opposition.

This does not exclude putting it up to political parties to state their policy.  It is not the views of individual TDs or councillors that is the issue.  It is a political question, a question of tactics not a moral obligation that failure to live up to will mean eternal damnation.

Some on the left appear to want membership cards, justifying it by reference to the Labour Party having subscription charges.  I think this is misplaced and the necessity of having an organisation to belong to i.e. a real democratic state-wide organisation comes before the levying of membership charges.  Membership of what and what are my rights of membership in this organisation would be the first questions if a membership card was put in front of me

The comparison with Labour raises the question whether the campaign can be treated as a political party or at least a political vehicle that stands in elections.  This is a question particularly exercised by the Left whose reformist politics leaves no conception of an alternative to electoral intervention, tailor made as it is to sectarian competition.

The failure of the Left to unite despite minimal political differences disqualifies them as adequate vehicles for the workers involved in the campaign to join as a means for electoral intervention.

In relation to the water charges electoralism only has meaning if it has the potential to see those opposed to charges become a majority in the Dail. But even this is not enough since it has become obvious that the charges could be abolished with little respite from the rest of the austerity agenda.   Standing in an election requires an alternative to this and as I have posted before, the Left doesn’t have this alternative.

In this respect the weakness that is exposed by elections – that an anti-austerity majority will not be elected – means that a full political programme is not required for electoral intervention.  We won’t be the Government so we don’t need to pretend we will.

But this means understanding the limits of the intervention and not seeking to provide comprehensive answers that are thereby comprehensively wrong.  A more limited programme would make clear that the elections are subordinated to the campaign rather than the Left which has a shameful history of subordinating the campaign to electoral intervention.

This is therefore the first reason why the elections are important (although they should not form the basis of a timetable for activity now).  They allow an opportunity for the campaign to grow and develop; for the election to produce a bigger campaign at the end of it and not for the campaign to produce a bigger number of TDs.

The second aspect of this is that when the elections arrive they will be the biggest task facing the opposition to austerity and they therefore need an intervention by those opposed to it.  The scale and political programme that this challenge to austerity will pose will be determined by the political development of the campaign between now and the election.  This is another reason why a functioning campaign must be created as quickly as possible.

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 2


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The demonstrations against the water charges last Saturday showed that the Right2Water campaign is supported by local groups in towns and cities right across the State.  This grass-roots organisation is a reflection of the strength of feeling among the working class and is its greatest political strength.  It is not the creation or front of one or other, or even the whole collection, of political groups although they are deeply involved.

It is united in total opposition to the charges and to the tactic of non-payment and it should expect to be challenged by the State on both.  Concessions by the Government will be offered in the next days and afterwards stronger tactics will be employed against those who remain in opposition, if they can be sufficiently isolated.  This is always the way it works.  Every carrot is followed by a stick.

The various organisations involved in the campaign have put forward their own perspectives for the way forward.  By looking at the leaflets given out at the demonstration last Saturday I want to review what they are proposing.

Sinn Fein put out a leaflet ‘Stop the Water Charges’ which promises to reverse water charges when in Government, which rather admits it will be in some form of coalition with one of the capitalist parties after the election.  Otherwise it has little to offer those who want to see the charges scrapped.  Simply waiting for a new Government on the other hand is something that would paralyse and then kill the campaign.

Sinn Fein claims in the leaflet that it blocked the introduction of water charges in the North.  As Eamonn McCann noted in his article in ‘The Irish Times’ I referred to in the previous post – all four main parties in the North have claimed the credit for not introducing water charges.

Eamonn McCann claims “that it was a mass non-payment campaign that prevented the introduction of water charges by Stormont in 2007.” As someone who went round doors helping to organise meetings and speaking at them I know this is, unfortunately, not true.  There were numerous campaigns but none of them had a mass character and lots of signatures on a pledge of non-payment doesn’t make a mass campaign.  Meetings were usually small and when candidates from the Left stood on anti-water charges tickets they generally got the same derisory vote they always got.

The parties in the new Stormont regime did indeed refuse to introduce water charges because it was very unpopular with their own supporters, and it was something that they could manage without – so they did mange without.

The Socialist Party leaflet doesn’t mention it’s a Socialist Party leaflet but hides itself, as usual, behind some party front; this time it’s the ‘We won’t pay Campaign.’  Since it already dominates the Anti-Austerity Alliance, this method of organisation it appears wedded to wouldn’t seem to be useful even to the SP.

The leaflet is however very good at putting the case for non-payment and explaining the position of the State and the legal implications of the tactic.  It looks back to the successful water charges campaign in the mid-1990s but provides no indication that the lessons of more recent failures such as the anti-bin tax campaign have been assimilated.

The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet also argues strongly for non-payment and advises on the real situation that non-payers will face.  It is also honest enough to explain the counter-measures that the State could adopt to thwart the non-payment tactic, but then also points out the problems this would give to the State.

So the State could deduct the charge from wages or benefits but this would require a change in the law and would make it impossible to privatise Irish Water, which they say is the primary reason for imposing water charges.  On this I am unconvinced.  Charging is necessary in order to raise revenue to reduce the budget deficit, meet demands from the Troika and get the debts of the company and its future debts off the Government’s balance sheet so its debt ratio looks better.  Direct State intervention to make deductions from salaries and benefits go against this project whether privatisation is hoped for in the future or not.

That the amounts might today be relatively small does not invalidate this view but does raise the point that retreat on the issue by the Government would not involve an enormous monetary cost.

In any case we should not lose sight of the fact that it is under public ownership that this attack on workers is taking place and it is under public ownership that the water service has been a disgrace with flooding, poor water quality and leakage at atrocious levels for years.

Public ownership is a euphemism for State ownership and is misleading because the public don’t actually own it and don’t, as we can see, have any say over how it is managed or run.  There is no need to bum up the benefits of such ownership when it’s not the socialist alternative.

With this in mind, calls for a referendum to prevent privatisation might allow some to avoid taking a strong position on opposing the charges.  It is not that surprising that Jack O’Connor appears on the television supporting the call for a referendum while SIPTU fails to back the Right2Water campaign.  SIPTU members should challenge its leadership on this failure and anti-water charges campaigners should stand outside Liberty House demanding the union’s support.

The Socialist Workers Party issued a leaflet from its own political front – People before Profit, practicing the politics of feeble reformism that it condemns in its other publications.  It has its own euphemisms that it uses to straddle the contradiction.  So it calls for ‘people power’ instead of teaching Irish workers that the people are divided into classes and that the power and interests of the working class are different from those of the people who belong to the capitalist class.

This way of approaching politics allows the issue of class to be side-lined and, for example, the class nature of the state ignored, so that the State can be called upon to provide solutions; such as their leaflet calling for taking ‘Ireland’s natural resources into public ownership’.  Like Irish Water?

The leaflet also appears to call fort a general strike on 10th December but doesn’t have the courage of its convictions to say so.  On the usefulness of this demand see a previous post.  It calls for a ‘revolt’ but it’s not clear if this means revolution or is something short of it and what this might be.

The fear of using socialist terms to define socialist concepts and therefore a socialist programme and strategy sits in opposition to what appears as a hyping of the existing struggle.  So the leaflet says that ‘the battle against water charges is part of a wider revolt.’

If only it were.

Its importance however is not that it is part of a wider revolt, but that it is the exception to the rule of general working class passivity and acceptance of austerity.  Its wider political significance is actually that it might herald the start of a wider resistance.  But then the question is how do we achieve this, or can we?  Not that it already exists.

The article in ‘The Irish Times’ noted that one reason behind the anti-water charges campaign was that the people cannot “give any more” and “the people have been pushed too far.”  The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet notes that ‘hundreds of thousands of people are now saying ‘No More’”. In other words many workers have decided that they won’t pay this bill.  They have not decided to stop paying the price of austerity they are already paying or perhaps new ones that will heaped on them in the future should the new boom prove temporary.

If the strength of the campaign is its local organisation then an effective national campaign structure would help to leverage that strength to support activity in weaker areas or where no campaign currently exist.  Above all such a structure should provide for democratic accountability to the members of those speaking for the national campaign.  It would provide the means by which a collective view can be determined and publicised on such things as the response to whatever partial concessions the Government dreams up to stifle opposition.

At this stage it would not appear to advance the overall struggle against austerity to demand that the campaign take on wider objectives.  It is clearer however that at some stage it should.  The best grounds on which to do so would be success in defeating the water charges.  Such a step however needs preparation now for an extension of the objectives of the campaign down the line.

Fighting tax increases, cuts to public services and cuts to wages and welfare will not be easy and the tactic of sitting tight involved in ‘we won’t pay’ is obviously not an answer to these.  A debate on what we are for and how we might build it is also just as necessary, if not more so.

A second tactic is to stand in elections and electoral intervention is now the favoured method of moving forward by Sinn Fein and most of the Left groups.  The latter confidently argue that the former will betray the hopes of their supporters, and Sinn Fein’s support for austerity budgets in the North is all the confirmation one needs for this argument.

Unfortunately the Left’s own claims are hardly consistent either.   They regularly denounce the capitalist state but their programme fully relies on it doing what they want.  On this blog I have posted numerous times on how their support for capitalist state ownership and taxation of the rich are not socialist and won’t work.  In other words they would effectively end up betraying their supporters were they in office just as effectively as Sinn Fein.  Sincere intentions don’t enter into it.

At the more immediate level the Left does not provide an example to follow.  The anti-water charges campaign relies on unity and agreement on total opposition to the charges in any form.  Any sense by its supporters that it did not respond to their feelings and demands would see it lose support.

Unfortunately the Left has a culture of manipulation and a lack of critical and free debate within its ranks.  It regularly calls for workers’ unity while being utterly incapable of unity within its own ranks.  In fact in this respect it has gone backwards, with the demise of what limited unity there was in the United Left Alliance.  It is simply incapable of containing within its present organisation and politics any mass radicalisation of workers.

A potential for radicalisation arises from the sudden upsurge against water charges, posing the need for increased organisation and politicisation of the campaign.  A victory is possible, giving rise to the possibility of further advances and the need to debate now how these could be achieved.