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Column: What’s happening to left-wing parties in Ireland?

A significant impact of Labour being in government is the failure of left-wing ideas and alternatives to austerity to gain further popular support, writes Dr Rory Hearne.

Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

GIVEN THE RECENT departure of the Socialist Party from the United Left Alliance (ULA) the progress of the ‘Left’ in Ireland is under the spotlight again. With the increase in issues affecting people across the country such as unemployment, poverty and deprivation, bank and mortgage debt, emigration etc, the question being asked is why is the radical left and opposition social movements espousing a ‘left-wing’ or ‘progressive’ agenda of greater equality, social justice, and democracy, not growing in Ireland – as has happened with the emergence of new left parties in Greece (Syrizia) and growing opposition in Spain and Portugal?

Potential historic impact of election result

Firstly, we must return to the historic 2011 general election where left wing parties and independents almost doubled their representation in the Dail, from 34 to 62 TDs. In Irish terms, it was correct to classify this is as a political revolution, given the historic growth in support for the left. There was, at that point, an opportunity to fundamentally realign Irish politics along left/right or conservative/progressive lines. However, on reflection, the Labour Party undermined the potential historic impact of the election result by entering, as the minority partner, into coalition government with the Fine Gael.

Had Labour stayed in opposition and forced the two right-wing parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to coalesce, they would have lead a predominantly left opposition with significant potential to gain enough support to become the first left-wing government in Ireland after the election of 2016. Labour’s decision was a continuation along the well-trodden historical path of mainstream left-wing politics in Ireland. Labour only had to look at its own history, and that of the recent Green Party, to see what happens in these cases. The smaller left-wing party ends up promoting and implementing the agenda of the bigger right-wing party, thus reducing the people’s confidence and belief in what left parties can do in government and, resulting in the electoral collapse of the left-wing party in the following election. This is happening to Labour in government today.

It appears that Sinn Fein, as the next largest ‘left’ party, are gaining support from Labour’s demise and we are likely to witness at the 2016 general election Sinn Fein gaining enough seats to play a key role in the formation of the next government. While Sinn Fein are presenting strong opposition and left-wing policies currently, they have not ruled out coalition government with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, and their experience at compromise in Northern Ireland would suggest they could join a government with one of the two right wing parties, despite some significant opposition within their own ranks. Or, will Sinn Fein do what Labour didn’t in 2011 and remain in opposition until it can gain enough support, along with what’s left of Labour and Independents to lead a ‘left’ wing government in 2021?

Alternatives to austerity not explored

A significant impact of Labour being in government is the failure of left wing ideas and alternatives to austerity to gain further popular support. This is, in part, because of Labour’s acceptance, support and promotion of the current establishment discourse which determines that the government’s overriding priority is to implement austerity in order to meet our deficit targets and pay the bank debt that isn’t ours in order to gain ECB approval and the confidence of the international financial markets.

Thus we will be able to borrow again on international markets and regain our, so-called, ‘national sovereignty’. Apart from the reality that recent EU treaties and the discipline of the international markets mean there will be very little economic sovereignty left when we exit the bailout, these policies are to be pursued irrespective of their social costs. Thus it justifies the devastation being caused to the poor, the vulnerable, much-needed public services, and our society and economy.

The support for this course, despite objections within the Labour Party, has made it more difficult for alternative policy options such as taxing wealth, stimulus employment programmes, and maintaining public spending, to be given air time and legitimacy, as the largest ‘left’ party in the state is spending a lot of its time dismissing and disagreeing with them. Labour’s rightward shift to the centre does also reflect a similar trend in recent decades of social democratic parties across Europe.

Quiet trade unions

Another influential factor on left-wing alternatives not increasing support in the post-election period is the quiescence of the trade unions and their support for a social partnership approach in the various Croke Park agreements. This is in contrast to other bail out countries where the trade unions are playing a central role in increasing support for left wing alternatives and opposition, leading mobilisations and highlighting that there are alternatives to austerity. But here, while they do support the likes of the Nevin Institute, and protests such as those set to take place this Saturday, and there are the likes of Unite and Mandate taking a ‘left wing’ position, overall the largest parts of the trade union movement are focused on maintaining industrial peace as part of the narrative of austerity is necessary to regain our economic sovereignty.

It is better, they argue, to be inside influencing negotiations. This parallels the Labour Party argument that it is better to be in Government having some influence over procedures. However, the question being raised by many Labour Party and trade union members is whether or not it has reached the point where this strategy has become self-defeating and is inflicting social hardship beyond what is acceptable to these organisations.

They ask how does implementing and acquiescing to policies resulting in tens of thousands of educated young people being forced to emigrate, a youth unemployment rate of 30 per cent , one in five households without an adult employed, cuts to vital public services such as home helps or the  regeneration of disadvantaged areas (36 per cent reduction in funding on 2011 and a 10.7 per cent reduction in funding for the Local Community Development Programme from 2011) - fit with Labour’s left wing values such as equality, and trade union principles of solidarity and socialism?

Support growing

Interestingly, recent evidence shows a growing proportion of Irish people would support Labour and the Trade Unions in pursuing more radical, oppositional ‘left-wing’ policies. There are regular protests across the country about hospital closures, cuts to home helps, and local development issues, while 50 per cent, around 800,000, of people who were eligible to pay the household charge did not pay it initially.

The results of the Fiscal Treaty referendum in June last year demonstrated the growing opposition in working class and poor areas. There was 70 per cent support for the referendum in middle-class areas while no votes of up to 85 and 90 per cent in traditionally disadvantaged areas such as Ballymun were recorded. A 2010 survey by the think tank TASC revealed that 87 per cent of respondents believed wealth is unfairly distributed while a poll prior to last December’s budget showed that 88 per cent of people wanted a tax for those earning over €100,000.

It is clearly time for the left to take a hard look at what it stands for.

Rory Hearne, is a community worker, policy analyst, occasional lecturer and has been active in social movements for many years. His book on Public Private Partnerships in Ireland: Failed Experiment or the Way Forward for the State was published by Manchester University Press in 2011. He is involved with the Claiming our Future, social movement – to find out more go to

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About the author:

Dr Rory Hearne

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