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Opinion: The left is not inspiring any confidence that it can challenge the status quo

The left-wing parties failed to progress the ideas behind Right2Change – so potential voters stayed at home, writes Cillian Doyle.

Image: Sam Boal

WITHER THE FORCES of the Irish left?

It was with some sadness, but not complete surprise, that I watched last weekend’s election results unfold.

For those on the left, beyond the complete failure of the covertly racist campaigns of certain well-satirised individuals, there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about.

Indeed, there was much cause for concern.

Beginning with the European election: Lynn Boylan lost her seat despite doing a fine job on issues like Irish neutrality. Two of the Dail’s best performers, when it came to issues like the treatment of the whistleblower Maurice McCabe as well as NAMA and the Vulture Funds – Clare Daly and Mick Wallace – have become political expatriates.

However, it was the results of the local elections that really set alarm bells ringing. The fact that Fianna Fail overtook Fine Gael as the largest party is largely irrelevant for those who see little distinction between the two.

What is significant is that the Civil War parties both increased their number of seats from 2014. Together they’re commanding more than 50% of the voting public, meaning this duopoly (monopoly?) looks set to endure.

We’ve glimpsed the future and it looks awfully like the past.

With the parties of the ancien régime reclaiming lost ground, a once insurgent left now seems to be in retreat.

There were losses for People Before Profit, the Socialist party and Sinn Fein. The Workers’ party also lost the seat of one of its sitting councillors, EU election candidate, Eilis Ryan. 

Issues

Despite some tremendous work by these councillors over the last few years, fighting hard on issues like housing, and often with a better record on the environment than the now resurgent Green Party, these voices will now be absent from our councils at a time when they are needed most.

How can this be? The results of the recent referendums indicated that we’ve certainly become more progressive with regard to social issues – does the same not hold for economic ones?

The RTÉ/TG4 exit poll showed that 89% of people said they favoured more progressive policies to reduce the inequality gap, while 77% said they favoured a United Ireland and yet those parties most closely associated with those ideals seem to be the ones who were punished.

The Labour Party, displaying its characteristic lack of self-awareness, blamed the Greens for its poor performance.

The left has to do better than blaming non-voters too. It is time they asked themselves the difficult question – why did their core constituency not turn out?

2014 was the second-lowest turnout in the history of local elections, yet in just five years that shameful record was surpassed.

The left is not inspiring confidence among its supporters that it can challenge the status quo, nor is it instilling fear into its opponents that it offers a threat to their established power.

Prior to the election a report by Fitch, the big credit rating agency, stated that ‘we do not believe that any of the forthcoming pressure points have the potential to undermine broader political stability [in Ireland]’.

In other words, they don’t see the prospect of a government that isn’t led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael for the foreseeable future.

That is hardly a sign of the ruling classes trembling at the thought of a proletarian revolution. 

The road not taken

Parties of the left are right to avoid a narrow focus on electoral politics, choosing instead to concentrate their energy on building social movements.

However, elections can be a measure of the success of those social movements and judging by that standard something has clearly gone wrong.

Over the last decade of austerity we’ve had mobilisations against the Household Charge, the Property Tax; there was the Irish Congress of Trade Unions march against austerity and many others.

This pattern of mobilising and then demobilising around different campaigns helped to throw sand in the gears of the machine, but it rarely threatened to stop it from functioning.

It was only with the Right2Water did we see the potential for the emergence of an alternative bloc that could channel the energy and resources of the various participants into a viable movement which might challenge for power.

Of course, complete agreement on the final destination that each wanted to reach was never likely, but at the very least there should have been no disagreement that we all wanted to move in the same direction.

The broad principles outlined in the Right2Change, decided through democratic participation, offered the best opportunity for this.

But as so often has been the case in the past, at the final moment we form a tight-knit circle with the guns pointing inwards – and then we fire.

For parties that stress the importance of people power, when a mass movement manifests itself, in the way that the Right2Water and Right2Change did, but is then allowed to vanish in a cloud a smoke – is it any wonder that many confused, disorientated and voters stay at home.

 A ‘green’ revolution?

Some have taken refuge in the resurgence of the Green Party, and I don’t want to be cynical, because undoubtedly they have attracted many sincere activists like Saoirse McHugh.

But the old guard (the leadership) is still refusing to rule out that well-worn path to a coalition with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael and history tells us what just what happens to the junior partner in such coalitions.

Just ask the Labour Party, or the Progressive Democrats or better still ask Eamon Ryan, who was a minister in government the last time the Greens were annihilated.

That is why one of the first principles of Right2Change was to rule out a coalition with either of the main right-wing parties. 

The Greens opted not to join Right2Change, not simply because they supported water charges but also because they were unwilling to rule out entering government with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. 

Following the election, the Taoiseach claimed the public ‘had sent a clear message’ to him with their election of many Green candidates in core Fine Gael constituencies.

And yet just days later his government issued a new offshore oil drilling licence.

So I wonder what exactly was the ‘clear message’ that Varadkar received? Was it that Eamon Ryan and co would make accommodating future coalition partners, capable of ‘greenwashing’ the next government?

Where do we go from here?

The late great Tony Benn said that the left can succeed if it keeps two flames burning simultaneously. 

The flame of anger against injustice and oppression and the flame of hope that we can build a better world.

The former undoubtedly burns bright but the latter has grown dim. Calls for ‘left unity’ in wake of these elections are only natural.

But we have been here before. Both with the United Left Alliance and more recently with the Right2Water and Right2Change.

Talk of voting pacts, unity candidates and common platforms is helpful no doubt – but the monumental task ahead of us calls for more than mere electoral strategising.

The first step is an open dialogue between all the participants, and social media is not the forum for this.

We need to get everyone into a room, draw a line in the sand and see if there’s an appetite among the participants, be they a political party, trade union or activist group, to cede a little bit of individual authority in order to increase our collective power and appeal.

I’m not saying this is an easy task – it’s certainly not.

What I am saying is that the nature of the problem should be fairly obvious and if we don’t find a solution, not only will the left parties be worse off – but so too will the people they purport to represent.

Cillian Doyle is a political economist and doctoral student.

This article was updated on Tuesday 04 June to clarify that the Green Party does not support the privatisation of Irish Water and to remove a quote attributed to Eamon Ryan, which the party disputes. 

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