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Winning it Local

The 2014 local elections in the Republic should offer an opportunity for the left to make major gains but are they capable of taking advantage, Dara McHugh and Kevin Squires report.

With a growing number of voters disillusioned with the mainstream political parties support of austerity policies, the May 2014 local elections in the Republic should come at an opportune time for the Left.

There will certainly be no shortage of left-wing candidates from which to choose. Across the country all strands of progressive opinion from socialist republicans to Trotskyists to post-Labour Independents and unaffiliated community activists will be vying for votes. Some of these candidates will be facing into an election campaign for the first time others are long established veteran campaigners.

Among the first time candidates is Joanne Pender in Kildare. Running as an independent candidate she is supported by her local Campaign Against Housing and Water Taxes (CAHWT) group. Pender says she is running because she feels that very few politicians represent working class people.

“We are the people most affected by what’s happening, yet we’re not being represented, that needs to change”, she says.

“Over the past two years our local CAHWT has organised many demonstrations outside of the County Council offices. I don’t see why we should limit ourselves to trying to influence local representatives from outside the building, there is no reason why we shouldn’t try to gain a voice for ordinary people within the council chamber so that when issues do arise that affect the working class, there’ll be somebody in there speaking up”.

What can actually be achieved once elected to a local council is however questioned by other left-wing candidates. Brian Stafford, who is standing in the Drimnagh/Ballyfermot of Dublin for the United Left – a grouping of activists who support TDs Clare Daly and Joan Collins – describes local elections as an important “arena of struggle” but what can actually be done once elected as “severely limited by the County Manager system that has  locked down democracy locally”.

It’s a view shared by Ciaran McKenna, a sitting Socialist Party councillor in Drogheda, who says that in local politics “you’re not able to do a great deal. Our party’s position is that it’s a platform.”

Workers’ Party councillor Davy Walsh, first elected to Waterford City Council in 1979, has over his years of service “seen power and authority shift from elected members to unelected managers and bureaucrats.”

“Elected councillors compete with City and County Managers as to who represents the interests of voters. The issue of democracy therefore is a very real one which must be brought to the fore of political debate.”

Many candidates interviewed by LookLeft believe the democratic deficiency in local government where unelected officials make a growing amount of decisions will only get worse if the proposals contained in the Fine Gael/ Labour Government’s Local Government Bill 2013 are implemented.

This is a concern highlighted by Sligo councillor Declan Bree, formerly of the Labour Party and now a member of the United Left. He argues that the bill, which will eliminate Town Councils and thereby reduce the total number of local councils to 31, means that “in Ireland there’ll be a council for every 145,000 citizens. Luxembourg has one for every 4,000 citizens. In France there’s a council for every 1,700 people. What’s happening here is incredible; it’s a mockery of the whole concept of local democracy”.

According to Bree, contrary to official suggestions that the Local Government bill would do away with the undemocratic City/County Manager system where unelected officials have more power than councillors there will been no fundamental reform – “simply the Manager name will change to ‘Chief Executive’.”

The Managers themselves are appointed by central government, meaning that local government is a simple projection of what’s happening at the national level. The Workers’ Party candidate in Cork North West, James Coughlan, says, “basically on one hand you’ve got SIPTU [representing Council employees], which is run by Labour, on the other you have Fine Gael and Fianna Fail Management hacks in virtually every council.”

It’s a carve up of power which Coughlan believes increasingly sidelines working class people “who are the ones enduring the effects of cuts to services and the impact of the increasing privatisation of council duties.”

As the privatisation of waste collection has shown, the lack of democracy in local authorities undermines the capacity of campaigns to win victories. Recalling the anti-bin tax campaign, McKenna notes, “we spent two years fighting privatisation, at the end of the day, the Council said ‘you won, but we’re going to privatise it anyway’. And they did, nobody could stop it. In the Council, the officials have the power.”

In Dublin’s North inner city, independent candidate Éilis Ryan has found that “people aren’t very concerned with local issues at all … because they have pressures from elsewhere”. Ryan, a former Labour Party member, believes that “it’s important to be aware that people are much more concerned with national issues. I don’t think it’s very credible to be saying ‘I’m going to create jobs’, however, you can use your voice in a way that contributes to a more progressive narrative in politics in general.”

Declan Bree similarly doesn’t believe local politics can provide a vehicle for significant change, but “it does provide an opportunity to build resistance on a number of issues, particularly the new water tax and opposing the privatisation of our water service. Local politics can certainly be used as a platform.”

Housing is an issue that many candidates see as crucial. James Coughlan points out that there are 4,000 vacant private houses returned while 7,000 people are on the housing list. A similar housing crisis prevails elsewhere, with almost 100,000 families or individuals on the housing list nationally. It’s a crisis that seems to be of little concern to a Government which has reduced the capital program from €367 million in 2010 to only €65 million now.

“This Government, like its predecessors, is insisting that local authorities take out long term leases on vacant properties owned by private developers and then rent those to housing list applicants, rather than the traditional method of building social housing,” Bree says.

In Drogheda, Ciaran McKenna points to a looming mortgage arrears crisis, “because of the nature of the town, there are huge number of estates in the area where large numbers of people bought overvalued houses, predicated on the idea of the ‘two-car household with a never- decreasing income’. And that, obviously, has turned out to be a load of nonsense, as now an awful lot of people have suffered pay cuts, job losses, and the rest.”

In Kildare, Joanne Pender says that there is major concern around the Department of Defence’s plan to evict retired military families from the Curragh Camp ”without consideration of their financial or social situations or assistance in obtaining adequate, affordable, alternatives.”

More generally, Pender argues that “access to housing is integral to the heart of social protection by the State. Social housing provision has the potential to bring about major improvements in the life chances and living conditions for Ireland’s elderly and families who are most vulnerable.”

But local authorities have moved away from housing provision, “There has been a 90% decrease in social housing output from local authorities and a 73% decrease by non-profit housing associations since 2007, yet the demand for social housing is at an all-time high, as families remain on waiting lists for longer,” she adds.

Brian Stafford thinks that for the Left, housing could be the major issue, “both before the local election and after. It’s something we have to get our act together on, because a march has been stolen by right wing populist groups on issues like repossession of family homes. If we’re not careful dodgy groups will make great ground of it. The thing is, the left actually does have important and philosophical things to say about housing, social housing particularly, and that is something we could rally around together, an area there could be agreement and joint action on.”

Éilis Ryan believes the focus must also be on directly showing how a change in political direction could improve people’s quality of life, through addressing lack of amenities and the effects of waste management privatisation.

In the longer term, she says, “the biggest thing that needs to change to make left wing politics work in Ireland is to give people the sense of a stake in society, a stake in paying taxes. Repeated government failures to provide services to people who pay substantial income taxes leads, rightly so, to people having no faith in the taxation system. Before people are willing to buy into more radical left wing economics, they need to have faith in the State’s ability to provide services.”

Such failures in service provision are all too common and likely to worsen. James Coughlan speaks about meeting a local woman who hasn’t had hot water in two years, but trained plumbers wait on the dole queue while the Council has a recruitment embargo. Instead, council management looks to cover the shortfall through privatisation. Coughlan, who also leads the Local Authority SIPTU branch, points to a recent dispute, where Cork City Council attempted to outsource road drainage so as to be able to transfer the staff elsewhere. “The average age of the City Council worker is 55 years age, but as of yet there is no recruitment of local authority workers. Even though there are plenty of experienced construction workers on the dole that could be an asset for the local authority.”

This running down of the ability of local authorities to provide services comes as the neo-liberal idea of increased private provision is shown to be bankrupt. McKenna points out that while the local property tax was spun as funding for local government, many Louth residents are already paying very substantial estate management fees for ostensibly the same purpose. Obviously this leads to questions about what services people are receiving in exchange for all the bills.

Pender says that for many people in Kildare, “the constant worry of what is coming down the line in the way of water charges is prominent. Water metering does not address the issues of conservation but rather attempts to impose a tax on metered supply. People were left reeling after the property tax robbery and have no more to give and will be looking for representatives who are willing to fight their corner on these issues.”

Unemployment is another issue that is repeatedly cropping up on doorsteps. In Drogheda McKenna says, “unemployment is the biggest issue, with about 9,000 unemployed, particularly young people, and that’s not factoring in underemployment or emigration”. With a 14% unemployment rate nationally, the situation is depressingly similar throughout the State.

In Cork, James Coughlan is particularly worried about the cut in dole payments for the under-26s, and believes that it will lead to an increase in criminality, as youth are recruited by drug gangs. “Slashing the dole will turn young people to crime. They will be recruited by heroin dealers, which is a massive social disease in working class communities. Three fifths of people attending addiction clinics in Cork are attending because of heroin.”

After the implosion and fracturing of the United Left Alliance, and the failure of the anti-Property Tax campaign, the Left is undoubtedly in a state of disorganisation and disunity at present; debates are ranging from whether a new mass party is necessary, to whether one is even desirable at all.

Aside from the party-dominated slates of the Anti-Austerity Alliance (Socialist Party) and People Before Profit Alliance (Socialist Workers Party), there is at present no unified left slate that could bring together all the disparate forces on a minimum set of demands. Whether such an agreement is ever possible remains to be seen, but there is clearly commonality among candidates of different parties on many of the crucial issues. It may be that such a detente may have to wait until after the elections when the Left assesses the balance of forces in the local council chambers up and down the country.

One area where Left cooperation could be crucial is in the area of genuine local government reform. Declan Bree is adamant that Ireland needs to catch up with the rest of Europe and “take control of education, health, policing, transport and other areas like that”.

Brian Stafford says the Left needs to “put alternatives to people, to broaden local democracy, things like participatory budgeting, getting more people involved in the actual decisions close to them. By actually putting a shape on that, we can present an alternative to people that they can believe in, that we can believe in, and that you could actually see being realised”.

However, it could be that the Left has let a good crisis go to waste. “Depoliticisation is going to be a big factor over the next few years” says Ciaran McKenna. “The last local elections took place in the context of the bank bailout. People were outraged and energised. Now we’ve had four years of being told there’s no alternative, there’s nothing you can do about this. I think this percolates through to a low mood, a low understanding of what needs to be done. Sinn Fein corner off a certain amount of that because they can say ‘vote for us and things will be better’, whereas for us it’s more like ‘get involved and things will get better’, which is a bigger thing to ask.”

Yet the crisis has also brought new activists to the fore, people like Joanne Pender who hopes to “encourage others like myself who have never been involved in any kind of activism before to get involved and to take responsibility for shaping the type of society we all want to live in.”

It’s clear that there are no shortage of important issues for Left candidates to campaign on. However the lack of democracy in local councils makes it difficult for the local elections to provide the sort of bootstrapping opportunity that the Left needs in order to demonstrate a concrete alternative to the current agenda.

Nevertheless, the election of a significant number of campaigners and activists to seats in local government would put the Left in a stronger place to fight for working class interests locally and nationally.

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