Can the Left Cooperate?
With opinion polls showing the broadly anti-establishment vote running at nearly 50%, attempts are being made to create progressive electoral alliances in the run up to the next General Election in the Republic, reports Dara McHugh
According to Mandate General Secretary and ICTU President, John Douglas, Ireland needs a “government that would implement policies in the interests of the majority of the people, rather than a tiny elite.”
However, what political groups would comprise such a government and how they could be brought together into a cohesive electoral force, he is less clear on. Although Douglas does believe that the Right2Water (R2W) campaign, the trade union and political party led umbrella group which had organised the largest marches of the anti-water tax movement, could provide the basis.
The success of the campaign, in Douglas’s view, indicates “that when we work together we can achieve significant change.”
To this end the five unions involved in R2W (CWU, CPSU, Mandate, OPATSI and Unite) are hosting a two-day conference in Dublin in early May to bring together delegates from what are described as “the three pillars” of the campaign: trade unions, political parties and community groups.
Douglas hopes that this process can “provide a platform of policy that the broad Left can agree on and hopefully create an alternative government following the next general election.”
However this initiative is just one of at least four, conflicting or complementary, depending on whom is describing them, current schemes to create broadly anti- austerity electoral coalitions in the lead up to the election.
One ‘Independent alliance’, which will bring together per- sonalities which span from the traditional Left to the Right of the political spectrum, involving Independent TDs and councillors, including Shane Ross and John Halligan, is hoping to field over 50 candidates. Alter- natively, a ‘Radical Left Alliance’ bringing together avowedly socialist parties and activist groups has been mooted by the Socialist Workers Party.
SIPTU General President, Jack O’Connor, has also restated his long held view that a very broad array of electoral forces, including the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and various other groups should unite around a common progressive agenda.
In a speech to a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in February, O’Connor called on his party: “To work with progressive people and parties who are left of centre in order to achieve the ultimate ambition envisaged by the founders of the Labour Party for a government of, and for, the mass of working people and dispossessed of our country.”
The Anti-Austerity Alliance, (AAA) which emerged from the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes around a nucleus of the Socialist Party, with three TDs and 14 councillors, is the biggest current cohesive electoral block to the left of Sinn Féin and Labour.
Along with Sinn Féin, the People Before Profit Alliance, the Workers’ Party and Communist Party of Ireland, the AAA is one of the political parties involved in R2W. But AAA TD, Paul Murphy, is cautious about attempts to create a new electoral force out of the campaign.
“It’s very important that this doesn’t remain a top-down project of trade union leaders, political leaders, a few community people, discussing and saying, ‘Ok, we have this electoral plan’. If it remains that way, it has no chance of being successful. It has to involve a bottom-up process of campaigns coming together. That has to be the next step.”
Workers’ Party President, Michael Donnelly, believes there would need to be agreement on a number of “principles” before there is greater co-operation.
“Of course a shared opposition to the water tax, which is an aspect of the wider neo-liberal agenda of destroying public services and privatisation, is a start. However, there are also wider political principles concerning the direction of future economic development, the rights of women and a true commitment to progressive politics, not just a rhetorical one during elections.”
Such ‘red line’ issues are also of concern to the AAA which says it will adopt an approach of setting out core demands for any participation in a government. Murphy said: “It will be things like a serious strategy of debt repudiation, an approach to lifting a whole series of austerity measures in a short amount of time, a restructuring of the tax base, shifting the burden away from working people onto the rich and corporations, including a rise in corporation tax, a series of red lines that break the logic of austerity and the rules of the Economic and Monetary Union.”
For many on the Left an adherence to these positions, as well as historic issues, make agreement with Sinn Féin or, if it was to show any interest in Left co-oper- ation, the Labour Party, unviable.
But Sinn Féin South County Dublin councillor and Ard Chomhairle member Eoin Ó Broin believes that the party should be seen as the major component of any future Left coalition. He said: “People are doing more than opposing; they’re also calling for some kind of alternative”. An alternative that is only possible with Sinn Féin support, according to O Broin.
“The biggest challenge for those of us on the Left who believe in the need for a realignment of politics and who want a Left of centre government is that we have to get 81 TDs first. That is a significant challenge, one that is, on the basis of the current numbers, unlikely to be achieved by the next election.”
Although preferring a government composed of Sinn Féin and left-of- centre allies, O Broin says the party is “open to a ‘left-led’ government”, which many see as indicating support for one that involves Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and others.
Ó Broin said: “Sinn Féin will not participate in a coalition led by Fianna Fáil. In terms of Fianna Fáil as a junior partner, there would have to be very clear commitments that meant that for the first time in the history of the State we actually have a left-led government, not just in its composition, but in its policies.”
He added: “I think you need to look at that option. Otherwise you are conceding control of the State to the two centre-right parties.”
That’s not a position Donnelly accepts: “A government including the likes of Fianna Fáil would just be more of the same, with right-wing policies being given a veneer by the involvement of groups which claim to represent working people.
“This approach accelerates neoliberalism as it undermines working class resistance through the trade union movement and genuine Left political campaigns. If such an approach is accepted, the Left could find themselves being used simply as electoral fodder for a right wing government. The performance to date of Sinn Féin in government in Northern Ireland, in particular their adherence to complete fiscal orthodoxy, does little to inspire confidence of a different tack in the South.”
In order to attempt to overcome the clear divisions among those who see themselves as part of the broad Left, Douglas says the approach the R2W unions have decided to adopt is one of producing a charter of rights that governments should seek to uphold and provide. He said: “We believe that people are united around the issue of water as a right, despite the differences between trade unions, between political parties, between community groups. So we can develop a common platform around the ‘Right to’ concept, and discuss the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Healthcare’, the ‘Right to Education’. We are saying that some things are fundamental to any community and any society and should not be for-profit.”