The 2007 election – a shift to the right?
2 June 2007
The 2007 election has been described as a ‘vote to stand still,’ opening the door to a third consecutive term for a Fianna Fail led government – against almost all predictions. The party saw its seats in the 30th Dáil fall by only two to 78 and its first preference vote actually rise fractionally by 0.1% to 41.6%. The decimation of the Progressive Democrats, who lost 6 seats and now retain only two, does not however exclude them at all from participation in a new FF led government, although they will be unable to play quite the same role they did before.
Fine Gael enjoyed the biggest increase in both vote and seats, the former rising by 4.8% to 27.3% and the latter by 20 to 51. The Labour Party did badly losing one seat and 0.7% of its vote to finish on 20 seats with 10.1% of the vote. This is a very bad result reflecting an inability to recover from the disastrous 1997 election when the party was punished for its coalitions with Fianna Fail (and then Fine Gael) following its ‘Spring tide’ when it won 33 seats. The failure of the Labour Party means that Fine Gael has little possibility of forming an alternative government coalition.
The Greens may have increased their vote by 0.9% to 4.7% but they did not achieve the 6 to 8 per cent of the opinion polls. Sinn Fein also did badly, actually losing a seat, almost losing another, and only increasing their vote by 0.4% through standing more candidates in more constituencies. Considering they had confidently expected to win at least 10 seats this is a major set back that has delivered a critical blow to their entire strategy of being in office North and South and having some clout when being there.
The number of independents fell to 5, signaling the ousting of those who had made health a major platform in the previous election. Prominent among the casualties were Seamus Healy and the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins. The SP also failed to get Clare Daly elected in North Dublin. Generally the left might console itself with the thought that it generally held its vote, with a good result for the SWP front in Dún Laoghaire, but others did not do so well and the failure of Joe Higgins will reflect general disappointment, this also reflecting an electoralist fixation on seats as opposed to the quality and quantity of the vote.
From this summary it might be possible to accept the ‘stand still’ judgment, but this would be a mistake. It has been said that in elections you reap what you sow and in this election the harvest is a reactionary one revealing the crop that has been sewn over the last five years.
How can such a conclusion be drawn?
The first ground for such a verdict is that we face a new Fianna Fail government claiming support for its actions over the last five years and a mandate for the intensification of its reactionary policies over the next five. Almost 70 per cent of the electorate has voted for two capitalist parties which have no significant policy difference between them. A further 24.4 per cent voted for parties which have openly declared a willingness to serve in coalition with either of these two parties and join in implementation of their policies, this is without counting the independents whose support is more or less easily bought.
Secondly, even in crude electoral terms there has been a move to the right if we compare the 2007 results with the more recent local and European results in 2004. In this election Fianna Fail got a bloody nose and received its worst result since the 1920s receiving only 32% of the vote. It is not necessary to invest Sinn Fein with left wing credentials it so clearly hasn’t got to say that the fall in its vote, from 8% in the local elections and 11% in the European, signal a change in voting perspective even if its representation is inadequate or false. The loss of independents is a clear indication of a reduced willingness to register even a protest vote against the major establishment parties.
One possible qualification or counter-argument to this analysis is the drubbing of the Progressive Democrats. Surely this represents the rejection of stark Thatcherite policies? This is true but not new. These policies have been implemented by Fianna Fail and are the programme of all the main parties and the basis of all possible coalition arrangements. The PDs have simply blazed the way and taken the flack for open espousal of policies others prefer to hide or lie about. This is not an unimportant thing. The fact that the main parties are not able to present themselves in their true colours, to proudly boast as the PDs do of their reactionary agenda, is what makes working class resistance and socialist politics all the more possible. It does not however change the essentially reactionary character of the politics workers have voted for in the shape of Fianna Fail or their possible coalition partners.
The collapse of the PDs, losing six of their eight seats, was greater in seat terms than in any collapse of their vote. This was already very small, 4% in 2002, falling by 1.3% in 2007. Such small swings signal no mass rejection of anything and probably represent a shift by a section of the PD support to Fine Gael because of the failure to hold Fianna Fail corruption to account. It says nothing about any shifting views of the working class.
A rightwards drift can be seen in the evolution of those parties that many still insist on characterising as ‘left.’ Of course the Labour Party, Greens and Sinn Fein are all to the ‘left’ of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, but then the latter could be described as ‘left’ of the PDs. ‘Left’ is a purely relative description and its employment as a concept of analysis is useless, in fact misleading, when used in anything other than the most casual manner. None of these parties are socialist and none therefore can be seen as partners in any socialist project even if socialists orient to them in pursuit of specific and limited practical activities and objectives. All these parties moved to the right either before or during the election.
The Labour Party’s platform endorsed tax cuts for the middle class and the current low tax on capital. The Greens also accepted the latter and Sinn Fein kicked off its campaign by dropping its marginally progressive tax increase proposals on corporations and those earning in excess of €100,000 a year. The latter party’s rush to the right has been the greatest of any party over the last number of years and thus arguably done more to shift general politics to the right than any other. All these parties signaled their compatibility with the reactionary policies of the two main parties by touting themselves as coalition partners, something Sinn Fein for example had not done in previous Southern elections. In general terms even the manifestos of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were noted as promising less on poverty reduction and on health provision than those of 2002.
More significant however are the political developments that have taken place since the 2002 election. The public has been subjected to example after example of the sheer incompetence of the Fianna Fail led government, including the money wasted on electronic voting machines that couldn’t be trusted or the PPARS computer system in the Health department which succeeded mainly in lining the pockets of private consultants. It has wasted millions of Euros on infrastructural development that benefited its friends in the construction industry and written a virtual blank cheque for the child abusers in the Catholic Church.
They have been witness to the sheer malevolence of the government through its illegal charging of older people for nursing home care and its pursuit of costs against a victim of child abuse in a primary school. Its failure to legislate for abortion and the horrific action of the HSE in attempting to make a young woman carry an unviable foetus to full term was appalling. Its utter disregard for the vast majority of the population is evidenced in the urban sprawl that has left many with utterly inadequate provision of services including a lack of schools - with sometimes 40 pupils in a class; a health service creaking at the seams and a water infrastructure that has left thousands without clean drinking water in Galway. Privatisation has made the Irish State one of the leading exponents of privately financed state services and flagship State enterprises such as Aer Lingus have been privatised with immediate attacks on the workers terms and conditions. The two-tier provision of health services is an open and scandalous disgrace.
On top of this has come one damning report after another, including in the middle of the campaign, on the political corruption endemic in the establishment and especially in Fianna Fail.
Yet here we are with most likely another Fianna Fail government! If this doesn’t demonstrate a shift rightwards it is difficult to know what would. If the electorate, after all this, is prepared to vote back in the shower responsible, it reveals a certain demoralisation on their part and a vulnerability to future attacks. It is simply not enough to say that there was no alternative, that the alternative coalition promised no change. Quite so. But this simply describes one very important, indeed crucial, mechanism by which this demoralisation has succeeded. Had the turn out dropped it might have been possible to plead disillusionment and rejection but it actually went up by 5 percentage points. Not all of this, I hazard to guess, can be the result of pruning the register. Whatever reluctance may have existed to vote Fianna Fail did not prevent it happening.
Too often trotting out the line that there was no alternative blinds the left to the actual state of working class consciousness, to taking workers votes and their political choices seriously. It is absolutely correct to say that a vote for Sinn Fein or the Greens etc was a vote for Ahern or Kenny as Taoiseach - so why not vote directly for the latter? But then why not register some sort of protest by voting for the former parties knowing that a Fianna Fail government will still be the result? Not to take this route says something about the keenness of workers to ensure such a government came out of the election.
There were enough ‘alternatives’ in terms of parties, independents and individual left and socialist candidates standing in the election to record any radicalisation. It wasn’t recorded. To claim that it wasn’t because these candidates weren’t united is to wish into existence the viable alternative as a substitute for advancing a method of creating it – ‘if only there were dozens of candidates with solid bases and radical politics, then we would have an alternative!’
Two reasons account for this besides lack of an alternative. The first is an objective one. The rise in inequality that has scarred Southern society and which many thought would provoke opposition to the government has political consequences as well as economic and social ones. Inequality breeds division and weakens any sort of working class opposition. Much of the price for the economic boom has been paid for by immigrant labour which is not part of the electoral process. The two tier health service has resulted in over half the population seeking private insurance because the prospect of overcoming the problems of health service provision by collective action has receded. Because a social solution seems so far off purely private solutions are sought.
In this and many other areas inequality and division has given rise to individual modes of thought, and incomprehension, indifference or cynicism to collective solutions resulting from collective class action. While some workers have houses worth a small fortune others cannot afford to get one at all. This has led to the demand for the latter to be given the same opportunity for a killing on the market through provision of ‘affordable housing’. This has even been supported by the left! Inequality has become internalised; insecurity leading to the politics of fear - of not being able to hold on to the gains one already has.
The boom has given workers jobs and a standard of living they previously did not expect. They aren’t fools. They know that this is threatened because they already feel the strain with rising prices, rising interest rates, rising debts, propaganda about falling competitiveness, over-reliance on construction and more announcements of multinationals folding up and moving to cheaper locations. Their dependence on capitalism is expressed in political terms by reliance on the capitalist parties. Many plumped for the devil they know, for those that appeared most experienced; those that they think might have played a role in delivering the boom in the first place and who might be most trusted to preserve it, whatever its shortcomings and whatever about all the other things mentioned above – the incompetence and corruption etc. But this dependence comes at a price that workers will more and more be asked to pay.
They had no alternative because they themselves see no alternative to the language of competitiveness and dependence on multinational capital. The left itself has never explained an alternative beyond the purely local or abstract and has assumed continuation of the boom, just a more equitable distribution of its fruits. They have never responded to the taunts of the right that too large or insistent demands for pay rises and increases in public services will scare away foreign investment.
Instead workers have been told to support tax cuts, which they then pay for through inferior services. Their trade union leaders for years endorsed exactly this approach to increasing living standards – pay restraint for tax cuts.
This dependence on capitalism and its Celtic Tiger boom has meant that the daily reports of corruption don’t have an energising effect but an enervating one. The daily struggle to get to work, to get child care, to pay for a house etc has bred demoralisation not resistance. Just as the Irish State and economy is characterised by dependence on international capitalism so is this the case with the working class. The politics of fear is the politics of insecurity and dependence on international capital. The parish pump clientelism that afflicts Irish society is simply a local version of the national and international client relationship which the Irish State is inserted into. Workers simply don’t buy the argument that the faults of Irish society are simply the result of malevolent decisions by corrupt politicians that a programme of reform could easily remedy. They have at least some rudimentary understanding of the position of Ireland in the world and its weakness – their weakness.
Of course this objective dependence of workers on capitalism is not unique to Ireland, it is a feature of capitalism itself. If workers were not normally weaker and dependent on capitalism why would socialists complain of exploitation and oppression and why would it even exist? It is a structural feature of the system, which is why only revolution can remove it. It explains why all round the world workers vote for capitalist parties.
Of course none of this is automatic or, in the last analysis, decisive. The consciousness of the working class and the political choices it makes arise out of class struggle and the victories and defeats of workers in this never ending battle. The rightward shift recorded in this election is a result of defeats suffered by workers over the past number of years.
This is evidenced in a number of events. In the ability of Fianna Fail to re-run the Nice Treaty referendum and get the result it wanted. In its ability to impose one partnership deal and secure another lasting 10 years! In its ability to impose privatisation in Aer Lingus - on one of the best unionised companies in the State. All of these with the indispensable help of the bureaucrats of ICTU who never featured in any of the propaganda of the left during the election – as if this was a secondary issue. It is evidenced in the record low strike statistics we reported during the election and the isolation and defeat of the nurses’ strike.
The rightward shift in political consciousness was glaringly evident in the racist citizenship referendum led by Michael McDowell in 2004 which recorded a four to one majority for the right. To think that such consciousness is compatible with a rejection of the other reactionary policies of the capitalist parties is to live in cloud cuckoo land. It is not possible to record such defeats and believe that left candidates can succeed in elections unless one persists in believing that defeats are victories as some thought the outcome of Irish Ferries was. Or that defeats haven’t happened – as during the bin tax campaign. Or that defeats can be made victories and one’s enemies can be relied upon to achieve this, as some did when they called on ICTU to get a different social partnership deal.
Some defeats even go without notice. Bertie Ahern’s parading of his statesman’s credentials and endorsement by Blair and Clinton arose from his support for the imperialist pacification project in the North. This involved the formal abandonment of the democratic claim to reunification of the country. No one, especially the left, could mount any valid criticism because they all support this process. The left has nothing to say about the fundamental division of the Irish working class through partition. It failed to mention the existence of the imperialist occupation of part of the country or to lay the blame for the terrible sectarianism that has resulted on this occupation. It secretly supports the Northern peace process but hasn’t the ability to justify this support or concoct a spurious critique. On the North the failure of an alternative is more or less total.
The task of socialists is not to follow this decline in political consciousness with pursuit of community politics or attempt to substitute left wing constituency clientelism for the more effective gombeen capitalist one of the larger parties. It is not to talk about a ‘left’ that includes parties itching to get into coalition with the main parties. This gives these parties left credentials they don’t have and further mis-educates workers about what socialist politics are and discredits them. It is not to bury socialism in the language of populist ‘people power’ rhetoric that celebrates unity with, and limitations set by, those who supposedly have no politics The task is to hammer out a political alternative at the national and international level and begin to fight for it. The setback to the left during this election is a lesson that purely local constituency work on reformist political foundations is extremely weak. When the Socialist Party is squeezed out by those who think there is actually a choice between Ahern and Kenny, it demonstrates the low political consciousness of some of their support despite years of activity. A class conscious constituency has not been built and cannot be built by localism.
The economic boom is ending and further attacks on workers interests will be accelerated by this election result. But its end will also begin to end illusions that property will make everyone rich or that some redistribution by taxes will cure structural inequality and the mass of social problems that exist. Workers, at different times and in different places, will fight back. The task of socialists will not simply be to support their demands or generalise their struggle. It will be to give them some political leadership and a political alternative. It will be to fight to win them to a socialist programme, not drop the word or pass it off as mere tinkering with existing society.
This was patently not the approach adopted by the left during the past five years. When tens of thousands marched against war or against the race to the bottom Socialist Democracy put out leaflets explaining the imperialist nature of war and how only a socialist alternative could end it. We understood that the key task was to deepen the political consciousness of those opposed to war not seek to widen support at the expense of political understanding. It was ourselves who warned that ICTU would sell out the workers opposing outsourcing. The alternative of seeking left unity without bothering too much about what it was uniting about has failed. To continue this approach will see the left follow the right wing shift in politics, more and more adopting platforms devoid of political content.
The truth is that this election recorded
a shift to the right. The shift is neither decisive nor catastrophic.
There is no reason to fear this truth or seek comfort in illusions or excuses.
The truth is revolutionary, as Lenin once said.