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Northern elections

Decline of left vote marks demise of Stormont reform strategy

25 May 2023

PbP launches its local election manifesto.

Analysis of the Northern elections focused on the increase in the Sinn Féin vote and dismissed the vote for People before Profit and the Greens as simply marking the collapse of smaller parties.

In the case of PbP, the party was reduced to two councillors with their MLA, Gerry Carroll, under threat in the next Stormont election.

However, the PbP result is important because it calls into question the broad experiment by left currents to build themselves around reformist programmes, using the techniques of electoralism and parliamentarianism and the further assumption that the Stormont Assembly could be used to further this strategy.  Until recently PbP in the Dail were proposing a strategy of a left government in Dublin led by Sinn Fein. Now they face a future where that party has moved sharply to the right and where a full-scale electoral mobilisation by Sinn Féin would decimate PbP.

But there is a specific component to the Northern experiment - the claim by their MLA Gerry Carroll that the Stormont Assembly could be used to build a socialist movement.  The belief was that the Good Friday Agreement had resolved issues of sectarianism and colonialism and created a space where "bread and butter" class politics could flourish. PbP fancifully presented themselves as a reiteration of our parent group from the '68 revolutionary movement, Peoples Democracy.  In reality they were closer to the old Northern Ireland Labour Party but without its working-class base.

The current election completely refutes the "bread and butter" model. What has flourished is sectarian division, resulting in a separation into orange and green with a pale orange filling in the sandwich in the form of the Alliance Party.

Rather than aid the working class, the GFA settlement has harmed it with each new launch of Stormont accompanied by further austerity aimed at the workers.

The material base of much of Northern leftism lies in the trade unions, supported by a small woke intelligentsia, unable and unwilling to launch any sort of radical programme and dependent on local political structures to negotiate with the political elite. A good example is impotence in the face of British announcements that there will be no pay increase for local health workers.

This impotent current is a recurrent theme in Northern politics and will continue in a weakened form after the elections. Its’ status as a way forward for the working class is much diminished.

A similar, if less dramatic, pattern has unfolded in the South. The left has been focused on alliances with the trade union bureaucracy and Sinn Féin.  Those alliances have struck them dumb, responding to the housing crisis with a call for affordable housing rather than public housing.  They have responded to growing racism and hatred of migrants with liberal chants that "Migrants are welcome here", rather than calls for unity of all workers in defence of their rights.

Sinn Féin have endorsed royal rule in the North, pulled back from opposition to the Special Criminal Court, defence of neutrality and agreed that the big issue in relation to migrants is more consultation with anti-migrant  protesters.  The project of a left government with the party is clearly dead in the water.

There is also a need for a careful consideration of strategy and tactics. The claim was that a position in representative structures would provide a platform for presenting revolutionary politics.  What was not understood was that electoral activity had to rest on worker's mobilisation to counteract reactionary tendencies built into the electoral process.  So, for example, the way to maximise a vote is to dilute political positions rather than proclaim a radical position. The leftists gradually move to the right. In councils and parliament nothing is easier than to become submerged in procedure and bureaucracy without being able to clearly express a revolutionary perspective and the response to crisis becomes a question to the minister or a motion in the chamber.

It is of course true that the earlier revolutionary perspective advanced by Socialist Democracy had been defeated. We can however, claim that this was not primarily a political failure on our part, but part of a more general collapse of socialist and anti-imperialist politics that has continued to this day.

The Good Friday Agreement essentially buried anti-imperialist and revolutionary socialist politics in Ireland. We seem to be facing, after 25 years, a collapse in the populist identity politics that replaced the revolutionary wave.

The immediate movement is not towards a miraculous revival of revolutionary socialism.  Rather we are facing the grim prospect of the upsurge of the far right and of a mass attack on democratic rights from both government and the growing fascist movements.

The starting point, as with every other period in our history, is to assert workers’ rights, worker's self-organisation and worker's unity as the way forward. The revolutionary perspective, rejected as utopian and unrealistic, turns out to be the only road forward.

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