Irish left reformism and 'left government'
24 May 2020
Recently People before Profit reopened talks with Sinn Fein about building an alternative left government in opposition to the attempts by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to construct a parliamentary majority.
These talks, undertaken with apparent seriousness by the two groups, seem close to madness from outside their political bubble, resting as they do on false assumptions.
The first assumption, widely
held and promoted by the trade union leadership and by the Communist
Party, with their theory of the 'popular front', over decades, is that Irish capitalism is exclusively represented by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. They are 'the right' and any group outside the two parties are 'the left'. The fact that the most recent combined vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael was below 50% is seen as evidence that a left government is now on the agenda.
It is worth noting that this notion is not held by Sinn Fein, who favour a 'left led' government that would include Fianna Fail. It is also quite evident that this fantasy government could not include a number of independent TDs who are to the right of many mainstream politicians.
As with fantasy football, the strategy relies exclusively on moving your favourite players into a winning team. It rests on a bizarre numbers game based on Dail seats.
A minimum of 80 of the 160 seats are needed to form a government (the Ceann Comhairle is automatically returned and has a casting vote). In the election Fianna Fail won 38 seats, Sinn Fein 37 and Fine Gael 35. No combination of two parties has the numbers to form a government and Sinn Fein has been excluded by the other two parties, so their combined vote is 73. The 12 Green TDs give a comfortable 85 seats, although the tensions between Fianna Fail , Fine Gael and the Greens and the growing class war as workers emerge from lockdown and are presented with the bill has already revealed that the nascent national coalition is politically unstable. An indication of the degree of that instability was given by the decisions of Labour and the Social Democrats not to join the coalition as additional ballast.
As an alternative to the national government we have Sinn Fein with 37 seats, the Social Democrats 6, Labour with 6, Solidarity/Rise/People before Profit with 5 and Independents for Change 1. This makes 55 and if we imagine the Greens switching sides, we get to 67. Throw in half the independents and we get an unstable confection of 77, still short of a majority.
The proponents of a left government have an answer. The traditional ruling class leadership Parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, should agree to stand aside and allow a minority government to be formed!
However the problem is not poor mathematics, but the bizarre separation of other parties from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael even though many of them have been in austerity coalitions with them. Sinn Fein have not been in coalition in the South, but currently are in government in the North with the far right DUP, overseeing partition of the island and implementing an austerity budget.
The left government policy is all the more revealing given that both major organisations, the Socialist Workers' Party and the Socialist Party, when initially turning towards electoralism, announced that the chief justification for their policy change was the ability to use the Dail to mobilise on the streets. Now their gaze is turned entirely inwards towards the traditional parliamentary gavotte.
So what is really going on? Why play this 'fantasy football' to construct an impossible government?
Sinn Fein's position is easy to understand. Excluded from the discussion, they have mounted an inclusionary offensive demanding a place in coalition. This hasn't worked, and they are now having to shuffle left and present themselves as the opposition to the new national government.
The reformist socialist position is more complex. In part it is rooted in a shift to the right by many socialist groups across Europe and globally. The shift is dressed up as left unity and imagines that a left coalition can reclaim a reformist space vacated by social democracy. None of the attempts to do this have ever succeeded, but no one reflects or looks back. Instead they press on to the next opportunity for a 'broad front', built on the most opportunist agreements with right moving social democratic organisations. The latest example is in Spain, where an attempt to build left unity with Podemos has ended with Podemos in government with the right.
Of more immediate importance in the left government proposal was the result of the last election, when the main left groupings were wiped out in terms of representing an independent electoral current. They retained five seats, but four were absolutely dependent on Sinn Fein transfers and those TDs would be annihilated if Sinn Fein stood more candidates in the next election.
These Parliamentary seats are central to the groups' strategy for growth. Public office generates money in the form of TD's wages and expenses and enables an apparatus that their membership contributions could not sustain. It also guarantees access to the major right wing media outlets, State owned and corporate, where they are afforded a degree of 'respectability' as national Parliamentary spokespeople, but this contains inhibitive contradictions.
Rather than a strategy that uses the Dail as a platform for street mobilisations their strategy now leans heavily on Dail 'activity' for growth and whether consciously or not this results in attempts to 'get their view across' to a conservative media in terms of general acceptability, they defer to a bourgeois 'common sense'. Constant adaptation to the Dail's palace intrigues and subject to a media hostile to revolutionary propaganda or agitation their best attempts are crushed in the absence of mass activity by the workers and a united front of resistance on the streets and in the workplaces.
Struggling with their strategy's contradictions a mechanism for survival was demonstrated by TD Paul Murphy. He presented the idea of a common 'leftism' shared with Sinn Fein whose supporters could then cast a second or third preference vote for him as a more radical voice, ostensibly helping Sinn Fein to move left, but with the notion that they were voting for a rival rather than an opponent. That strategy was adopted by left parliamentary candidates North and South of the border and was one of the factors leading to a split in the Socialist party. In fact a long history of opportunistic unity drives has seen centrist socialist groups constantly fragment.
One other relationship involved in the left government perspective is the overwhelming majority of the trade union leadership. The Irish State lacks any mass social democratic movement and simultaneously has the most institutionalised mechanisms of social partnership between government, employers and unions in Europe. The trade union bureaucracy have found it difficult to collaborate directly with the far right Fine Gael party and the Labour party has served as the mechanism for collaboration in coalition government. That mechanism was driven to destruction in a decade of austerity and attempts to revive the Labour party in the last election failed. Union leaders are casting around for political representation. They already have strong influence over the socialist groups, a silent alliance with Sinn Fein in the North and are debating an open alliance in the South.
Unprincipled attempts to take short cuts, opportunism, has plagued the reformist socialist groups. Early in the austerity drive they decided, in the interests of forming a broad front with the trade union bureaucracy, to stay within the narrow fiscal confines agreed to by union leaders - calling for reforms that remained inside the fiscal 'space' remaining after sovereign debt obligations were met. That decision cut them off from the most militant Irish workers, because a socialist policy could only emerge from a critique of social partnership. Room for expansion was then only permissable in the direction of electoralism and the Dail, and they remain trapped in that perspective and committed to a broad left parliamentary grouping - even when led by parties that are not of the left.
There is an obvious alternative to the fruitless game of fantasy football being played by the increasingly splintered reformist left. Instead of calling for a left government, why not call for a united front in opposition to the unstable national government?
A united front allows for a more genuine cooperation between groups. They can 'march seperately but strike together', agreeing to cooperate around immediate concrete demands rather than build a pretence based on papering over significant differences.
A left opposition within a united front would be free to fight for a switch in focus away from manoeuvres in the Dail towards mobilising a genuine working class opposition on the streets, in the workplaces and trade unions that would bring into focus the central issues facing workers - issues that the proposed national government has no plans for resolving.
The scandal of housing costs and homelessness has not been resolved and will emerge in a more acute form as the homeless are displaced from temporary hotel accommodation back onto the streets. Plans are afoot to transform the slapdash health service created to manage the Covid 19 response into an essentially private structure funded by compulsory payments to health insurance companies.
A mobilisation is urgently required now as the State moves to end payments to workers and indicates that the working masses will once again have to pay a new, and more massive, sovereign debt. A united front would not be constrained by the watery programme advanced by the Green party and would allow for a genuine discussion to be brought forward about the immense changes needed to build a sustainable society - changes that cannot be brought about within capitalism.
But let us be clear. A united front opposed to the national government is not, in no way, a minor variation on the 'left government' strategy. The left government idea is based on the delusion that capitalism is a minority current in Ireland, that Sinn Fein and the Green Party's stated mild reformism is genuinely socialist, and that victory is within our grasp. In reality revolutionary socialism and anti-imperialism are supported by a small minority. Class struggle is smothered by partnership between the government and the union bureaucracy and demands for an all Ireland democracy are subverted by Sinn Fein's acceptance of reactionary Northern identity politics and 'cultural' compromise.
It follows that the establishment of a united front against the national government will face determined resistance. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions will cling to social partnership. Sinn Fein will aim to be a moderate and loyal opposition to win entry to the next government. The opportunistic adaptation to this reality by the major left groups has led to disaster, Marxists must recognise this and fight against the vacuous calls for a 'left government' that would be agreed among the bourgeois leaderships of these organisations and appeal over their heads directly to their working class members and supporters. The coming economic depression will challenge all the old certainties and the class struggle will intensify sharply as special measures are wound down and workers are pushed back into unsafe working conditions. It is crucial that working class opposition is not allowed to be fragmented or diverted into piecemeal tokenism and is mobilised against the plans of the national government for decades more of austerity.
Right wing nationalism and populism, collaboration with imperialism and the smothering of workers protests have kept the peace during a decade of austerity. The same is planned again! However, the State has been bent and battered and the current crisis in forming a government shows the strain that the institutions are under even before the global economic collapse now emerging.
The task of socialists is to prepare the coming revolt of the working class, not to dream of an imaginary left government that, given the miracle of its creation, would create nothing but the empty illusion that they could deliver an improved capitalism.