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Meath by-election - Capitalism, austerity triumph over workers’ rights

6 April 2013

The Meath East by-election of 27th March was at one level the most humdrum of results. In a long tradition of nepotism, family dynasties and parish pump politics Helen McEntee inherited the seat from her dead father, former Fine Gael TD Sean McEntee. With a turnout of just over 38% the majority of voters ignored the election.

At another level the election was of immense significance. A victory for Fine Gael as it heads the latest wave of the ongoing austerity is astounding. Budget cuts of €3.1 billion are being pushed through. Croke Park ll calls for €1.1 billion cuts from public services. A new property tax and water charge are being imposed. Savage laws will bring in a wave of evictions of mortgage debtors. The government announced triumphantly that what was in reality a second bailout would extend debt repayment until 2054! Shortly after the Troika produced a report rubbishing the idea that Ireland was returning to financial stability.

A government election victory in these circumstances can only have one meaning. The majority of Irish workers see no alternative to capitalist austerity nor any meaningful vehicle through which they can register opposition. It is only in these circumstances that one would also see Fianna Fail, smashed and humiliated in the General Election, return as the main opposition party or see Sinn Fein come third as a "left" party. The party sits in an austerity government in the North. Its local leftism boils down to claims that they could negotiate a better deal with the Troika.

The only ray of light - the meltdown of the Labour vote - did not disrupt the pattern of capitalist triumph. Labour's electoral disaster was completely spontaneous and a standard mechanism of capitalist rule, where the smaller "left" partner pays the price of workers anger and disillusion. 

This tells us that there is no opposition. The traditional leaderships of the workers movement have demoralised and demobilised resistance. The socialist movement is small, focused on electoral activity and around an unrealistic policy of economic reform rather than a socialist programme. A radical movement has been built around the non-payment of the household charge campaign but has been unable to build a broader political programme.

The political weakness is of greater importance than the numerical weakness. Even a numerically
weak movement could have made a significant intervention in the by-election.

The discussion and intervention were completely electoralist, centering around the issue of supporting the Workers Party candidate as the candidate with the best left credentials without any view of how such a vote could be used to advance the struggle.

There was an alternative.  At a low level there was the fact that the WP candidate was also the chair of the local household charge campaign. If he had stood as a representative of that campaign, if the campaign had developed beyond the "don't pay" slogan, then this could have been a focus for resistance.

More generally the need was to address the immediate issues facing workers. That is clearly the ongoing austerity and the introduction of Croke Park ll.

A campaign to take up these issues around a call to force Labour out of government would have transformed a spontaneous resentment into a political movement. It would have linked voters in the constituency with activists around the country. It would have taken Croke Park ll from an internal discussion for public sector workers to an issue with implications for all. It would have constrained Labour "lefts" who want improved terms inside a continuing coalition government.

As it was, the victory of Fine Gael is a serious defeat that underlines the failure of the socialist movement to build even small-scale resistance to the austerity. On the one hand we have had a political strategy that was electoralist and reformist and ended in a sectarian and cannibalistic scrabble for seats. On the other hand there has been a direct action strategy that purposely avoided a political programme in favour of a single tactic of non-payment which the government was able to outmanoeuvre.

Direct action, political activity, the beginnings of self-organization of the workers, can be brought about by putting together a revolutionary alternative and undertaking issues of immediate defense. Right now the immediate threat is from the rule of the Troika, Labour in the coalition government as an instrument of that rule and the role of the majority of the trade union bureaucracy in pushing through Croke park ll.

Can the socialist movement make itself relevant to the struggles ahead?


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