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People Before Profit Belfast

Opportunism plus electoralism equals reaction

7 April 2019

The People before Profit electoral literature for West Belfast is rather undistinguished, involving the usual mixture of aspiration and bombast to be found in all the parties election leaflets.

There is however one section that stands out. In the section entitled A voice for tenants not landlords, PbP proclaim:

“...Expand  rights for tenants, increase the number of social houses and introduce rent caps so that people are not been exploited. With Stormont down Belfast City Council should lead on this”.
Without seeming to realise it, People before Profit have moved to the far right of the political spectrum on this issue. Who, outside the Unionist parties suggests that, in the absence of Stormont, housing powers should be devolved to Belfast City Council? Are PbP aware of the atrocious history of sectarianism and corruption of local councils? That local government is not subject to any of the regulations supposed to restrain Stormont, such as the use of the d'Hondt mechanism to allocate committee leadership or petitions of concern to nullify sectarian majorities?

Should a socialist not refer to the endemic corruption in Belfast  council? Should a party that never fails to assure us of its non-sectarian credentials stand for the council without condemning the sectarian deal that allocated 250 million to loyalist bonfires with an equal sum to Sinn Fein for anti-bonfire festivals in nationalist areas?

Should a left party stand for the council without a reference to the British secretary of state's recent approval of a Belfast City Council “City Deal” that gives the council extensive powers over local spending and regulation and is quite clearly designed to extend the scope of public private partnership for the benefit of the private sector.

How could PbP make such a fundamental error? As they say themselves, the proposal for new powers for the council arises straightforwardly from the absence of Stormont. A reformist group that sees Stormont, with its corruption and sectarianism, as the mechanism for socialist transformation is just as likely to see the even more corrupt Belfast City Council as an possible mechanism for change. It does however say a great deal about the group that the utter collapse of Stormont and the sheer unlikelihood of its return has made absolutely no impression on their analysis or propaganda.

There are other weaknesses in the PPP approach. They have toned down criticism of Sinn Fein over welfare reform from responsibility to “they were wrong” to allow it. The central theme of people power that used to dominate their literature has largely gone.

The thing is that many of the issues PbP raise are not simply offensives by the British, They involve collaboration by Sinn Fein, and are also the result of the acceptance by the trade union leadership of the Fresh Start Agreement. Like the vast majority of the left on both sides of the border their critique stops when it comes to a critique of the union leadership. The reality is that no progress can be made without rejecting the Good Friday Agreement and trying to build an opposition to the current trade union leadership.

Their is a name for the SWN/PBP approach. It is called opportunism, The organisation identifies the zeitgeist, the most popular issues, and says: “Me too!” It's a successful method, especially in elections, but it has a fatal flaw. After a while the organisation is no longer held together by a common platform. Supporters ask: “Why do we need a party?” Members  flow out as quickly as they flow in.  It becomes difficult to see what connects North with South, Dublin with Galway and so on.

The most dramatic example of this weakness was shown recently by the disappearance of the ISO, a 3000 strong US organisation in the SWN tradition that voted overnight to dissolve on foot of old allegations of rape that had actually been openly investigated and reported on at the time. While it is impossible to understand all the ins and outs, two things are clear:

There was an uncritical acceptance of the #metoo movement that made defence against rape accusations impossible inside the movement.

The sudden coup has cleared the way for a fraction who have been moving steadily towards the abandonment of socialist politics and incorporation into the Democratic Party.

Opportunism is not restricted to the SWN. Other left groups are facing splits as the demands for electoral success squeeze their organisation.

What's the alternative? We should focus on a revolutionary programme and on the actual activity of the working class. We can't guarantee success, that depends on the willingness of the working class in stepping beyond the constraints set by their current leaders, but at the end of each struggle we have an organisation and activists gaining in political consciousness  - not a wasteland!

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