Challenges for the left – a response to Ronan Burtenshaw

Posted: June 1, 2015 in Elections, Irish Left, Labour, Sinn Féin, Trade Unions

In his thoughtful and timely blog –Left may have squandered opportunity– Ronan Burtenshaw wonders if the Left has failed to capitalise on the anti-establishment surge that is the Right2Water movement.

His argument is based on a cross reading of the massive mobilisations against the Government’s water charges in 2014 and early 2015 and the establishment parties standing in the opinion polls.

While his call for some serious self-criticism is correct, his pessimism is misplaced.

Firstly on the numbers. Trying to read the poll-on-poll movements against specific political events is always speculative.

Fine Gael’s poll decline in the second half of 2014 was as much to do with the controversies surrounding medical cards, penalty points and Garda Ombudsman as it was to do with the politics of water.

Indeed middle class discomfort with water charges during 2014 had more to do with the initial charging regime, the handing over of PPS numbers and the excessive costs of Irish Water than with principled opposition to the charges and privatisation.

It is not at all clear that the Right2Water mobilisations had any material impact on Fine Gael’s poll numbers or standing with the electorate during 2014.

Replacing Shatter and Reilly with Fitzgerald and Varadkar coupled with the impact of job growth and tax cuts on middle class voters is clearly driving the Fine Gael poll recovery.

Alan Kelly’s revised water package will also have eased the concerns of some middle class voters.

As for Labour, in real terms their poll numbers have remained pretty constant for some time, largely unaffected either by the Right2Water mobilisations or the much hyped budget tax cuts.

While both Government parties have benefited from the positive result in the Marriage Equality referendum –and not without justification- it is too early to say whether this bounce will hold.

The two tier economic recovery currently underway should help Fine Gael in the run up to the election but will do little for Labour.

However all of this misses the more significant point about the polls and recent election results.

What matters most is the longer term trends and looked at in this way the cause for optimism is substantial.

For much of the southern states electoral history the Centre Right –represented by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael- took between 70% and 80% of the popular vote in general elections.

Since the 1990s this support has been falling, slowly at first and then more rapidly since the onset of the recession in 2008.

In the 2011 general election the Centre Right took their lowest share of the popular vote in the history of the state at 54%. In both the local and European elections in 2014 it fell further to 49% and 44.5% respectively.

This trend has continued in recent opinion polls with almost every one placing the Centre Right on less than 50%.

And herein lies both the opportunity and indeed the challenge for the southern Irish Left.

Of the party political left Sinn Féin is the only clear beneficiary of these significant electoral changes, doubling our electoral support since 2011 from 10% to somewhere close to 20%.

The remainder of the shift is scattered across a kaleidoscope of smaller parties and independent candidates of all ideological persuasions.

The opportunity for the Left is that a growing section of southern Irish society –possibly even a slim majority- wants change.

The challenge for the Left is how to convince these people that the Left is best placed to deliver that change.

As the general election fast approaches and voters start to focus on who they want to form the next Government everything is to play for.

That is why the decision of the Right2Water trade unions –Unite, Mandate, CPSU, CWC, OPATSI- to widen their focus from opposition to water charges to developing policy principles for a progressive Government is both timely and welcome.

They understand that the positive energy and activism that has underpinned opposition to water charges has the potential to become a broader movement for social, economic and political change.

The involvement of SIPTU in this dialogue is also welcome. Notwithstanding their support for Fine Gael and Labour austerity to date they need to be brought into any progressive alliance if it is to succeed.

Indeed unpopular as it may be to admit, ultimately the Labour Party needs to be brought into the fold too. For a Left majority to exist it needs to have the participation of the social liberal constituency represented by the Labour Party.

Meanwhile the decision of the Trotskyist left to try and drive a wedge into the Right2Water movement is as predictably as it is disappointing. They are neither interested nor capable of playing a part in building a left Government in Leinster House and are best left to their own devices.

So the immediate tasks for those of us on the Left who want to seriously challenge the Right for control of the state are clear.

• We have to build a political and social majority in support of social, economic and political transformation.

• We need to present a clear, coherent and credible programme for Government, based on an alternative model of social and economic development, that offers people well paid secure employment, high quality public and community services, fair and adequate taxation – all rooted in a strategy for economic growth that is environmentally sustainable and socially just.

• We need political parties and activists, trade unions, NGOs, and communities in every city, town and townland working in concert, popularising our alternatives and convincing people that a better, fairer Ireland is both possible and desirable.

• We need to continue to build the institutional and organisational capacity of the Left with our own think tanks, media and social networks to challenge those of the Right.

• We need to translate all of this activism into change at the polls to break the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael stranglehold on the southern Irish state and install a left wing Government implementing a left wing programme – if such a Government is not possible after the upcoming general election we should maintain the momentum and keep building until we have secured the requisite public support.

• We need to understand that the hard work only begins after you enter Government as the social and economic forces at home and in Europe opposed to real social and economic change will mobilise to thwart us at every move.

• We need to ensure that popular mobilisation continues if and when a left wing Government is installed to act as a guarantor of the promises made by progressive politicians at election time.

Clearly these are all enormous challenges requiring significant effort. Only time will tell if we can achieve them.

Ronan Burtenshaw’s blog is timely in that is draws our attention to the scale of the task in front of us and the often slow and frustrating pace of our own progress.

What is clear however is that our political and economic system is in crisis. People are looking for alternatives.

Whether they chose the alternative offered by those of us on the Left is in the main up to us.

  1. Mark says:

    Hi, Have you had an opportunity to review the 1Yi campaign and it’s objectives to see people-initiated referendums introduced into the Irish Constitution.? The campaign is by people for people and not related to any political party. I would appreciate your view on the campaign and it’s potential to open up the political system. Cheers, Mark

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