Reflections after Right2Water Progressive Irish Government conference

Posted: June 22, 2015 in Government, Irish Left, Right2Water, Sinn Féin

Historically the Irish left has suffered from two weaknesses – a poverty of ambition and a lack of credible alternatives. These weaknesses, more than anything else, are the reason why the south of Ireland has never had a left wing government.

Last weekend’s conference organised by the five Right2Water trade unions –Unite, Mandate, CPSU, CWU, OPATSI- sought to address these weaknesses.

The reformist left, led by Labour and SIPTU, have always set their sights too low. Overwhelmed by their lack of political strength they were never able to lift their horizons beyond mitigating the worst effects of centre right Governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

The revolutionary left, led by an alphabet soup of Leninist grouplets, have never been able to lift themselves out of the comfort zone of pure opposition and slogan based politics. Despite the important role these groups have played in many grass roots campaigns their impossibilism has led to self-marginalisation.

The result has been a left that has never been able to make the transition from a temporary repository of public anger to an electoral force strong enough to lead a Government.

For many of us the Hobsons choice of shouting from the side-lines or acting as the mudguard for the centre right has never been enough.

Those of us who are serious about building a better Ireland have long argued for the building of a radical and credible left that combines the best of the reformist and revolutionary traditions in order to seriously contend for power.

Sinn Féin’s significant electoral growth is based, in part, on the party’s ability to present radical and credible left republican social and economic alternatives. Opposing austerity on its own is not enough. People want policies that can deliver real change.

The high quality evidenced based policy work of organisations including TASC, The National Women’s Council of Ireland and the Community Platform to name just three has given additional substance to the arguments of the left.

The decision of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to invest considerable resources into the Nevin Economic Research Institute, to provide a left alternative to the orthodox ESRI, has filled another important chink in our armour.

But the most significant development of all has been the hundreds of thousands of people who have mobilised in opposition to water charges.

First led by grass roots community groups and various parties of the left, the creation of the Right2Water umbrella by five of the country’s leading trade unions took the water movement to a new level.

To their credit, the unions were quick to realise the potential of this movement beyond forcing the current government or its successor to scrap these unjust charges.

The decision of Unite, Mandate, CPSU, CWU and OPATSI to open up a broader debate within the Right2Water movement is an initiative of real significance.

The unions facilitated two events, bringing together political parties, trade unions and grass roots community groups, the aim of which was to provoke a debate on the kinds of principles which should inform a future left wing Government.

In May they brought speakers from Syriza, Podemos and other European parties to share their experiences of building popular political support for real social, economic and political change.

At that conference the unions launched a discussion document, Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government, and invited submissions to inform a second conference to take place in June.

In advance of the June event the unions launched an Alternative Economic Framework for a Progressive Irish Government. The document set out how a renegotiation of the EU fiscal rules and a number of changes to the state’s tax system could generate the resources needed for a fair recovery.

The June event brought together 250 activists from a broad spectrum of the left. There were seasoned campaigners and people only recently mobilised by the water movement. Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government was discussed, amendments were tabled and a final document was agreed.

From here the unions hope to hold town hall meetings in every part of the state to bring the discussion to as many people as possible.

While most of the media ignored this important gathering, those that paid some attention seemed to miss the intention of those involved.

This is not about the formation of an electoral alliance in advance of the upcoming general election. Nor is it about dictating the policy detail to any of the parties of the left.

The ambition is to open up a national conversation about alternatives to the failed centre right economic consensus that has dominated southern governments for thirty years.

The hope is that during that conversation people will see that the left has a credible policy alternative and will vote accordingly.

This conversation will not end at the next general election, but will continue whatever the outcome of that particular contest.

Given that up to 40% of voters currently chose candidates that describe themselves as left wing and another 40% are either undecided or just don’t vote, the possibility of building a real social base for a future left wing Government is no longer a pipe dream.

The centre right has dominated the political life of this state for too long. The left’s historic poverty of ambition and lack of credible alternatives has made it easy for them. But if last weekend’s Right2Water conference is anything to go by the days of the left giving the right an easy game are well and truly over.

This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post on 21.6.15

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