An interesting year for the left

2011 has been a very interesting year for the southern Irish party political left, writes Eoin Ó Broin.

The general election in February brought the largest number of left-wing deputies into the Oireachtas in its 90-year history. 63 TDs were elected on a variety of social democratic, left republican, revolutionary socialist and independent left platforms.

The combined left vote broke the 40% barrier for the first time in general election history.

The electorate was offered three very distinct left electoral platforms, in the forms of Labour, Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance.

Labour, Gilmore-for-Taoiseach rhetoric notwithstanding, promised to meliorate the worst excesses of a centre-right Fine Gael government. The party’s horizon, supported by the main players in the trade unions movement – ICTU and SIPTU - was limited to making a bad government better.

Sinn Féin, for the first time in recent history, promised not to support either a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael government. The party called instead for an alliance of the left with Labour.

The United Left Alliance, a new electoral coalition of the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, rejected the reformism of both Labour and Sinn Féin and promised to use the Dáil chamber to promote a mass movement of working people in support of socialism.

Labour were the clear winners in this battle for left-wing votes, securing 19.5% of the popular vote and 37 seats in the parliament. Sinn Féin secured 9.9% of the vote and 14 seats, while the ULA secured 2.6% of the vote and 5 seats.

A further seven progressive independent deputies were elected on a variety of issue and locality based platforms.

Mainstream media coverage of the election focused on the collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote and the formation of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. In doing so it missed the more significant long-term shift that was taking place in electoral behaviour.

The combined Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael vote fell to an historic general election low of 53%, down from an average of 70% during the 1990s and 80s, and an average of 85% in the 20 years previous to that.

The Labour Party was faced with a decision of unique historic significance. Should they fulfill their historic role as the State’s third party, propping up successive centre right governments? Or should they refuse to play this minor role and in doing so force Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael into a grand coalition?

The consequences of the first course of action – significant electoral decline for Labour - are well documented. The consequences of the second course will remain unknown as party strategists and in turn party members voted overwhelmingly in favour of entry into yet another right-wing government.

The Programme for Government agreed by the new coalition partners was as much a Fianna Fáil document as it was a Fine Gael one. It accepted the parameters of both the Fianna Fáil National Recovery Plan and the EU/IMF/ECB austerity programme.

Its adherence to the FF/EU/IMF/ECB deficit reduction timetable would mean at least four consecutive austerity budgets.

Significantly, any counter-balancing fiscal stimulus and investment in job creation would come from sale of state assets via Fine Gael’s NewERA programme, subject to Troika approval. It was hard to see any Labour Party fingerprints in the economic policy content of the Programme for Government.

During the following ten months the Labour Party were hit with a series of political setbacks as Government settled down to business.

The much hyped jobs budget was emasculated into a €40m jobs initiative with little investment in job creation. The JLC/ERO wage setting mechanisms were attacked, first by Fine Gael’s Jobs Minister Richard Bruton and then by the High Court.

Bank bailouts continued, with €3.1bn given to Anglo Irish Bank in March and €20bn given to Irish banks in total. Bondholders were paid in full, even those without State guarantees. And in one of the year’s most dramatic U-turns, the Labour Party voted to extend the Eligible Liabilities bank guarantee, despite having opposed its introduction in 2009 and its extension in 2010.

Meanwhile unemployment, emigration, mortgage distress and poverty levels all increased.

Advocates of Labour’s participation in Government pointed to a number of policy successes, including the restoration of the minimum wage and the reduction in the EU/IMF interest rate. Labour’s critics pointed out that the first was an election commitment shared with Fine Gael and the latter a consequence of the crisis in Greece.

However with significant electoral successes in October, the Labour Party could be forgiven for thinking that things were going according to plan. Michael D. Higgins’s 39.6% vote share in the presidential election was impressive. In November’s Dublin West by-election Labour’s vote was down, but they still won the seat comfortably.

Unfortunately they had little time to savour their electoral gains. Within a month they would lose three deputies to the opposition benches. Minister for Housing Willie Penrose, Dublin North East TD Tommy Broughan and newly elected Dublin West TD Patrick Nulty all withdrew their support from aspects of the Government’s programme and in doing so lost the party whip.

More significantly Labour were also losing the support of the electorate. In the first five months after the general election Labour’s poll average held at 18.5%. In September and October it averaged at 16%. But in the immediate aftermath of the December Budget it dropped dramatically, to 13%.

Given the scale of the Budget’s assault on the welfare of low and middle-income families, this drop is hardly surprising.

Labour Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin announced a reduction in public sector numbers for 2012 of 6,000. Labour Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton cut 15 different social welfare benefits including those to older people, people with disabilities and community employment schemes. Labour Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn broke a clear pre-election promise and increased student fees while cutting funding for disadvantaged schools.

A Eurobarometer poll published post-budget found that trust in the Government had fallen by a staggering twenty points to 22%, while a Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes post-budget poll found that satisfaction in the Government had dropped by ten points to 26%.

On the opposition benches Sinn Féin, the ULA and left independents mounted a sustained assault on the pro-austerity and anti-growth policies contained in the Programme for Government and 2012 Budget.

Without a hint of irony or embarrassment, Fianna Fáil joined them in their efforts.

As a small part of a larger and ideologically mixed technical group of independents the ULA struggled to be heard. Increasingly, liberal and right-wing voices such as Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly and Dublin South TD Shane Ross dominated, while ULA deputies jostled with progressive independents for airtime and column inches.

Meanwhile the real battle for leadership on the opposition benches was between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil.

With Fianna Fáil’s credibility still badly damaged from its 13 years in government, Sinn Féin was emerging as a voice of sustained and credible opposition, opposing bad government policy and proposing detailed alternatives in equal measure.

The party was becoming the leading advocate of an alternative pro-growth, pro-equality platform in opposition to the austerity and bank bailouts of the EU/IMF programme implemented by Fine Gael and Labour.

And the public appeared to respond positively. In the four months after the general election the party’s poll average was 10.7%. This rose to 13% in September. Boosted by the presidential election campaign of Martin McGuinness and strong Dáil performances by Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin’s October poll average was 17%, rising to an average of 18% in December. Eight consecutive polls placed the party above 15%, and on an average score of 17%.

The final opinion poll of the year (the Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes survey) had Fine Gael on 30%, Labour on 11%, Sinn Féin on 21%, Fianna Fáil on 20% and the independents, including the ULA on 18%. The percentage swing from the general election was Fine Gael -6%, Labour - 8.5%, Sinn Féin +11%, Fianna Fáil +2.5%, and Independents +1%.

At one level this represents significant change. Within the party political left Labour is struggling under the weight of its support for a right-wing government. Sinn Féin is gaining ground, and not just at Labour’s expense. The ULA are holding their own but finding it difficult to be heard beyond their marginal base of support.

But the overall strength of the left-wing vote remains broadly as it was in February, with a December poll average of 43.5%, just above where it was at in the general election.

2012 looks set to be another interesting year. Opposition to household and septic tank charges; the possibility of a treaty referendum on new austerity rules; continuing Eurozone instability; and the prospect of yet another austerity budget all loom large.

For Labour the challenge is whether or not to remain in government. While party strategists are clearly there for the long haul, the pressures of falling poll ratings and increasing parliamentary party defections could weaken that resolve.

For Sinn Féin the challenge is to displace Fianna Fáil as the largest opposition party in the State while maintaining a radical and credible left republican alternative, alongside bedding down the power sharing arrangements in the North and mitigating British government austerity within the limited powers of the Assembly.

For the ULA the challenge is to decide whether it is a genuinely broad based party of the anti-capitalist left and whether to increase its electoral strength on this basis, or whether it is to remain an electoral coalition of the SWP and SP and as such a marginal force in the politics of the State.

But beyond these narrow party political concerns there is a bigger and more urgent challenge - the challenge of building a social and political movement in favour of a left-wing Government pursuing a pro-growth and pro-equality agenda.

The conditions for such a movement in southern Irish society have never been greater – with growing electoral support and institutional strength for the left; strong evidence based policy alternatives being offered; and a growing alternative media.

But significant obstacles remain - a divided party political left; a weak civil society; and a population gripped by apathy and fear.

The principle challenge in 2012, for those of us who seek a left alternative to austerity and inequality, must be to present a credible plan to rebuild our society and our economy in an equitable and sustainable way; to create new alliances within the existing political and social organisations of the left; and to give people hope in order to inspire them to become involved in a movement for real change.

Eoin Ó Broin is a political activist, writer, and member of Sinn Féin.

Image top: sea turtle.