by Philip Ferguson
The February 26 southern Irish election spells the end of the viciously anti-working class Fine Gael-Labour coalition. While Fine Gael lost about 30% of its support, in terms of percentage of the vote, Labour went into meltdown, shedding about two-thirds of the vote it took in the previous, 2011 election. In terms of seats, Labour fared even worse.
In 2011 it won 37 seats, its most successful performance ever. After last Friday’s vote, it was left with only 7 seats. Even taking into account that the parliament was reduced from 166 to 158 seats, this was an absolutely massive loss, Labour’s worst performance in the 94-year history of the southern Irish state.
Although the bulk of Labour MPs lost their seats, several of the most odious managed to survive, including party leader Joan Burton who just scraped in as the last TD (member of parliament) elected in the 4-seat Dublin West constituency. (Southern Ireland’s form of proportional representation is the single transferable vote with multi-member constituencies.)
From austerity to. . . more austerity (thanks Labour)
In the 2011 election, Fianna Fail, the dominant party in the south since 1932 – FF won the most votes and the most seats in every election within that period – was devastated, winning only 20 seats. This was the result of FF, with its Green Party junior coalition partner, bailing out the banks, imposing austerity on the working class, lumbering the mass of the people with a huge national debt and subordinating the state to ‘the troika’ (unelected officials of the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund). Fine Gael, historically the second party in the southern state and only ever able to form coalition governments which lasted a single term, became the biggest party in the state for the first time ever. Labour also swept past Fianna Fail for the first time ever, becoming the number two party in the south. As usual, Labour went into coalition with Fine Gael, which is also the historically most economically right-wing and pro-British of the main Irish parties. Fine Gael was formed in 1935 through the merger of three right-wing parties, one of which was the fascist ‘Blueshirt’ movement. This coalition had a substantial majority.
Fine Gael-Labour continued, and deepened, the attack on workers’ rights and living standards begun by Fianna Fail and the Greens. Indeed, not only have Labour been thoroughly enmeshed in imposing cuts along with new taxes like the water tax, leading Labour politicians like Burton (who also served as deputy prime-minister) have been proper mongrels in leading the attacks. The more resistance developed, the more such Labour leaders turned their venom on working class activists and communities in which resistance was strongest. Labour has been determined to use the power of the state to get water meters in the ground and start imposing the charges on working class communities. Anti-water tax protesters have been arrested and jailed. When Burton’s car was blocked from moving during one protest, some of the protesters were arrested and charged with ‘kidnapping’ the wretched Labour leader. Prominent opponents of the water tax, including opposition members of parliament, have been roughed up by the cops, and even subjected to early morning raids and arbitrary arrest.
The Irish Labour Party has quite a history of attacks on civil liberties and involvement in repressive coalitions headed by the heirs of the old Irish fascist movement. In 1973-77, during one of its coalitions with Fine Gael, a police ‘heavy gang’ operated with impunity against left and republican activists and strict radio and TV censorship was imposed (‘Section 32’), with leading Labourite Conor Cruise O’Brien, later a virulent opponent of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, as minister of broadcasting. Activists were beaten up in custody and had confessions extracted through police violence.
Hard for Labour to recover
In the past, Labour’s popular vote has gone in cycles. After a few terms, a Fianna Fail government has become unpopular and part of its working class base has moved over to Labour which has secured enough seats to be junior coalition partner to Fine Gael. Such a coalition will last one term, at the end of which part of Labour’s votes will drift back to Fianna Fail and part will move over to some force on Labour’s left flank. A few elections later, Labour will get back the support it has lost. And so the cycle repeats.
This time, however, it will be much harder for Labour because they have been substantially overtaken by forces to their left. Last Friday Sinn Fein received twice as many first preference votes as Labour and will likely end up with about three times as many seats. It will be very hard for Labour to get this support back because Sinn Fein is shrewd enough not to blow such support by propping up an austerity government in the south, even though it is in government and imposing austerity in the north.
Moreover, Labour has lost out significantly to forces further left than Sinn Fein. In particular an alliance of Trotskyists, while receiving far less first preference votes than Labour, may well end up with as many seats as Labour. Plus there is a rake of left-wing independents, including several other Trotskyists, who all despise the Labour Party. In fact, it looks like the Trotskyists and left-of-Labour independents have outpolled the Labour Party.
The eclipse of the utterly rotten, corrupt and capitalist Irish Labour Party is to be cheered. It has done nothing but stab workers in the back for the whole of its existence during the history of the southern Irish state. It is not a party of, for or by workers. It is a kind of coalition of the top trade union bureaucrats and the liberal professional middle class. The professional middle class favour keeping the working class in line and the top union bureaucrats do all they can to contain, deflect and destroy workers’ resistance to the assaults of the employers, both private and state, and the government. This time round, however, workers have struck back. (Actually, historically, southern workers have tended to vote Fianna Fail, which filled the role a Labour-type party would play if Ireland was an imperialist country.)
New political cycle and the desire for real politics
Meanwhile, with a hung parliament, the options are either a new election or horse-trading between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail under the aegis of forming a ‘grand coalition’. The rise of left forces has thus not only broken Labour but also may force the two main remaining capitalist parties together, opening the way for the ending of ‘civil war politics’ – both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have their origins in the two sides that fought a bitter civil war in 1922-23.
The fact that the two major parties of the southern Irish establishment have received slightly less than half the popular vote while forces to their left, and to the left of the fake ‘Labour’ party, have done so well is also indicative of a wider trend across the globe. People have become both weary and wary of ‘mainstream’ establishment parties, politicians and politics. They want folks who stand for something other than middle-of-the-road soundbite banalities. This is behind the success of Trump on the right and Sanders on the left of mainstream/establishment US politics, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain (and to some extent UKIP), the initial success of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, the Left Bloc in Portugal and so on.
On the other hand, the rise of the parliamentary Trotskyists in Ireland, like the rise of left-of-Labour forces mentioned above, has some marked limits. So far these groups have not shown that they know how to use parliament in a revolutionary way – ie as simply a mechanism for building resistance in the workplaces and working class communities, let alone to disrupt the functioning of the capitalist parliament and state. Moreover, one of the two main Trotskyist groups in Ireland has a thoroughly reactionary position on the national question and has basically colluded for decades in the British armed occupation of the north; this group, the Socialist Party, is so soft on British imperialism that they even opposed the five basic political demands of the 1981 hunger strikers who died in the H-Blocks. Today, the SP colludes with screws who run a viciously repressive prison regime in the north.
Ultimately, the struggle right across Ireland will be won in the workplaces and working class communities. And it is the revolutionary forces that build real bases there who will lead the struggle for the economic, social and national liberation of Ireland.