The 2016 general election in Ireland saw the two largest political parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) share a combined vote of less than 50% and the Labour Party reduced to a small wounded cadre of seven parliamentarians. The conventional interpretation of this outcome is that there has been a leftward shift in overall Irish political sentiment which has made the Labour Party at best a mild left irrelevance and at worst a party of poseurs when compared to the emergent “real left”.
There is a possibility that the Labour Party in its weakened state will accept this established account and move simplistically to compete within rather than challenge the orthodox view. From a socialist perspective the problem with the orthodoxy is that increasingly the left in Ireland is implicated in a stable, conservative system of competing interest groups. It is important, therefore, that the Labour Party take time to think about the nature and complexity of this system with a view to confronting it rather than cutting a dash within it.
Despite their relatively small size a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left” or “socialist left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. When parliamentarians elected under the AAA/PBP* banner are asked if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern, the interviewer is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system. Now, while there is no possibility that Labour will join their tradition or at this stage find that theory plausible, there is a real risk that a demoralised and tiny Labour Party will thoughtlessly emulate their activism.
The quagmire into which Labour could very easily disappear is made of “grass roots”, “traditional support base”, “founding principles”, “the people we represent”. “listening to our members” etc. To survive Labour must look hard at the tempting system which has so developed to protect privilege that it easily accommodates dissent, anti-establishment and traditional revolutionaries. To survive and more importantly to keep alive the socialist minority in Ireland Labour must decide to turn away from the community service which most members crave and instead address the Demos – the masses – though the rest of the left opt for competing pressure groups.
Perhaps uniquely Ireland has neutralised opposition to privilege and economic inequality by accommodating almost all dissent within a safe mechanism paradoxically seen as anti-establishment. It’s certainly not new; the Fianna Fáil way – inherited from the early Sinn Féin – has been to insinuate themselves into local and civil society organisations in order to bring pressure on government or the establishment. In this way the most powerful political party historically in Ireland and having been in government for 61 of the past 84 years, can pose as anti-establishment. The mechanism operates by way of “cargo politics” in which candidates are elected to deliver public resources to a local area at the expense of other areas, and – more importantly here – by way of similarly competing civil society and pressure groups. Journalists can be more or less anti-establishment by favouring praiseworthy pressure groups, while the most admired political activists are similarly attached. Meanwhile, any citizen no matter how rich, well-connected or conservative can be anti-establishment by calling for more resources for a deprived group.
The “establishment” is variously the “government” or the “political class” and it reacts to the shifting pressures by giving a bit here and a bit there. Public discussion of contending political values, never mind rival versions of a good society, is vanishingly rare. Indeed discussion of priorities for state spending is prevented by hearing all claimants equally and accepting a fairness doctrine which dictates that no one either gains or loses a great deal. There are small, occasional changes determined by “public pressure” but overall the structure of economic relativities is maintained.
Now, the left would reject this characterisation of establishment and anti-establishment. They would see themselves as real anti-establishment but they would make this point while they move further and further, and more prominently into the stabilising or conservative, anti-establishment mechanism. There are three linked features of this move which – though they have a familiar radical veneer – illustrate the extent of left conservatism.
i) Class reduced to mere interest group
Unfortunately it’s becoming rare to hear socialists mention class. This has lead to the term functioning merely as an affiliation signal. Credibility among some leftists depends on stating explicitly that society is class based but there is little requirement beyond using the word. The kind of Marxist analysis which sought to define working class by attributes and then to calculate possible numbers has been replaced by acceptance of the class categories used by pollsters. This has led to the neglect of working class values, abandonment of the universal significance of the working class and acceptance of the working class as no more than a relatively deprived social bracket, i.e. a large pressure group demanding concessions from the government, political class or establishment.
ii) Representing and defending communities
The increasing emphasis on marking out territory is a further drift away from a meaningful view of class. The notion of deprived housing estates in revolt, besieged by the establishment and in need of defence is attractive to activists and has recent roots in the experience of Northern Ireland where territories were marked out for defence by one side or the other. There is now competition to establish exclusive political leadership within geographic areas identified as “working class estates”. It is common for activists from other areas to move to “defend” these estates.
It is nonsense of course. These housing estates are long established, comprised of family homes and are an integral part of society. The notion that – because they are relatively deprived and troubled – they are attacked by the state and its workers, and are no-go areas for unapproved political canvassers and politicians is a gross imposition. Moreover, it is an authoritarian affront to residents to suggest that they need leadership, particularly from outsiders with a more privileged background.**
iii) Favouring the street over parliament
In theory and in sentiment the sight of workers marching and organising in defiance of capitalist rule and the oppressive state apparatus is vital to the revolutionary left. In theory they should be marching for something which cannot be conceded and thus hastening the final crisis of capitalism. In this view the determinants of change are people in the streets and not representatives in parliament whose role is the secondary one of agitating within the foremost institution of liberal democracy.
Because it is now so clearly implausible, understanding the sentimental attachment to this tradition is easier than understanding the endurance of its place in left theory. Senior police officers routinely say that the force not only accepts protest but will facilitate it and it is odd that this seldom prompts doubt among those committed to street protest. However, some leftists do see the problem and distinguish between protest and effective protest. The former has been institutionalised to the extent that it is now quasi constitutional. Its primary function is that of a lightning rod which runs dissent safely to earth. An older safety metaphor might be preferred: it let’s off steam. Its other function is to display numbers. That’s why after a protest march there is inevitably dispute over attendance; the larger the attendance, the greater the pressure for a concession. (RTE, the national broadcaster, now reports estimated attendances as rival claims and leaves citizens to judge numbers from the TV pictures.)
The latter – effective protest – in reality isn’t protest as conventionally understood. It is political action aimed at some immediate end, usually preventing something happening, e.g. installation of water meters or the holding of a meeting. In seeking publicity it clearly has a genuine communication component extending beyond the ritual chanting of “peaceful protest”. However, it is also clear that while thousands are prepared to attend a “respectable” march, only a small number involve themselves in “effective protest”. In short, the masses accept the quasi-constitutional protest but reject direct action.
From a socialist perspective these trends have little or no reformative – never mind transformative – value and are fatally unconvincing to potential supporters. The working class is properly characterised by – among other things – admirable and universal values, not support for concessions from rulers. Its reduction to an interest group to be served, patronised, organised or led is an affront to the citizens concerned and to socialism. Moreover, the citizen who is likely to support either a socialist alternative or a somewhat more equal society can see the yawning chasm between sectarian chanting and a plausible argument.
The Labour Party is in more than enough trouble now. It is vital for two reasons that it is not sucked deeper into the conservative system of issues, competing demands and policies determined by focus-group research into interests. Firstly, while they come from very different traditions, every other party is serving and supportive of that system and there’s not much point in Labour joining that competition. Secondly and more importantly, there is a role for Labour in opposing the conservative system of cargo politics and competing interest groups.
There is no way of knowing the electoral consequences of Labour making a break with tradition and directly disputing the views of the majority. Indeed, there are no data on what binds the relatively stable minority of people who vote Labour. This essay assumes a significant minority of citizens who are really – as opposed to apparently – opposed to the observable, established system and are well disposed to hearing a political argument rather than mere contending pleas for preferment – pleas addressed to rulers carelessly referred to as the government, the establishment or the political class.
* The most prominent components of this alliance are the Socialist Workers Party marketed as People Before Profit and the old Militant Tendency relaunched as The Socialist Party after expulsion from The Labour Party. Its more complex alliances can be found here:
** Counter establishment
Ruling a working class estate reflects a history in Ireland that has had some success. The idea is to make the state illegitimate or powerless and to usurp its functions in serving the people. This is what Sinn Féin did during the War of Independence; while making areas ungovernable or taking control, they established a parliament and a law enforcement system. The approach reappeared in the Provisional SF/IRA campaign in Northern Ireland when the UK state ceased to function in quite a few areas (Security forces could enter only by force of arms.) and in the Republic when the role of An Garda was usurped in tackling drug dealers. It was in evidence again in the details of enquiries and kangaroo courts addressing sex abusers in the ranks of SF/IRA and in the alternative celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.