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Tag Archives: irish labour party

A constant theme among leftists who regret the success of right wing populists is that the traditional left parties are responsible for their own decline in that they allowed themselves to become out of touch with … well, with whom? That’s never made entirely clear. Vague labels, however, are liberally sprinkled: working people, traditional supporters, working class, middle class, ordinary people, ordinary working people etc. The thrust of this approach is that the people they have in mind were there for the taking and the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers in the cases of USA and UK took them. Essentially it is an argument for some kind of left wing populism, i.e. tell these people something they want to hear so that they won’t be seduced by right wing populists.

The problem for a left approach like this becomes apparent when some of its advocates talk simultaneously of left parties returning to or sticking with their principles. Again, there’s no clarity, no attempt to discuss principles or indeed values. Without such discussion – without critical examination – a very important doubt is suppressed. The question that seldom, if ever, arises is this: What if traditional left values or principles are incompatible with telling those “ordinary people” what they want to hear? That is to say, there is a fundamental problem when “ordinary people” want, say, tax reductions, privatisations, more competition etc. etc. or even the impossible, say, the clock turned back and jobs, long-automated, restored.

However, there are just two groups being in touch with whom is fundamental to socialism.

Out of touch 1

The industrial working class was identified by Marx as having historical purpose because their values and progressive demands were universal and certainly not because they were a rabble easily seduced by leaders offering political baubles.* Their heirs are present today, more than willing to listen, more than capable of political argument, knowing well when they are being subjected to patronising bollocks or offered some factional, preferential crumb to be denied to others. No party in Ireland is addressing the working class. For sure, there’s no shortage of parties – sometimes with an upper class leadership – who think that raucous, rude, sneering, anti-establishment, ignorance and name calling is somehow working class but they ignore the real deal.**

A major preoccupation of the working class today is that their ambitions have now more or less been thwarted by the latest iteration of capitalism, i.e. I.T. and the disappearance of huge numbers of middle level, satisfying, well-paid jobs. There is no point in telling these people that those jobs can be resuscitated, or replaced in sufficient numbers by new similarly good jobs or that security in low paid, low-skill, low-status jobs will have to do. They are working class; they’ll see right through it. Anyone seeking their attention – never mind their support – better have a good argument or at least show that they live in the 21st century and understand the problem.***

Out of touch 2

Almost everyone who makes policy tends to be out of touch with the poor. There are two aspects to the failure. Firstly, economics based on rational choice either discounts or utterly fails to grasp the short time-scale necessarily of interest to those with immediate money problems. That is to say, those with insufficient money this week cannot seriously be asked to evaluate medium or long term possibilities. Secondly, well off activists and policy makers tend to sacrifice the poor to grand policy. That they could lose their income or that they are dependent on the state should be uppermost in debate but it seldom – if ever – is. Bluntly, the precarious position of the poor demands that they be the priority. Paradoxically, when it comes to this kind of neglect, socialists combine little excuse and a poor record. Their universalist and egalitarian thinking, together with the likelihood that they will know poor, working class people, should ensure that they be constantly aware of the poor and certainly of the different outlook of those with immediate money problems. The failure for socialists is most likely rooted in the revolutionary tradition and the commitment to grand schemes which subordinate the needs of a group – even the poor – to the greater project. However, in truth this is as right wing as it is left. When in the UK the privileged Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of short term deprivation over Brexit which would take perhaps 50 yrs to work out, he was not very different to the Irish anti-austerity leftists of some few years ago. They, when the Irish state had a mere three months’ money left to pay state workers and welfare recipients, wanted to reject conditions demanded by the state’s only lender. In that scenario they hoped something would turn up so that the poorest in the country could be paid; they wanted at best to gamble and at worst to sacrifice the welfare of the poor on a long term objective.

In touch

Having excluded the working class and the poor, there would seem now to be even less clarity on “being in touch”. Not so. In fact it’s pretty clear. What Irish socialists and in particular the majority in the Labour Party want is to be popular with those they see frequently either in media or in person. These could be the attendees at a large protest, a popular campaign waged by a civil society group to obtain a concession from the “political class”, attendees at a political clinic or those whose doors were selected for a canvass.

The common feature is that there is no intention to argue or convince anyone of anything. Indeed the only out-group seems to be the top 1% and they are usually to be sacrificed not for egalitarianism but to maintain the structure of inequality across the 99%.

A note to the declining Irish Labour Party

There are two possible routes to survival. Because they are incompatible a decision is required. Neither offers certainty of success.

The first is to engage along with every other party in the state – without exception – in the crowded, competitive market of “fairness”. Labour’s objective would be to get a slice large enough to ensure survival. While that course allows for marches and fists in the air, it’s a conservative, managerial position. It’s a competition in ideas and policies (which any rival can steal) aimed at issues. It’s a competition too to have one’s best issues accepted as newsworthy. There is no requirement to have an overall achievable objective and no requirement to argue for anything that would change the existing structure of inequality.††

The second is to look to the working class and universal values, and to argue for change in the conditions of the 21st century. This would put the Party out on a limb, i.e. unlike all the competitors in the fairness free-for-all. The doubt that absolutely has to be faced is whether or not there are sufficient voters open to that approach as would ensure the Party’s survival. The audience is comprised of the working class (In the meaningful as opposed to the polling sense) and others who might – sharing the participatory/republican outlook – be open to an argument for change.

In crude marketing terms it’s like this: When you’re on 3%, the choice of competing in the consumer market or of being more specialised and quality oriented is a difficult one.

The temptation is to do the familiar regardless of changed circumstances.

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These are links to my blog. Each expands a little on the respective points above

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/10/getting-a-firm-grip-the-labour-party-jobs-and-the-working-class/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/its-odd-in-ireland-all-the-parties-like-grass-roots-campaigns-and-no-one-is-in-opposition/

In the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, there are two distinct issues. One is crushingly obvious and should be boring but it excites media. The other is great and ignored. One is the need for ordinary – even collegiate – leadership and management within the parliamentary party. The other is coming to a decision about the nature of the party.

It is untenable that the party leader in any party be opposed by a significant minority of their parliamentary party. It is plain daft to continue when opposed by the majority. Either the leader goes, their opponents go, or one so changes as to placate the other side. Appeals to party unity just aren’t enough because it’s not a matter of one decision. It’s a matter of working together day after day – for years.

Party Leader is a difficult institution. Leaving aside more thoughtful considerations, the leader is the party figurehead for both the party generally and for its parliamentarians, and must enjoy the confidence of both.

There was a time when members played no role in electing a party leader. In recognition of their membership and in a spirit of democracy many parties changed. They developed different ways of selecting their leaders but always to prevent two outcomes: i) A leader popular with parliamentary colleagues but opposed by the wider party; and ii) A leader popular with the members but unacceptable to parliamentary colleagues. Now, it might be argued that all members are equal and that a parliamentarian should have no special role in selecting a leader. This refuses to accept that those working closely with the leader have a special interest or that that interest should simply be disregarded. In short, it is deaf to a parliamentarian’s plea, “Jaysus, we have to work closely with this person day in, day out. We must have some say.”

The UK Labour Party led by Ed Miliband devised a system of one member, one vote while effectively giving the parliamentary party a veto. Nomination for leadership is the preserve of the PLP and then the members vote for their preferred candidate. The idea is that members of parliament would hardly nominate someone whom they didn’t generally support. However, that is exactly what they did in nominating Jeremy Corbyn – while explaining that they did it to encourage contest and debate.

His election was assured by another development. Ed Miliband and co. made party membership inexpensive and undemanding. Registered supporters pay a fee of £3 and are entitled to vote for a leader. Members of long standing were lost in a huge throng of new arrivals. To complicate matters the new people are predominantly affluent and urban; they are middle class in the sense that pollsters use that term and unlike the constituents with whom the majority of Labour MPs would identify.*

Interestingly, the profile of the new member is a good match for that of a remain voter in the Brexit referendum, while the “heartland” Labour voter is a good match for a leave voter. Clearly the composition of the party and its relationship with voters is far more complex than is often presented.

Turning to the more basic question of the nature of the Labour Party, there was a time when the fundamental division on the left was between revolutionaries and those who chose parliamentary democracy. As more and more leftists abandon revolution and the nature of exploitation changes – at least in the West – a new division is apparent between those who remain with parliamentary democracy and those who see parliament as part of a wider struggle in which activism, street politics and pressure on the establishment is more important.

This is not the place to offer a critique; the point here is merely to emphasise that the two components of leftism are markedly different and cannot be reduced to policy differences, to “Corbynistas” versus “Blairites” or to “real socialists” versus “Tory-lite”. While it may be presented as a struggle for the “soul of Labour” or who represents true Labour values or who is more in touch with the people, the division is more basic. It’s about how the left should operate. It’s about parliament.

For this reason the best course now might be for Labour to split. Of course there are many arguments against that. It will be characterised as a split over policy or some tawdry question of the “electability” of Jeremy Corbyn. However, in time – most of it being out of majority or left-led government – the two approaches can contend openly in public rather than pretending that this is a mere squabble within a party.**

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/01/how-middle-class-are-labour-s-new-members

** In Ireland where the left is much smaller this essential difference focusses not on a split but on whether the tiny Labour Party should follow the other left parties into protest, pressure and campaigns or should adopt a more socialist position by opting exclusively for parliament. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

The labour Party – my party – is in turmoil. Questions are being asked about leadership, management, a revised programme for government and more. However, now more than ever the most useful question that the Labour Party can ask of itself is what is its purpose? Many see its purpose as defending welfare payments, sometimes jokingly referred to as being the political wing of St. Vincent DePaul. In recent years it has become conventional to say that its purpose – like every other party in the state – is to create a fairer society. Since entering government its purpose has become the restoration the economy.

Defending welfare payments and restoring the economy are worthy objectives. “Fairness”, however, has become a weasel word. It has been emptied of meaning. Anyone at all can be comfortably in favour of fairness but essentially it is a conservative position because all significant change – particularly in wealth or income – can be described as unfair. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

It might have been expected that socialism would feature. It certainly is mentioned regularly and is a focus of rows usually of a very technical nature. Open, iconoclastic discussion is rare because of the dominance – across decades – of conflict over socialism versus social democracy. While many seem to enjoy this jousting, it hardly qualifies as a debate. Indeed the Labour Party’s on-line forum, a model of openness and freedom, had to impose a rule that forbade questioning a person’s socialism. The reason was simple and born out of long experience: it was realised that as soon as a person is subjected to the “you’re-not-a-real-socialist” routine he/she would become defensive and discussion would rush down the old, boggy cul de sac of socialism/social democracy.

Many on the left would say that socialism/social democracy is the only debate, that it is fundamental, and that it must be addressed before any progress can be made. Ok then, perhaps it is worth risking a short discussion but it is a risk; it risks losing the attention of many leftists and it risks attracting comments about betrayal, principles, heroes rolling in their graves and the other traditional trappings of socialism reduced to a “faith”.

Socialists who favour a revolution generally treat with disdain those who accept parliamentary democracy and would want to describe them all as Social Democrats. However, the majority of socialists are opposed to revolution and regard the term “social democrat” as an insult. In truth insult is often intended.

One tradition sees a parliamentary route to a socialist society. The idea is that reform would be piled upon reform until capitalism is effectively replaced. This is now seldom discussed among socialists. Indeed, the question of transition to socialism is avoided. Non-revolutionary socialists anxious to avoid being labelled “social democrat” are often unwilling to let go of the term “revolution”. In seeking to redefine revolution to suit their peaceful intent, the term is drained of its meaning. This becomes downright silly when talk turns to a “spiritual revolution”.

There are socialists who are serious about a parliamentary road to socialism. They argue the need for a party or union of parties to win a left majority. This party/alliance then would not need to compromise with a right wing party and could legislate capitalism out of existence. A less ambitious objective is more common: a list of broadly leftist reforms. Again this would be delivered by a left majority. The problem of course is that the left programme itself would be a compromise and that there would be no plan B in the case of failing to achieve a majority. Indeed a plan B could never be developed because avoiding coalition with conservatives and/or liberals is their raison d’être.

So, leaving aside revolution there seems to be two leftist options: a majority left government or a coalition with liberals or conservatives.

It is accepted by many on the left in Ireland that it is coalition with right wing parties that prevents the emergence of a left majority vote. It is said that if the Labour Party eschewed coalition or if the Labour Party disappeared altogether, sufficient numbers of Irish people would in a relatively short period change their political views and elect a socialist government. The problem with this approach is that there is no evidence to support it. It is a hope in spite of the evidence that a large majority of Irish voters prefer the right.

Another problem is that the left majority project is usually linked to left unity, i.e. bringing all or most of the left parties together on an agreed programme. That is to say, there is acceptance that it will be necessary to maximise support. Now, apart from the fact that these parties tend to despise one another, there is the question of excluding Labour, Labour’s members and crucially the sizeable Labour vote. Until recently it was assumed that Labour’s reliable 10% or so vote would transfer unproblematically to a new force on the left. More recently this vote has been dismissed as right wing and irrelevant to the project of building a left majority. The truth is that this large (by Irish left standards) and curiously reliable vote is unresearched, and no one knows much about it. However, it is reasonable to suggest that dumping or antagonising what is possibly the largest concentration of left votes is not a sensible way to start building towards a left majority.

Consider this scenario: The Labour Party has been destroyed and no longer exists. A left programme for government has been agreed by a group of left parties. All of these parties honour agreements not to oppose one another in an election. Labour’s traditional 10% support base moves to support the left grouping. Huge numbers of traditionally right wing voters are convinced to vote left. With all of these unlikely events coinciding, what could possibly go wrong? The obvious answer is that the outcome could still fall short – probably considerably short – of a majority.

If no one right wing party had achieved a majority, then the vexed question of coalition arises. Unless this is quickly dismissed the left grouping will very likely disintegrate. However, should it remain united or should a significant portion of it remain united, the whole or part will be confronted by coalition. Because it made no serious plans for this predictable eventuality, it will be in the situation that Labour frequently inhabits: confronted by coalition and with no clear notion what to do. In other words, a left grouping is likely to have worked to eliminate the Labour Party only to find that it has replaced the Labour Party.

It’s long past time the thoughtful elements within the Irish left stopped messing about and started making life difficult for political opponents and for those who do well out of the Irish structure of economic inequality. In other words, if it is not possible to achieve some structural change by way of coalition, it is time to abandon the parliamentary route. That means socialists becoming activists who would join pressure groups in that burgeoning area which accepts rule by a “political class” and progress as achieving favour at the expense of a rival group. Truth be told, many socialists and progressives have already gone there.

That’s a depressing prospect: socialists reduced to a role in managing the system while retaining the trappings of protest and anti-establishment. It’s time to stare coalition with a right wing party straight in the face. State the basic price of coalition as well as the areas of compromise and negotiation. The basic price would have to be modest in socialist terms but exorbitant in right wing terms.

It is highly unlikely that large numbers of anti-coalition socialists will look afresh at coalition. The anti-stance has been held for too long and has been concreted into a principle. That leaves the battered Labour Party. It is not averse to coalition but is very unsure of its purpose. The Labour Party needs to open up a clear space between it and the conservatives who believe that fairness and social justice are meaningful. It needs to state that the Party’s objective is a measurable reduction of inequality of income over each year of the lifetime of a government. For that gain the Labour Party should coalesce with the devil but should not coalesce with a saint for anything less.