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It’s very easy to be glib about the approach of those Irish left politicians and parties who prefer street agitation to participation in government.

Despite their relatively small size, a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left”, “socialist left” or “hard left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. A journalist/interviewer asking them if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern 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.

Supporting and fomenting popular protest without due regard to its political content – i.e. whether or not it is right or left wing – while discrediting and distancing themselves from parliament, makes revolutionary sense. While it is certain that socialist revolutionaries still exist, it is decades since I’ve met one. I’ve tried but in recent years my discussions with, let’s call them, militant socialists have failed to discover a revolutionary.

There are many who use the word “revolution” but their use is meaningless within ordinary political discourse. When questioned about their intentions, i.e. when asked explicitly if they want to overthrow or break the existing political system and replace it, their replies are pretty consistent. They tend to be shocked, suspicious or hurt and they deny any revolutionary intent. They are essentially playing with the word. They don’t mean a revolution in the conventional sense; they don’t want to create a crisis during which they will seize power and rule for the common good.

Neither do they want to join the socialist tradition which seeks reforms through parliament.

This approach is by no means thoughtless. On the contrary it is a developing strand of leftism with old and deep roots. Historically, left revolutionaries viewed the bourgeois state as irredeemable, to be smashed and replaced by popular, local, grass-roots institutions run by workers. The revolutionaries had no time for socialists who favoured a parliamentary route of winning elections in order to govern in the interests of the masses or gradually to create socialism by reform piled on reform. The former went their way and governed huge areas of the world but fell into a rapid decline in the late 20th century especially with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The latter went on to become part of the establishment, supplying Labour and Socialist Party governments, especially in Western Europe.

Reducing parliament to an area of struggle alongside street protest makes little sense without revolutionary intent. However, for activists who have spent so long decrying slow reform by way of parliament as mere social democracy, the abandonment of revolution and integration with the Labour/European Socialist mainstream, would probably seem a humiliation or even some kind of betrayal. They have come to, however, a solution – a workable compromise and yes, I’m afraid, it’s yet another third way – which maintains the trappings and style of revolution while becoming integral to the cargo/pressure system of politics. That system is one which has long dismissed universal objectives or political values as a basis for policy and instead operates by way of competing groups (some interest and some geographic, a polyarchy) which exert pressure on the government/political class/establishment to achieve a higher priority in state spending or delivery of infrastructure against rival groups. Leftists who have little or no time for parliament and government have found a niche: they now compete to represent workers not as the working class making universal demands but as a group confronting the establishment in pursuit of favourable treatment.

Apart from single-issue independents, it is new and fresh in Ireland to take explicit pressure group campaigning into parliament and to be seen to be confronting government rather than participating – even as loyal opposition. Should this course be successful, imitation is inevitable.

It’s a paradox really: that without revolution, revolutionary socialists have established a role within the cargo/pressure political system, a system that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens. Stated bluntly, they are now conservatives. The task of achieving reforms aimed specifically at changing the system and at altering the structure of inequality then falls to socialists who will demand such reforms as the price extracted for governing in coalition with supporters of the system. They will be decried in and out of parliament by those who prefer that political decisions and priorities be determined by the constant struggle of competing pressure groups and they will unfavourably be compared by establishment journalists to “principled” or “real” socialists – the “hard left” – who strike revolutionary poses while dependably supporting the cargo/pressure system, campaigning like all other parties for delivery to a locale or preferment for a group. Sadly, that group seeking preferment is what they are making of the working class.

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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 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.

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* 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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People_Before_Profit_Alliance

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Austerity_Alliance%E2%80%93People_Before_Profit

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/the-anti-austerity-alliance-and-people-before-profit-1.2520628

** 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.

 

 

There are some socialists and other progressives arguing for a rejection of the 30th amendment * but their opposition is based on one and/or two rickety foundations.

Firstly, there has always been an affinity between socialism and the better parts of liberalism, especially those parts which defend and seek to expand personal freedom. However, an overly rigorous defence of negative liberty (freedom from intrusion, compulsion etc.) can be at odds with the public good. This is one of those situations. No one seriously believes that ordinary citizens will be hauled before a committee of the Oireachtas and unjustly treated. However, some opponents of the amendment argue that because they fear that it MIGHT be possible, the amendment should be voted down.

Secondly, there is among socialists and some other progressives a strong and healthy anti-establishment culture. It is so strong, however, as to be quite easily manipulated by the establishment. On this issue it is happening. The constant derision of parliamentary democracy and elected politicians – the aim of which is to paint pseudo-radicals, who are often journalists, in a good light and to convince the general public that there is no hope of real change – has been effective. In this instance some socialists have been duped into thinking that because the proposal comes from government it should be opposed or that giving more power to politicians (the “establishment”) is anti-progressive. There is an old socialist test: Which side are you on? In this instance one way to BEGIN to clarify a true anti-establishment stance is to look at who favours and who opposes. However,   while doing so remember the attractions of being seen as “anti-establishment” or the depth of true anti-establishment culture on the left which makes it likely that some socialists will mistakenly take the establishment side and favour a rejection.

* 30th Amendment to the Constitution – Oireachtas inquiries

Existing text of section 15.10:

1. Each House shall make its own rules and standing orders, and shall have power to attach penalties for their infringement, and shall have power to ensure freedom of debate, to protect its official documents and the private papers of its members, and to protect itself and its members against any person or persons interfering with, molesting or attempting to corrupt its members in the exercise of their duties.

It is proposed to renumber this as 15.10.1 and insert:

2. Each House shall have the power to conduct an inquiry, or an inquiry with another House, in a manner provided by law, into any matter or matters stated by the House or Houses concerned to be of general public importance.

3. In the course of any such inquiry the conduct of any person (whether or not a member of either House) may be investigated, and the House or Houses concerned may make findings in respect of the conduct of that person concerning the matter to which the inquiry relates.

4. It shall be for the House or Houses concerned to determine, with due regard to the principles of fair procedures, the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest for the purposes of ensuring an effective inquiry into any matter to which subsection 2 applies.