What lessons are there for the political Left to draw from the recent General Election in the south of Ireland. [RoI] On the surface it looks pretty dark, the more so if one has been reading the press, who have been proclaiming that the election has been a disaster for the Irish Left. All agree SF had a very disappointing election, the party started the campaign with five TDs in the Dáil and leadership hopes of at the very least doubling that number; and being invited by Bertie Ahearn to join a Fianna Fáil led coalition Government. Only to come down to earth with a hefty bump with the unexpected loss of Sean Crowe’s Dublin South West, and far from making any gains SF came out of the election with four seats in the Dáil, one down on their number in the last parliament.
The Green Party were defending six parliamentary seats all of whom were elected in the 2002 general election, they maintained this number and increased their first preference votes by almost 1%. Nothing spectacular but they must have come out of the election pretty pleased, not least because Bertie Ahearn called them in for talks about entering a coalition with FF.
As I write the Greens have just rejected his offer, which seems to have surprised many media pundits, who were basing their analyses partly on the fact the Green Party in Germany entered into a coalition government in 1998 with Gerhard Schröder’s party the SPD. Over looking the fact that this was a Red-Green progressive coalition, all be it not of the deepest red. If the Green Party had entered a coalition with FF it would have negated much of what the Green’s stood for, as Bertie far from being on the left, is on economic matters a neo-liberal and pro globalization to boot, which is anathema to most Green Party members.
Labour came out of the count with twenty seats, the same number as they gained in the 2002 general election, although they were one seat down, having gained an extra TD in a bye-election during the course of the Parliament.
The Socialist Party were hardest hit on the left, loosing their only sitting TD Joe Higgins, which was a blow to not only the SP but the left in general, as Joe was a real asset to the struggle for justice, equality and the re-distribution of wealth.
Tony Gregory always a force for the good and Independent TD for Dublin Central,who most would consider as being on the left politically was reelected.
Whilst certainly not a good night for the left, which can ill afford to lose a single seat, let alone two of its more prominent players, it was far from the disaster the media has portrayed and if only the parties which can loosely be described as being on the left could see it, an opportunity could evolve which could lead the left to both grow and punch well above its electoral weight. Although I will not be holding my breath as in all probability, far from seeing this set back as an opportunity to revisit their political strategy, the leaderships of SF and the LP will covertly move their organizations into the centre of Irish politics in the mistaken belief that if it works for Bertie and Enda it will for them. Which is to miss the point entirely.
There are three options as to the future that the left within the southern State could take,
1/ They can remain as they are, begging for scraps from the Fianna Fáil- Fine Gael table in the hope of being invited into a coalition government. Which would enable the top leaderships to prance about on the ‘national’ stage and get their bottoms into the seat of a government limo and at best give the rank and file a resemblance of power and a slight hope that being in government may enable their party leaders to mitigate the more right wing polices of the government. The down side for a small party entering into a coalition is that when the Taoiseach becomes unpopular, as they all eventually do, so to will his coalition partners. History also teaches that no smaller coalition partner has ever been able to use that position as a springboard to electoral growth, the reverse is true. What the 2007 election tells us is that in this supposedly non-ideological world, it seems the Irish electorate sees little point in voting for the monkey when it can vote for the organ grinder.
2/ If those parliamentary parties that claim to be on the left, the GP, SF, LP, and left wing Indies were to come together in this parliament and form a parliamentary opposition block, they would be a considerable force in the new parliament, if successful they could enter the next general election as a loose coalition, This would enable them to offer a viable left alternative to the electorate and if they gained support at the polls, they would then be able to enter any negotiations as to a future coalition government as a power in their own right and not an after thought which is regarded by the main party leaders like a needy relation. Admittedly this is extremely unlikely due to deep hostility between the LP and SF leaderships, which dates back to the split that took place in the Irish Republican Movement in 1969-70.
3/ In my view Number 3 is the most viable option and offers a real chance for a section of the left to punch above its weight and in the process gain more electoral support. In the previous Dáil the 11 Independent TDs, the Green Party and Sinn Fein agreed to form a technical group. This gave them the right to speaking time in the Dáil, to call private members debates on topical issues and to quiz the Taoiseach during leaders’ questions. Before this grouping came into being, they had to request the other parties to give up some of their speaking time for them.
If, less some of the Indies who are not of the left, this block was to be reformed both within the Dáil and in the country as a whole, and managed to work closely together on the numerous issues and campaigns its members agreed about. It would gradually gain respect and name recognition amongst the electorate and come the next General Election if the left had not formed a coalition to fight the election on the lines of for example the Union (L’Unione) in Italy or the United Left (Izquierda Unida) in Spain. The political Party’s and individuals who make it up could enter the electoral contest on a manifesto that stated clearly that whilst they were contesting the election as individual party’s etc, if elected they would enter into any coalition talks as a group with clear demand based on their manifesto commitment.
This would be making it clear to the electorate that they would only enter into a coalition if a considerable part of their manifestos were to be implemented by any incoming government. The advantage for the electorate would be they could vote for a left party for the first time knowing if elected there was an above average chance of getting a good part of its platform onto the statue book; and not just a handful of leftist bottoms on to government limo seats and if they were unable to reach agreement on joining a coalition, there would be a powerful progressive opposition block within parliament.
I suppose what I am suggesting is that those of us who are on the left, what ever our political or past differences, can sink or we can swim together and in the process hopefully help build a nation of fairness, equality and prosperity for all. There is simply not the electoral space for a mirage of leftist party’s, not least because they are all aiming at the same core section of the electorate, thus far from gaining support they often cancel each other out.
The L’Unione coalition in Italy is important as prior to it coming into being the Italian left, the largest political organization in the country failed to gain governmental power. True this was mainly due to the cold war and US interference in Italian politics, but it was not only that. Post 1989 the left throughout Europe [including Ireland] has been fragmented in a host of differing factions, Party’s and organizations. In Italy, the Oak Tree and L’Unione coalitions have been a real attempt to amalgamate these different political viewpoints in a single electoral tool.
The majority of those who are to the left of the SDP in Germany have recently founded the Left Party and similar projects are in place throughout the EU with the European Party of the Left at the center.* A valiant attempt to unite the left was made in Scotland with the Scottish Socialist Party, unfortunately this ended in failure due to personality clashes and possibly covert interference by the British intelligence service and its friends in the Murdoch media empire. Never the less perhaps it is time the Irish left seriously considered a project that unites the left in an electoral platform.