|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Behind Ireland’s election result
May’s general election returned Fianna Fail as the largest party. But this was no ringing endorsement of its neo-liberal policies – more, a vote for the devil-you-know in the absence of any real alternative. It has formed a potentially shaky coalition with the Greens and Progressive Democrats. KEVIN McLOUGHLIN reports from Dublin on the result and its implications.
TURNOUT IN THE Irish general election held on 24 May was up by 5% on 2002. The closeness of the contest between the outgoing administration and the two-party official opposition of Fine Gael and Labour, served to create significant shifts of opinion in the last days.
While many people wanted a change, given the abject failure of Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats (PD) to deliver proper public services and infrastructure, the outcome of the election was determined fundamentally by a late move of many people behind Fianna Fail. Despite the continued economic growth, this was not due to a ‘feel-good’ factor, quite the opposite. People voted for Fianna Fail in the vain hope that was the best way to sustain growth and jobs now that problems are emerging in the economy.
While neither of the pre-election blocs achieved an overall majority, Fianna Fail – with 78 out of 166 seats – emerged in the driving seat to form a new government. The new administration it has just pulled together includes the two remaining PD (which lost six of its eight seats), four independents and, very significantly, the six Green Party members elected to the Dáil (parliament).
In the absence of a real, left alternative with a national base, the issue of whether it would be Fianna Fail or Fine Gael (the two traditional capitalist parties) that would form the basis of the new government became a central issue. As a result, smaller parties, including the Socialist Party, were squeezed. Our candidate, Clare Daly, in Dublin North and our outgoing TD, Joe Higgins, in Dublin West, performed strongly but were not elected.
Facing an unstable situation
NOTWITHSTANDING THEIR CELEBRATIONS at forming a government, Fianna Fail and the Greens would be badly mistaken if they think that there is strong support for their policies. The opposite will be the case.
That the Greens are now in government with Fianna Fail demonstrates that far from being on the left, they are a capitalist party and will put profit before people’s needs. Big businesses are the biggest polluters and contributors to global warming. The contradiction of being an ‘environmental movement’ that supports big business is likely to result in only minimal measures that will not deal with the real causes of environmental crisis.
The Greens are only in power because Prime Minister Bertie Ahern wanted them there. They represent an extremely cheap green fig leaf for the new administration. Ahern consciously chose the Greens, the PD and some independents as this gives Fianna Fail a stronger hand than in the last government, and the Greens will be more easily dominated than other potential partners like Labour.
Despite some misgivings, the business establishment probably feels that Ahern’s ‘rainbow’ is the best equipped to pursue its agenda of attacks on workers’ wages and conditions, undermine the public sector, and impose privatisation policies. However, this is potentially a very unstable government.
Only 9% of those who voted number one for the Greens (under the proportional representation system) gave their second preference to candidates from Fianna Fail, yet now the Greens have helped bring Fianna Fail back to power. If the Greens’ support crumbles and for their own survival they withdraw from government at some point, the administration would be badly weakened and would be reduced to a majority of just one.
The easy seduction of the Greens by the trappings of office demonstrates the hollowness of their politics and craven opportunism. Issues will be posed very concretely and they will be judged. Already on the issue of building a motorway through the ancient national heritage area of Tara, on building an onshore gas refinery at Rossport for Shell despite local opposition, and on the privatisation of healthcare, they are siding with big business over the needs of people and the environment.
Election setback for the Socialist Party
IT WAS A very close thing and if just 250 transfer votes had been different that would have been enough. But, in the end, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins lost his seat in Dublin West despite getting 5,066 first preference votes or 15%. Our councillor Clare Daly in Dublin North, who was widely expected to win, was also squeezed out despite a very strong campaign, getting 4,884 votes or 9%. In the circumstances the first preference votes for our councillors Mick Murphy and Mick Barry in Dublin South West and Cork North Central at 1,580 votes (3.8%) and 1,700 votes (4%) respectively, were also creditable achievements.
In all the areas where the Socialist Party stood the appreciation of the party and its work was actually broader than before. While this did not translate into first preference votes this time, it is a very positive indication of the future potential when the economic situation will force people into active opposition to the new big-business government.
In advance we honed our election message: the Socialist Party stands for real change. We stand for organisation and struggle, and for people’s needs before big-business profits; a government of Fine Gael and Labour would be fundamentally the same as Fianna Fail and the PD; vote Socialist Party so we can use the Dáil to help fight on the issues and to launch a new party or movement that really represents working people.
In the four constituencies where we stood we distributed around 400,000 different bits of literature door-to-door including a comprehensive manifesto that dealt with the key issues and outlined bold socialist policies. Over 100,000 homes were canvassed.
The result in this election does not mean that Fianna Fail has neutered the anger that has been expressed on many issues, including in the last local elections in 2004, or that it has redeveloped its lost political support. Many people very reluctantly voted for Fianna Fail out of fear. They did not want to rock the economic boat through creating potential political instability by allowing Fine Gael and Labour to come to power.
Crucially, this happened in the context that there was no real, left alternative on offer nationally. The setbacks that the workers’ movement have experienced in recent years were also important factors affecting people’s attitudes.
The sell-out by the trade unions of the mass mobilisations against the imposition of slave labour conditions at Irish Ferries, and the continued privatisation and neo-liberal attacks on the rights of working people, have affected people’s mood and political attitudes at this point. Since the mass mobilisation in December 2005, the level of activity in the communities and workplaces has been historically low, as confidence in the ability to organise or fight has been knocked back.
We found people clearly appreciated the Socialist Party’s record and gave us a warm response. However, at the same time, due to the setbacks suffered on many issues and the mood, it was clear that some were not convinced that a vote for the Socialist Party could make a vital difference at this time.
Some such people were considering voting for the Fine Gael/Labour bloc as the only means of getting rid of the government. In Dublin North and Dublin West we were able to stand against such a leakage of support to the misnamed Alliance for Change. In Dublin South West and Cork North Central the sentiment for change had more of an impact on our campaigns.
It was clear that some people did not support or understand the Socialist Party’s approach of saying it would not be part of any government dominated by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. This is a reflection of the idea that being in opposition, building a mass workers’ party and fighting for a majority socialist government is not seen as generally viable at this point. It also shows the impact of economic growth on consciousness.
There are illusions in the benefits of involvement in capitalist governments. Some feel that the tail can and should wag the dog, that one of the best things small parties can do is use their electoral position to stop some measures or win important reforms by doing deals with the main parties.
While it was important for the Socialist Party to explain its position skillfully on this issue, it was vital that we did not in any way sow illusions that coalitionism or deals with capitalist parties represent any way forward for working-class people. Unlike the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), which has moved away from a socialist outlook, we understand that not defending the need for the independence of the workers’ movement and socialist policies only leads to defeats and demoralisation for the working class. Such an approach would irreparably damage a socialist organisation.
Swings & gerrymandering
IRONICALLY, THE GROWTH in support for the opposition Fine Gael and Labour actually provoked an opposite shift in opinion and their eventual defeat. The prospect that they could become the government caused significant numbers to rethink their voting intentions in the last days of the campaign. Even people who had opposed the policies of Fianna Fail and how it had abused the wealth, voted for it to try to ensure that economic growth would continue, in the hope that next time the wealth may be used in a better way. This significant swingback to Fianna Fail served to cut the numbers voting for the Socialist Party as their first preference.
If the election had taken place in a context of a more confident mood in the working class, with an orientation towards struggle, we would have been able to withstand these shifts in opinion. Undoubtedly, on that basis, we could have been returned with both Dublin West and Dublin North seats, at least.
Dublin North and Dublin West constituencies also should have been given an additional parliamentary seat each because of their population growth. They are now the two most underrepresented constituencies in the country. The courts gave the environment minister the power to give an additional seat to each but he chose not to, as the most likely outcome would have been to strengthen the opposition to Fianna Fail. If the democratic rights of the people had been upheld, it is likely that both Joe Higgins and Clare Daly would have been elected Socialist Party TDs, even with the swing to Fianna Fail.
Many people around the country are particularly shocked that Joe Higgins lost his seat. Joe was for very many the real opposition in the Dáil, had an unrivalled record of campaigning and fighting, and was the only really powerful advocate for genuine socialism in Ireland. The loss of Joe’s seat is not only a blow for the Socialist Party. It is a blow for working-class people and genuine socialists throughout the country and internationally. He has been a model of what socialist public representatives should be and as a TD he has made an historic contribution to the labour movement in this country.
The people of Dublin West did not reject Joe Higgins or his approach to struggle or socialism in this election. If you take into account that he lost 900 votes with the removal of Palmerstown from the constituency (through boundary changes), his vote was only marginally down on 2002, even given the dramatic swing to Fianna Fail and the fact that a large part of the constituency was made up of completely new areas. Joe will continue to be a representative for the Socialist Party and an essential figure on the left in this country.
Putting the squeeze on
ALL THE SMALL parties were affected by the squeeze. While the Socialist Party stood by its principles and did everything in its power to withstand the shifts in opinion, the cravenness of Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens contributed to their poor results.
The outcome for Sinn Féin was a serious blow. While its 6.9% vote was up slightly on 2002, it had expected to be in double digits for both percentage points and seats. Instead, it came back with just four TDs, losing its seat in the key working-class area of Tallaght, Dublin. In the one other urban seat Sinn Féin held, it barely scraped in. Like the Greens, Sinn Féin jettisoned any remaining radical sounding policies before and during the campaign in the hope of being a coalition partner for Fianna Fail. However, as with Labour and Fine Gael, with the smaller party becoming increasingly similar to its bigger, would-be partner, people shifted from Sinn Féin to Fianna Fail itself.
The election confirmed the view of the Socialist Party that we are at the early stages of the re-organisation and recovery of the working class from the historic sell-out by the Labour Party in the 1990s and the acquiescence in general of the trade union leadership to the capitalist market through ‘social partnership’.
The argument put forward by some, particularly the SWP now operating under the guise of the People Before Profit Alliance, that the election came at a key time and represented a vital opportunity to start a new broad left movement via an alliance of candidates, has been shown by events to be wrong. The absence of activity and struggle by working-class people at this point and the low levels of confidence made it a difficult task to maintain existing votes in this election, let alone establish a basis for a new workers’ party.
A new left movement will come out of the new struggles of the working class and the youth. However, as the hopes of maintaining economic growth and jobs will be dashed, we must be prepared. Struggles and new political formations can come on to the agenda quickly.
The property bubble
OVER THE LAST years Fianna Fail has benefited from the growth in the economy. It served to take the edge off the anger on particular issues including corruption. The new government will hope that despite hassles on certain issues its position will be maintained because the economy is strong and will overcome any problems. However, it is precisely because the economic fundamentals are weak that this government is likely to be faced with severe difficulties.
The growth of the last five years has been mainly based on credit and domestic spending as opposed to the production of goods and trade. Cheap credit created a bubble in the property market. This gave a huge boost to construction employment and consumer spending. In turn, government revenues increased. Seventeen percent of government income directly comes from the property market. When other property related expenditures are factored in, it is estimated by some that the figure rises to 30%.
Increased spending on infrastructure and employment in health and education has also had an important impact on the economy. The growth in construction and service jobs has attracted large numbers of migrants particularly since 2004, which itself pushed along growth. However, a property and construction bubble increasingly based on credit and paper assets is unsustainable. Compared to the real gains that were achieved in the 1990s, the quality of employment has been declining and exploitation of workers has intensified. In an economy that until recently some claimed was growing by over 7%, there are extremely serious crises in health, school places, public services and transport, demonstrating the extent of the inequality and robbery of wealth of modern capitalism.
Far from wages going through the roof, between 2002 and 2006, taking account of inflation and including all cash additions to wages, the real purchasing power of weekly earnings rose at an annual rate of between 0.6% to 2.5%. As figures only exist for firms of a certain size and given that the high salaries of a small number of public servants can drastically distort the information, the situation for many ordinary workers is considerably worse, many experiencing an actual decline. If this is the case now, what will be the situation if growth slows considerably or even if there was a recession?
Undermining the economy
A SOFT LANDING is where growth in property prices slows but does not decline. Currently, the property market in Ireland is not experiencing a soft landing. While the decline in prices is unlikely to go in a straight line, it is most likely to continue as the cost of credit and mortgages increase further and the speculators pull back from the market. After a time this can have an impact on consumer confidence and spending.
A survey by Merrion Stockbrokers of construction companies at the end of April found that three out of four companies expect a decline in 2007; 27% expect house completions to fall by 0-10%; 21% by 10-20%; but 27% predict a fall greater than 20%. Commercial and infrastructural construction is still growing but that will not compensate for the decline in housing, which accounts for two-thirds of all the 280,000 employed in the sector. A significant decline in construction and consumer spending would cause unemployment to rise which itself can further undermine the economy generally.
It looks distinctly possible that these domestic factors are reaching their limits just as the US economy is pointing towards recession. That would have a profound affect on the world economy but particularly on Ireland. A declining dollar and high inflation in Ireland would spell very serious trouble for exports and manufacturing. Quite quickly the bonanza in tax revenues could be turned into its opposite and spending cutbacks could be on the cards. The financial and property bubbles that exist in many parts of the world are unsustainable and also represent a very real and present danger of international finance collapse that would have a devastating effect on many economies.
It is not possible to predict exactly what will happen or when but serious economic problems lie ahead. Given that workers already face major attacks on pay and conditions and a massive deficiency of vital public services, living standards will be seriously hit. To maintain competitiveness and profits it is likely that this new government will launch attacks on rights and entitlements the like of which has not been seen in over a generation.
Having previously played a role in stemming people’s anger, the decline in the economy will force a transformation of attitudes. Workers will need fighting trade unions to defend their living standards and the potential to build a new mass party for working-class people will be enormous. We are at a time of preparation before the re-emergence of major struggles by working-class people. The militant attitude of the nurses, who forced their union to take strike action at the start of the election campaign, and the strong opposition they showed to the sell-out deal their ‘leaders’ signed up to, is an indication of the mood that can develop.
The Socialist Party will assist workers and youth to get organised. That will also mean taking on the bureaucracy in the trade unions who act as a prop for government policy. A key task now is to win as many workers and youth as possible to the ideas and approach of struggle and socialist politics so that when generalised change takes place the opportunity to rebuild a strong workers’ movement to fight the system is seized.