Take the fight against austerity on to the political field

In the immediate period after the passing of the Property Tax registration deadline in May, and what for most areas could be months or even over a year before the installation of water meters takes place, there is a challenge facing all local campaigns which fought household and property taxes as to how to maintain themselves for the future battles.

Whatever about the government’s schedule for imposing these unjust taxes, the broader austerity agenda in its many forms carries on regardless. Education cuts, library hour cuts, the Haddington Road agreement and a Budget that looms in October in which €3.1 billion of further cuts and impositions for 2014 will be voted on. This government is wedded to an austerity policy even beyond the possible exit from the Troika ‘bailout’ programme this year.

The activists who have fought the household and property taxes over the last year and a half, and who will be fighting the water tax, also oppose all the other austerity measures. Even among the layer of less active supporters for the struggle, i.e. those who came to one or two public meetings or those who took a campaign membership card or postcard at the door or on a street stall, are affected by austerity in all its forms and furthermore have consistently expressed their opposition to it when in contact with the campaign.

Keep up political pressure

All local campaigns who have either to date not taken a position or who have opposed the electoral initiative should now reconsider their position, diversify themselves to actively oppose austerity in other forms in the months ahead and facilitate the selection of candidates to ensure that as many points of political pressure are maintained on the government and Labour in particular.

The recent resignations of Patrick Nulty TD, Colm Keaveney TD and three County Councillors from Wicklow and Galway from the Labour Party demonstrate that, despite a mass boycott no longer applying, the hatred working class people feel towards Labour in particular has probably intensified and the politicians still feel the pressure. This trend of resignations will likely accelerate as the year progresses particularly at local government level.

Gains posed for anti-austerity slate

In these elections Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are clearly poised to make ground, with the latter maintaining an anti-austerity posture in the south of Ireland until the day they possibly enter coalition with the former. However opinion polls taken since the last General Election have consistently placed ‘others and small parties’ in the high teens and sometimes the low twenties. This trend in Dublin is slightly higher. The question is can an anti-austerity slate composed of campaigners and political activists on the basis of being the best fighters against austerity make a significant breakthrough of support among the hundreds of thousands who resent the imposition of the household and property taxes and then use those council positions as a platform for strengthening the battle against austerity?

The Socialist Party, which will be fielding more candidates in 2014 than in any previous elections, believes that it matters who, besides ourselves, captures this potential and that it is far better that the significant gains that can be made are as far as possible made by genuine activist candidates on a left anti-austerity platform and not by Sinn Féin and independents who have no record of actively fighting austerity or worse to overtly right wing forces some of which have leeched around the fringes of the fight against the household and property taxes like Direct Democracy Ireland, the People’s Convention and whatever else might emerge on the right around a Declan Ganley type character in the coming year.

Maintain active campaigns

The activist layer and the broader support won by the struggle against household and property taxes should not be effectively stood down and otherwise asked to passively endorse candidates but should be actively facilitated in participating in an electoral challenge integrated into a continuous struggle against austerity. The arguments that some have put forward that you can only either fight elections or fight the water tax but not do both is an assertion contradicted by the evidence that the areas backing the electoral challenge have been among the most active to date and continue to be active in the current juncture and many activists within the campaign have ceaselessly been campaigning on multiple fronts over the years in any event.

In the last week alone a convention attended by over 50 activists in Limerick selected 8 candidates across the city and county. Dublin West has also selected 8 candidates between the two wards and last week raise over €1,000 in a well-attended social event. These are clearly active vibrant campaigns. Campaigns in Balbriggan, Dublin South West, the Northside of Cork, Kilkenny and Galway are also proceeding with selection of candidates. Other areas of the campaign including in Donegal, Celbridge, Dublin North East and Laois have indicated support for the concept of a national slate.

The outright rejection of the CAWHT backing an electoral challenge and the campaign taking up diverse anti-austerity initiatives can lead one to a conclusion of effectively folding the campaign for now and trying to revive activity again when water metering comes on the horizon. This is the essential conclusion of the anarchist Workers’ Solidarity Movement, whose few members who were active in the CAHWT have withrdrawn from the local campaigns in which they had been participating.

Build confidence among activists

The lack of confidence to mount a determined and consistent fight against austerity among the wider working class has been a much commented on phenomenon since the crisis began. The roots behind this are outside the scope of this article but can be briefly summed up by the absence of leadership and betrayals by the heads of the labour and trade union movement and as well as the majority of working class people not yet being sufficiently convinced of an anti-capitalist, socialist political and economic alternative to this discredited system.

This lack of confidence  to a degree finds its reflection among even the best of the activists whose first instinct has often been to defer to the local experienced political activists both on matters related to the campaign but also in terms of the 2014 local elections and to not feel capable of being candidates themselves. Socialist Party members active in local CAHWT groups have gone out of their way to encourage these activists to see themselves differently and through the electoral initiative and through the campaign generalising its opposition to austerity, to maintain their activity and politically develop.

How has People Before Profit / Socialist Workers’ Party met this lack of confidence among the same layer of activists? The choice they are offering to activists now is either join them or endorse them. This is not just evidenced by what members of PBPA / SWP have said at national steering committees, regardless of whether or not there is an active functioning campaign group in their area, but also by practices on the ground where they have abused CAHWT sign-up sheets to promote PBPA events where they think they can get away with it and not be held to account by the wider campaign. Worse again, where CAHWT activists at local meetings have expressed their initial lack of confidence to be a candidate or for the non-party active layer of the campaign to provide candidates and to defer to the political groups this view has been reinforced and exploited by members of PBPA / SWP who are desperate that the electoral expression of opposition to austerity is channel through their organisation as exclusively as possible.

Sectarian position of PBPA / SWP

This position of PBPA / SWP in part flows from an underestimation of the potential for a genuine anti-austerity force to make a breakthrough and therefore sees non-party candidates emerging from the campaign as representing a threat to the potential of PBPA to win seats by itself. In other words, it is a sectarian position that does not proceed from what is in the interests of the fight against the unjust taxes and austerity.

The argument most consistently offered up by PBPA / SWP against candidates running under a campaign banner is that outside of the core political platform of austerity  and unjust taxes there is a real danger that people selected who are not part of the existing left will have wrong positions on issues such as travellers’ rights and abortion.

The basic programme for an anti-austerity slate for the local elections that has been included in motions passed at the last conference of the campaign in the main take their cue from the fight CAHWT has waged but also the limited areas where local authorities wield power and the conduct of councillors in terms of opposition to junketing. In Dublin West, Balbriggan, Limerick, campaigns in Cork and a number of other areas have gone further and incorporated an anti-discrimination point in their programme covering racism and anti-traveller bigotry.

The manner in which members of PBPA / SWP and others have raised the spectre of campaigners being elected and espousing reactionary positions is insulting. It represents a real underestimation of the calibre of working class activists who have gotten active in the campaign. This position has no regard for the possibility of challenging through discussion and debate reactionary positions that might be held by individual activists and campaigning among the wider active membership to ensure genuine anti-austerity candidates who hold core left and progressive views are selected.

Negative example of the RESPECT Party

It is ironic but partially understandable that PBPA / SWP raise these dangers given the experience of its sister organisation in Britain in the RESPECT party that emerged out of the Stop the War Coalition in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There, the core political platform for elections agreed between the SWP, George Galloway and other forces was built around opposition to war and a left position on economic issues.

However, rather than trying to win other forces and individuals to consistent left and progressive positions particularly on social issues such as women’s rights and gay rights, the then leading members of the British SWP opposed such positions being adopted so as not to alienate allies within RESPECT who held reactionary views on these matters, not least George Galloway himself who is anti-abortion. They went so far as to vote down a motion at a RESPECT conference in 2005 advocating the prominent inclusion of gay rights in an election manifesto and then justify that on the basis that such basic progressive positions were ‘shibboleths’!  Thus the SWP facilitated forces with reactionary positions being elected as RESPECT Councillors in London who then for the best part jumped ship to establishment parties, including to the Conservatives.

Democratic debate & discussion is key

Nobody is arguing that there are not complications, risks and challenges in bringing together an electoral slate. The Socialist Party and other activists take the position of being guided by the positives cited above in boosting the challenge to the austerity agenda and the political establishment with the involvement of a fresh layer of working class activists, and to engage in fraternal political debate and discussion with those fellow campaigners, to win them to consistent anti-austerity and progressive positions. This is in contrast to PBPA / SWP, whose starting point in reality is opposition to an anti-austerity slate because they see it as competition, and to cite every real or imagined risk or complication as if it amounts to an insurmountable obstacle in order to then block it in areas where they wield any influence.

The concept of an electoral challenge and diversifying the campaign in a more general anti-austerity direction has either been agreed to in some form or is still being considered in more than half the areas the campaign remains active. However in areas where other political forces are dominant within the campaign, the discussion has typically been closed down or the campaigns have ceased to be meaningfully active in any case

The motion from Dublin West campaign which was passed at the conference of the CAHWT in April provides for those local campaigns that are in agreement with the electoral challenge to come together in September to discuss it further.

This is an opportunity for further work on a common programme and other areas of co-ordination, and to consider under what banner candidates run under as a more general anti-austerity banner might better describe the nature of the electoral challenge from the campaigners in the areas that back this initiative.

Prepare for renewal of anti-austerity mood

The blow felt by the high registration achieved by Revenue for the Property Tax, and other setbacks like the passing of the Haddington Road agreement, without a doubt have had an effect on the mood of working class people in general as well as activists in the local campaigns. However demoralisation can again give way to anger when the government come at us with fresh cuts and impositions.

At street stalls and door to door activities of the campaign that have been conducted post the Revenue registration deadline campaigners have heard from people why they decided to register at the last moment. No sooner have people explained why the registered before going on to express the bitter resentment they, many of whom voted Fine Gael and Labour in the last election, feel towards the government for putting them in this position. But most importantly activists have also heard the appreciation and recognition of those same working class people for the effort the campaign has put in. The CAHWT, where the best methods and most consistent efforts were made to build and sustain it, has a good standing in many communities. This reputation and the networks of tens of thousands of contacts built up by the campaign is an asset for the future fights against austerity to come.