By Kevin McLoughlin
Socialist Party defeats Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein
IN 2007 Bertie Ahern won a third successive general election, bringing Fianna Fail close to an overall majority. In 5 June Bye Election Ahern’s nominee, his hapless brother Maurice, came fifth in the Bye Election in the Dublin Central constituency which they had dominated for decades!
With 25.4% in the locals and 24% in the Euro’s, Fianna Fail got its lowest votes ever in national elections, losing eighty-four council
seats. They also lost one Euro seat and performed dismally in the two Dublin Bye Elections. The Greens won eighteen council seats in
2004 but came back with three this time, just reward for that party’s unprincipled grab for power.
As spectacular was the dramatic victory of the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins. Joe heaped misery on Taoiseach Brian Cowen when he defeated sitting Fianna Fail MEP Eoin Ryan, for the final seat in the Dublin Euro constituency.
The Socialist Party also performed very well in the county council elections with Clare Daly, Ruth Coppinger and Joe Higgins elected in Fingal and Mick Barry elected in Cork North Central. The party got over 22% of the first preference vote in Swords; 18% in Mulhuddart; 28% in Castleknock and 26.5% in Cork North Central. Taking all the eight local wards together where our ten council candidates stood, we got an impressive 13.5% of the total valid poll. Despite polling very well our councillor in Tallaght, Mick Murphy, narrowly lost his seat.
Very importantly, the party also won two additional positions with Frank Gallagher elected to Drogheda Town Council and Terry Kelleher to Balbriggan Town Council.
The final outcome of the elections were: Euro Elections – 12 MEPs; FF 3; FG 4; LP 3, SP 1 and 1 Ind. County Councils – 883 seats; FF 218; FG 340; LP 132; GP 3; SF 53; SP 4; PBPA 5 and 128 Independents or Others. Fine Gael easily won the Dublin South By Election. Significantly, Maureen O’Sullivan, the Gregory Candidate, beat the establishment parties in the Dublin Central Bye Election.
Can the government survive this crushing defeat? Will the gains for Fine Gael last and in particular will the electoral growth of Labour make any difference for working class people?
The elections also saw important victories for socialists including the Socialist Party, the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the People Before Profit Alliance, the Workers Party and other independent lefts. How can these local successes be used to help in the campaign to build a new mass party for working class people?
The hatred for Fianna Fail on the doorsteps was the defining characteristic of these elections. More than one in every three people who voted for Fianna Fail in 2007 deserted them this time. Fianna Fail’s vote in the locals in Dublin was down 6.5% on the disastrous vote they got in 2004 local elections.
Its number of councillors in Dublin was reduced by more than a third. Out of 130 councillors in the four Dublin councils, Fianna Fail has a paltry eighteen. In Cork city they lost five councillors and are left with six out of thirty one. In Limerick they have just three out of fifteen and in Waterford they have only one councillor out of fifteen.
The Greens won ten council seats throughout Dublin in 2004, today they have none. If the results were repeated in a general election all six Green TDs would face losing their Dail seats. The real probability of a complete annihilation at the polls if they continue in government, may force the Greens to look for an issue around which they could exit and try to regain some credibility.
These election results were fashioned by the economic crisis. People correctly blamed Fianna Fail for the crisis. In addition, the vote showed there is little support for their policy of slashing pay and public spending. How the crisis develops will continue to be the crucial factor in determining how the different parties and forces will do in the years ahead.
On that score talk of “green shoots of recovery” in the Irish economy is a cruel joke. Consumption and economic activity are still declining rapidly, as are imports, signifying a big drop in domestic manufacturing which is being badly hit by the high value of the Euro.
The austerity measures of the government will make conditions even worse for ordinary working people. It is a chilling prospect that the Minister of Finance in effect predicted that more than 600,000, over 25% of the workforce, would be unemployed before the end of 2010!
On the basis of worsening conditions a significant recovery of Fianna Fail is not on the cards. In the general election people are likely to be more desperate than ever to get rid of them and as a result it is entirely possible that the results for Fianna Fail could be even worse. Events can spin out of control and we have to be prepared that a general election could nearly happen at any time.
The main beneficiaries of the hatred of the government at this point are Fine Gael and the Labour Party, up by 5% and 4.5% respectively on the last general election. A significant portion of those who had supported Fianna Fail over the last decade have switched to Fine Gael at this point and it is the biggest party in council seats and in the opinion polls.
Is Labour an alternative?
Labour has increased its representation in the urban centres and now hold 45 of the 130 council seats in Dublin. They are behind Fine Gael in Limerick but neck and neck with them or ahead in the cities of Cork, Waterford and Galway in terms of council positions.
Labour is a key player on many of the main councils but that doesn’t mean there is any prospect of left wing, fighting councils. Instead, regardless of their rhetoric on certain issues, in these crisis times services for working class people will be attacked and undermined, including where Labour is dominant.
The boost for Fine Gael and Labour says more about the intense hatred of Fianna Fail than indicating deep illusions in either of the official opposition parties. Neither has been in power since 1997 and the memory of that unpopular government or their disastrous coalition in the 1980s, has understandably faded.
If the results of the local and European elections were repeated in the next general election, Fine Gael and Labour would have a comfortable majority in the Dail. Such a government would be a right wing, anti working class administration. That is not just because Fine Gael are likely to be a majority. It is also because Labour is part of the capitalist establishment.
Some may have the hope that in the context of this extreme capitalist crisis that Labour may, under pressure from working class people, return to a left position. People had huge hopes in New Labour in Britain but look what was delivered!
Labour ceased to be a workers’ party in any meaningful way during the 1990s and it has moved ever further to the right under successive new leaders, capitulating completely to the capitalist market. Its connection to the working class is gone and there is no committed left wing in the party.
In power any radical policies that have inadvertently remained in policy documents will be discarded. Rather than reflect the aspirations of ordinary people Labour would heed and act on the pressure from big business interests who will demand that the policy of making ordinary working people pay for the crisis is continued.
In the context of economic crisis, honeymoons don’t last very long and such an administration would likely become unpopular quickly. If in powerm it is inevitable Labour will sell out and that will have a big impact on society and will create the conditions for a dramatic shift to the left and for the building new broad left/socialist party to challenge the establishment parties and help build the support for a socialist solution to the crisis of capitalism.
In preparation for such a future opening, well before the local elections, the Socialist Party put forward very positive proposals that should have led to the establishment of a genuine left slate of candidates for the Local Elections. We were disappointed that others on the left didn’t fully engage or respond favourably to our proposal and as a result an opportunity was missed.
It is a mistake for the newly elected People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) councillors to refer to Labour and Sinn Fein as left wing when plainly these parties are committed to implementing capitalist market policies. In a disgusting attack on union organisation and workers rights, Gilmore recently argued that public sector should not take action against the government’s austerity programme.
By not only referring to Labour and Sinn Fein as left, but also being open to an alliance and deals with them on the councils, PBPA is potentially giving support to those who will attack working class communities. Such statements will re-enforce illusions that may exist in these parties rather than pointing towards the need for a new mass left party. This mischaracterisation of what a left party and programme is needs to be resolved otherwise there is a real danger that the attempts to build a new party will fail.
Joe Higgins defeats FF
The victory of Joe Higgins in the Euro Election was by far the biggest gain for the left and the working class in these elections. The result was greeted with huge enthusiasm particularly in Dublin. 50,510 first preference votes or 12.4% is an incredible result for a campaign that had only a fraction of the resources of the main candidates.
Our defeat of Mary Lou McDonald was a huge blow to the Sinn Fein leadership and capped off a poor election for them, particularly in Dublin. As well as the MEP position, they lost three council positions in Dublin. However, within a couple of days, their longest serving councillor Christy Burke resigned from the party in Dublin. A couple of days later a John Dwyer from New Ross, who got 5,000 first preference votes for Sinn Fein in the 2002 general election, also resigned.
Joe was elected on a clear socialist programme which we outlined constantly in the media, on our leaflets and via our excellent campaign website. Joe’s main leaflet distributed to over 200,000 homes called for the nationalisation of the banks and major building companies, under the democratic management of working people as the start of a state housing plan. We called for “a socialist Europe, where the wealth and resources are publicly owned and democratically run, to provide for the needs of people not profit” and much else besides.
Joe’s election was exceptional, but it does give an indication of the potential that will emerge more generally, particularly if Labour is in a crisis-ridden government. A number of crucial factors came together at the right time.
The record of Joe Higgins and of the party itself over years in major struggles – defeating water charges, fighting the bin tax – being sent to prison, involvement in countless workers struggles like GAMA, were absolutely crucial factors.
The opposition that Joe put forward in the Dail between 1997 and 2007 to Fianna Fail was also vital. More than anyone Joe exposed and warned of the crisis that their policies and greed would lead to, and events have dramatically vindicated his and the party’s views. If people wanted to rebuke the capitalist greed that caused this crisis, Joe Higgins was clearly the most obvious candidate.
Even with such potential, a vibrant campaign is necessary to give people the confidence to turn out and that their vote can make a difference. The second Irish Times opinion poll was an important factor but it was only able to have an impact because we had already increased our support and developed a momentum since the first opinion poll.
It wasn’t that 50,510 voters fully endorsed socialism but, there is no doubt that everyone who voted for Joe, knew well that they were voting for a socialist. In the exit poll, when asked why they had voted for Joe Higgins, 48% said because of his personality/personal qualities; 29% because of his policies and 18% because he was the Socialist Party candidate. The poll also indicated that, of those made redundant over the last six months who voted, 32.4% voted for Joe Higgins.
Clearly an aspect of what people are referring to as Joe’s personal qualities are directly related to his political views and his campaigning record. In other words Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party were paid back for its characteristic of consistently fighting for working class people. Obviously many who voted for Joe don’t agree with our full socialist programme, but that wasn’t a barrier. In fact clearly many people appreciated our/Joe’s honesty in sticking to our principled socialist views, many referring again and again to Joe’s integrity.
Socialist policies & fighting record
What is clear is that at this point it would have been very difficult for any other left wing figure, belonging to any other party to pull off this victory. It was exceptional result that related to the conditions of crisis and record and policies that Joe as a Socialist Party rep had fought on over many years. It couldn’t just be replicated in every area, if things were that easy, the left would already be a mass force. However, it does give an indication of future gains that can be achieved on a more general basis as conditions change and if the correct approach is adopted.
The Socialist Party welcomes the election victories of the five People Before Profit Alliance councillors to Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown, South Dublin and Dublin City Councils. We welcome the two county councillors elected for the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group; the seat won on Carrick-on-Suir Town Council and the five seats the action group won on Clonmel Borough Council. We also welcome the independent left and Workers Party councillors elected in Dublin, Waterford and Cork.
These gains are important and on the basis of the councillors and groups pursuing the right policies and a fighting approach, they can make a real difference for working class people in these communities. While fully appreciating the significance of these victories, it is important to be balanced when projecting or speculating about the general significance of these results.
The vote for the left candidates mentioned above indicates a deeper base of support in those particular areas than in 2004 and that made the difference in the election of a group of new councillors. However, in the context of society these gains as a whole do not constitute a seismic shift or an historic breakthrough for the left or the working class generally at this point.
While all the left councillors have important roles to play, they still only number less than twenty nationally out of a total of 883 elected county councillors. In Dublin the combined votes of the Socialist Party, the PBPA and independent left are roughly similar to what was achieved by candidates linked to the anti bin tax campaigns five years ago.
Things are clearly moving forward but there hasn’t as yet been a dramatic general shift to the left yet. There is still a low level of political activity amongst working class people and the focus of significant sections of the working class is still to look towards Labour, as a way of stopping the attacks of the government.
In many countries over the last years, premature initiatives to try to force the building of new left wing parties have invariably either failed or hit major problems. We need to try to avoid such problems here as false starts actually can delay the whole process. Without the active and real involvement of fresh layers of the working class and youth, most of the new left initiatives have collapsed or gone to the right politically and thereby defeating the whole purpose of the initiative.
Of course there can and should be intermediary campaigns or alliances, like the one we proposed above, on the road to building a new party, but until there is the emergence of new activists generally, building a new left is not really possible.
The left must now use all elected positions won to fight on the issues and to explain the need for a new party. Joe Higgins used many important media opportunities during the election to do precisely that. The Socialist Party is fully committed to use its positions, including that of the MEP seat, to push forward and help in the re-organisation of the working class and youth in the communities, in the workplaces and politically, in preparation for the inevitable opportunities that will emerge to build a new broad mass party of the working class.
Right now the focus needs to be on building and organising real mass resistance and struggle to the draconian attacks that this government is implementing which are not only destroying the lives of ordinary people but will make the crisis and unemployment even worse. This government has been weakened by the election defeats and if united working class people have the power to push them back.