€nough! Referendum campaign: How can we defeat austerity?

With billions more going into the banks and the privatisation of semi states combined with cuts in the number of public sector jobs on the agenda, it is clear that this government is starting where Fianna Fail and the Greens left off. During the recent election while there was much talk of re-negotiating the EU/IMF deal it is evident now that both Fine Gael and Labour are committed to its implementation.

The living standards of working class people are to be sacrificed in order that billionaire bondholders in the major European finance houses will be bailed out. Combined with this attack on our standard of living it is completely undemocratic that an unelected powerful and pro-big business institution such as the IMF can be allowed dictate a savage programme of austerity.

At the beginning of April Richard Boyd Barrett, TD for the People Before Profit Alliance, along with other TDs from the “technical group” tabled a motion demanding that the EU/IMF deal be put to a referendum. This motion was also combined with the launching of a campaign called “Enough!”. The Socialist Party supports the demand for a referendum on the EU/IMF deal as a democratic right. This is particularly true given that the terms of the deal will mean changes to treaties which Irish people have voted on such as the Lisbon Treaty.

However, in a crisis ridden capitalist system, cutbacks, attacks on pay and privatisation are a reality with or without the intervention of the IMF and EU.  In Britain the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition is bringing about an “age of austerity” independent of the will of these institutions in order to drive down public sector spending to satisfy and to protect the profits of big business.

While supporting a referendum we believe it is essential to also emphasise how the actual implementation of the EU/IMF deal can be opposed. The only way in which austerity can be defeated is by organising working class people into fighting movements that include mass protests, mass non-payment of water charges and property taxes and crucially, industrial action by both public and private sector workers.

Is Iceland an example to follow?

Unfortunately the need to mobilise the power of the working class has not been advocated by those who have initiated the “Enough!” campaign.  At the launch rally of that the campaign leading members of the Socialist Workers Party, the main component of it, pointed to the example of Iceland to try and illustrate what a referendum could achieve.

The terms of the IMF deal have been opposed twice in referenda by people in Iceland and this has forced some limited concessions and complicated the imposition of austerity somewhat. However, fundamentally bank bailouts and cutbacks remain and are still a reality in Iceland at the moment. The role of socialists is to clearly point out how the offensive of the capitalist class can be defeated, but the “Enough!” campaign sows illusions in what may seem to be an easy solution to the policies of the EU and IMF.

One of those who co-signed the motion put down in the Dail was right wing independent TD Shane Ross who has supported the implementation of vicious austerity and has consistently lined up to attack the pay and conditions of public sector workers. The Socialist Party believes it was a fundamental mistake to approach Ross to co-sign this motion.

For an independent Left

We believe that the left should not align itself with figures such as Ross who are hostile opponents of working people. While he represents a section of the capitalist class in Ireland that recognises the insanity of bank bailouts, given they are likely to bankrupt the country, he is ideologically committed to the capitalist market and the vicious austerity that goes with it.

This inevitably diluted the content of the motion itself, which amongst other things did not mention the need for workers to build active opposition to austerity. This is not a coincidence given that Ross will be to the forefront in vilifying such an opposition when workers will inevitably be forced to oppose the attacks by the Fine Gael/Labour government.

As this government becomes rapidly unpopular like their predecessors in Fianna Fail a massive vacuum can open up within Irish politics which the forces grouped around the United Left Alliance can capitalise on. However as the experience of other European countries as shown such a vacuum can also be filled by those like Ross who espouse a form of right wing populism. There is a potential danger that the left will be seen to give credibility to forces we will be in competition with to fill such a vacuum and who workers will be forced to take on in the months and years ahead.

The conditions may emerge when fighting for a referendum could become an important tactic and could be used to build and strengthen the active opposition of the working class to the austerity. But within that, it is vital that socialists fight for the working class to adopt a stance that is all the stronger because of its independance from capitalist populists.