ireland: smaller parties, including Socialist Party, squeezed in General Election

The need for struggle and socialist policies is clear

The outcome of the general election in Ireland was fundamentally affected by the economic situation with people opting for the main incumbent party, Fianna Fail, over the official opposition of Fine Gael and Labour.

Despite the continued growth, this was not due to a feel good factor, quite the opposite. The decline in the property market and construction and the trend of Multi National Corporations to move to lower wage economies has made people nervous about the future. People opted for the political status quo in the hope that that would be the best way to maintain economic growth.

As the issue of who, either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael (the second traditional capitalist party), would form the basis of the new government became a central issue in the election, smaller parties, including the Socialist Party, were squeezed between these two party blocks.

Setback for the Socialist Party

It was a very close thing and a switch of less than 250 transfers would have been enough but in the end Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins lost his seat in Dublin West despite getting 5,066 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 or 3.8% and 1,700 votes or 4% respectively were also credible achievements. In Dublin West, there was an additional factor of a substantial part of the constituency being new areas. This has substantially increased the size of the electorate and most other seat of comparable size are four member seats as opposed to the three TD’s in Dublin West.

In all the areas where the Socialist Party stood the support and positive appreciation for the party and its work was actually broader than before. While this didn’t translate into first preference votes this time, because government formation became a vital issue, 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.

With no real alternative – people go for the lesser evil

The result for Fianna Fail in vote terms – 41.6% and 78 seats – was similar to 2002 but their coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats (PDs), was decimated losing six of their eight seats. The final outcome in seats is: Fianna Fail 78 (-2); Fine Gael 51 (+20); Labour 20 (-1); Greens 6; Sinn Fein 4 (-1); PDs 2 (-6); Others 5 (-10).

While there may be some superficial similarities, the situation has moved on decisively since 2002. There has been a lot of anger on many issues like the lack of investment in public services, the health and housing crises, and privatisations. That was reflected in the hammering that Fianna Fail got in the local elections in 2004. The result in this election does not mean that Fianna Fail has since neutered this anger or redeveloped its lost political support. It simply means that without any real alternative on offer, many people very reluctantly voted for them out of fear. They didn’t want to rock the economic boat through potential political instability by allowing Fine Gael and Labour come to power.

The failure of the official opposition to represent any real or meaningful alternative and the setbacks that the workers’ movement has experienced in recent years were also important factors affecting people’s attitudes in this election.

The sell-out by the trade unions of the mass mobilisations against the imposition of slave labour conditions at Irish Ferries and the continued privatisations and neo liberal attacks on the rights of working people, has 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 in the workplaces has been historically low, as confidence in the ability to organise or fight has been knocked back.

More by default, the official opposition was boosted by the results of the local elections in 2004. However since then they failed to develop any sustained momentum. At the height of the scandal of corrupt payments to Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern late last year, instead of moving forward, the limited gains they had made during 2006 were actually wiped out, as they proved incapable of holding Ahern to account. At the start of this year the slippage in support for the government was not reflected in positive support for the official opposition and it looked as if the outcome of the election could be a hung parliament but with Fianna Fail being the biggest party and therefore likely with others to form the next government.

Our strongest election campaigns ever

In advance we honed our election message: the Socialist Party stands for REAL CHANGE. We stand for organisation and struggle on the issues 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 PDs. Vote Socialist Party so we can use the Dail to help fight on the issues and organise people in the communities and workplaces. We will use our positions 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.

We found people clearly appreciated the Socialist Party’s record and gave us a warm response on the doorsteps with many having no hesitation in committing their first preference votes. However, at the same time due to the setbacks suffered on many issues and its effects on the mood, it was clear that there were others who, while appreciating the position of the party, were less convinced that a vote for the Socialist Party could make vital a difference at this time.

Some such people, while positive about the party and our candidates, were considering voting for the Fine Gael/Labour block as the only means of getting rid of the government. The Labour Party completely aligned themselves with Fine Gael. As often happens when parties are indistinguishable from each other, Labour began to leak support to its bigger and more prominent ally. A similar thing began to happen to the Greens, who were also associated with this block.

In Dublin North and Dublin West because of the strength of our record going back many years 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.

Different swings

Coming into the penultimate week of the campaign, with the growth of Fine Gael’s support and the disastrous campaign that Fianna Fail had waged up to that point, a change of government seemed to be a real possibility. In Dublin West and in Dublin North we had waged very strong campaigns and we believe we established enough support in both constituencies to win seats.

However it was precisely the growth in the opposition that resulted in a decisive shift and their eventual defeat. The prospect that they could become the government kick-started a shift in opinion the last days of the campaign. While many workers and much of the middle class were prepared to vote for Fine Gael and Labour to get rid of the government, more decided to turn out to stop Fine Gael and Labour by voting for Fianna Fail. The result was a relatively high turn out, up 5% on 2002. In urban areas it was clear that layers of working class people decided to use their votes to elect Fianna Fail instead of Fine Gael.

Many did this without any enthusiasm, "holding their noses", hoping that by maintaining the political status quo that growth and jobs would also be maintained. Even people who had opposed the policies of Fianna Fail and how they had abused the wealth, now voted for them to try to ensure that there would be future growth and continued wealth, which in turn they hoped would be better used in the months and years ahead.

This more significant swing to Fianna Fail in the last days served to diminish the first preference votes for the Socialist Party. In addition, the context in which the election was fought, low confidence and setbacks in struggle, made it more difficult for us as we were advocating struggle and socialist change. The more campaigning, fighting Independent TDs also found it difficult, most of who also lost their seats. If the election had coincided with a better mood and general combativity by the working class, undoubtedly we would have been returned with seats in both Dublin West and Dublin North at minimum.

Undemocratic constituencies

Both Dublin North and Dublin West constituencies should have been given an additional parliamentary seat. As a result of population growth they are the two most underrepresented constituencies in the country. A substantial part of the constituency is now made up of newly built areas. Most constituencies the size of Dublin West are four member seats rather than three members in the case of Joe Higgin’s consituency.The courts gave the Minister of the Environment the power to give an additional seat to each but he chose not to as the outcome would have been to strengthen the opposition to current government. If the democratic rights of the people of Dublin West and Dublin North had been upheld or if there was a fair contest, even with the swing to Fianna Fail, the odds are that both Joe Higgins and Clare Daly would have been elected as Socialist Party TDs.

All the parties were affected by the squeeze. While the Socialist Party stood by its principles and politically and organisationally did everything in its power to withstand the shifts in opinion, the cravenness of Labour, Sinn Fein and Greens contributed to their own demise.

As they were in "opposition", Labour expected to make significant gains but is now down one seat on 2002. It is clear that the party is in decline and is increasingly losing its base in the working class. The outcome was even worse for Sinn Fein. While their vote on 6.9% was up slightly on 2002 they had expected to be in double digits for both percentage points and seats. Instead they came back with just 4 TDs, a loss of their seat in the key working class area of Tallaght in Dublin. In the one other urban seat they held they only scraped in. Like the Greens, Sinn Fein jettisoned any remaining radical sounding policies before and during the campaign in the hope of being a coalition partner for Fianna Fail. However, like with Labour and Fine Gael, increasingly similar to its bigger would be partner, people shifted from Sinn Fein to Fianna Fail itself.

Is there a shift to the right?

The result of this election has strengthened the two main establishment parties temporarily. However it would be completely wrong to conclude that it constitutes a major shift to the right in Irish society, as some in the media are trying to push. The increased votes for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael compared to what seemed likely months ago does not mean that new layers of the population support capitalism or their policies. In the case of Fine Gael it was a distorted vote for change and in the case of Fianna Fail, it was a vote to ensure economic growth and jobs.

Many people right around the country are particularly shocked that Joe Higgins lost his seat. Joe was for very many the real opposition in the Dail, 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.

Long before the election, the Socialist Party knew it was in a real battle to defend its seat in Dublin West. The seat was first won in 1997 and again in 2002. On both occasions Fine Gael and Labour performed very poorly as the memory of their coalition government from 1994 to 1997 was still fresh in peoples minds. It was clear that coming up to this election and having been out of government for ten years, these parties would recover. That as well as the decrease in democratic representation meant it was always going to be difficult.

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 the 900 votes he lost by the exclusion of the Palmertown area, his vote was only marginally down on 2002 even in the context of the dramatic swing to Fianna Fail. Joe will continue to be a representative for the Socialist Party and an essential figure on the left in this country.

How a new movement for working people will be built

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 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 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. (Many who were spoken of for such a slate had minimal commitment to left principles and a little record of struggle). 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.

Richard Boyd Barrett, who is a member of the Socialist Workers Party, but who stood under the front – People Before Profit Alliance, got a strong vote of 5,233 or 8.9% and narrowly missed being elected in Dun Laoghaire. It is already being argued that this exceptional result in Dun Laoghaire shows that there is now the potential for the building of a major new left movement. That would be an equally imbalanced and an equally wrong conclusion to make as the idea of a shift to the right in this election. Even in comparison to the other four People Before Profit candidates, the Dun Laoghaire vote is exceptional as the other candidates got 2,080 votes or 4.38%; 1,058 votes or 2.8%; 591 votes or 1.75% and 365 votes or 0.56%.

Whether Richard Boyd Barrett’s vote really relates to the struggle to build a new left movement for working class people is very much open to question. Through his association with the Bin Tax struggle in particular, he got over 1,400 votes in the local elections in 2004. Given his active involvement in other campaigns and with his high profile, a vote in excess of 3,000 was always a likelihood in Dun Laoghaire.

However the approach of ditching reference to the SWP and the dropping of any socialist policies or content to the campaign was clearly an attempt to attract the liberal, middle class layers in the constituency and it’s clear that this was successful. Such people are less concerned with the potential decline of the economy and this vote was less prone to be squeezed in the last days. Undoubtedly this represents a good vote but is not the same as a vote that is based fundamentally on working class communities and socialist policies and approach. In some respects it is more akin to building a base of support that is similar to the Greens, rather than a step towards constituting a new left on a principled basis.

Working class struggle and socialist change

A real new left movement will come out of the new struggles of the working class and the youth. The hopes for change and for maintaining economic growth and jobs, which were crucial in determining the outcome of this election, will be dashed as the property and construction bubble which has driven the economy along since 2001 ends. Essential public services and infrastructure will not be delivered; the health, housing and transport crises will worsen; bosses will try to impose wage competition and a race to the bottom for workers; for the first time in over a generation unemployment and the threat of unemployment will reemerge.

The new government will emerge from unprincipled wheeling and dealing over the next weeks. Fianna Fail are in the driving seat and the PDs/Independents, the Greens or the Labour Party will all be fully prepared to go into government with them. It inevitably will be a rightwing pro big business administration. Its actions in the changed economic climate will create the basis for struggles at work and in communities and the re-organisation of the working class in the unions and politically. There will be the potential for a dramatic swing away from all the established parties, as they all will have defended the capitalist market, which is causing the attacks on people’s rights.

The temporary setback that the Socialist Party, other genuine forces and the working class have experienced in this election can and will be more than made up. This election is only a snapshot of opinion at a particular time. The economic situation is likely to change quickly and bring with it instability. It is vital that socialists and working class activists continue to prepare today for the major battles and opportunities that will be posed to build a new socialist movement in the years ahead.

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May 2007