Governing Fianna Fáil suffer devastating setback – Is Labour an alternative?
Joe Higgins’ euro-election victory in Dublin is a spectacular victory for the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) and the left in general. Fianna Fáil, the governing party, suffered a devastating setback. The Socialist Party and other left groups also made gains in county council elections.
In 2007 Bertie Ahern won a third successive general election in southern Ireland, bringing the main pro-capitalist party, Fianna Fáil, close to an overall majority. On a 5 June 2009 parliamentary by-election, Ahern’s nominee, his hapless brother Maurice, came fifth in the Dublin Central constituency which Fianna Fáil had dominated for decades!
With 25.4% in the local elections and 24% in the EU elections (both held on the same day), Fianna Fáil got its lowest votes ever nationally, losing 84 council seats. They also lost one MEP and performed dismally in the two Dublin by-elections. The Greens won 18 council seats in 2004 but came back with three – a ‘just reward’ for that party’s unprincipled grab for power when it entered a coalition government with the right-wing Fiánna Fail after the 2007 general elections.
As spectacular as their fall was the dramatic victory of the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins. Joe heaped misery on Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen, when he defeated sitting Fianna Fáil MEP, Eoin Ryan, for the final seat in Dublin.
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 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 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, unfortunately, our councilor in Tallaght, Mick Murphy, narrowly lost his seat. Importantly, the Socialist Party won two additional positions, with Frank Gallagher elected to Drogheda town council and Terry Kelleher to Balbriggan town council.
The final seats won in the euro elections (county council seats in brackets) were: Fianna Fáil three (218), Fine Gael four (340), Labour Party three (132), Socialist Party one (4), and one independent. The Green Party also won three county council seats, Sinn Féin 53, People Before Profits Alliance (PBPA) five, with 128 independents or ‘others’. Fine Gael easily won the Dublin South by-election. Significantly, Maureen O’Sullivan, the ‘Gregory candidate’ (named after a popular independent left-wing TD [MP] who died recently), beat the establishment parties in the Dublin Central by-election.
A hated government
Can the government survive this crushing defeat? Will the gains for Fine Gael last, and will the electoral growth of Labour make any difference for working-class people? The elections saw important victories for socialists, including the Socialist Party, the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the PBPA, the Workers Party and other independent lefts.
The hatred for Fianna Fáil was the defining characteristic of these elections. More than one in every three people who voted for Fianna Fáil in 2007 deserted it this time. Its vote in the locals in Dublin was down 6.5% on the disastrous vote they got in the 2004 local elections.
Out of 130 councillors in the four Dublin councils, Fianna Fáil has a paltry 18 – reduced by more than a third. In Cork city it lost five councillors and is left with six out of 31. In Limerick it has three out of 15. In Waterford, only one councillor out of 15.
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 Dáil (national parliament) 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 results were fashioned by the economic crisis. People blamed Fianna Fáil. In addition, the vote showed there is little support for its 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.
Talk of ‘green shoots of recovery’ 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 working people. It is a chilling prospect that the finance minister, 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 Fáil is not on the cards. In the general election, people are likely to be more desperate than ever to get rid of Fianna Fáil and its results could be even worse. Events can spin out of control and we have to be prepared that a general election could happen at almost any time.
At this point, the main beneficiaries 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 Fáil over the last decade has switched to Fine Gael at this point and it is the biggest party in council seats and opinion polls.
Is Labour an alternative?
Labour increased its representation in the urban centres and now holds 45 of the 130 council seats in Dublin. It is behind Fine Gael in Limerick but is neck-and-neck 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 does not mean there is any prospect of left-wing, fighting councils. Instead, regardless of the rhetoric on certain issues, 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 Fáil 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 euro elections were repeated in the next general election, Fine Gael and Labour would have a comfortable majority in the Dáil. Such a government would be a right-wing, anti-working class administration. That is not just because Fine Gael is likely to be in a coalition majority, it is also because Labour is part of the pro-capitalist establishment. Some may hope that, in the context of this extreme capitalist crisis, Labour may return to a left position under pressure from working-class people. There were also huge hopes in New Labour in Britain when it came to power in 1997 after years of Tory rule but look what was delivered!
The Labour Party in Ireland also ceased to be a workers’ party during the 1990s. It has moved ever further to the right under successive 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 of Labour’s radical policies that may inadvertently remain on paper in policy documents will be discarded. Rather than reflect the aspirations of working people, Labour would heed and act under pressure from big business interests, demanding that the policy of making working people pay for the crisis is continued. Such an administration would likely become unpopular quickly.
On the basis of its previous record in coalition governments with the traditional capitalist parties and its recent record and policies, Labour will hugely disappoint its supporters and the working class by implementing a pro-capitalist agenda when in power. This will have a big impact on society. It will create the conditions for a further and more dramatic shift to the left and for the growth of socialist forces, including the Socialist Party.
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 did not fully engage or respond favourably to our proposal and as a result an opportunity was missed.
It is a mistake for the newly-elected PBPA councillors to refer to Labour and Sinn Féin as ‘left wing’ when these parties are committed to implementing pro-capitalist market policies. In a disgusting attack on union organisation and workers’ rights, Eamonn Gilmore, Labour Party leader, recently argued that public-sector workers should not take action against the government’s austerity programme.
By referring to Labour and Sinn Fein as ‘left’, and being open to an alliance and deals with them on local councils, PBPA is potentially giving support to those who will attack working-class communities. Such statements will reinforce 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 are needs to be resolved otherwise there is a real danger that the attempts to build a new party will fail.
Joe Higgins defeats Fianna Fáil
The victory of Joe Higgins 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. For a campaign with only a fraction of the resources of the main parties, 50,510 first preference votes or 12.4% is an incredible result.
Our defeat of Sinn Féin MEP, Mary Lou McDonald, was a huge blow to its leadership and capped off a poor election for it, particularly in Dublin where it also lost three council positions. Within a couple of days, Sinn Féin’s longest serving councillor, Christy Burke, resigned from the party in Dublin. Then John Dwyer from New Ross, who got 5,000 first preference votes for Sinn Féin in the 2002 general election, also resigned.
Joe Higgins was elected on a clear socialist programme, which we outlined constantly in the media, on 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 gives 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 the Socialist Party in major struggles – defeating water charges, fighting the bin tax (for which Joe was sent to prison), involvement in countless workers’ struggles, like the GAMA dispute – were absolutely crucial factors.
The opposition that Joe showed against Fianna Fáil in the Dáil, between 1997 and 2007, was also vital. More than anyone else, Joe exposed and warned of the crisis that Fianna Fáil’s policies and greed would lead to. 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, that their vote can make a difference. A second Irish Times opinion poll showing Joe’s growing electoral strength was an important factor in boosting his chances, but it only had an impact because we had already increased our support and developed a momentum since the Irish Time’s first opinion poll.
The 50,510 voters knew very well that they were voting for a socialist. In an 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. Of those made redundant over the last six months who voted, 32.4% voted for Joe. Clearly, what people refer 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 their record of consistently fighting for working-class people.
Other left candidates also won county council seats. Five PBPA councillors were elected to Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown, South Dublin and Dublin city councils. Two county councillors were elected for the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group; the action group won a seat on Carrick-on-Suir town council and five on Clonmel borough council. Independent left and Workers Party councillors were elected in Dublin, Waterford and Cork. These gains are important. 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.
The Socialist Party and the left must now use all elected positions to fight on the issues and to explain the need for a new workers’ 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, 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 organising mass resistance and struggle to the draconian attacks that this government is implementing, and which are destroying the lives of working people and 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.