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Lessons from Europe for Labour? February 26, 2007

Posted by franklittle in European Politics, Ireland, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, The Left.

I thought about making this simply a comment after finding WBS had just posted on it, but I’d like to broaden the discussion out a little bit.

Our ‘friends’ in the SWP are fond of pointing to revolutionary, or quasi-revolutionary, struggles in the developing world and then arguing that the lessons we learn from this can be applied to Ireland. I am told that one SWP comrade, at a meeting about the Shell to Sea campaign, argued that if the campaign was pursued along SWP lines, it could end up with a ‘Morales type situation’. Latin America watchers will know this means the nationalisation of natural resources through the use of the National Guard. This is line with the long-standing SWP position that the further away from Ireland a struggle is, the more revolutionary it is. One wonders with some nervousness what would ever hapen to this habit if space flight was developed further.

I think there is a more interesting, and more applicable lesson, in some of the re-alignments, and attempted re-alignments, in Europe. In 2005, we saw a major victory for the left in France with the rejection of the EU Constitution. This entailed a unification in the radical left of the French Communist Party, the LCR, Lutte Ouvriere, as well as the major unions and organisations like ATTAC. What was interesting, and probably crucial, was the decision of a large section of the Social Democratic ‘Socialist Party’ led by Laurent Fabius, to oppose the Constitution.

In 2006, this time with a united Socialist Party that recognised the need to work with other elements of the left, they came together to defeat the CPE, or First Employment Contract, which would have made it easier to fire employees under the age of 26, after massive, and virulently militant mobilisations.

In Germany, a similar re-alignment took place when former members of the German Social Democrats, disgusted about Schroder’s welfare reforms, quit and established the WASG, under former leading Social Democrat, Oskar Lafontaine. Now uniting with the PDS as the Left Party, they won 54 seats in the 2005 Federal Elections, becoming the fourth biggest party and over-taking the Greens.

These have not been perfect successes. The unity in the French left has not survived the Presidential election bid with parties and individuals pursuing their selfish interest. The Left Party had a poor enough 2006 state elections in their Berlin stronghold but at 8-10%, the whole is greater than the sum of two parts.

In all three cases sections of the Social Democratic bloc, all of it in the case of the CPE, moved away and established links with more radical left parties. Successfully in Germany and with less long-term success in France. In both cases, the split in the social democrats was ideological in nature, part of an opposition to welfare or employment reforms, and the neo-liberalism of the EU Constitution.

So what is the lesson in Ireland? I think the first thing to note is what’s missing. Unlike France or Germany where the internal disagreements in the social democratic parties existed for some time,. there seems to be no ideological argument within the Irish Labour party, with the exception of Labour Youth, and anomalies like Declan Bree. Smiffy’s post points out the interesting phenomenon of Labour bloggers (All very good blogs btw) rejecting Rabbitte’s proposed tax cut. This is the closest to a political disagreement within Labour that is not restricted to Labour Youth that I can think of. Previous disagreements centring around coalition tactics. Consequently, without serious ideological division in Irish Labour, the notion of a split, with sections of the party re-aligning with the radical left, is not going to happen. The days of the 80s and the ideological battles within Labour, and major party figures articulating radical left-wing positions, seem further than 20 years away.

This leaves the possibility, that like the French Socialists over the CPE, Labour could move to the left, obviously not under Rabbitte, as part of a broader realignment. It was interesting to see the possibility of working with Sinn Féin being discussed in Labour Youth’s magazine Left Tribune, though the article opposing it by Donal O Liathain was interesting more for the vitriol and basic errors of political analysis, than because he said anything interesting. Curiously, later in the same magazine he lauds David Ervine, an hypocrisy pointed out by others on this site.

But for Labour to move this way, it would require an acceptance that the Greens and Sinn Féin are here to stay and they better get used to them. It would require a change of leader and political direction, not necessarily unrealistic if they do not enter power in 2007. And Sinn Féin would still have to go through a ‘disinfection’ period before the literati of south Dublin (Also know as the Labour and Green leaderships) would deign to break bread with the Shinners. 

Lastly, WBS makes an interesting point that labour still sees itself as having a stranglehold on left politics in Ireland. It reminded me of a speech Roger Cole, a former member of Labour’s General Council and a candidate in the ’04 elections, made at an otherwise tiresome Desmond Greaves Summer School in 2004, arguing that Labour was now the FOURTH party, behind Sinn Féin. Obviously Cole is way out there by Labour standards, but I thought it was interesting he felt able to say this nonetheless.

Perhaps, if Labour does not assume it’s role as leader of a multi-faceted Irish left-wing in the short to medium term, it will find itself overtaken, and not merely by events.


1. Cian - February 26, 2007

I think the recent observations of yourself, Smiffy and WBS on the issue of a united left or at least a coalescing of left wing parties for purposes of redefinition of irish political divisions is interesting in another sense.

Your final point about parties overtaking labour is key to this since it is anecdotally said that where labour have moved out of working class estates, Sinn Fein, Independents and other parties of the left have moved back in. If the ideological consensus within labour doesn’s split the party, differences of how to re-radicalise their base of voters in 2012 may well bring this about.

If, as I think its possible, Sinn Fein, Independents, Greens and perhaps SWP benefit at Labour’s expense the minds of a number of labour people will be focussed on how to coexist with left wingers. In order to avoid the fate of the SDLP it means coalescing on issues close to the left and pushing outward the left-wing constituency to accomodate a diversity of parties.

Could it happen? Yes. Will it happen? I doubt it. Unless LY get some pragmatic and idealistic heads into positions of influence fairly quickly.


2. WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2007

That’s key to the project, but that demands a degree of humility, and although I have enormous respect for many, if not indeed most, in the LP I also am aware of a strong strain of ‘sinn féinism’ in terms of going it alone. Some might call it arrogance, but being charitable it is is the inevitable consequence of being within a party which saw itself as uniquely ideological in the 26 county context. Well those days are over, and have been at least since the rise of OSF/SFWP. There are competing but complemetary ideologies on the block and what franklittle and myself in particular point to is the necessity for broader alliances of parties that can soak up the left vote and extend it.

“This is line with the long-standing SWP position that the further away from Ireland a struggle is, the more revolutionary it is.”



3. Michael Taft - February 27, 2007

The discussion in the three posts and comments regarding a future progressive alliance has been extremely provocative and welcomed. Sadly too few are confronting this challenge but at least the few, and certainly the contributors at CLR, are doing so in a thoughtful manner. If I may be so forward as to encapsulate what I believe those main points to be in order to draw out what needs to be addressed.

1. First, ‘some serious thinking needs to be done about how to generate some degree of cooperation amongst the major groups on the left’. Yes. That is the starting point.

1. The lack of an internal debate, with the exceptions of Labour Youth and individuals, regarding a progressive political/electoral strategy. This was raised in the context of a ‘split’ with sections of the party realigning with the radical left, but also in a more broad-based shift to the left by the party, including a future leadership itself. While more than extremely dubious on the former, it is clear that if the latter is to happen it is crucial to get wider sections of the Labour Party into the discussion (meetings, publications, cyberspace, pubs, anywhere). How can that practically be done?

2. We should highlight (as they do in political blogging in the US) where a positive initiative (e.g. Labour Youth’s debate on relations with Sinn Fein) is being conducted or a discussion is being held – to direct people’s attention to that.

2. This problem is exacerbated by a certain ‘sinn feinism’ in which Labour members (but not just them) do not see the need or the relevance to dialogue with other progressive forces. Therefore we must highlight the benefits for Labour, and for the Greens and Sinn Fein, of entering dialogue.

3. A new politics must be conviction-centred. This requires synthesising the array of policies being put forward – not only by political parties but all progressive social organisation; identifying the short-comings and gaps; showing how they can be integrated within a politically ‘common sense’ or ‘sales-oriented’ platform; and suggesting how this work could be strengthened by a cross-section of party members, if only informally at first, sitting down to the task.

4. Implicit in the discussions is the necessity to show the electoral benefit of greater co-operation. Our strategies must have a better chance of gaining more votes, more seats, more cabinet seats – in order to implement a greater amount of one’s programme – than any other. We have to show both political and electoral superiority – not only as a ‘bloc’ but for the constituent parts as well.

And all this is in a constructive, carrot-wielding intellectually pessimistic-optimistically willful manner.

These are the tasks as I see it – getting more Labour members into the discussion, directing people’s attention to those debates, highlight the political and electoral benefits of greater co-operation, and the long hard work of creating policy initiatives – arising from the excellent discussion hosted by CLR.


4. smiffy - February 27, 2007

Hey! We came to bury Labour, not to praise it. 😦


5. scrawled in crayon - February 27, 2007

This is an interesting article, but I think it makes a rather big leap about halfway through.

The article quite rightly points out that Labour is not ideologically split between different wings. The Labour left was comprehensively defeated in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s leading figures have either reconciled themselves to the right wing shift of the party (Stagg, Michael D Higgins) or are outside the party (Joe Higgins). The debates about coalition with the main right wing parties are well and truly over, replaced by occasional tactical squabble about which of the bigger parties to ally with or whether an alliance should be declared before or after an election.

As the writer points out this does mean that there is no short or medium term prospect of a split to the left, or even of a major reorientation of a significant section within the party. The recent disputes in Connaught actually reinforce this impression – they involve very marginal elements only.

The point is that this very unanimity also means that a shift to the left by the party as a whole is extremely unlikely. The reason why a left wing doesn’t exist isn’t because the party is united. The converse is true: Labour is united because significant elements who are open to left wing ideas don’t exist.

A section of Labour won’t shift left because no section of Labour is looking to the left or has disagreements in principle to the liberal-centrist politics of the party as a whole. And without even a significant section of the party willing to do that, how could we hope for the party as a whole to do it?

That said, it isn’t impossible that Labour could eventually reorient towards a strengthened Greens and Sinn Fein. That will only happen though if (a) it provides an easier route to power and (b) that the politics of such an alliance would be business as usual. Being rather less optimistic about any of these parties than the original writer, I don’t see (b) as particularly far fetched.


6. WorldbyStorm - February 27, 2007

I think scrawled that’s a very important point you raise about the nature of the Labour party, yet I can’t help but feel that it’s not the whole story. There has been a fairly muted response to the current leadership strategy and while I’m almost certain that doesn’t indicate an outbreak of left social democracy or socialism it does indicate that a different stance along the lines proposed by Michael Taft or franklittle might be received more positively than you assume.

And then again, if not these parties then who? A basic premise of serious socialism is that one works with what one has not what one wishes one had.


7. franklittle - February 28, 2007

I think Michael Taft’s comment is excellent. Really constructive and thought-provoking. He makes the key popint that we, through this blog and elsewhere, need to be encouraging the very kind of politics we’re talking about. Maybe the Cedar Lounge posse could look at a couple of ideas in this regard. Asking a couple of representatives in the named parties to do a Guest Blog?

As for Scrawled’s point, I suppose in one level I’m trying to be optimistic about Labour. I’ve met a lot of very radical and progressive Labour activists throughout the years. Bear in mind as well that the trade union movement, for all it’s faults and I am excrutiatingly aware of them, is the largest working class organisation in Ireland, and is linked to Labour. I think the party’s youth wing is taking some good positions, and I think those of us outside Labour need to try and encourage those people from outside, as Michael suggested.

I wouldn’t say I have ‘illusions’ in the Greens and Sinn Féin. The former is simply a liberal middle class party with no socialist analysis, but I do believe they shine a spotlight on environmental issues that no-one else does. I think the Shinners are coming to acrossroads. Right now, as I pointed out in a post in December, they’re the only party arguing for using the tax system to redistribute wealth and for increased democratic control of the economy. Does this make them the Great White Hope? Absolutely not, but it gives us something to work with.

Bringing me to WBS’s comment, as socialists we deal with the real world. Dismiss Labour, Greens and Sinn Féin and we’re left with two secretive Trot factions trying to recreate 1917 although in fairness to the SP, they do have some good activists and they’re a bit more honest than what Stalin would have called the Trotskyist Fascist Counter-Revolutionaries of the SWP.

Stalin…..beneath the layers of lunacy and tyranny, he got something right.


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