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Slouching towards state power…Sinn Féin, the Green Party and the ‘left’ vote…or how a broader Irish left may just take shape March 6, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Greens, Ireland, Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Sinn Féin, The Left, Uncategorized.

Reading the Sunday Business Post yesterday it was clear that the sort of thinking exemplified by us here, ie-Politics, Notes on the Front and Dublin Opinion, and others is shared at least in part by more prominent political commentators.

In particular in the Backroom column there was a good analysis of how Sinn Féin and the Greens have stolen a significant tranche of the left vote.

In words that could have been written here (and in some ways they already have) it notes:

More than in any previous election, our smaller parties are firmly centre-stage. Much of the debate of recent times has been over who they are willing to coalesce with and what their demands might be.


What’s different is the role now being played by the Green Party and Sinn Fein. Where once they were occasional visitors to Leinster House, they are now accepted as permanent players.

Their leaders pop up on the nightly news and their conferences are televised. In terms of popular support, as confirmed in last week’s Sunday Business Post/Red C poll, they are consistently at a level where they can expect to consolidate and grow their big advances of the last decade.

In words very very similar to what was written here last week it notes that:

With their joint support averaging in the region of 12 to 16 per cent, they represent a proportion of the electorate equal to or larger than the Labour Party.

But most importantly it concedes that

[Sinn Féin] voters are overwhelmingly left-of-centre if you discount the small ‘‘when I die wrap me in a tricolour and lob a brick at the Brits in my memory’’ element of the Sinn Fein vote. When you combine their vote with that of Labour, it would appear that the left-wing vote has increased significantly in recent years and is now consistently above that of Fine Gael.

Similarly with the Greens which it proposes that

Its Leinster House bench contains some serious talent, though this is not always allowed speaking roles.

While its base is less secure, it has what any party would love: an issue which everyone agrees on. Have you ever met someone who’s in favour of not saving the planet?

This allows the Greens to be a magnet for non-ideological, soft left, ‘why can’t we just be nicer to the world’ type of voters who are growing in significance all the time. It is a non-establishment vote of choice.

Finally Backroom notes that:

This aside, the big news concerning the growth of the Green Party and Sinn Fein is that they have actually stopped a re-alignment of politics – something which has more to do with Labour’s malaise than anything else.

Under Dick Spring and Ruairi Quinn, Labour had a very definite long-term objective of becoming the second-largest party in government, capable of dominating an administration.

It followed a policy of uniting with a series of smaller left parties, including a Democratic Left so denuded of activists that it became difficult to fill a room to vote on merger.

Again, this is an analysis similar to that made here. The rise of the Greens and Sinn Féin has resulted in a new political situation in the Republic, one where the outlines of a potential left-bloc are coming into view.

However, just as things are going so well Backroom retreats from the significance of the analysis s/he has made.

Whether Labour can achieve leadership of the left, rather than leadership of government, is now the biggest question facing the party.

It’s impossible to see Labour as having a serious role as leader of the left in the context of a multi-party left (and I don’t say that as an anti-Labour partisan), particularly one where the Labour vote is essentially static while the Green and Sinn Féin vote is increasing albeit at different rates. Indeed it’s arguable that it’s this very concept of a ‘leadership of the left’ which potentially could derail a serious realignment in Irish politics. “Go it alone” stances may well resonate with the party faithful, but in the broader constituency of the Irish electorate they appear to play with all the drabness of a Soviet era meeting of apparatchiks on the latest economic plan.

The difficulties of unifying the left even in a tentative alliance have already been noted. But they are not insuperable. Yet one feels that Backroom may well be onto something when s/he says:

A rising left-wing vote, but a stagnant first preference share, belies a failure to attract voters who want change, but see smaller, more clearly defined parties as the best vehicle.

and more particularly

Sinn Fein’s transformation has yet to convince many, but time and a focus on organisation can see it having a much bigger impact, particularly if – as now seems inevitable – Labour obliges it by going into government in a few months’ time.

In such a context Labour may well be faced with a party that is it’s worst possible political nightmare, an all-island Workers’ Party Mark II, if the Assembly Elections go as promised, and one which is in government in the North with all the resulting prestige that delivers (assuming the Executive works which in truth considering the way in which it is almost constructed for photo-ops is hardly beyond doubt), one with organic links into rural constituencies that Labour while not entirely unable to replicate cannot do so with quite the same conviction. And unlike the WP, which it is arguable suffered from a sort of multiple political identities to the extent that it ultimately fractured, SF seems to have managed to pull off the remarkable trick of maintaining it’s core values while entirely altering it’s tactical approach. So the prospect of Labour waiting to incorporate the socialist element of SF at some future point seems remote.

So the very real danger to Labour is entering government and hoping, against both experience and intuition, that participation will leave it stronger rather than weaker and more exposed to an SF and Green Party which are ready and waiting to assimilate further parts of it’s constituency.

Pausing for a moment I’d also argue that such a result would be bad for all three parties. Experience has demonstrated that a synergy between the parties is better than futile expenditure of political energy on attempts to gain some form of political ‘dominance’ – futile in the sense that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil maintain their hold upon actual political power while the left plays shadowboxing.

Vastly better to start working towards being the majority in a government in coalition with either FG or FF – and to also put behind us this pointless argument about the relative superiority of either of those two political formations. It doesn’t matter. They are what they are. The bottom line has to be the delivery of progressive politics for the early 21st century.

And it’s notable that the Irish Times editorial yesterday (and yes, the IT get’s a tough time around here, but when it’s right – or at least when it accords with our carefully thought out scientific socialist position 😉 we have no qualms in saying so) notes that

Sinn Féin believes the experience of government in a Northern Executive with the Democratic Unionist Party – if this emerges from Wednesday’s assembly elections – will generate public support in the forthcoming general election, putting the prospect of sharing power in the Republic firmly on the agenda.

and that

They are rarely assessed like other parties. On the evidence of this ardfheis, it is a left-wing nationalist party committed to egalitarian policies in health and education and taxation geared to those on lower and average incomes. It is pledged to redistribute the tax burden more fairly between these and the better-off and super-rich rather than increase it. It is willing to bargain about coalition-building after the election. It has young candidates and a more varied profile than before in many constituencies.

Now this is far from a full throated acceptance of SF, but, but…it’s as positive an assessment as I have ever read on those pages. Sure it finishes with:

But the party still has a long way to go in explaining and justifying itself to voters anxious for social change but wary of destabilising the economic prosperity which makes it possible.

Yet, is it absolutely impossible to glean here the possibility that the old IT ghrá for the WP may yet remainifest itself in updated and modified format? Or perhaps it’s simply the unstated recognition that if Paisley and the DUP can ultimately do the deal with Sinn Féin the qualms of the southern political establishment will rapidly be overcome by electoral necessity.

Incidentally the reason this post concentrates in greater detail on SF rather than the Green Party is due to the proximity of both Wednesday’s elections and the Ard Fheis.

This is something we hope to return to, perhaps in a different form in order to generate not merely the start of a debate, but contribute to the debate itself in a more structured fashion and perhaps even suggest some structures that might facilitate future change. Ever since it’s inception the CLR has been about approaching politics with an attitude of optimism, with an eye for political opportunity (as distinct from opportunism) and with an aversion to political sectarianism which has ill-served the liberal left in this state in the past. One of the most heartening aspects of engagement through the CLR has been to discover that there are like-minded people in all the left political parties and outside of them and that even where significant disagreement exists there remains a serious questioning of the contemporary political status quo.
Speaking of the election tomorrow, or almost today, there are those such as always readable Splintered Sunrise who offer good strong critiques of PSF. Yet considering the island as a whole it seems to me that, as has been said here before, there is little point in hoping for a better left (or lefts) than the one(s) we have to come around. I’m not sure if that belief of mine is the result of too many defeats, or perhaps an incorrect optimism.

I guess we’ll see.


1. Pidge - March 7, 2007

I’ve never quite been sure if the Greens could be put in the left or even centre-left boxes. They certainly have the traditional left liberalism, but their economic policy (on taxation, anyway) is surprisingly innovative – taking bits from both left and right.



2. Wagger - March 7, 2007

Why do you think Labour are so keen to have the Greens in the Rainbow – even if the numbers aren’t required? (See, in particular, Quinn’s speeches and interview on the matter, but also Rabbitte and Gilmore)


3. Donagh - March 7, 2007

You are absolutely correct in your point that it’s impossible to see Labour as having a serious role as leader of the left in the context of a multi-party left (and I don’t say that as an anti-Labour partisan), particularly one where the Labour vote is essentially static while the Green and Sinn Féin vote is increasing albeit at different rates.

I think if Labour are to be the large part of a new left coalition they have to change a lot, but – and perhaps this is obvious – that is not going to happen before this election. The problem is that Labour needs to find out why its static and acknowledge that it hasn’t been able to take advantage of the increasing discontent with the current status quo. Shinners and The Greens are increasing their votes, in my view, because they are the parties least associated with the duopoly of Fianna Fail/PDs and Fine Gael.


4. WorldbyStorm - March 7, 2007

Pidge, I think that’s a fair point. But, and there’s always a but isn’t there, I would still think that both in terms of their outlook and their electorate they remain somewhat of the left. The SBP article quoted Willy Brandt (I think) saying the Greens were the ‘lost children of social democracy’. It’s not entirely incorrect.

Wagger, I’d presume following the old saw of ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’ they seek both to maximise the left of centre influence in any such coalition, but also to prevent just such linkages between the external left, having learned their lesson well during the FF/Labour coalition where they were sniped at perpetually by DL. However, isn’t it curious that they have – implicitly – then ceded a certain section of the electorate to SF? Odd.

I also think you’re right Donagh. There is no way this change will happen – if ever – prior to May. And without serious effort little at all that it will happen after.


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