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The long war? December 5, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Environment, Irish Politics, Local Politics, Minor Left Parties, Socialist Party, Socialist Workers' Party, The Further Left, The Left, Trotskyism.
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I was slightly surprised to read on Indymedia today that the Galway Bin Charges Campaign held a picket outside Galway City Council as part of a laudable, and it should be noted successful, campaign against an initiative from the City Manager to remove the waiver on bin charges for bin lifts. Protestors accurately pointed out that this would have a substantial impact on the worst off in Galway.

My surprise was not because Galway Alliance Against War felt it necessary to turn up in a credulity stretching interpretation of its mandate, but in the continued existence, however chimera like of the anti-bin tax campaign in places around the country and the continued lack of anything like a strategy to get rid of the charges.

Drimnagh, where I live, was home to one of the strongest anti-bin charges campaigns in Ireland. Joan Collins, former SP, successfully rode the campaign into the Council chamber and Bríd Smith of the SWP/PBP wasn’t a million miles away from doing the same in Ballyfermot. Like most households in our area, the Littles refused to pay the bin charges, attended the meetings and a couple of marches and protests and quizzed candidates in 2002 and 2004 on where they stood on the issue.

Now, again like most of our neighbours, we pay the charge. Grudgingly certainly, but we pay it nonetheless. Yet, as a search on Indymedia for bin tax related stories will reveal, there are still occasional protests and campaign work in parts of Drimnagh, in Ringsend, and there was a small protest outside Dublin City Council when the Estimates were debated at the end of November and where, for the first time in Dublin City, Sinn Féin councillors backed the Estimates containing bin charges.

But here’s the thing. The campaign is, to all intents and purposes, over. Non-payment, as a means to ‘axe the tax’ has failed. I don’t, by the way, think it failed because it was the wrong strategy. I think it was the right one. It failed because the unions, Labour and Sinn Féin wouldn’t back it and they should not be allowed to forget that. Non-payment levels in the Dublin local authorities are not worrying the City Manager and outside of Dublin it was never really a political issue. The extended family in the rural homeland of the Littles was paying bin charges for several years without complaint before it blew up as an issue in Dublin.

Power to bring in and set the level of the Bin Tax has been taken from the councillors and put in the hands of the City and County Managers. Regardless of how a councillor votes, he or she cannot alter the rate at which the charge is set. In theory, a majority of councillors could refuse to bring in the Estimates and collapse the Council, but this would need to happen in several different areas before the Government would be forced to act in any way other than simply appointing Commissioners to run the City or County.

But there is no sign of such a majority on any Council, and every indication from the recent elections that the working class are not rising from their chairs with a ballot paper in one hand and a burning Bin Charges bill in the other. Indeed the most prominent anti-bin charges campaigner in the country, whose constituency was home to one of the stronger anti-bin charges campaign, lost his seat. If anything, with the inclusion of the always pro-bin charges Greens, the prospect of their abolition has become even more unlikely. Councillors in Dublin City who voted against the Estimates because of the charges have had their positions misrepresented as having votes against the new playground for the area, or the new litter warden because they were also contained in the Estimates. Clearly, supporters of bin charges are no longer afraid, and many opponents no longer see political capital in it.

So, why do the protests and the anti-bin charges campaign continue? In part, one supposes it is because of the still outstanding legal issues around the charges, but I can’t help but wonder if certain individuals and parties are happy to keep the campaign ticking over in order to maintain their profiles ahead of the next election.

This is not a debate about the rights and wrongs of double taxation. The bin charges are wrong and should be opposed. But is it the best use of the limited resources the left in Ireland has available to it to fight a battle that has been lost for a couple of years? There is, in my opinion, no shame in accepting that, for now, a battle is lost and preparing to fight a new one until the opportunity to refight the charges comes again. There is and was shame in not fighting at all, or in supporting the charges in the first place.

At what point do you accept that a campaign is over? At what point do you acknowledge defeat or claim victory? And when does the maintenance of a campaign become more of an exercise in political manipulation and candidate profiling and less of a genuine attempt to right a wrong and correct an injustice?

Comments»

1. Pidge - December 6, 2007

In the case of SWP/PBP, I imagine that they don’t mind flogging a dead horse – so long as they get new people to join in the flogging.

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2. WorldbyStorm - December 6, 2007

I think that it’s important to note the dynamic of such things. For a large proportion of the further left the anti-bin charges protest was the major activity. I was talking to a non-party politically aligned protester who I know quite well a while back and his argument was that by demonstrating the nature of the state i.e. it’s implacable indifference to working people… the protests had an exemplary effect and could lead to a pre- or actual revolutionary situation, particularly if the Gardai or Army were brought out to suppress demonstrations, etc.

I thought that was hyperbole then, and I think it’s hyperbole now. But this sense that the struggle was central to activism on the left was something that I think is barmy – yeah, it’s central to some peoples activism, but it has very very limited roots in the working class (despite the excellent work by many on the campaigns) and the idea it had the potential for revolution is absurd. But what worries me more is the sense that all proportion has gone out the window on such things. If people genuinely think that very very minor disturbances around bin trucks are the equivalent or precursor to some sort of replay of 1917 and will be perceived as such I think that’s a terrible waste of energy. The society has moved on quite radically, the nature of social relationships within it while perhaps similar have taken new forms that such campaigns barely even impinge on. And as we said before, look at the Provisional Driving Licenses to see mobilisations on an enormous scale, yet I can’t imagine either the SP or SWPs CC’s would consider they had any ‘revolutionary’ potential whatsoever… even if one attempted to construct a special front of a ‘unique’ kind around them… So perhaps the ‘mobilisation’ and ‘campaign’ model is broke in the contemporary era.

Again, I’m not pouring scorn on people who took that route. I think, as you do, it’s necessary and legitimate to protest… but a core belief of mine is that the achievable is always the best exemplar to the broader constituencies of people…

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3. WorldbyStorm - December 6, 2007

Actually Pidge, that’s a good point. The dynamic of campaign as tool of recruitment as an aspect of party continuity is often overlooked…

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4. chekov - December 6, 2007

Good article frank, the WSM’s view is pretty much the same. Once the blockades were called off and the bulk of the campaign moved on to jockeying for council seats, we concluded that it was lost. The only difference is that we wouldn’t identify the lack of LP and SF involvement in the non-payment campaign as the central reason for failure – any more than we’d put it down to FG’s non-involvement. We were well aware that they wouldn’t be involved. The water charges were defeated without either party.

WBS, although there may have been some naively enthusiastic new recruits anticipating revolution flowing from grangegorman, I seriously doubt that this view was common. I’d imagine that most of the groups involved saw it as a chance to inflict a defeat upon the privitisation tide and to create a rare site of broad working class struggle (of a very reformist nature, obviously) within which they might gain influence – the fact that some people are still keeping it going indicates, however, the difficulty of generalising the politics and developing an ideological support base.

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5. John O'Neill - December 6, 2007

There are still pockets of resistance in Finglas although the campaign isn’t really meeting in the area. However, I think it is important to continue to defend those who are not paying. Recently an estate in Finglas that ‘assist’ the bin men in their work by placing their bins in the bin truck all received a letter from the council stating that legal proceedings would be inacted if they didn’t stop. One of the activists showed the letter and it was obvious it wasn’t really an ‘offical’ council letter at all. The name signed was made up and there was no address on the council headed paper. Members of the local anti bin tax committee were able to find out that this was bogus and just a ruse by some council chancer to frighten campaigners into ending their activities.

I mention this because IMO the campaign will not end until there are no estates resisting. One of the main (valid in my past experience) criticisms the WP had of what they called the ultra left was that they got involved in campaigns when they were ‘media worthy’ and walked away when the media lost interest to some other issue leaving people to fend for themselves. The Finglas ISN still know that there are many estates and streets in our area that continue with the campaign and also that many individuals continue to hold out refusing to pay.

As for the campaign being over? Maybe so, but take a look at Fingal CC. They had successfully undermined the campaign by introducing the tag system which was largely accepted as ‘fairer’ than a yearly charge. Now they are considering a €120 annual charge for the Green bin. Should this go ahead I wouldn’t be surprised to see a reappearrance of the campaign in Fingal.

In the future the campaign is also an ideal platform to fight the introduction of water charges which we can expect in the next few years.

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6. WorldbyStorm - December 6, 2007

Hi Chekov… you’re right, that guys rhetoric was exaggerated but… it fits into a narrative and that’s one that I think Frank Little describes well where campaigns stagger on and on until they assume a grim half life. They become – to amend a phrase – the site of struggle. But little care seems to be have taken to determine are they the best or most sensible site of struggle. For my money, I think that the bin charges were counter-intuitive from the word go to many people. I don’t disagree with the campaign, but the point is that due to the recycling element (which was a fig leaf I completely agree) and the support of the Greens who were playing their own long game as regards altering the society towards a more positive view of recycling progressives – particularly of the soft left were already either semi-detached or against the campaigns. Then for others there was the sense that while the tax might be incorrect it seemed a bit odd when broadly the left calls for more taxation to be doing away with this. Look I’m only restating arguments I know you’ve heard many times… the point I’m making is that these perceptions were much more deeply rooted than campaigners gave them credit. And then there is the simple fact that the middle class didn’t care, indeed if anything actually agreed due to the nature of the narratives around recycling, etc, etc… Take it all together and what is the justification for concentrating on this issue, this campaign, one which it took me ten minutes consideration back in the day to realise would be lost? And while I very much admire those who did fight the campaign such as the ISN I simply don’t believe that there is any genuine prospect of it springing back into life in the future. As for water charges, again they’re problematic because yet again there will be much the same ecological arguments put forward – rightly or wrongly… and hearing the Carbon Budget today they’re going to seem of a piece and highly convincing…

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7. ejh - December 10, 2007

It’s very, very hard to know when a cause is lost and what you should do when it is. If you think bin charges is hard, I can assure you it was much harder when the miners were defeated in 1985. There were many, many miners still outside the gates – at what point were people supposed to close down the support groups and accept that nothing further could be gained? Should people keep them going to support other disputes, or try to preserve the networks created because they were valuable in themselves? Very hard, very hard indeed.

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