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The Necessity of Elections August 1, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Northern Ireland, The Left.

Having been too busy to comment for a few days, I missed the chance to respond to the following comment from sonofstan on the Irish Times and éirígí thread:

There seems to me to be good ideological reasons for not going down the road of electoralism at all in the North, or wholeheartedly in the Republic – from both a republican and a socialist POV. The travesty of even minimal democratic niceties enshrined in the GFA for a start: one could argue that no socialist should take part in such a sectarian headcount.

I think we can all agree that the experience of republican politics since the foundation of the Free State shows that abstentionism there is a recipe for irrelevance. And not just for republicans, but also for the left. Participating in the electoral process and securing elected representatives is key in developing support and influence more broadly. While elections are not, and should not be, the sole focus for the left, it is clear that in our political culture, without participating in them any party’s appeal will be severely limited. What then of the north?

The fundamental point here of course is that in the north the left – by which in this context I mean those who put socialism ahead of the national question – is already extremely weak. This is true in terms of the numbers involved, influence in the community, and especially in electoral results. None of the left parties with elected representatives in the south has any in the north, while the number of independent left councillors has also dwindled as people like Mark Langhammer have withdrawn. I am open to correction here, but as far as I know there is only one independent councillor in the whole of Northern Ireland identifiable as primarily of the left (Johnny McLaughlin in Omagh). Langhammer would probably get re-elected, perhaps Davy Kettles in Fermanagh, and it’s possible, though not certain, that Eamonn McCann could get himself elected as a councillor in Derry, although he has shown no inclination to stand for council elections. Beyond those few, it’s hard to think of a figure from the left who might be likely to take a council seat at the next elections (assuming they even stood).

For the first time, there was no left candidate in the European election in NI, and it really showed. During the televised debate hosted by the BBC the complete absence of class politics was striking. While the Alliance and Green candidates talked about the necessity to discuss bread and butter issues, this was far from a distinctive socialist position at a time of capitalist crisis worldwide. The election represented an opportunity lost to promote socialist views, but the reality is that none of the left organisations felt that standing in the election was worth the expense and the effort for the likely return, and no agreement on a joint candidate was found. And it is probably true to say that it would have been a misapplication of resources that could be better spent elsewhere for any individual party to have stood. This is the harsh reality of left politics in Northern Ireland.

Having said that, the title of this thread is the necessity of elections. I share many of the reservations expressed in sonsofstan’s comment quoted above about the institutionalisation of sectarianism and the violation of the rights of “others” in the Assembly arrangements. And perhaps if the left in NI was a powerful force in society generally, with say a huge co-operative movement, a massive active and militant trade union movement, large left parties, and the ability to force the Assembly into taking socially progressive positions then we could think about boycotting the Assembly in order to force the British government to change its regulations in a more democratic fashion. But given that we are at the other end of the spectrum, refusing to stand in elections at this point will only further damage the already poor prospects for left growth. I don’t think sonofstan is seriously suggesting that the left doesn’t stand in elections, but there is a serious question in NI as to where elections can fit into a broader left strategy.

It’s possible that at the next general election, almost certainly next year, that there may not be any left candidates outside Belfast. If you are on the left in NI, elections are an extremely masochistic business, whether it is having your leaflets thrown out into the street behind you as soon as they hit the floor of a house, or waiting for the results. The traditional way that smaller parties grow is through getting councillors elected, then making the breakthrough at a general election and building out from that base. However, as Mark Mc noted here the planned reorganisation of local government – which will cut the councils by over half – will make it much more difficult for this to happen. Mark Mc’s suggestion is that we concentrate in other areas. And I’d agree with him that we need to work hard in other areas, especially when elections are going to be a long-term strategy at best.

But they do serve a vital purpose, which is why we cannot abandon them. In a society where it is extremely hard for socialist voices to make themselves heard through the media and in geographical areas beyond where parties are organised, they serve as a reminder that there is an alternative way of organising our society available to us still. That there is still a possibility of a better future beyond sectarian division and a class-based education system. We will not bring about those changes through elections alone, but we will not bring them about without elections.


1. Cedar Lounge Revolution Post on elections and the left « Garibaldy Blog - August 1, 2009

[…] Lounge Revolution Post on elections and the left By Garibaldy I’ve just put up a post on why the left in NI needs to contest elections despite the fact they result in a guaranteed […]


2. sonofstan - August 1, 2009

I phrased that comment you quote arseways – I think left groups should definitely contest council elections in the north: it’s he Assembly I despair of.


3. Garibaldy - August 1, 2009

I figured you didn’t mean that, as I think I suggested in the third paragraph from the bottom. I guess you were discussing the possibility of abstaining from the Assembly, whereas éirígí originally was very sceptical of electoral participation at all. Still, I think my point holds that the only way to change the Assembly rules is by the election of a siginificant bloc of others, so that the rules become untenable. The quote seemed like a good hook to hang a broader discussion on, given that these themes had been raised in the eirígí thread, rather than a direct riposte or anything.


4. rosy - May 22, 2011

i don’t have any serious comments


5. rosy - May 22, 2011

i i i mmmmmmmmmmmm


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