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Small party to large party April 11, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

One of the things that has struck me very forcibly in recent times is how small parties of the Irish left currently are. And that I think has an impact – When I was in the WP it was a larger small party. it was no problem for it to fill the RDS for Ard Fheiseanna. I know that it is similar in SF these days – arguably even more so. But parties to the left of SF tend to be considerably smaller.

And I wonder at the distinctiveness of small parties and the challenges that faces them. It sounds almost tautological, a small party is presented with issues from the word go. Well yes, obviously. And yet the problems are quite specific to size. There are fewer people to do the basic day to day week to week work; communications, identity, activism in streets, campaigns, representation. And if any of those take on a particular life – for example one has councillors or (happy day) TDs elected that strips away a layer of activists who then have to work with said councillors and TDs. That means that someone isn’t doing something that needs to be done. Or it is half-done.

Moreover there’s a more narrow focus. It’s inevitable. Fewer people, more agreement less space for disagreement. People are often surprised when I suggest that the WP was a lot easier to be a member of with dissenting opinions than might be expected but I’ve met over the years people who had quite heterodox views on a range of topics. Now granted on big picture items WP members tended to think similarly. But as long as one was willing to go along with the party line formally there was no issue. And that was a fairly tightly bound large small party. Larger parties again factionalise much more openly (though that wasn’t unknown in the WP either, particularly from the mid-80s onwards).

We’ve seen the stresses and strains as parties grow. Part of the problem is that without a memory of being a larger formation the sheer scale of the challenges can be all but overwhelming. And for those who have never been in a larger party the lack of appreciation of just how wide the gulf between small and larger can be problematic. Some of the mechanisms for getting around that, or easing that transition – such as Solidarity or PBP are remarkably clever, though I wonder whether at some point simple size will, as it were, ‘soften’ ideological coherency. Having something to push against is crucial. But the larger a formation the more difficult it is to ensure everyone is on the same page in regard to what that something is.

And on a slight tangent just on the WP the thought appears that in regard to that is that a large part of the glue that held that together was anti-PSF and anti-PIRA sentiment. But that ran a cropper once there were straws in the wind that matters might be changing, particularly from 1986 onwards in PSF and the dropping of abstention. I wonder did some inside the WP realise that that meant SF itself was going to change, not in the same way, but in a way that would ultimately impact on the WP (not to mention the impact of broader geopolitical events though given the party managed to do pretty well at a time when other orthodox Marxist parties were in decline I also wonder was that impact overstated)? Small wonder that at times the rhetoric seemed utterly adrift of the reality of what was taking place (I well remember during my brief time in DL an Ard Fhéis, or was it the more modish Annual Conference, someone standing up and saying that the party looked wrong-footed by its inability to come to terms with the PIRA cessation – a cessation that the dogs in the street knew was on its way, and that like it or not times were changing. That wasn’t a popular point of view in the room, which in retrospect is entertaining given the WP/DL faction had always set such great store in ‘change’ while seemingly unable to comprehend they didn’t have the copyright on the process, but it made sense to me and soon enough I walked).

Just on DL that was a small party declining. Even in the couple of years I was involved it felt like a balloon with the air slowly leaking out of it. The old joke about the largest left party in Ireland being the one comprised of people who had once been in various left parties but now weren’t rang true. Yet presumably the fillip of participation in government masked that decline to an extent.

I’m always struck by how on the continent the further left or left of ‘mainstream’ social democracy can quite effectively garner 10% or so of the vote in various states. But those are big parties, or big small parties (and the larger the state the larger the party too). There’s always a scatter of much smaller formations off to the margins beyond them.

But can smaller left parties become larger parties? The answer seems obvious. Yes, of course. But it could be a bit trickier now than it was. I think of WP or SF and how they built on long extant networks of Republicanism (actually the same networks given their shared history up until the split in SF in the late 1960s). That was a pretty solid foundation – sufficient to keep two large small/larger parties going at national level – albeit not at quite the same time. Labour – of course, was built upon the unions. FF on Republicanism as well (FG/CnaG likewise).

What troubles me is when one looks beyond that, say at PD or GP. Those parties did and have done relatively well and yet PD is now gone entirely and the GP while tenaciously holding on – and with the advantage of an existential ideological underpinning that adds a certain coherence to its member if not further afield, waxes and wanes. The base of these parties is more diffuse and less solid. And I’d wonder if the left parties will have a similar problem – particularly with the consolidation of both SF and FF.

Let’s keep in mind that we have seen the near demise of the LP, falling to levels that even in the 1980s would have seemed improbable. And yet, and yet, there hasn’t been a clear stream of voters to the alternatives left of SF/LP, or rather the more organised formations. AAA and PBP between them had 4 seats at the dissolution of the 31st Dáil while the LP had 33. Today the LP has 7 and AAA-PBP has 6. But what of the Independents left of Labour. Well, indeed. But given that their numbers haven’t substantially increased either since the 31st Dáil… and obviously SF has added good numbers. I don’t want this to be a counsel of despair – I don’t see most of those AAA-PBP seats going anywhere, there might even be an uptick, but the space for significant growth appears restricted. That shouldn’t be taken as an argument to pack the bags and head for home. It has never been more essential for left and further left voices to make their case as strongly as possible. But the overall political environment is important too.


1. Gerryboy - April 11, 2017

Thoughtful and clearly expressed. Parliamentary status and work tend to detract from the primary energy of activists and their close friends. With age and experience committed individuals may feel the need to ‘move on’ and stabilise their lives within their neighbourhoods and wider town communities.


2. Jim Monaghan - April 11, 2017

“The old joke about the largest left party in Ireland being the one comprised of people who had once been in various left parties but now weren’t rang true.” A friend once told me that the biggest leftwing party was composed of those expelled from Trotskyist groups.
On the above, it is similar to companies. A small company can be managed by essentially walking around the place. Bigger becomes more complex. I would add the control freaking of many “Leninist” sects makes it very complicated. The constant fear that heresy might be spoken.


3. ivorthorne - April 11, 2017

Nice post.

I think that the problem of small parties becoming bigger is particularly problematic for those to the left of SF. The left parties in Ireland know that politics is not just about parliament and getting people elected. A right wing party or even many centre left parties focus on getting seats so with the same resources they have a better chance of getting elected, power and funding.

If you look at somebody like Labour, the Spring Tide of 92 was partially based on people seeing them as a party of power (even if part of a coalition). It was not just about representation and who would represent their views best, but a significant portion of people voted because they saw them as being part of an alternative government. The smaller parties of the left will probably never be seen that way. Even if AAA-PBP get to 15 seats, they’ll probably not look like they could go into government with anybody.

When it comes to elections, I’d probably say that the best thing the smaller left parties could do would be to keep doing what they’re doing, but also look at trying to win the presidential election. In the same way that Robinsons’ win made many people look at Labour differently back in 92, If Michael D decides to not go for a second term, on the back of the RIght2Change and general dissatisfaction with the results of neoliberalism and austerity, if the left got behind the right candidates and the stars aligned in the right way, they could be in with a real chance.


irishelectionliterature - April 11, 2017

Joe Higgins for President ?


ivorthorne - April 11, 2017

He was actually the first person who came to mind but he might not be ideal. He has a real “grumpy” persona.

If you could actually get a left candidate who could get the support of most of the constituent members of RIght2Change then that would increase the chances of success, and in the case of SF, take a rival off the pitch.


sonofstan - April 11, 2017

A left mayor of Dublin would be a decent each way if the proposal ever gets off the ground. Clare Daly?

Liked by 2 people

ivorthorne - April 11, 2017

I suspect Daly would walk that given her profile and history. Whether it is worth losing her as a TD would come down to the powers of the office.


Joe - April 11, 2017

Higgins for President, yes please. Daly for anything at all, no thanks.


WorldbyStorm - April 12, 2017

Thanks for all the comments, have to agree a left President would be something, I’ve rarely seen an elected area I didn’t think the left should go for…


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