Saturday, March 12, 2011

Labour Left Wing activists

need to start building

an organised alternative:

The right wing of the Labour Party won the vote in favour of coalition at the Special Party Conference last Sunday and Labour will now collaborate with an economic programme essentially similar to that of the previous Fianna Fáil and Green Party Coalition.
Despite opposition from the UNITE union and a section of the party led by the Labour Youth Chairperson and Local Councillors Cian O’Callaghan and Patrick Nulty, the majority of the Labour Party supported Labour going into coalition with Fine Gael (FG) . Around 15 percent of the delegates voted against the Programme for a National Government. While this is a clear victory for the right wing, the political and economic conditions in the state and internationally means that this could well be a high point for the right wing. The new government will be a government of crisis.
The arguments of the right wing
The arguments in favour of the Programme for a National Government followed closely the letter of the document agreed between the leaderships of FG and Labour: “The people chose our two parties to start mending the pieces of a fractured society … [in] the darkest hours in the history of our independent state.” This means, “every section of our society is facing hardship”.
It is far from clear, however, that people who voted for Labour and Fine Gael also voted for a coalition government. According to a survey by the Sunday Independent only 16 percent of those who voted for FG have their second preference to Labour candidates and 35 percent of those who voted for Labour gave their second to FG.[1]
On other hand, an oft repeated argument was that the Labour Party must put the interest of the country before the interests of the party. This dilemma is very old and the hegemonic right wing again differentiates between the cause of Labour and the cause of Ireland, leaving the cause of labour for the future. This is not accidental. The leadership, as shown in previous articles, embraces capitalism and particularly the Neoliberal tendency as opposed to Keynesianism within capitalism. The cause of labour for them is only a rhetorical device, a concession to its working class base. The extension of this position is of course that not only should Labour bury its interests, but it should also bury the interests of the working class.
A second argument was articulated before the Conference by SIPTU president Jack O’Connor. He supported and indeed encouraged a coalition government with Labour in the minority in order to soften some of the harsh measures that FG would apply if ruling on its own. He said,
“The austerity programme of the outgoing government has not worked. A growth strategy based on investment for jobs is the only way forward. That is the key issue but there are others including the protection of public services and those who depend on them.”[2]
In the end, however, SIPTU and Labour leaderships have agreed to simply support the objectives of the EU and IMF Programme: achieving fiscal stability. This means among other things that the new government will “stick to the aggregate adjustment as set out in the National Recovery Plan for the combined period 2011-2012 and that the budget for 2013 will aim at reducing the state deficit to 3% of GDP (it was 32 percent in 2010). That it is likely to bring further austerity measures. Even in taxation there are no significant differences with the previous government.
What is “realistic”?
During the election campaign the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) made clear that the outcome of the election would be a coalition with Fine Gael, although the PLP had no mandate from the party to pursue this strategy.
Opinion polls around September and October last year, however, put Labour ahead of FG and even indicated that it could be numerically possible to form a left government made up Labour, Sinn Fein (SF), and left independent TDs (including the United Left Alliance).[3]
Inside the labour party, particularly at the top, that kind of coalition was out of question. They rightly considered that the programme and goals of right wing Labour and FG were much closer. Any alternative to the IMF/EU programme of austerity was considered “fantasist”, a luxury that only could put forward be those who knew that cannot be in power in the immediate future such as SF.
That was also what the powerful media cartel and the main political parties, including the PLP, were telling Irish workers, day in day out, well before the campaign: the IMF/EU way was the only way.
In that context Enda Kenny, FG leader, openly spoke of more cuts for workers, of getting rid of thousands of public workers, privatising public assets, keeping taxes low for the rich, and introducing more labour market flexibility and “incentives” for employers. This may make the FG surge in the opinion polls during the last weeks before the election look somewhat surprising.
The powerful media cartel, employers lobby groups, the economists and the political parties of the establishment have far more power in normal times to define their version of a “realistic” response to a crisis and what constitutes a “fantasist” alternative and of course they use every opportunity to do so.
Of course politics and propaganda are not exact sciences in the same way as mathematics. The power of rumour mongering and press and media gossip doesn’t lie in its accuracy and truthfulness. Instead, their power lies in creating apocalyptic visions of the future and mobilising deep seated fears and visions of the end of the world. For the short sighted Irish bourgeoisie and their hangers on the end of the world is associated with a much more short term perspective; the loss of the power and privileges. Their campaign had a clear purpose: to root out any chance of a left unity government that could imply a move towards a break with the establishment, the IMF, the EU and, eventually, capitalism. “Realistic” in their terms means draconian budget cuts in order to comply with the IMF dictates. “Unrealistic” is to put the needs of people first. This butchery is presented as the line of least resistance; with the FG programme as the only game in town.
The Labour Party is to blame as well. It has made U-turns in relation to water charges, heavier taxation to the rich, introducing maximum wages, and has never argued against the austerity programme. It was actually shocking to see the Labour Party leader begging for votes to get labour into government as a minority partner to try and tone down its neoliberal programme as if the experience of the Green Party didn’t teach us any lessons. It was no surprise to hear speakers at the Special Conference comparing Gilmore’s position with that of the British Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
Alternative approaches
But there’s going to be very little toning down, merely a few sops. The next few years are going to be very hard. Workers will have to learn by experience that there is no end to cuts and hardship; but given the extent of the crisis over time more and more workers will become open to an alternative that put people first. A FG-Labour government will be applying what the media cartel calls "tough measures", which will face increasing resistance unless the economy goes back soon to the old rates of growth. But that won’t happen. So this coalition could tear Labour apart.
SF has put forward a Keynesian alternative, which will turn them into the main opposition party in the Dáil. The United Left Alliance with its five TDs will also constitute a strong opposition. Their economic policy also follows the lines of a sort of left Keynesianism alternative. Since capitalists do not have any incentive to investment during a crisis, because of excess capacity, they withhold "money". The alternative is public investment. The last thing that the IMF and the EU would do is to lend money to do that. Therefore the money must be taken from the rich, by taxation, to 'put money into circulation'. In itself this does not constitutes an alternative to capitalism. Keynesianism was pushed beyond its limits before the profits crisis of the 1970s. Neither SF nor the ULA has made clear what would happen if Keynesian economic policies do not work or are boycotted by the IMF and the EU.
From the point of view of the capitalist parties, neither FG nor FF were interested in coming together to form a coalition government. It would have been far more difficult for them to apply "tough measures"; they would face a very strong opposition. Labour could have led that strong left opposition, and in the next election would have been odds on to form a full-fledged labour-led government. With Labour in power as a minority partner it will be far easier to apply "tough measures" and much easier to contain a popular reaction against them. That is how they are going to use Labour.
A Labour-led government, however, would not be enough. Britain had it for years, but “New Labour” just represented the continuation of Tories economic policies. This is what Labour leadership offers in Ireland, and that is why the first task of the left wing of the Labour Party should be to distance itself from the ideas and programme of the right wing.
The IMF/EU economic austerity programme constitutes the backbone of the agreement between the dominant neoliberal wing of the Labour Party and the neoliberal FG.
There are some particular points in the Programme for a National Government (PNG) such as the restoration of the National Minimum Wage at €8.65/H that can be supported, and any left wing activist would gladly do it, but the PNG is neoliberalism (the worst sort of capitalism) and must be rejected, whether it was voted by a majority or not in a particular moment in time. For sure Gilmore’s position in the party will not improve over the next few years; the vote at UCD last Sunday represented his big opportunity. After all, this was the best Labour vote and the biggest number of seats the party has ever achieved. In time, illusions will be dissipated and replaced by the cruel reality of attacks on workers' living standards, house repossessions, redundancies, factory and business closures and emigration also.
What are labour party members going to do when workers go on strike and protests against the government are organised and become the norm?
There will doubtless be many calls for unity within the party. But what sort of unity is the left going to be asked for? There can’t be unity on the basis of the programme of the EU and the IMF. The conditions for peace, harmony and happiness just don’t exist in Ireland. There will be enormous pressures on the Labour Party from the bourgeois and from the working class and the trade unions. There will be a growing differentiation within the party between Leinster House and the branches and within the trade unions. The Labour left needs a political programme to fight for a socialist alternative to capitalism. But alongside that the Labour left needs to get organised. Many of the Irish labour left have looked towards the work of John McDonnell and the Labour Representation Committee in Britain as a political example and some have participated in its work. There are big events on the way and without an organised left in the Labour Party it will be far harder to defend working people and fight for a socialist alternative.