Elections 2019 – All is by no means lost for a broad left front

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The recent local and European elections need to be reflected upon, in terms of where we are at in the hoped for delivery of Ireland’s first progressive Government.

To save time, we need not fall into the trap of overly complicating what such a Government would do, or how that progression would be defined. A progressive Government would enact policies and address issues in a way which re-distributed wealth top down for a change. It would reduce inequality, not increase it. It would put public good above private interests. And so, Ireland’s first progressive Government would be entirely different to the current Government, and radically different to the even worse Fine Gael/Labour administration from 2011-2016.

The policy platform with the principles that such a Government would follow already exists. These principles are not radical, unless seen from a far right perspective, the perspective of most political and economic commentary in Ireland. The ten principles at issue are neither extreme, nor unworkable. On the contrary, they provide the basis for a broad popular front that would bring real reform to our tax base, our public services, our environmental outlook and our failing democratic structures. As recently pointed out – in ‘The Journal’ no less – the Right2Change policy platform contains all the ideas and principles that could bring much needed unity among those who seek it on Ireland’s dysfunctional left. If we stop arguing with each other and shooting ourselves in the foot that is.

Moreover, they are fiscally robust. The attached fiscal strategy sets out a range of revenue raising measures that are measured and even based within the current (flawed and to be reformed) fiscal rules. The strategy itself was developed with the assistance of the excellent Michael Taft.

For those of us holding fast to these principles as a ground up-led evolution towards a better future for all, the recent local election results seem extremely disappointing. And, viewed through a narrow perspective of one election, they are. I’m not going to list here all the seats lost by all the parties who fought on ‘the left’ in that election. To us progressives that information is already at hand and being assimilated and parsed, as it should be.

Instead it may be possible to interpret these events through an altogether more positive lens.

Reading some books and articles lately you could almost forget that we had an anti-austerity movement here at all; so keen are some to write it out of history. But we had. And not just any little anti-austerity movement either. However you define it, the anti-water charges movement was the largest long-lasting protest movement in the history of the state and, because of this, it won on water, at least for now.

It is certainly a fact however that, while winning on the issue, the movement has not to date delivered the necessary learning, maturity and unity to be an ongoing movement of progressive reform beyond that single issue, at that single time.

But in a country which has never had a real left Government, a country always ruled by one of two conservative parties (and now by both of them) is that not inevitable in this phase? Instead of being discouraged, is it possible that what has happened on the Irish left from 2016 to 2018 is a necessary part of a political evolution that we had to go through?

It strikes me that what happened the water charges movement is that one of its three pillars (the political pillar) broke with the two others to see could it claim the ground, the numbers, and the momentum of the movement for itself. And when I say that, what I really mean is that a broken, splintered ‘political pillar’ did this in a broken and splintered way. There was no one decision, no single malign influence, no overarching strategy. How could there be? No, a number of small committed parties following related but separate doctrines instead sought to ‘own’ the water movement ‘post 2016’ and turn it to party advantage. Was that not inevitable?

In any event, the recent results demonstrate that in every case that strategy has failed. Practically speaking, every party is now in a weaker position than it was in 2016 for example, and working less collaboratively too. So be it. I suggest that this has been a phase that has been as difficult as it was inevitable, and it’s now time to move on.

It is certainly, unarguably, the case that the vast majority of all members of those different political parties agree on much more than they disagree on. So too is that the case in the unions and communities that made up the other two pillars of that evolutionary movement. And this commonality must now fill the space left open by the failed separate electoral strategies of the last two years. This commonality of principal on most but not all issues is yet a sign for hope, a platform for building on, and our signpost to progress.

As a participant in the water charges movement Unite echoes the calls of some commentators, bloggers and podcasts recently for a new respectful alignment behind broad left policy areas and principles.

Of course this optimism at a time of perceived and described defeat does not come without caution. It is notable how in recent times some of the voices of ‘progressives’ who argued so fervently for the Irish Labour Party to enter Government in 2011 are trying to use the current perceived carnage on the left to make the same arguments again. And those of us resistant to such a course are deemed to somehow be in the wrong, unwilling to put the past behind us. The problem with this analysis is that it is not hurt, or history, or an unwillingness to forget betrayal that is the problem. The problem is much more fundamental than that. That problem is, in action more than words, the Irish Labour Party is not ‘progressive’.

The regressive budgets of that Fine Gael/Labour Government are shameful. The Labour Party is unreformed. It is led by Brendan Howlin who jointly led the very Department of Finance that savaged the working class and our public services for five years. Alan Kelly, the champion of water charges, wants to be its next leader and the party still supports the introduction of domestic water charges against all the evidence of the Government’s own expert report, and much more. Irish Labour has neither apologised for, nor acknowledged its betrayal, let alone reformed itself in terms of personnel, policy, rule or direction. In fact, as even those ‘leftists’ calling for us now to embrace Labour anew acknowledge, it stands ready to prop up the next right-wing Government at the first time of asking. Are we wrong on this? If we are to judge by actions, not words, we are not wrong. And holding fast to these positions until we see actual evidence of fundamental reform is not naïve or backward looking. It is common sense.

Mind you, for the week that is in it, credit where it is due. It was great to see Michael D. Higgins putting the climate change denial of Donald Trump in focus at an EPSU Conference in Dublin this week.

There will be many other blogs, opinions and analysis and we move forward and we in Unite look forward to reading and considering them. But the work to build some sort of structure to deliver on the Right2Change Policy Principles continues here in a small way through our ‘Community Tom Stokes Branch’. This single Branch of just one Union seen four of its members elected to local councils two weeks ago. Some others missed out in last count scenarios, and still more had a first outing that they will have learned much from.

Learning, building, and keeping hope alive while reaching out is perhaps what we all need to do in the weeks and months ahead. It’s not a crime to make a mistake and get things wrong, as we all do. But it is most unwise not to learn from those mistakes and even repeat them. Let us see who can come together, and how, to deliver a structure for real change in our peoples interests. If not now, when?

Brendan Ogle – June 6 2019

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