The legacy of the Progressive Democrats… a more competitive left in Irish politics. Unfortunately

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There is a blunt irony to the fact that as the Progressive Democrats leave the political stage, their socio-economic and political project largely made void by the financial events of this Summer, the competitive aspect of their project seems to have been transferred almost without modification to the leftish parties. The most striking aspect of the fall of the Progressive Democrats has been largely unmentioned in the media, perhaps unsurprisingly, but it is central to a dynamic that we saw at work at successive elections across the past decade. That dynamic is one of coalition.

Simply put it has been impossible to put together governments with less than two parties for some decades. This should be good for the left, since it affords – in theory – the opportunity to shape, or blunt, the policies of the coalition partner.

However, from the point of view of the left, those coalitions invariably included the Progressive Democrats thereby giving a particularly hard edged economically liberal hue to those governments. This was reined in somewhat by the logic and nature of Fianna Fáil as a governing party with its attendant need to address its cross-class coalitions, but only somewhat. And it has also meant that alternative coalitions have had to grapple with the potential necessity of incorporating the Progressive Democrats should the numbers be insufficient for two parties. The nadir of this process was reached in 2007 when the only possible alternative to Fianna Fáil would have required almost all other TDs acting in concert to prevent them attaining power. Such an ideological framework would have stymied even the most cunning of politicians, which is – perhaps – why Bertie Ahern promptly set about fashioning his own version of this although on a slightly lesser scale. That that coalition lasted as long as it has, only fracturing – and then only at the margins – under the pressure of Budget number 2 and a remarkably cloth-eared performance by both our Taoiseach and Finance Minister is testament to his cunning.

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But now we face a new reality, that of a period where the only significant smaller parties are those of the left and this has consequent ramifications to government formation in the Republic of Ireland. With the demise of our not entirely radical and now completely redundant party of the right the way would appear to be open to the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Green Party to attain power. But not together, or at least not yet.

I suggest that because it is impossible to see a situation where all three parties would act collectively in the near future. That the Green Party is in government is an obvious obstacle to further progress on that front. They may be willing to work in the future with other left or progressive parties, but who is to say that three and a half years or so from now they’re not unwilling to return to a Fianna Fáil led coalition? Indeed who else might have them if the bitterness already expressed by portions of the left towards them increases, particularly in the wake of the Budget? As for the other two parties, for historical reasons the relationship between Labour and Sinn Féin was largely non-existant until this Dáil term.This has improved slightly, but no reasonable observer would suggest that they have normalised.

Why should this be a surprise? I saw the workings of Democratic Left from the inside during the period before the mid-1990s coalition with Fine Gael and Labour. One of the most notable aspects of that, to me at least, was the way in which Fine Gael was the primary port of call in terms of process led (i.e. Dáil centred) politics. Now, there were two obvious reasons for that. Firstly Labour was in coalition with Fianna Fáil and therefore out of the game. Secondly Democratic Left was – arguably – in more direct competition with Labour than any other party, regardless of the coalition status of the latter. For Democratic Left to win Labour had to fail. And vice versa. Added to this was an history borne of the 1970s and 1980s where Labour and the Workers’ Party had fought the political equivalent of trench warfare in working class constituencies and in the trade union movement to capture every stray vote that remained after the true hegemon of the working class Fianna Fáil had finished with them. Any of us at the merger conference at the end of the 1990s will remember that at least some of the Democratic Left faces were more gloomy than they might otherwise have been expected to be, and although the progress of Labour after that point has been actually quite impressive in terms of managing the merged party some of those old irritations, animosities and divergent ambitions still remain to this day.

Therefore it is reasonable to propose that there is nothing particularly odd about competing parties of the left being… well, competitive, and that competition leading to a sharp and sometimes corrosive rhetoric that can be destructive of any collective action. The varying political weights of those parties is also a factor. The Labour party is a behemoth in contrast to Sinn Féin in terms of Oireachtas representation, a fact that has its own intrinsic dynamic – although nationally the Sinn Féin vote is often equal to that of Labour.

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Then let’s consider what few examples of left parties nominally working together. The best and most recent one is, of course, the Technical Group which although an unlikely construct encompassing elements as diverse as Michael Lowry on one side through to Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party on the other did manage to survive the 29th Dáil more or less intact. But those who had the opportunity to observe it closely will attest that they never saw anything much more than a working relationship evolve between Sinn Féin and the Green Party, the two largest leftish components. And note that the Technical Group was an entity that eschewed any political element and was essentially a means to ensure that Dáil and Seanad facilities were provided on an equitable basis to its constituent elements, none of which alone had the necessary 7 TDs to be entitled to full party facilities. So one might have though that was a relatively neutral environment within which at least some communication could have developed.

Perhaps it is possible to ascribe this coolness between Sinn Féin and the Green Party to their respective political cultures. With the former some of the habits developed over long years as a genuinely oppositional force in Irish society have lingered, a certain corps d’esprit, a degree of aloofness, the embattled character that comes from being a minority within a minority on the left. For those of us from a Workers’ Party background some of these characteristics are readily identifiable. But a major distinction was, and is, a soft-pedalling of a strong class analysis. It is there, in parts. But, its traction on their high policy and political positioning, as demonstrated by their contortions over taxation in the run-up to last years election, is less strong than might be hoped. By contrast the Green Party has eschewed the ‘left’ label on perhaps one too many occasions. Their culture is one that is not clearly rooted in class but more – where social policy is concerned – in good intentions. Fine as far as it goes, but as the Budget demonstrates that may not be very far at all.

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How much more difficult to construct an alliance above and beyond the process led basis of the Technical Group. And how much more difficult again to do so when the centrality of the individual leftish parties to coalition building generates a competitive aspect to government formation that was largely lacking during the last decade and a half. After all, the upshot of the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil sharing power meant that the only alternative was coalition with Fine Gael. And while on certain axes that might well be a more progressive option than the former on others it was by no means definitely so.

And here is another thought. If a left alliance was to coalesce, surely it should have been in the past number of years, when coalition with Fianna Fáil was all but impossible since the Progressive Democrats had staked out that territory as their own. Yet if the relationship between the Green Party and Sinn Féin was – at best – correct, it is hard to see how it was better, or worse, with the Labour Party.

I could argue that there was an opportunity lost, but in reality there was no opportunity to be had until the Peace Process had developed significantly and both Sinn Féin and the Green Party embedded themselves, more or less successfully as parties with a degree of permanence.

All told it is not then easy to be starry eyed about the prospects for future collective action on any serious level.

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And there is an odd little counterintuitive aspect of this. Because one of the sticks that the centre-right parties had over the years was the prospect of cutting a deal with the Progressive Democrats. Sure, it wasn’t that great a stick, but it allowed them to pitch further right than they might otherwise have done. Or to put it another way it operated on the level of ‘deal with us or we’ll look more closely at the other guy on our right…’. Well, that excuse is now parked, and that means that on an individual basis we should be moving into a situation where in coalition government more of a left programme can be implemented. Ironically this is being seen on a small scale within the current coalition where the Green Party is convinced that the centrifugal forces that have seen Joe Behan and Finian McGrath spin away over the Budget, and wounded Mary Harney – perhaps irrevocably, has by contrast left them with much greater leverage over Fianna Fáil in the next three and a half years. The truth of this analysis of theirs remains to be seen. An alternative interpretation is that they are forced into an even closer embrace with Fianna Fáil for fear of electoral annihilation at the next election, a possibility Fianna Fáil will adeptly play up. Still, were Harney to eventually rejoin Fianna Fáil, or choose the wilderness of Independent status (and as an aside, I’m trying to recall when was the last time that an Independent TD was a Minister) that would essentially seal this as an exclusively Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition in every sense. But as we can see that fact alone does not mean that this is a ‘left’ coalition, and for it to become so would require some serious heavy lifting by the Green Party. The Medical Cards debacle does not auger well for the prospect of them burning political capital in that way any time soon.

So the balance sheet is mixed. The prospect of left and/or progressive parties being in government alone with a larger partner has increased considerably. The prospect of left unity, or even working alliances, diminished yet further. I’ve always been one to believe that a varied left is a good thing. Multiple parties can address different electoral groups and constituencies in a way which single party, as we saw with the Labour Party prior to the arrival of the Workers’ Party simply couldn’t. But the necessity of working alliances is near self-evident if a genuinely left alternative, however mild, can be put before the Irish people.

Incidentally this isn’t restricted to the Republic. In the North the current system of power-sharing almost guarantees the inclusion of parties which are at least rhetorically wedded to some degree of leftist thinking. Of course in actual political action we have seen a rather different outcome.

However, it is worth noting that the situation in 2012 or at any election earlier than that might throw up further variables. Firstly the number and character of Independents could be such that it would permit a pool of centre-right politicians which the larger parties could draw upon in order to retain a more markedly centre-right complexion. Considering the variegated nature of the Technical Group in the 29th Dáil this is far from unlikely. Such TDs as Paddy McHugh and James Breen were unlikely radicals whose political homes were clearly in the big battalions from which they had originally come. Had they been returned it is likely that eventually they would have come to some arrangement with the Government. The same is equally true of Michael Lowry in this Dáil or Jackie Healey-Rae. Even as a small component of a government, or as importantly an element of their support such TDs could have a significant blocking function. And that assumes that their numbers are relatively low, something that is far from certain at this point.

Moreover if one studies the track record of Independents in recent times, those of the centre and centre right tend to be assimilated in larger political homes, whereas those of the left tend to lose their seats (granted there are one or two exceptions). And the recent travails of Finian McGrath who has moved from Technical Group to Government supporting TD and recently broken off his deal will probably make a Government of any stripe uneasy about trying to cut deals with those beyond a broadly defined ‘gene-pool’ of FF/FG leaning TDs.

The solution to all this? Well, I don’t see one, other than attempting to make linkages on the left which might generate some sense of a shared goal. Even a set of basic goals that all formations could agree on would be a step forward. But does anyone genuinely believe that the respective party leaderships would agree on that? And the core problem remains that even should this government fall there will be other parties ready to step into the breach. Just as Labour and Sinn Féin were willing to do last time out and will next time should the chance arise.

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So, yes, we can be certain that all future governments will have a left complexion to a greater or lesser degree, but whether that left complexion will make a qualitative difference to such governments or spell a fundamental shift in the nature of Irish politics is very much open to question. I’m highly doubtful. Perhaps others are more optimistic.

Notes

Red Mum has been taking photos of each of the recent protests against the budget cuts in health and education. These photos also appeared in her excellent post on the protests. More are available on her flickr account, including last night’s protest against education cuts organised by the teacher’s unions.

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