Recently on the Cedar Lounge Revolution smiffy raised an interesting point which was that the future path of the Green Party might be quite similar to that of Democratic Left. I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms before, not least because I suspect the future for the Green Party may not even be as – relatively – comfortable in political terms as that of DL. Indeed many would say that the trajectory of the Green Party closely follows that, albeit in a shorter period of time, of the Progressive Democrats.
However, while similar in the sense that both appear to have been damaged by coalition with Fianna Fáil it’s worth remembering that the Progressive Democrats managed to survive the experience twice before finally succumbing, and that over a period of a decade and a half.
There is another clear distinction which is that the Progressive Democrats were never a party of the left, whereas the Green Party always presented itself as of the progressive left, at least in part. And that led to a radically different dynamic in terms of the fact of each smaller party being in government. While elements of the Progressive Democrat base might have been disillusioned, or even infuriated, by their participation in an FF led coalition it was hardly ideologically difficult for them, whereas for the Green Party both entry to coalition with Fianna Fáil and subsequent issues of policy implementation, particularly since the economic crisis, have appeared to constitute major ruptures with previously stated policy positions. So while the PD comparison is useful it is limited by those factors and that necessitates us turning to another example of a party avowedly of the left in coalition and studying how it fared.
My interest in, and to a degree residual sympathy for, the plight of the Green Party is very much positioned in the larger question as to how progressive political parties engage with the issue of governance in this state. It is not entirely coincidental that eschewing coalition and abstentionism have been defining aspects of both the left and Republican politics, and while not identical both go to the core of political identity and operate by countering the merging of identity that can occur with either the arrival in Government or in electoral politics.
And this question is one that has exercised all the larger left forces that have operated in this state, such as the Labour Party, although as of yet it has not seen a Coalition it didn’t like the look of, and the Workers’ Party which splintered before having to face that issue (at least in part), Democratic Left which might be regarded as in part being the continuation of that process of facing up to coalition, and most recently the Green Party which was perhaps the most public in its agonising over whether to join Government or not.
I think it is uncontestable that five years ago the Green Party was regarded as a progressive political party – albeit with certain questions apparent over precisely what their position on a number of issues was – and in general was seen as campaigning within what we could broadly define as a centre left area. Indeed I would argue that a strong case could be made that the Green Party occupied territory sharply to the left of the Labour Party and overlapping with Sinn Féin and even smaller further left political groupings. This certainly was the perception and given that the party was outside government it is arguable that it was also largely the reality.
So let’s start with Democratic Left. In retrospect, and as a former member – albeit between it’s foundation and a while before coalition, what strikes me as remarkable about it is both how short in Irish political terms the life of that party was, but also paradoxically how long it lasted. Because despite achieving participation, or more particularly because of – as shall be seen – it remained in a sort of half life through much of that time.
Eoin Ó Broin has written in Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism that the trajectory of Democratic Left…
While clearly damaged by both the split and involvement in government, the demise of the party was as much a consequence of the absence of any available political space for them to operate within. The growth of the Workers Party during the 1980s was at the expense of the Labour Party and on the basis of a left-wing programme aimed at the larger party’s working-class electorate. By the 1990s Democratic Left’s programme increasingly resembled the more middle-class liberal agenda responsible for both the election of Mary Robinson as President in 1991 and the subsequent Spring tide of 1992, giving Labour its largest vote share and seat return in history.
That’s an interesting statement in itself given that DL wasn’t formed until after the Robinson election and shortly before the Spring tide. But there is definitely something in the analysis, particularly given the shifts within the Workers Party during the late 1980s when it edged closer towards social democracy.
Ó Broin quotes Henry Patterson, suggesting that:
…he was correct when he wrote that ‘the new organisation turned out to be less than the sum of its constituent parts, as the smaller party’s more radical, campaiging edge and its commitment to those excluded from the benefits of the Celtic Tiger were absorbed without trace in Labour’s parliamentarist blandness’.
I think it is possible to argue that that ‘radical, campaigning edge’ was already dissipating by the mid 1990s. Although the Democratic Left remained largely intact during the transition to government there was a small degree of attrition around that period. As notable was the way in which some former members left political activity and moved into the social, voluntary and community sectors, a process that accelerated during and after government.
It’s also clear that the shift from the Workers’ Party to Democratic Left and the express move from a more clearly Marxist line, however ill-defined and nebulous that could be on occasion, was responsible for a considerable weakening of the party profile and a consequent inability to campaign as strongly. And added to that was the inevitable result of the split, people not taking one side or another but simply walking away.
On that point there’s a useful paper, that I read this month, by Richard Dunphy which was first published in Irish Political Studies in the late 1990s entitled ‘A group of individuals trying to do their best’: The dilemmas of democratic left. Dunphy notes that even before the merger with the Labour Party the very prospect of such a move was greeted by DL members in the following terms “a narrow majority reject[ed] any possibility of a merger with Labour, and quite a few of these indicated that, in the event of such a merger, they would not join the newly enlarged Labour Party.”
This rings true with me when one considers how the merged Labour Party/Democratic Left has never quite appeared to be the sum of the two parts.
The question as to why Democratic Left entered government is one which perhaps also needs to be considered. Granted, there is little question but that the parliamentary party were desperate to demonstrate that it could be done. To rework Michael McDowell’s phrase, for them DL had to be ‘relevant or redundant’. But that might be gifting too much to the party leadership and elected representatives. When it came to the crunch the party membership were willing to agree with the decision to enter government, with only a small number of dissenting voices. So perhaps there was a broader dynamic at work, where relevance was seen as a necessary element of the project by almost all engaged in it.
That in entering a government with a limited number of Ministerial positions, and in tandem with a Labour Party further to the right and a Fine Gael further to the right again – a position that could only but dilute whatever ‘radicalism’ they brought to the feast, appears not to have weighed too heavily upon them. And this is curious because in the period prior to this during the Fianna F áil/Labour coalition it was precisely by carving out an oppositional left voice (although with stronger links to Fine Gael than might have initially been anticipated) that Democratic Left was able to sustain both a separate identity and a genuine level of activism.
Government – by definition – refashioned the former and diminished the latter. All parties in government experience the deadening effect of having to reposition their base from opposition to support. Given that the Democratic Left base was so small might on the one hand this might in purely control terms be relatively easy, but on the other it saw a retreat from a hard-edged profile (a profile already, as noted previously, diminished from the Workers’ Party days). As Dunphy notes:
Several respondents also claimed it inhibited the development of party policy, both in the sense that policies which DL fed into the Government were subsequently associated with Fine Gael and were not properly communicated to voters and members as DL policy initiatives, and in the sense that Government policy-making processes replaced party forums.
And this led to greater structural problems…
Proinsias de Rossa told the 1995 party conference, the first since entering government, that
“When the political crisis came to a head within the Workers’ Party in 1991, there were a number of options open to those of us who had worked to reform that party and failed. We could have put up, shut up and drifted into political oblivion. We could have opted out of politics altogether. We could have joined one of the other existing parties. But we
rejected all of those options. Why? Because we believed that there was a clear role for a new force in Irish politics, a dynamic democratic party of the left (Democratic Left, 1995).
The problem for DL, however, was that its period in government was increasingly to undermine whatever potential it may have had to fill such a ‘clear role’. De Rossa (in the same speech) might appeal to members to ‘go out and sell [the] achievements to the public’ of a ‘good, reforming and principled Government’; but as the party got bogged down in the compromises necessary to keep any coalition alive, and its TD’s energies (and those of the several dozen party activists who served as their support team) were consumed by government business, the tasks of clearly differentiating the party from its partners and convincing potential supporters that it had a ‘clear role’ worth playing, and of building a party organisation, were neglected. The party was, to a considerable extent, allowed to wither on the vine. As the 1995 general secretary’s report to the conference made clear, party development was by now understood at the top as almost synonymous with securing its six Dail seats, and perhaps winning a few more at the next election (Democratic Left, 1995a). But this failure to address questions of identity, ideology, sub-culture, and strategy merely underlined the extent to which DL was ceasing to be anything other than an annex to its TDs; and, indeed, the reliance upon their undoubted competence and high personal qualities grew – as almost the party’s only badge of pride and identity.
One might argue that Democratic Left entered government too early, on terms that both structurally and politically were simply too damaging to allow it to grow further. It’s poor result in 1997 was arguably inevitable given those circumstances. That it managed to return four TDs that year was actually quite an achievement, but that it was unable to ‘grow’ the party pointed to likely long-term future decline. And that is to put to one side the effect that participation in government had upon both its activists and electorate in terms of undermining the sense that it had a broader purpose beyond mere electoralism. One of the most potent charges in political discourse, however inaccurate at times, can be ‘sure, they’re all the same’. Coalition under proportional representation seems almost deliberately designed to lend weight to such charges. How, for those on the left, to distinguish between competing left forces that combined with a centre right party? And small wonder that the rise of Sinn Féin, now halted, but still reaping poll shares that Democratic Left could hardly dream of, appears to date from 1997.
Had Democratic Left eschewed government in 1994 it could have remained left of the Labour Party, a party already significantly damaged by entering government with Fianna Fáil, and bound to lose seats whatever direction it took. By aligning with Labour and Fine Gael it effectively ceded ground both to a Fianna Fáil using a somewhat more secular and technocratic language and to a burgeoning Sinn Féin who won and took their first Dáil seat in 1997. That the alternative of remaining aloof from government was not taken speaks of an appetite across the party for some degree of power. That the term was so short and the outcomes, although not negligible, were far from what some had predicted led to a further collapse in morale. This certainly wasn’t the journey that many of those involved in had started out upon a decade or more before. And for those who had more recently arrived this wasn’t the outcome hoped for, with a resurgent Fianna Fáil ready with its right wing partner the Progressive Democrats to impose a new political hegemony. Who could blame members and activists for arguing that if government had returned so little to the party as an isolated grouping then it might be necessary to bind themselves to their erstwhile coalition partner. And of course that dynamic, near unthinkable when I was a member a few short years before hand, was a result of the cosy familiarity of sharing power with Labour for over two years.
But, there was another factor. I’m dubious that all the DL parliamentary party saw their eventual destination as Labour, although it would appear from the Brian Hanley and Scott Millar book that at least one of their number was thinking in those terms. But that that option existed offered both problems and opportunities. In the early 1990s during the FF/LP coalition DL had the option of pitching left of the Labour Party. By entering government it removed that possibility from the table. But as long as the Labour Party existed it provided a potential home for one, or all, of the DL TDs and their decreasing membership. As it eventually did.
For the Green Party there is no alternative home. They must sink or swim alone having managed quite neatly to alienate a significant portion of those who once saw them as allies (which, by the way, is not to say that were one or two of their number re-elected the Labour Party, or indeed Fianna Fáil, wouldn’t embrace them with open arms). Their bad fortune was to make a decision to enter government with Fianna Fáil – problematic for their base and for transfers, and having done so to find that having done so they faced the worst economic crisis to engulf this state in a generation or more and then finding themselves in a position where they had to stand over decisions guaranteed to impact upon their electorate and upon their ideological project. It is not entirely dissimilar to what happened to the Labour Party in 1992. By entering government with Fianna Fáil they enraged a section of their voter base. By leaving government and coalescing with Fine Gael and Democratic Left they enraged a good portion of what was left. Parties can lose some of their base, they do it all the time when in government. But they cannot afford to lose large fractions of it and the Green Party, as a much smaller formation, cannot really afford to lose any at all (it’s worth noting in passing that the Green Party propensity to pick up transfers from across the political spectrum was clearly much greater than that of Democratic Left).
But the Green Party has been in existence for a longer period than Democratic Left with an embedded culture that one would suspect will tide it over even if it does lose most or all of its elected representatives. And with a core ideology that is distinct from other political parties, although often appropriated in part by them, it is better placed to subsist through electoral bad times.
Interestingly Richard Dunphy notes a not dissimilar dynamic of appropriation in relation to Democratic Left where:
In Ireland, the party was launched at a time when two other distinctive characteristics of the old Workers’ Party – its post-nationalism and its secularism – were increasingly seeping into the political mainstream and perhaps losing some of their radical cutting edge.
But if subsistence it is to be that suggests that we would be looking at rather a different Green Party in three or four years time. I would hazard that the effects of the 2009 Local Elections would have filtered through in terms of removing a section of its activist base. Added to this would be the pragmatic consideration that many of those who otherwise would be attracted to the party would find the general perception of it as off-putting. That would place considerable weight on those left, a weight that as with Democratic Left we have seen is difficult to carry in the wake of poor, or potentially disastrous, election results (and it’s worth noting that for all the negative aspects of DL’s participation in government it still managed to have the bulk of its TDs re-elected with a number more in strong positions to contest future elections and that that it faced a much rosier economic environment than the one we currently inhabit). One of the more intriguing aspects of the NAMA debate has been the emergence of a small but vociferous grouping within the Green Party which hitherto was thought to be loyal to the parliamentary party and leadership but which has taken a strongly dissenting position on the policy pursued by that leadership. That some of those most closely identified with that group were themselves unsuccessful candidates at the Local Elections may point to individuals positioning themselves beyond the current travails as a ‘fresh’ alternative in five years or even later should the current incumbents fail. This may suggest instead of a retreat to previous certainties a sort of contemporary Green Party Mark II. How that would play with the electorate remains to be seen.
The end of the Green Party? It would be unwise to predict such an outcome. But, a much smaller and more marginal grouping would appear to be the most likely outcome of the current problems it faces. If the government lasts it is possible that one or two of their TDs would be returned, although were an election held today or any time this year it seems unlikely that the outcome would be that positive for them. But with elements of their activist base already stripped away at the local elections, and such an unpromising electoral context for their national representatives, one could logically enquire as to how much will be left and how feasible will it be to mount any sort of project either electoral or even more broadly political for the subsequent half-decade or more. This, surely, isn’t where this was meant to end up in the heady days of 2002 to 2007, or indeed for some short time afterwards.
The image above is taken from the front cover of the Democratic Left’s 1997 pamphlet Make the Future Work which was produced for the 1997 General Election. It is provided courtesy of the very useful Irish Election Literature blog. Images of the full pamphlet are available on IELB here.
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