The Rise and Rise of the Irish Left


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Let’s think happy thoughts for a brief while because much else is… well, less than happy. So, here’s something that cheered me up at least a bit and it’s a point that is rarely touched on by commentators more concerned with the jockeying for position of the larger centre right political parties. Reading The Lost Revolution I was struck by a reference to the 1987 General Election which noted that the combined strength of the left was about 10%. And on foot of that comes the thought that in the last quarter century we have seen a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the Irish left. From complete marginalisation politically and in terms of support we have arrived at a point where the left has never had so much cumulative support.

Let’s consider briefly the elections between 1987 and now. In that year of those elected there was 6.5% support for Labour, 3.8% for the Workers’ Party, 0.4% for the Democratic Socialist Party and a few percentages for Independents such as Tony Gregory and perhaps Seán Treacy who had been a LP TD but went Independent and was subsequently Ceann Comhairle. Outside Sinn Féin had 1.8% and the Green Party 0.4%. So yes. A mere 10%. We should also note the fact that the Progressive Democrats at their first electoral outing received 11.9% of the vote. So counterintuitively perhaps we should be grateful to them for breaking up at least part of the political ice given that Fianna Fáil had 44.2% and Fine Gael 27.1% – with clearly the bulk of the PD vote being grabbed from FG which had 39.2% in 1982 (as against FF on 45.2%). And it is entirely possible that in detaching that tranche from FG it managed to pull a good 10% or so out of the orbit of the larger parties and transform it into a floating vote for smaller parties.

Two years later the situation was slightly, but hardly hugely, better. Labour was on 9.5%, the Workers’ Party on 5%, the DSP on 0.6%. Gregory was re-elected. Sinn Féin saw its vote fall back to 1.2% and the Green Party achieved 1.5% and their first TD, Roger Garland. In total about 17% or so.

I’ve always been a bit loath to buy into the trope that the election of Mary Robinson as President fundamentally changed things. And even now I’d hazard that what happened was an acceleration of a pre-existing trend for the left. But, there is no doubt that in the wake of her election the left saw a further rise in their combined vote share at the 1992 election.

Labour went up to 19.5%, a tripling of their vote a short five years previously. Democratic Left had a disappointing 2.8%. The Green Party an equally disappointing 1.4%. I can’t give you a figure for SF, but in total the left breached the significant psychological barrier of 20% gaining at least 22%.

1997 was a setback. No doubt there. Labour fell to 10.4%, Democratic Left had a mere 2.5%, the Green Party recovered at 2.8% while Sinn Féin gained 2.6% and more significantly their first seat. Other new additions included Joe Higgins elected for the SP on 0.7%. But overall the left vote had fallen back to around 14 – 15%.

2002 saw something of a recovery. Labour went up slightly to 10.8%, not a great achievement given the merger with Democratic Left, Sinn Féin captured a remarkable 6.5% of the vote, the SP rose slightly to 0.8% and the Green Party had a significant break-out with 3.8%. All told the ‘left’ vote was nudging back to 20%.

2007, well, Labour gained fractionally at 10.13%, the Green Party remained on 4.69%, Sinn Féin fell back a little to 6.94% and the SP lost their seat despite getting 0.64%. Interestingly looking at the figures for People Before Profit one can see the hints at their more recent local election success gaining 0.45%. In total the ‘left’ vote was well over 21%.

And now? Well, we have to blur the boundaries a little, but, with Sinn Féin hovering at 9-10%, and the Labour Party at or around 18 – 23%, plus a vote of some percentage points for Independent and smaller left formations this surely has to be the period where the left has achieved the greatest spread in terms of vote share. If we extend the boundaries a little further to include the apostate Green Party at 3% we see that we’re actually at 33 to 35% inclusive of left independents. Perhaps 40% on a very good day indeed.

That’s a remarkable fragmentation of the pre-existing political structure and no small achievement for a left that was entirely marginal. And although this change has happened slowly enough, taking the best part of a quarter of a century, at least it has happened. There’s a tendency to look at the present in terms of the recent past and yes, the rise of Sinn Féin was certainly slowed, or even halted over the past three years. And yet. Even given that it remains both electorally and in terms of political polls well ahead of where it was even in 1997. The same is true of Labour. Other formations appear to be polling well with real chances at the next election of taking seats. And to date the only part of the left fracturing is the Green Party which while polling nationally at in or around 3% is doing very poorly in its key battleground constituencies in Dublin.

What’s stunning to me in retrospect is how low the figures for the WP seem. These days we almost expect a small party to gain somewhere between 3 and 6 per cent. But 5% in 1989 was no small small achievement.

This dovetails with thoughts about the nature of the left. A fragmented left may well serve us better than a single unified left party. Indeed the current model where the left vote is scattered between a largish party, two smaller parties (one of which appears somewhat adrift of the left, but work with me here) and number of small parties and Independents, seems to have optimised the vote nicely.

Now, that said let’s not get too pleased with ourselves. The Green Party is one issue, Sinn Féin another, and it’s clear that many people simply don’t regard the Labour Party as willing to stay entirely on the left side of the street. And then the near absolute lack of unity amongst the smaller left formations tells its own story. All very uncomfortable for those who would construct an assemblage out of such not entirely fit for purpose material (and I include all in that definition).

And one wonders, given the vast oceans of hostility that are to be found in all quarters of the left whether it is even feasible to see that much vaunted but little experienced quality of unity ever manifest itself. Indeed while not sharing the Labour Party analysis in full I can’t help but have a certain sympathy for their approach of “stuff the ideology, let’s go for pragmatism” (of sorts) when faced with all else. Problem of course being that pragmatism often isn’t enough and when the Labour Party, as Democratic Left did and soon the Green Party will, leaves government the achievements never quite add up to the stellar heights of its partisans and the failures always seem just a little bit more evident.

Indeed it is precisely this dynamic that torpedos the continuity of a left administration. Promise real change and real change must be delivered for fear of failing immediately. But… and this is a crucial paradox, promise real change and chances are you won’t connect with the electorate, or the population, in such a way as to generate the sort of political responses (let alone TDs and Senators) necessary to do so. And therein lies the problem for the left. Afraid to strike, afraid to draw back. Or rather, some afraid to strike, others afraid to draw back.

So what does the future hold? A Labour Party that may just pull in vote share well beyond the usual limits of the left. A Sinn Féin that on a good day will see its parliamentary strength reinforced (surely, surely there is more than a whisper of a seat in Donegal). A Green Party that will be fortunate to survive as a political entity with national representation, but which I suspect will survive nonetheless. A smattering of Independents and TDs from small parties. And none, not one of those elements working together.

Labour will run full pelt for coalition, and who can entirely blame them given that actual avowed centre leftists haven’t had a sniff of that since 1997 (let us reserve judgement on the Green Party and its ideological position – there are those within it who are centre left in instincts, but, class isn’t a significant concern of that party and environmental considerations will always loom larger in the minds of its membership). In government they may well be fortunate in having a more pacific economic context whereby they can hand back some of the services that appear soon to be taken from us, thereby doing some good – although note well that the Green Party despite the Programme for Government does not appear to be, and granted we need a poll for this, receiving any particular kudos for the actually quite real achievements on the education front.

And… er… that’s about it. No revolutionary transformation of society, let alone a lower key reformation. Most likely the best achievable will be a reinstatement of many, but not necessarily all, aspects of our current rather patchy social provision. Now that’s not to be sniffed at, particularly given what appears likely to happen to said social provision. But it’s not the stuff dreams are made of, let alone less excitable political programmes.

And there to the left will be a good 10 per cent of so of the unconvinced, no doubt their ranks swelled as time progresses, and as all those messy little compromises which characterise coalition with a party of the right, by those who find Labour in power an unpalatable option. That’s not a bad place for Sinn Féin and others to be. But don’t look there for unity either.

And let’s note that all this extra support is simply not being leveraged into societal weight. We’ve just seen, indeed continue to experience, the single greatest attack on the very concept of social provision in this generation and the ability of any part of the left, with the exception of a small number such as Michael Taft and TASC, to mount a defense has been lamentable. The record of both the larger and smaller formations has been noticeable for the sheer inability to come to terms with the nature and scope of the crisis and to refashion the genuine worry amongst working people into an activist force. And this despite the centrality of an eschatological view of such matters to some on the left. If there is low hanging electoral fruit it isn’t dropping into the waiting arms of the left.

Or perhaps it is, but in a broader sense. That because the left is so fractured it is allowing for different formations to appeal to different constituencies of voters. How else to explain that the next Dáil may contain a large phalanx of Labour TDs, with a smaller but not inconsiderable group of Sinn Féin TDs and a smattering of SP, PBP and left Independents. Indeed it’s more than possible that this Dáil will have the largest ‘left’ representation of any prior to it.

It’s an odd sort of success, and the progressive potential may well be squandered. But… it represents progress of sorts.

So let’s not squander it.

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7 Responses

  1. sonofstan

    October 29, 2009 4:06 pm

    Worth pointing out, again and again: the long awaited left/ right divide in Irish politics is already happening. As you suggest, the rise of the PDs in the late ’80s and the Spring tide showed that the twin blocs were loosening: like a serial adulterer, the Irish voter, having strayed once, would, after temporarily renewing her vows, stray again – and again.

    It needs to be banged home that the combined vote of the two right-wing parties now appears to hover around 60%: certainly the decline of FF accounts for this new low, but the fact that FG, the natural party of opposition are not making hay, shows how much things have changed. I’ve said before that I think the decline of FF was masked for a decade by the Bertie effect: we are unlikely to see his like again, and the fact that the soldiers are now the 4th party in Dublin should tell them what future awaits – a party of the west and north with an aging, and poorer constituency.

    Still, we’re a long way from any left alliance, and the antipathy between the various forces on the left is understandable, given the history, but disappointing also, given what’s at stake. Labour, as the grown-up, needs to create a situation such that SF/ PbfP and the SP have to row in behind it – mass action on Cuts, on NAMA, and on corruption. It can do all this while still holding open the coalition option – actually, letting FG know that they (Lab) need to protect their left flank is important.

  2. Eoin O Broin

    October 29, 2009 4:59 pm

    See below for figures of combined left vote from 1989 to the present and for 1948 (the highest combined left vote pre 1989)

    There has always been a 10 point gap between EU and general elections, but the upward trend is still clear, albeit slow over the last two decades.

    Combined Lab/SF/GP/SP/PBP vote

    Election Year Combined total
    EU 2009 30%
    General 2007 23%
    EU 2004 27%
    General 2002 21%
    EU 1999 23%
    General 1997 15%
    EU 1994 28%
    General 1992 24%
    EU 1989 24%
    General 1989 17%

    1948 Combined L/NL/CnaP – 27%

  3. WorldbyStorm

    October 29, 2009 8:43 pm

    That’s also pretty cheering Eoin. What’s slightly less so is the sense that 1948 was followed within a few short years by the collapse of the CnaP vote and a long period where the left was consigned to the margins. This really could be a key point. But two further thoughts strike me, firstly, there’s some sort of cycle and perhaps it’s as much about ‘newness’ or an alternative as much as the nature of the alternative, and secondly it seems to validate the idea that a number of parties can successfully reach the parts a single party can’t.

    Very compelling point SoS. Certainly that message needs to get through to the young turks of FG.

  4. D_D

    October 30, 2009 12:16 pm

    “So what does the future hold? … A smattering of Independents and TDs from small parties. And none, not one of those elements working together.”

    You heard it here first; from the People Before Profit Alliance website:

    “The Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Group have agreed to affiliate to PBP at a meeting to take place this month. This is a huge step forward. PBP will move from six to thirteen to fourteen Cllrs.”

  5. Mark P

    October 31, 2009 2:47 pm

    I think that the fragmenting of the FF/FG blocs is interesting. At the risk of being thought predictable, I don’t think that there is much “left” about the forces accounting for the bulk of this new “left” vote however.

    WbS refers to the Greens as “apostates”, and that’s fair enough. But it could just as easily be Labour in this right wing government doing much the same thing and after the next election it probably will be. It’s only by the grace of Dail mathematics that they aren’t currently “apostates”. And Sinn Fein would wet their pants with joy if they were offered the chance to do the same.

    The vote for SF, the Greens and Labour is of interest because some of the people casting those votes think that they are voting left, but the parties themselves are not.

    On DD’s post:

    Are the WUAG going to use the PBPA name in their work and on the ballot?