Building the ULA: Reflections on the Past and Proposals for the Future


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It is just over a month since the ULA was launched and the paucity of organised resistance to the deepening economic crisis has made the alternative offered by the ULA all the more urgent. So the formation of the ULA is very welcome. Also welcome is the public commitment to the ULA by PBP, the SP, the SWP and the Tipperary UWAG. Such co-operation amongst the Irish left is a very big step forward and every effort should be made to ensure that it is a success, up to and after the coming election.

At present the ULA is an electoral alliance – based upon a limited program of resistance to the EU-IMF austerity / deflation / mass unemployment program of the FF-Green government (which a FG-Labour coalition will also implement). The formation of this electoral alliance is, in itself, very positive. But the success of the ULA launch, the recognition across the Irish Left of the political significance of agreement amongst socialists on an electoral slate / platform, and the desire amongst the many who will not join the SP or SWP but who want to be part of a serious alternative to Labour and SF, mean that discussion on what the ULA could become is also urgent.

This paper is a contribution to the discussion on how the ULA can evolve, and looks at three issues:

  • can the ULA be the beginnings of something new;
  • can it evolve into something more than an electoral alliance;
  • and can those who support and campaign for ULA candidates, but who are not in the organisations mentioned above, join the ULA and have a role in its decision-making?

Historical opportunity

The decline of working class support for FF combined with the explicit pro-capitalist commitments of Labour, in a context of the deepest economic crisis in living memory, present Irish socialists with an historical opportunity. A new political space is opening to the left of Labour. We should however, adopt a comradely attitude to Labour supporters, many of whom will become disillusioned with Labour in coalition with FG. The possibility of six ULA-sponsored TDs being elected, and acting as a pole of attraction for those who oppose the austerity drive, will create the conditions for a new political formation: a new workers party with a small mass base (by this I mean a party with over a thousand active members and the ability to mobilise three to four times that number.)

To realise this historic potential, those involved in the ULA and the other socialist / activists interested in a new formation must make a commitment to building it. And we must try to avoid the errors of the past. There is much politically on which the Left agrees. But there have also been hostilities in the past, flowing from a desire to recruit based on points of difference. The ULA is the beginning of a break from that past. If we are to move forward, we must try to work together as much as possible; to seek consensus as much as possible; and to be open to debate and be able to disagree without hostility – while continuing to work together.

At this stage an evolving political formation should be based on a program of struggle and resistance – which is what the current electoral platform of the ULA represents. More broadly, a future workers party should take the side of the working class and the oppressed in any conflict with the bosses and the state. The logic of such an approach is a challenge to capitalism, but we cannot simply drop a revolutionary (eco) socialist program onto a new formation: that is a recipe for recruitment to the existing revolutionary socialist groups and little more.

Thus a new workers party would accumulate its political program out of real debate and struggles, rather than adopting a ready-made program with little depth of understanding. The role of experienced socialists would be to help develop transitional demands which raise the level of struggle to challenge the foundations of capitalism and bourgeois rule. (The alternative is to accept the logic of capitalism – an acceptance that has brought the Labour Party to its current sorry state). This transitional approach is necessary due to the existing level of consciousness and the dominance of reformist ideas in the social / workers movement: that capitalism / private property is an acceptable socio-economic system – if only we could have a ‘fairer’ version not subject to crises.

Alliance – or organisation?

The ULA platform – although weak on feminist, eco and other demands – is adequate as the political basis for an evolving political formation. What is still unclear however, (though probably being discussed informally) is how the ULA might develop. Is it to remain as an alliance (electoral or otherwise) of existing socialist groups? Or is it to be built as an organisation in its own right – potentially a new workers party? The signals so far are that the SP is committed to building a new workers party out of the ULA; but as far as I am aware, no such commitment has yet come from the other groups.

A brief account of the difficulties in building PBP will illustrate what I think are problems with the ‘alliance of groups’ approach. I raise these not to denigrate PBP or the people working and campaigning with PBP, but to address issues which I think have undermined its potential to grow, and which would likewise undermine the potential development of the ULA.

After an auspicious launch, people were urged to ‘join’ PBP. Local groups formed, but it is mainly those which existed before the launch that have developed in any real way. One objective reason for this is the lack of an upsurge in the general level of struggle – so there was no new wave of people who might have been interested in PBP.

There have also been subjective problems, however. Due to the election of councillors on a PBP platform, the model for building PBP groups focused on local struggles – with a view to using the support gained from participation in these to build an electoral base for PBP candidates. Elected reps would then campaign to build local (and other) struggles. But it is not possible to build a group around local issues alone. Unemployment and job losses, the cuts, or the crisis in the health service cannot be addressed at a local level: they are national issues and require national (and international) solutions. Indeed the formation of state-wide campaign groups to fight unemployment is a recognition of this – and also served to relegate PBP to local-electoral issues. Only in rare instances and over a long period can local groups be built around local issues, and this approach undermined the building of PBP groups.

A question of strategy

Another obstacle to building PBP was the ‘alliance of groups’ strategy – rather than building PBP as a new formation in which existing groups worked, but which existed in its own right as a pluralist political organisation. In an ‘alliance of groups’ strategy, the sum is indeed greater than the component parts acting alone. But the only means whereby an ‘alliance’ can grow as a national force and pole of attraction is for people to join the state-wide groups involved in the alliance – and there are many who don’t want to do that. While people were urged to ‘get involved’ in PBP their involvement was restricted to participation in localist groups that were not integrated into a wider project, and with little say on the overall direction of PBP. The ‘alliance’ approach fed the ‘localist’ approach and similarly undermined the project.

The reluctance to build PBP as an organisation in its own right also contributed to shortcomings of communication: things that would involve people in the life of an organisation have fallen by the wayside because PBP was not conceived of as an organisation of participating members.

In practice, the role of the ‘members’ is to turn up on demos, distribute election leaflets, and contribute money. This might be OK if all you want is to get a few socialists elected. But it does not build a social base from which elected representatives can mobilise: eloquent socialist speeches in the Dáil or Council Chamber count for little unless significant numbers can be mobilised in pursuit of socialist solutions. Nor does passive support for an alliance or organisation, rather than active participation in it, provide the debate and political education its members need to develop as leaders in their own right – able to call existing leaders / elected reps to account.

With regard to the relationship between having TDs and being able to mobilise, Joe Higgins did an excellent job arguing the cause of working people using the platform of the Dáil (and likewise as an MEP). While this increased the SP’s profile and got a few councillors elected, the party’s inability to mobilise more than a few hundred people indicates the inadequacy of a strategy that prioritises the building of a revolutionary socialist organisation (in the current political conditions) and uses its elected reps to that end. The SP has, in my opinion, drawn a positive lesson from that experience: it is currently committed (as far as I am aware) to building a broad, class struggle organisation – which is politically plural and includes other revolutionary socialists and non-socialists alike – and is therefore able to develop significant social weight.

In my view, it should be clear that repeating the ‘alliance of groups’ approach in the ULA would be to waste the opportunity now presented to us. The immediate task facing the ULA is the election of a number of TDs. But what do we do after the election? Go back to building our individual organisations? Surely we want to ensure that all who campaign for the ULA can participate in it – up to and after the election? And surely we want to ensure that people who are drawn to the ULA after the election can participate in a national formation that grows out of the ULA – as a campaigning organisation that is democratic and open in the way it functions?

Proposals for how the ULA might function as an evolving political formation:

Within the ULA there should be an emphasis on finding agreement and on working together. The spirit of debate should be one of honest engagement and attempting to decide by consensus, establishing as much agreement as possible, rather than hostility or lining people up. Where disagreements exist we should not hide them – people need to see that it is possible to disagree but remain united on a broad range of issues. Any organisation of significant size / numbers will have many internal debates and disagreements – so we must accept that we will not always have complete agreement or get ‘our’ way, but remain committed to working together. Leadership must be earned through open political debate and persuasion, rather than by private agreements or the packing of meetings.

With this in mind, we should consider how activists who support the ULA can participate in its decision-making in the run-up to the election. Monthly national meetings involving ULA candidates, elected reps and open to all ULA supporters could serve this purpose. These meetings could decide policy and proposals for action (within the framework of the agreed ULA platform, but able to amend it if there was consensus). Proposals should be circulated ahead of meetings. In the longer term (if the ULA continues / grows after the election), a delegate structure may be more appropriate – based on the constituent organisations and on new branch / local bodies of the ULA.

Likewise, a steering group that meets between national meetings could be set up, involving ULA candidates and elected reps, representatives of the groups participating in the ULA and activists not in those groups. If local ULA activist groups are formed, they could also have representation. This steering group should develop a practice of taking written proposals and circulating them to supporters as part of the minutes of meetings. In this way our supporters can be informed of what is going in the alliance.

The alliance could produce a fortnightly e-bulletin for supporters, providing political analysis, news and argument. An editorial board could be set up to produce this bulletin.

The ULA could examine the possibility of producing a printed publication for supporters to use in the run-up to the election.

Brendan Young is a member of PBP and the CIL. This paper is written in a personal capacity.


9 Responses

  1. William Wall

    January 9, 2011 8:50 pm

    Interesting article. It outlines the problems and opportunities very well. I notice though that it sets itself up in opposition to SF and ILP. I think this is a regrettable stance. I understand the arguments, of course. But I think the window of opportunity (a term I hate) is not very wide. We need a left alliance for *this* election, and we need it urgently. I see no reason why ULA members who accept that ‘it is possible to disagree but remain united on a broad range of issues’ should not be able to sit in government with the other two parties. In fact I think it’s essential that, if left-alliance is to come to power, the radical voices are at the council table. I think ILP’s present position on coalition should be read as a strategic one. At least I hope that’s the case. A broad alliance of ILP+SF+ULA would have fantastic potential and could really reshape this country. I’d urge the ULA to consider such an alliance.

  2. Des Derwin

    January 10, 2011 12:04 am

    Before turning to the questions of the Labour Party or Sinn Féin I would first factor in a second, ‘external’, element to building the ULA, alongside the ‘internal’ dimension of building the ULA as a membership organisation which Brendan so ably discusses. That is I believe the ULA should not be considered as having passed the stage of expanding through the accretion of other currents. To varying degrees it is still possible, and the ULA should publicly declare this, to aim for some association with some of the following: the ISN, eirígí, The Workers Party, Declan Bree, Tommy McKearney’s Fourthwrite, the Communist Party, the People’s Movement, the Ciaran Perry organisation, Thomas Pringle, Maureen O’Sullivan and Co., new small circles of politicised workers in Limerick and North Dublin, etc.

    As I wrote elsewhere I believe that the radical left should not reject an all-left alliance out of hand but say to Labour and Sinn Féin activists: reject coalition and austerity, support a fight back, commit to restoring what has been cut, to keeping public sector jobs and investing in new jobs, etc., and we will happily join you in a left alliance.

    In relation to the Labour Party is it not the case that, as time passes, the question is not one for the ULA or the radical left, but one for concerned left activists in the Labour Party? Is it not the reality, ever more hardened with each interview with the Labour leadership, that Labour will not countenance anything but coalition with Fine Gael (bringing yet another electoral shift by the next election). As time passes isn’t the dilemma less and less one for the radical left in relation to Labour in an all-left alliance? Rather isn’t the dilemma increasingly for those Labour members who really want to resist this, inconceivable such a short time ago, transfer of resources from workers and the most vulnerable to Irish banks and international finance, and who are facing their Party going into government with Fine Gael?

  3. Walter Burns

    January 10, 2011 12:04 am

    Leave further evolution of ULA until its candidates have been tested in the general election. Most of these candidates will be elected on the basis of their local public records and profiles, not because they belong to a network called ULA. And yes, it would be futile for a new alliance (remember, it’s not a party) to foist eco and feminist revolutionary policies on local, non-revolutionary and culturally traditional electorates. Much vanguard ideological thinking on politics and culture takes place in university and other hothouse localities in big, especially capital, cities. Middle of the road mentalities ‘down the country’ can’t cope with exotic philosophies and the language in which they are usually expressed by vanguard thinkers. The same goes for most residents in suburbs like Fairview and Tallaght.

  4. Tom O\'Connor

    January 13, 2011 10:52 pm

    Let’s dream of a United Left party winning seats in the imminent general election. Could it happen? Could a UL obtain 7 seats and thus form a Technical Group in the Dáil with the opportunities that brings? Dream on…, seriously!
    It is great to read these contributions, first from Brendan and the reactions by William, Des and Walter. I agree there is a narrow window of opportunity existing just now. It was also interesting to hear the discussion at the meeting in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin on Monday 10th. The discussion was about growing a new organization/party at the same time as organizing in the forthcoming election vs. election first and party later. Those who spoke favoured the first – parallel – approach.
    I’d like to throw in my two cents worth. As was also mentioned at the meeting, the media has, surprisingly, been fair to the ULA since launch in December. So I think we have an opportunity to use the media to get our ideas out to a broader audience, especially during the coming election, when the media might be a bit more open to new ideas than usual. RTE radio discussions have zoned in on the issue of new organizations and parties coming on the scene during this election.
    The problem is that the likes of the opinion polls will only describe canvassed people who even name the ULA as intending to vote for ‘independents’. That is because the ULA is not a registered party. Dream for a minute, imagine ULA was registered and the pollsters started to record 1%, 2% for it. The ULA’s views would get to a wider audience. People realizing a new left party was on the scene would know where to look for its programme and seek us out.
    I know this is a big ask, but could the constituent organizations of the ULA agree to 1) register the ULA as a party – using the agreed ULA programme as the basis for now; and 2) run their candidates as ULA candidates, rather then SP-ULA or PBP-ULA, never mind UWAG-ULA etc. My suggestion is that registering and running as a ‘party’ would just be a strategy to get into the public domain. It would be called a party but would not become one until probably some time after the election. (In time for Behan’s “first item on the agenda”? I hope not)
    And as a parting shot, could the party be called simply “United Left”. I don’t see the need for “Alliance” nor “Party”. It is simple and can stick in the mind.
    OK I said ‘dream for a minute’. Well maybe reality for a minute?
    Tom O’Connor (Dublin version)

  5. WorldbyStorm

    December 26, 2011 2:44 pm

    Excellent article Brendan, and a lot of food for thought.

    Just a point re forming a Technical Group, apologies, this is legalistic in the extreme, but if there were, as current polling data seems to indicate, more Independents they – the latter – would be able to form a Technical Group, and worse again it would have to be open to anyone who wanted to join it. For the ULA to get the benefits of ‘group’ status it would have to have party status contesting the election and then it could accrue the same rights as SF, or the WP before them, or whoever. In other words it would need to be a recognised registered political party going into the election. One other small fly in the ointment, God knows what FG/LP have planned re political reform, cuts in numbers of TDs [something I’m against strongly] but it would not surprise me if they tried to make it somewhat more difficult for groups to be formed in the new Dáil [which may have fewer numbers of TDs], something that probably won’t affect SF, but will the further left, and perhaps Independent TDs.

  6. WorldbyStorm

    December 26, 2011 2:45 pm

    Sorry, blame Christmas, I left out a key point. There can’t under Oireachtas rules be more than one Technical Group. There can however be one Technical Group and many political party groups. That too is a means of limiting political representation, in my opinion.