Ireland’s Leftward Movement


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I spent a few hours analysing election results and the Red C Opinion Poll of Sunday Dec 2rd, 2012. This was done to see whether or by how much the left is getting stronger.

In my method I’ve categorised the Labour Party as left for the analysis, based on their potential to be so in the main, and by virtue of their stated policies in the past. I’ve also categorised  independent TDs and TDs from smaller parties as either part of the broad ‘left’ or as part of the broad ‘right’, depending on their ideology.

I’ve obviously categorised FF and FG as one on the right. I’ve done this for four elections (elections 81, 87, 97, 07, 11) and the opinion poll of Dec 2rd, 2012. This has yielded some very interesting results, as follows:


1981: Right 81%, Left = 19%
1987: Right 85%, Left=15%

1997: Right 76%, Left=24%
2007: Right 75%, Left=25%
2011: Right 60%, Left = 40%
2012: Right=57%, Left 43% (Red C Poll Dec 2nd)

Here are just a couple of observations: The tide has turned towards the left progressively since 1987 and particularly since the 2007 election, just before the recession started. However, this move started from 1987 to 2007 (15% to 25% left) and not during another tough and protracted period of austerity from 1981 to 1987, the question is why?

 From 1980 to 1987 Ireland’s public spending and overall taxation as a percentage of GDP was far higher than where it was during the Celtic tiger or at this stage. There was still more of a commitment to a ‘welfare state’, which hadn’t yet become as unpopular as it did when the Berlin wall collapsed, though it had been on the retreat since the start of the ‘New Right’ revolution of the late 1970s. This was epitomised by the fact that the then Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald was torn between his admiration for Thatcher’s Monetarism on the one hand, being an economist by training himself,  and his own social democratic principles on the other. He was also heavily influenced by Labour at the time, which arguably was more left then than it is now. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald, with the debt to GDP ratio at 125%, and to avoid the arrival of the IMF, did engage in raising taxes substantially, mainly hitting the broad swath of working people. He also imposed serious cutbacks in public expenditure. Yet the savagery of the period was a pale imitation of what is today, explaining why the left vote was lower in 1987 than in 1981. To bolster this non-movement to the left over that period, I would suggest that the welfare state project had not been abandoned despite retrenchment and the electorate knew this, thus not moving to the left over the period. Certain other factors also contributed the non-movement to the left then as compared to subsequently: there was a greater tolerance of the black economy and this made life economically bearable for hundreds of thousands; it was a period when people were ‘entitled’(without too much policing) to social welfare and where arguments for a basic income guarantee and other schemes to allow people to combine their dole with part-time work (e.g. CMRS/CORI), were considered reasonable by government, with many finding themselves in social welfare programmes (e.g. Part Time Job Opportunities Scheme; Back to Work Scheme; Fas Community Enterprise Programme). Also, workfare didn’t really exist at all. There were certainly no ‘job-bridge’ programmes. These shock absorbers and the other reasons mentioned translated into an actual fall in the support for the left from 19 to 15% from 1981 to 1987.

The period from 1987 to 2007 represented a supreme watershed in the welfare state project.

(a)   In the earlier half of this period (1987-1997), ‘Supply-Side’ economics based on the economically competitive state became the number one goal of public policy. Employment creation was only a priority as far as it responded to the engine to growth created by this number one policy goal of competition. Any state involvement in the economy was eschewed and amounted to heresy, in severe contrast to the situation in other countries such as Norway and Sweden at the time, where State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) proved highly profitable and rich in delivering hundreds of thousands of jobs. Neoliberal ideology, in to which supply-side economics and privatization were the Gemini twins, became supreme. People had so many reasons not necessarily to intellectualise this new neoliberal project but change their views by ‘feeling’ the effects. To quote Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street, a celebrated representation of the time, ‘greed is good’ became the unwritten value system. Ordinary people witnessed strong growth back in the economy from 1987 even prior to the Celtic tiger starting a decade later. However, unemployment was still put on the backburner, and with emigration raging, stood at 17% of the Labour Force in 1993. Taxes were falling but wages were comparatively low. Most importantly, the state essentially withdrew from the housing market in the late 1980s and annual social housing output was averaging less than 4,000 units per year. Schemes became a replacement for real jobs. The neoliberal ‘flexible’ labour of short-term contract jobs made Ireland one of the most ‘flexible’ labour markets in the EU and poverty levels were in the 17 to 20% region. Also, Ireland became an even bigger haven for transnational corporations to avoid tax, alongside their counterparts in the Irish wealthy elite class. In Ireland, to quote Leona Helmsley, taxes were ‘only for little people’; the super rich avoided taxes in a state facilitated way. Most people knew about the favourable tax treatment of the rich and gross income and wealth inequalities, with the Combat Poverty Agency showing in the first ever survey data report on wealth in Ireland that the wealthiest 10% owned about 50% of the wealth. The growth in the left vote went from 15 to 24% over the period as a result.

(b)  From 1997 to the Present, The reflection in the endurance of this significant left growth and how it hardened, despite the biggest boom in the history of the state, is reflected in the fact that the left vote stood at a quarter of first preference votes at the end of the boom (prior to the recession), and hadn’t been dented by the cult of consumerism and individualism that engulfed Ireland during the Celtic tiger. During that time, there were days when the Irish Nurses Organisation reported regularly that 300 people per day were on hospital trolleys. Yes pay was rising by at least 3% per year under partnership, but people noticed that they were less well off: during the early 2000s, it cost 1,000 euros per week to have two children in childcare, though average pay was hovering around 30,000 euros. By 2006, the average house price nationally had risen to 300,000, so even a double income household earning 60,000 had to borrow five times their income. This gave them a huge mortgage of around 1200 a month plus another mortgage on childcare. Successive reports showed that despite the splurge in boozing and holidaying, Irish people reported a lower quality of life than before. The quality of life of ‘breakfast roll man’ and those travelling 20 to 100 miles to work in commuter towns epitomised the erosion in their quality of life. The McCracken, Flood, Mahon and Moriarty Tribunals told people that rich people and property developers not alone did not pay tax,  they bribed willing politicians to re-zone land to make themselves billions in a couple of years. The Dept of Finance released figures to show that 11 billion in tax giveaways, money which could have been kept for hospitals and mental health services, had been lavished on the property industry and other wealthy business people. If elderly relatives became sick, also in line with the new neoliberal project, Mary Harney’s wrong model of nursing home care asked average wage families to pay 1,000 a month to fund nursing homes who were been given state tax avoidance support with taxpayers money to ask these same taxpayers for 1,000 per week. Regular reports showed that the rich paid zero tax or only 5-10% and abused offshore tax rules in order to pay nothing, and then throwing a few hundred thousand as crumbs through charity donations to various causes. People also knew that Fianna Fail was corrupt and there was evidence of FG complicity also. They knew that the PDs were heartless and cared not a jot for ordinary people. When the bubble burst, many ordinary people had expected it. The numbers on housing waiting lists which still stood at 50,000 during the boom, with less than 5,000 houses out of 85,000 houses allocated for social housing in 2006, mushroomed to 100,000. Over 120,000 became in arrears and there was a sharp rise in repossessions. Unemployment rose dramatically to near 450,000 and the country applied for a bailout for the banks and to sustain Ireland’s deficits from 2011-2014.

The fact that people had cottoned on this neoliberal project before the recession, in the earlier period 1987-1997 for the reasons outlined above (a), is clear from the figures above (15 to 24% 1987-1997). In overall terms, the left vote went from 15% at the election of 1987 to 25% in 2007 even before the recession started.  This is because, for the reasons mentioned, people had realised what was going on in the country where a politics of greed abounded. This change has been expanded dramatically since Election 2007 with the left vote rising by from 25 to 40% between elections 2007 to 2011. This vote further increased in the opinion poll of Dec 2nd 2012, where it now stands at 42%.

This has been accompanied by a significant fall in the overall vote for the two biggest parties of the civil war:

Opinion Poll Dec 2 2012= FF +FG=48%

Election 2011= FF + FG= 56%
Election 2007= FF + FG = 69%
Election 1987= FF +FG= 71%
Election 1981= FF + FG= 82%

While the growth in the left from 40 to 42% might have been more impressive, this is still a short period of only less than two years since Election 2011 at the time of writing. We can see that this growth is still broadly in line however with the annual growth in the left vote since 1987 which is encouraging. Given the massive austerity of Budget 2013 of 3.5 billion on top of 25 billion since 2008, where we are cutting and taxing in to the collective bones of people and the countries services, it is very likely that the left vote will increase even more substantially than in the last 22 months.

If the broad left could grow by 7% in the coming 12-24 months, and hoping that this would be in real left heartland of ether SF or ULA, and on the basis that this, is taken from either FF or FG, then there would be a clear 50/50 split between Right and Left.

If Labour left ‘reformed’ with a new leadership of people like Pat Nulty or Tommy Broughan and others leading a radical change, there is a strong possibility that a broad left government could form in Ireland in the next two years or so.

In this context, the Labour Party would be ‘forgiven for the mistakes of the past’. Labour, Sinn Fein, ULA and Left Independents would obviously be competing against each other at the next election. However, they could agree on broad principles where there is consensus in terms of a left agenda of policies prior to the election and then these could be marketed skillfully and aggressively, with clearly worked out economic data to an electorate seeking change and which would want a priority on: jobs; a decent health service; care for the elderly; re-training; disabled care; a fairer tax system; a reduction in the debt burden; using NAMA and other means to clear the 100,000 waiting lists and others. Yes, different left parties would market their own differentiated policies to maximize the vote of each party. However, agreement of broad principles and a clear and obvious ‘slate of policies’, matched by a clear communication that a real alternative coalition could exist after the election, with the required number of seats to implement what would be a new era in the Irish welfare state project. This  should be used to signal and even state to the electorate that this new real alternative could exist to counter the fear that some have that voting left would be ‘wasting my vote because they’ll never get in’. This would involve a clear communication to the electorate that if the seats stacked up, they would be willing to negotiate for a pan left government at the next election. The left’s time is coming. It has a real future in Ireland.




8 Responses

  1. Robert Sweeney

    December 7, 2012 8:10 pm

    I think voting patterns underestimate the degree to which people identify with left policies given that large, primarily working class swathes of the population don’t vote. It would be interesting if you had data on this to complement this presentation.

  2. William Wall

    December 7, 2012 9:38 pm

    This is really interesting and confirms some of the remarks I made (in a more rhetorical context) in this:

    However, I I think ‘potential’ is the operative term for Labour at present. It seems to me that Labour demonstrates tremendous potential to be whatever party they are in coalition with. I hope that changes but I’m not sanguine.

  3. littlemicky

    December 9, 2012 12:47 pm

    Whe the prospect of a left led coalition is raised these days it is instanly dismissed by many of the bloggers from the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers’ Party who effectively control the ULA. This despite the fact that Joe Higgins refered numerous times during the election to that being the only prospect of the ULA entering government and despite the fact that the trajectory of the ULA and it’s constituent parts is towards such an eventuality. Sinn Fein indeed pushed Labour to agree to some sort of understanding before the last election. I was predictably in my opinion rejected. However circumstances are changing. After the next general election a centre right government of FF and FG is now extremely likely a disaster for the working class many leftists would say. For a left coalition to emerge what is needed is a severely chastened Labour party that is retaken by it’s grassroots and more principiled membership. In such a context overtures from SF and the ULA or whatever formation exists then would seem to point to a more logical and necessary project.

    The ULAs’ parts despite their proclaimed hostility will in time make their peace with the rest of their social democratic family and respond to suporters pressure to participate. Of course this will not spell the end of capitalism but it’s reinforcement but it will spell the end of Irish politics as we know it.

  4. BriainC

    December 9, 2012 12:50 pm

    While this trend sounds heartening, I think you’re are not taking account of the negative effects being in government will have on the Labour Party. The Labour leadership has done little to differentiate themselves from Fine Gael. In particular Brendan Howlin and Eamon Gilmore seem to have found a comfortable home on the right endorsing regressive policies and taking authoritarian stances. Labour have performed extremely poorly in media appearances (if they even show up) in contrast to Sinn Fein. I expect a huge fall in support for the Labour party at the next election unless they clarify what their positions are in contrast to those of Fine Gael. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have a certain amount of tribal support but I don’t think Labour (like the Greens) can rely on progressive voters being forgiving at the next election. I don’t think Labour will be completely wiped out like the PDs and Greens but I think any gains made over the last decade will be squandered due to the contaminating effects of being in coalition with such a right wing party. I would question whether the Labour Party (as opposed to the grassroots) can still be considered of the left anyway.

  5. Des Derwin

    December 10, 2012 3:55 pm

    Categorising the Labour Party as left – on the day after that Budget – based on its potential (for Budget 2014?) flaws the analysis. Though of course there are some – some – real leftists left there, for now. And the consistent trend downwards in the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael vote combined is interesting.

    • Alan Rouge

      December 11, 2012 10:28 am

      Aside from their leadership and members, the people who voted Labour – based on the shapes Gilmore was throwing – are probably “of the left” in terms of social democracy, welfare state and higher taxes on the upper crust of society. That Red C poll found more than three quarters supported high taxes for the rich and a poll commissioned by the Community Platform last year found similar support for a wealth tax. The important question is will people just sit at home and wait until the next election?

  6. Des Derwin

    December 11, 2012 1:00 pm

    “Aside from their leadership and members, the people who voted Labour – based on the shapes Gilmore was throwing – are probably “of the left” in terms of social democracy, welfare state and higher taxes on the upper crust of society.”

    Fair comment. And if computing support for the left, or a left, by voting results, there is a case for including Labour. Though many Fianna Fáil voters, prior to the last election, were probably not much different socially and politically than many Labour voters. Then again, many leftish Fianna Fáil voters would have been working class, and many middle class Labour voters would have been liberal.