Lost Opportunity

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Perspective of a ULA national steering committee member

The 2011 general election gave the Irish far left its highest profile in decades. Five TDs were elected under the electoral banner of the United Left Alliance (ULA), reflecting growing anger against the austerity imposed by the previous government’s agreement with the “Troika” of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank.

During the campaign, I was strongly critical of the ULA’s overtly reformist election platform, which did not even mention the word “socialism”. This omission was made explicit by Ann Foley, the ULA candidate for Cork North West and a well known participant in People Before Profit (PBPA), one of the ULA’s founding organisations:

“I feel the ULA has very common sense policies. When people think of socialists, they think of communism, which is not the case. There is nothing dramatic or revolutionary about our policies. A lot of countries have functioning social democracies, especially in Scandinavia. They have great health, transport and childcare systems. This is the direction we want to take, a direction this Government failed to follow.”
(Cork Independent, 6 January 2011)

The decision to move beyond a reformist electoral lash-up by opening up membership to individuals and initiating a process supposedly aimed at the creation of a new working-class party, however, encouraged me to join. I saw this as an important opportunity to discuss the revolutionary socialist programme that the working class so desperately needs. Since then, I have participated in that discussion in ULA meetings at all levels and on my blog (revolutionaryprogramme.wordpress.com), and have twice stood for election to the national steering committee (NSC). In October 2012 I was elected onto the NSC to represent non-aligned members, ie, those not in one of the ULA’s founding organisations.

After opening the alliance to individual membership after the election, the three founding components of the ULA – the PBPA, the Socialist Party (SP) and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) – talked of turning widespread anger against austerity into the creation of a new workers’ party to lead a fight-back against the attacks. However none proved willing to seriously commit themselves to the project. The WUAG, which claims a membership of hundreds, never had more than a handful of its activists registered as ULA members and carried out no activity under the ULA banner. The main force within the PBPA, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), always seemed to have another project they gave at least as much importance to, most noticeably the ineffectual “Enough!” project. The SP contributed the most but always with the caveat that until they judged individual membership to be large enough they would veto any concrete moves towards the creation of a new party – in direct contradiction to their election manifesto slogan: “Vote United Left Alliance and help found a powerful new party to represent working class people”.

This “right of veto” for the component organisations proved to be a barrier to growth. Individual members quickly came to understand that they had no control over policy or campaigning priorities, all of which had to be approved by the founding groups via the NSC.

Working class militants will never be attracted to an organisation in which they had no effective voice. While the components of the ULA played a significant leadership role in the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT), which mobilised thousands of activists across the country, this failed to translate into growth for the ULA. On virtually every political demonstration held in Ireland in 2011 and 2012 the contingents of the component groups were bigger than that of the ULA. This was compounded by the TDs issuing a steady stream of press statements in the name of the ULA without any membership consultation.

In Cork I saw the bulk of the individual members who had joined enthusiastically after campaigning for SP councillor Mick Barry gradually become disenchanted and move away.

Unravelling

The contradiction between the ULA’s early promise and its actual reality led its unravelling during the second half of 2012. The national conference planned for November was postponed indefinitely, and the SP and SWP lost interest.

The SWP’s real priority was re-launching PBPA:

“The People Before Profit model provides a different way of doing politics which can help to re-capture the early dynamism that the United Left Alliance displayed.”

Long-time SP member and ULA TD Clare Daly resigned from the SP in September 2012 in a murky dispute. She claimed it was because of a lack of focus on the ULA while the SP claimed she was too close politically to the bourgeois populist independent TD Mick Wallace who had become a political liability following revelations concerning his dodgy tax affairs. Daly has since formed a bloc with Joan Collins, a TD who is the highest profile PBPA member outside the SWP. The WUAG formally withdrew from the ULA in October citing softness towards Wallace and lack of commitment to the new party project – which seemed a bit odd given their own minimal participation.

Today the ULA has been effectively reduced to an electoral badge of convenience and a framework for joint work within the Dáil, and is even facing problems there. An ongoing mini-crisis simmers on the NSC over whether to register for electoral purposes with a name that allows dual identity (favoured by the SP and SWP) or Daly/Collins’ preferred option of a generic ULA name. The SP and PBPA/SWP have announced plans to stand candidates in the same multi-member constituencies as Daly and Collins, effectively in competition for the final TD place.

Outside the electoral arena there are disputes over key issues such as the household tax campaign and the struggle for abortion rights. The SP has announced its withdrawal from any real involvement, declaring that they “will not be as active in the ULA, including at the level of Steering Committee, as we have been up to now”.

Many individual members of the ULA are now looking to the new Daly/Collins bloc to either breathe new life into the ULA or offer a replacement, but the outlook does not appear promising. Daly and Collins say that a new party will have to be built on a more democratic basis, but it is by no means clear that the two TDs are prepared to be accountable to anyone who might sign up to their new venture. More significant is the political direction of the bloc. In the midst of terrible austerity attacks on working people as well as renewed controversy over abortion rights, it seems very peculiar that the first public action of Daly/Collins has been to line up with the bourgeois TDs Mick Wallace and Ming Flanagan to call for an inquiry into allegations that senior gardaí were fiddling charge notices for traffic offences.

The small question of programme

The SP and SWP are critical of Daly’s connection with Wallace but her politics remain in line with those of the ULA as a whole. From the point of view of revolutionary Marxists, the ULA’s organisational problems derive from the fact that its politics remain firmly within the framework of left reformism, despite the domination of self-described “revolutionary socialists”.

The ULA’s two most comprehensive policy statements were submissions on the 2012 and 2013 budgets. Second only to elections, the budget is a time when the broadest layer of the public takes an interest in politics, and it thus provides a chance for socialists to present their alternative to capitalism. Unfortunately, the ULA statements have instead presented fantasies of making capitalism run in the interests of working people.

Speaking in the Dáil debates on the 2013 budget SWP leader Richard Boyd Barrett argued:

“A few simple measures could have done away with the need for all the suffering it has inflicted on ordinary families today. If it had simply enforced, as we suggested, the 12.5% corporation tax rate and increased in a significant way the taxes on those earning in excess of €100,000 a year, as 88% of the population now want it to do, it could have done away with the need for all this suffering and despair and all those families being driven into poverty.”

“The Government could have marshalled funds by imposing taxes to fund a stimulus and jobs programme to put people in this country back to work so they can contribute to the economic recovery we so badly need.”

SP leader Joe Higgins struck a similar note:

“There is an alternative: no more of Irish workers’ economic lifeblood to bondholders and bankers, tax the super wealthy, invest in public infrastructure to put hundreds of thousands of people back to work and remake this broken economy. It could then provide the taxes and resources we need for our services in health and education and for our elderly people and we could create a decent and sustainable life with dignity for all our people, young and old.”

Instead of using the Dáil platform to argue that capitalism is the problem and the answer is for the working class to take power, these reformists pretend that a “decent and sustainable life with dignity for all our people young and old” can be delivered by the capitalist parliament.

As I argued in response to the ULA 2013 budget submission:

“Through the continual use of the terms ‘we’ and ‘us’ the submission presents a falsity that there is a collective ‘us’ in Ireland that ‘our’ economy could be made to work for. This ignores the reality that capitalism – based on the legalised theft that goes by the name of profit making – is inherently biased towards the interests of the capitalists rather than the workers. Capitalism cannot be made to work in our interests as a class and no workers’ organisation worthy of the name should be pretending that it can.

“A ‘budget’ is explicitly a set of policies for the bourgeois government to carry out within the financial structures of capitalism. That is nothing to do with the socialist project of a fundamental transformation of the socio-economic basis of society.

“If, as they claim, the authors of this statement really want a ‘radically different approach’ that ‘puts the needs of the working people before the interests of bondholders, bankers and big business’ they would take the opportunity of public interest around the budget to advocate not a rearrangement of funds under capitalism, but a programme of action fighting for what we need as working people – this is the only ‘we’ and ‘us’ that a workers’ organisation should be concerned with. This means, of course, outlining a vision of a new socio-economic system designed to meet people’s wants and needs rather than the current continual drive for maximisation of profits no matter the cost to workers’ lives.”

Women’s right to choose

As 2012 neared an end, Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death highlighted the scandalous lack of access to abortion in Ireland – an issue of major importance to socialists.

Shamefully, the ULA had avoided this vital question until November 2012, when the NSC approved a motion that came through the branch delegate council, although Clare Daly, to her credit, had moved a private member’s bill on the X Case earlier in the year. The 2011 election manifestos of all three component organisations failed to even mention abortion rights – despite all formally supporting women’s right to choose.

Only after the issue began to be widely discussed in the media did it get attention within the ULA. Even then, rather than forthrightly calling for free abortion on demand, the focus was on “tactics”, with an open struggle for a woman’s right to choose being relegated to sometime in the future. The SWP wanted to focus on maximising the criteria of a threat to life as grounds for abortion within the framework of the X Case legislation. The SP argued for expanding the framework to a threat to health. It is perhaps no accident that these approaches mirror popular sentiment as expressed in recent opinion polls.

The programme we need

The working class in Ireland, as in much of the rest of the world, is suffering a dramatic decline in living standards as a result of the capitalist economic crisis. To “fix” this, the rich propose austerity – ie, a massive transfer in wealth from the working class to the capitalist class.

The obvious responsibility of revolutionary Marxists in this period is to point out to workers that it is necessary to end this insane exploitative socio-economic system and to provide a programme for doing so. The ULA’s component organisations deliberately refused to do this, in their vain hope of creating a broader movement, and furthermore have destroyed the ULA as a potential arena for political discussion and debate to develop a programme that could meet those historic needs of the working class.

What is needed is a new workers’ party rooted in militant class struggle that is not afraid to tell the truth – to openly counterpose revolutionary policies to the political dead-ends pushed by the reformists. Such a party can only develop into a mass organisation by cultivating a democratic internal culture of comradely debate through which it is able to develop and refine a revolutionary approach to the concrete problems posed by the day-to-day struggles of the workers’ movement.

I believe some of the key elements of that programme would be:

  • Expropriation of capital – both Irish corporations and the multi-nationals, including nationalisation without compensation of all Ireland’s natural resources
  • Political independence of the working class – no political alliances with bourgeois independents or parties, including Sinn Féin and the Greens
  • Opposition to “Social Partnership” class collaboration – building an alternative leadership in the trade unions on the basis of uncompromising militant class struggle politics in direct opposition to the pro-capitalist ideology of the trade union bureaucracy
  • Women’s liberation – including open and forthright advocacy of free abortion on demand
  • Intransigent anti-racism – including opposition to all the capitalist immigration controls, full citizenship rights for all who live here and defence of Traveller communities
  • Concrete internationalism and anti-imperialism – actively building solidarity with workers’ struggles across Europe; opposing any Irish participation in imperialist sponsored “peacekeeping” roles; and calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland as part of the struggle for an Irish Workers’ Republic within a Socialist Federation of Europe
  • For workers’ power – fighting to build our own working class organisations based on workers’ democracy that aim to fight for power, while exposing reformist illusions that the structures of the capitalist state and its parliamentary charade can ever be used by the oppressed to achieve fundamental social change
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12 Responses

  1. Luke

    January 17, 2013 8:12 pm

    Will you be joining the new initiative of the non-swp/sp ula members that is set to be launched on Feb 2nd?

    • Alan Gibson

      January 17, 2013 9:38 pm

      It is unclear what will come out of that meeting. I will assess whatever that is in terms of its programme and direction of political movement – the issue of working class independence and relationship to bourgeois populists bing particularly critical – along with the degree to which it provides a framework for discussion and debate on programme.

      So the short answer is I don’t know yet.

  2. Des Derwin

    January 18, 2013 7:01 pm

    “Will you be joining the new initiative of the non-swp/sp ula members that is set to be launched on Feb 2nd?”

    Chinese whispers. The ULA nonaligned are meeting this weekend and the nonaligned are meeting the Clare Daly-Joan Collins embryonic grouping on 2nd Feb. Nothing is set to be launched on Feb 2nd.

    • Alan Gibson

      January 19, 2013 9:43 am

      Des is correct. While there are no doubt some who would like to see a new formation launched on 2 Feb there is at this moment no decision on any such launch

  3. FionaOK

    January 18, 2013 11:14 pm

    The ULA is finished and it’s time to stop deluding yourselves. When WUAG left, that was the nail in the coffin. Anyone hanging around will just be handing out leaflets for Daly and Collins before their next election. Of course, if that’s what you want to do with your time then that is of course your prerogative. It’s not luck the remaining ULA non-aligned members needs, it’s condolences.

  4. Potter Conroy

    March 4, 2013 8:43 pm

    Your article is a valuable contribution to a debate about the future of the consistent left in Ireland. However you seem to suggest that any argument for higher taxation of the rich is merely reformism.

    You refer to Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd-Barrett as “these reformists” and it sounded like you meant it to be a term of abuse. Would you seriously argue that you see no difference in the approach of Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party on the one hand and Richard Boyd-Barrett and the SWP on the other? Do you not see any role for campaigns to make demands on the present system? Do you not see any area where the left might gain victories, such as in the Anti Household Charge campaign or in the campaign for abortion rights?

    Will you be consistent and tell union members to forget trying to defend their wages and conditions, that this would only be reformist and while capitalism remains intact the struggle would be futile?

    You castigate the “founding groups of the ULA” for not mentioning a demand for abortion rights in the last election. You must have failed to notice that the Socialist Party had such a demand, not just in the last General Election but in the more recent Dublin West Bye Election. You use the abortion issue to attack the Socialist Party and give some kudos to Clare Daly. You misrepresent the moving of a private members bill as ” Clare Daly, to her credit, had moved a private member’s bill on the X Case earlier in the year ” . That bill was facilitated by the technical group, with the push coming from the ULA.

    You call for comradely debate, I could not agree more. Comradely debate must mean not misrepresenting your opponents and not having a pre-ordained outcome in mind before the debate takes place.

    I think you’ll find that when a new workers’ party takes shape, however soon or far away that maybe, that all sorts will join, leave, and join again. They will, between them, have every idea under the sun. some may even be REFORMISTS, but using that word as a term of abuse in debate does not go down in my book as comradely.

    • Alan Gibson

      March 5, 2013 3:42 pm

      Potter,

      To respond to your comments in the order you make them.

      My point is that to argue for higher taxation of the rich as THE answer – as the two components of the ULA did in their pre-budget submissions and related pieces – is indeed reformism. I am not sure why you would find that controversial. It is quite possible to refer to higher taxation within the context of an overall revolutionary programme but such a programme would not give the impression that anything like this was THE answer and the way to achieve socialism.

      As regards “reformist” being seen as a term of abuse I guess that depends on whether you consider yourself to be a reformist or not. I used it as a scientific term related to the programmes being presented to the working class. Anyone who considers themself to be a revolutionary socialist would no doubt consider it a term of abuse. Many in the SP & SWP do apparently consider themselves to be revolutionary socialists but I measure such claims on the basis of the programme presented to the workin class not on subjective self-assessment. And on that basis the SP & SWP are essentially reformist. I do understand them to be different in the ways they present this, with the SP currently tending to be to the left of the SWP, but on the basis of the reformist programmes they are presenting to the working class the differences are one of quantity rather than quality.

      I am currently actively involved in the campaigns against the household tax, for abortion rights and against Croke Park 2. I have also just taken on the role of union rep at my workplace. So clearly I do see a role for such campaigns. However I make a distinction between fighting for specific reforms and presenting a programme that presents winning reforms as THE answer. I believe that for revolutionaries participation in such campaingns for reforms must go hand-in-hand with applying the method of the Transitional Programme to present a revolutionary programme for the overthrow of the capitalist state and the seizure of power by the working class – as I have attempted to do (see the leaflets on my blog).

      I read the SP’s General Election and Dublin West By-election manifestos and did not see any reference to abortion rights, but perhaps I somehow missed it. I would appreciate it if you could refer me to the documentary evidence so I can apologise for incorrectly accusing them of leaving it out.

      My understanding is that Clare Daly, along with Mick Wallace, played the key role in bringing the X-Case legislation to the Dail. I have perhaps got that wrong and would once again appreciate evidence being presented.

      If I have misrepresented the programme or actions of the SP or SWP in any way I would be perfectly happy to make an apology.

      I have no problem working with reformists in any number of campaigns – and once they get to know me they generally have no problem working with me despite our differences on the strategic issues of how to change society. As I said earlier the only people who would consider the term to be abusive would be those who think of themselves, despite the contrary evidence of their concrete programmes, to be revolutionary socialists.

      If I sincerely believe that the SP & SWP are presenting reformist programmes what would you have me do? Should I refrain from using that descriptive term (backed up by evidence from their concrete programmes) because it might offend them?

      It is of course simple to prove my use of the term is wrong – just provide some evidence from any of their major programmatic statements to the class (such as election manifestos or pre-budget submissions) where they put forward a revolutionary programme. I have made that challenge a number of times on various political blogs and it is of course met with deafening silence because my characterisation is in fact completely accurate.