What Can Come of the Leftward Movement in the Irish Local and Euro Elections?

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Cian Prendeville, of the Anti Austerity Alliance celebrates his election in Limerick. Photograph: Don Moloney/Press 22

Cian Prendeville, of the Anti Austerity Alliance celebrates his election in Limerick. Photograph: Don Moloney/Press 22

The left are on the march in Ireland since the local elections. Irish people and Irish political culture is slowly changing. The old description of Whyte (1972) that Ireland possesses a politics ‘without social bases’ is coming to end. Class politics has started to arrive and the old ‘two and a half’ Irish party system, with the demise of Labour, is no more. These developments present real opportunities for the left in Ireland and for the people who have been oppressed by austerity. In this context, this article attempts to factor in the gains on the left and predict the future at the next election.  This is done to see whether at last we can have a progressive left-dominated government which can prioritise public services, workers, the welfare state and offer fairer taxes, and other progressive measures that this left government would bring.

Dr Adrian Kavanagh has been doing some excellent work in recent times examining opinion poll data since the FG/Labour government came to power in February 2011. Also, Tom Louwerse’s analysis, which calculates the average across all opinion polls from April 1st 2011 to April 1st 2014 is very useful. Reading off the approximate values from the Louwerse graph (politicalreform.ie), the analysis suggests that constant first preference party support is as follows:  FG (25%); FF (22%); SF (18%); Labour (8%); other parties/Independents (20%); Greens (3%).

The European elections indicate the following first preference party support levels: FG (22%); FF (22%); SF (20%); Other parties/Independents (30%); Labour (5%).

The final result for the Local Elections shows the following first preferences: FF (25%); FG (24%); Other Parties/Independents/Greens (28%); SF (15%) and Labour (7%).

Adrian Kavanagh uses a model to predict the number of seats that first preference votes would give to each party and he does this for all the final national opinion polls produced in the weeks prior to the Local and European Elections 2014. His analysis is based on this RTE commissioned ‘poll of polls’ of May 21st, 2014.

This gives the following breakdown: FG (24%); FF (22%); Labour (7%); Independents/Other Parties and Greens 26%.

Corresponding to this ‘poll of polls’,  Kavanagh predicts the number of resultant TDs in the Dail if a general election was held, as follows: FF (38); FG (45); Labour (2); SF (32); Independents/Other Parties/Greens (41).

I have analysed the ‘Independents & Other’ TDs (which includes left parties such as SP and PBP which opinion polls still categorise as ‘Independents/Others!) in the current Dail, as follows:

Currently there are 28 in total at this point. Of these 28 TDs, 11 come from mainly FG gene pool, that is, supporters of Lucinda Creighton, with the remaining being ex FF or PD.

However, the majority of the 28 seats, 17 in total, are from a ‘left’ leaning/ ‘people power’ gene pool in terms of their political philosophy. These include: Tommy Broughan (ex Lab); Joan Collins (People Before Profit); Clare Daly (Ind Left); Stephen Donneely (Ind); Luke Ming Flanagan (Ind); John Halligan (Ind); Finian McGrath (Ind); Catherine Murphy (Ind);  Ruth Coppinger (SP); Maureen O’Sullivan (Ind); Tom Pringle (Ind); Shane Ross (Ind); Roisin Shortall (ex Lab); Mick Wallace (Ind); Richard Boyd Barrett (PBP); Seamus Healy (TUAG); Joe Higgins (SP).

If we assumed that these 28 existing TDs were to get re-elected next time, which is not too unreasonable, then Kavanagh’s analysis suggests that at least a further 13 ‘Independent/Other TDs will also be elected at the next general election.

The local and European elections have demonstrated a strong movement to the left. As we know, the ‘Independents/Others’ in Kavanagh’s and virtually all opinion polls including the Socialist Party and People Before Profit. These latter have made serious gains in the Local Elections and have dozens of council seats now in Dublin. It is reasonable to expect that this left tide, building on campaigns on the ground around a clear dismay at austerity by the electorate, are in poll position to take a large slice of the remaining 13 seats predicted in the analysis. Other left-leaning independents that have done well in the local elections are also bound to take a slice of these 13 seats. On the whole, it would be a good bet that the SP & PBP would gain five new seats (3 PBP & 2 SP) and new left leaning/people power independents, a further five. The remaining 3 of the 13 seats would probably go to right-wing Independents.

Working with these assumptions, the next election could easily deliver the following result:

Fine Gael: 45

Fianna Fail: 38

Labour: 2

Sinn Fein: 32

People Before Profit: 5

Socialist Party: 4

Independent Left (existing & new inc Clare Daly): 18

Right-Wing Independents: 14

158 in Total

The total number of TDs in the new Dail will be 158, as totalled above, down from 166 with the new constituency changes.  This means that with the Ceann Comhairle excluded, an overall majority will be 79 seats.

It would seem that a general election is not that far away. These figures will alter somewhat, depending on future swings in electoral preferences before then. But these figures are likely to be reasonably close the eventual outcome given that they take in to consideration the electoral bounce to the left coming from the 2014 local elections, giving greater seats to Sinn Fein and to new TDs for PBP and SP, as well as to the Independent left.

The only clear two party overall majority is if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coalesce, giving 83 seats, a slim four seat majority. However, if they were joined as coalition partners by right-wing independents, they would possess 97 seats, with a handsome majority of 18 seats. But it is difficult to see FF and FG coalescing. Despite the ebbing of civil war politics in the minds of the electorate, it is still alive in both parties. There is still a huge antipathy to the ‘blueshirts’ in FF. Also, the electorate are increasingly aware of the lack of policy difference between them. Any coalition could inevitable de-differentiate them in the minds of the electorate, that each party’s individual identity would be lost and they could be forced to launch a combined new party of a different name. I don’t believe that FF and FG will go in to coalition.

It is easy to see from these figures that FF and Sinn Fein are likely coalition candidates. In the aftermath of the local elections, several positive overtures have been made from one side to the other, in a sort of pre-nuptial courting exercise! On the basis of these figures, however, it would seem that FF and SF will be short of an absolute majority. If we were to take it that a six seat majority is necessary for comfort, then a working overall majority which would be politically stable is 85 seats. A coalition of FF and SF would be 16 seats short of this stable majority and 9 seats short of the slimmest majority.

Both parties may then start looking for Independents. If FF and SF looked to the right, they could coalesce with the emergent Lucinda Creighton party and a smaller number of FF/PD gene pool TDs. This would give a total of 84 seats, a majority of five seats. Then, the eventual government would put SF seriously in the minority, with the ‘right’ of FF and Independent right being 59 TDs and SF being outnumbered by almost two to one at 32 seats. This would put them in a weak position to get their more left policies implemented and it could well be political suicide, as happened with the Labour Party, to say nothing of the necessary abandonment of core principles in such a case.

However, FF and SF could look to the left Independents and the smaller left parties to form a government. This combination, including PBP and SP, would deliver a handsome majority, with a total of 97 seats, with a large working majority of 18 seats. If PBP and SP refused to do business with FF, a combination of left independents with SF and FF would deliver 88 seats, a comfortable 9 seat working majority.

In either of these scenarios, but particularly in a ‘grand coalition of the left’ (SF, PBP, SP & Left Independents), the left would have a majority in government; a 12 seat left majority over FF without PBP & SP; a whopping 19 seat majority if PBP and SP were included. The latter would give the ‘grand coalition of the left’ 59 seats in the coalition, with only 38 seats for FF.

Consequently, there is a very real possibility that the next government could be left-dominated. What’s more, this can happen without the inclusion of the Labour Party. In the event,  if the  trends observed in this article were to be broadly borne out at the next election, any likely SF and FF coalition would need to be supported by left independents or these and PBP, SP.

SF policies are broadly left in the south but there are left and right elements within it. If any FF and SF coalition were to be very progressive it would need the support of the latter. This would prevent any temptation for a centre coalition to emerge. It could result in a left-dominated coalition and progressive policies in the years ahead.

Of course, this begs other questions: should the ‘genuine’ left stay outside and grow? Can they enter government and be a major pull factor to force it farther to the left? Could this be done by having some form of technical group with ‘real’ left independents, apart from Ross and Donnelly? Is there a chance of a new ‘real’ left party of independents, which might be spearheaded by PBP and SP? Can it be the resurrection of the ULA in a new bigger more formalised party; could this big ULA grow fast and answer the call in opinion polls for a new party?

Also, questions need to be asked about how best to respond to your democratic mandate: in power and improving the welfare state, with some principles compromise within narrow limits or staying in principled opposition to retain principled purity, while a less left government might not improve the lives of ordinary people so much.

These, and other issues are the subject of another article. Here I have concentrated on setting out the numbers and defining the possibilities, however unpalatable these might be for some on the left. The next step is to have tackle the pros, cons, sensitivities and debates that are contained in these possibilities. An evolving debate, which this article and others  could help to promote, might force us all to face up to what is the best way to advance the cause and improve the lives of people who do choose to elect real left TDs.

The largest question remains: what is the best strategy to reverse austerity, rescue the welfare state, create jobs and fulfil the mandate entrusted to real left TDs?

Dr Tom O’Connor is a lecturer in Economics & Social Policy/ Social Care at Cork Institute of Technology