Opportunities, Polls and the Left

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A response to Ronan Burtenshaw and Eoin O’Broin, by Paul Murphy,  Anti-Austerity Alliance TD and member of Socialist Party

Confirmation bias: The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. (Oxford Dictionary)

poll_rcLast Sunday’s Red C poll, which saw a rise in support for the government parties and a decline of Independents/Others has provoked a discussion about the prospects for the left. Independent socialist, Ronan Burtenshaw, wrote an article on The Village website, entitled “Left may have squandered opportunity”. Eoin O’Broin, a leading member of Sinn Fein and a Councillor, then responded on his blog.

The discussion provoked by the opinion poll findings and these responses is useful. Debate between different analyses and programmes is a necessary and unavoidable part of working towards building a significant new left movement. This response is written to contribute to that debate in the hope that it will help to clarify the position of different trends within the left and the movement against the water charges.

Ronan’s piece is provocative and engaging, but I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that it is a classic example of confirmation bias. His essential conclusion from an analysis of the movements of the polls over the past couple of years is this:

“Clearly people in Ireland experimented with mass mobilisations against austerity, rejected the government’s line on water charges and the economy more generally, and even went so far as to express majority support for forces other than Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour for the first time in history.

“But my conclusion, given this data, is that they have found the alternatives unconvincing. As a proportion of the population, few new supporters have been won over to a project for political change.”

His conclusion, that the fall in opinion polls is because people looked at the alternatives and found them to be unconvincing, simply does not flow from the data, or his preceding analysis. Instead, I would contend that the opinion polls worsened primarily because of the decline of major mobilisations as well as because the low point for the government wasn’t fully capitalised on by a sufficiently authoritative force to consolidate the indicated trends.

I think his analysis contains two essential flaws.

Marriage Equality Referendum

The first is that he under-estimates the temporary impact of the marriage equality referendum result on support for Fine Gael and Labour. In fact, he makes no mention of it whatsoever, which is strange given that was a major political event that occurred just in advance of the poll being carried out.

It was always likely that a referendum victory, which enabled Labour in particular to wrap itself in a rainbow flag and present itself as socially progressive, was likely to result in an increase in the polls. I think much of that can be reversed as people are reminded by the real role of the Labour Party. Within days, for example, of the referendum result, but not accounted for in the Red C poll, they moved to sell-off the remaining state share in Aer Lingus, and politics was embroiled in another Denis O’Brien-related controversy as he tried to silence the Dail itself.

Relationship between movement and polls

The second, and more significant flaw is what I consider to be a wrong assessment of the relationship between an active movement and the opinion polls. Ronan correctly identifies the impact of the active water charges campaign in the rise of Independents/Others in the polls, observing:

“By December, the time of the weekday, marquee Right2Water demonstration in Dublin city centre, the real effect the water charges campaign was having on the polls became clear.”

This was seen in the significant decline of Fine Gael, a drop of Labour to historically low levels, a certain rise in Sinn Fein and in particular a dramatic rise of Independents/Others. In the absence of a major national left party, I think it is correct to take the rise of Independents/Others as imperfectly reflecting the search of people for an alternative, including for a significant portion, a left alternative. So I agree with Ronan, in contradiction to Eoin O’Broin’s analysis, that the active movement against the water charges, in particular through major national protests, had a significant impact in the polls. They undermined the forces of the establishment and resulted in growth for Sinn Fein to some extent, but in particular Independents/Others, which includes the Anti-Austerity Alliance and the People Before Profit Alliance.

What happened since then? Well bluntly, there has been an absence of similar events to those of 11 October, 1 November, 10 December and 21 March – national days of protest called by Right2Water, involving all sections of the anti-water charges movement.

There have been significant protests other than these – the biggest being on 31 January, initially announced as a Right2Water protest on 10 December, then organised by Dublin Says No, then on 21 February, when a coalition of groups organised a protest of over 10,000 against the jailing of anti-water meter activists at very short notice, and on 18 April, when the Non-Payment Network organised a Bin Your Bills protest of around 15,000, despite the fact that the vast majority had still not received their bills.

However, none of those events had the same impact in public consciousness or in the media debate as the major national protests. So the first conclusion that flows from Ronan’s own analysis of the polls should be quite simple – when the active and very visible movement declined, as seen in the lack of national Right2Water demonstrations over the past few months, that caused the poll figures to decline likewise.

It may not be the case that the same level of mobilisation could be achieved now. In December, for example, many came out to protest with the explicit aim of forcing the government to abolish through protest. Now, it is clear that protest alone will not do it. But it is also clear that a call from Right2Water for a major national protest would get a bigger response than a call from any other forces, and would have a national impact on attitudes to both payment of the bills and politically.

Yet, this is not a conclusion that Ronan draws. Instead, he suggests that people looked at the alternatives and were not happy with them. His conclusion does not call for a further major national protest, but seems to point to the need for a ‘convincing’ political alternative. This is where the confirmation bias comes in.

Constructing an electoral “social majority” or building an active class movement?

Ronan is, I think, broadly supportive of a political project similar to that outlined by Rory Hearne in his article, “From Protest to Politics: How can we get a New Republic?”, and whose approach is shared by some leading forces in the trade unions involved in Right2Water.

This is a project which eschews the traditional left language of class, anti-capitalism and socialism and instead puts forward a somewhat nebulous strategic goal of “a sovereign, democratic, New Republic, New Ireland of equality and social justice”. It is informed by post-Marxist theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the experience of Podemos and in particular the notion of constructing a “social majority”, instead of building a class based movement. It is very focused on the elections, in particular the next elections, as opposed to orientated to both struggles outside of the Dail and using elections and elected positions to assist the building of those movements.

Of course, the upcoming elections are extremely important and could be used to great effect to strike a blow against the water charges and austerity, as well as taking significant step towards building a mass left force to challenge the austerity parties. However, the elections are implicitly presented in this conception, not as being a complement to the struggle in communities and workplaces, but as an alternative to it.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance in winning the by-election in Dublin South West in October provided an important example of how an election campaign could be waged in a way that is empowering of people and giving an orientation to struggle. We won precisely because we clearly called for mobilisation from below and non-payment. It also had an impact in undermining the water charges, with the result coming on the same day as the first major Right2Water protest. The same is true for the by-election when Joe Higgins nearly won in April 1996 and which shocked the Fine Gael/Labour government, adding additional political pressure to the crucial mass boycott, with the water charges then being abolished in December 1996.

The obvious conclusion from the polls, that what is needed is a more active movement on the streets and in communities against water charges, simply does not fit with the perspective held by Ronan, Rory and others. This is indicated by the fact that if you read Ronan’s piece in isolation, you could be forgiven for thinking that the anti-water charges movement is now effectively finished. You certainly wouldn’t realise that it is now in its most crucial phase – with bills dropping across the country and people making up their mind whether they pay or not.

This is a major omission, which is also evident in Rory’s piece – and reflects a strategically electoralist, rather than struggle-based approach. Another figure in the circle which is currently leading some of the discussions around the trade union pillar of Right2Water has gone much further than that – openly attacking and undermining non-payment in the national media. (See Noreen Murphy’s letter to the Irish Examiner,

Lead on non-payment and against austerity parties necessary                       

A struggle is currently being waged in many communities, of anti-water charges groups with different names and origins to build non-payment. The refusal of Irish Water or the government to reveal the current levels of payment should give us confidence at this stage. A high figure of non-payment may immediately cause a crisis for the government and can provoke a resurgence of people looking to the left. High levels of non-payment going into the next election will place major pressure on all of the parties on this issue and will create huge pressure for the next government to abolish.

A major national demonstration, even if not called on an explicitly non-payment basis, would have an impact on those who are making up their minds to pay or not. It would go some way to give confidence to people and counteract the scaremongering and bullying of the government. Even from the point of view of those who are focused largely on an electoral project, a major mobilisation on the streets would increase the political space available for the left. Pressure from below in the anti-water charges movement needs to be built to demand such a response from the leadership of Right2Water.

I think Ronan is correct to assume that opportunities do open up at particular times, and if not taken, can be lost. One such opportunity did open at the start of 2015, after December’s mobilisation and with the government in a period of crisis. It wasn’t an opportunity that just any grouping could take, but Right2Water, as an authoritative force which had organised the major national protests, certainly could have. If they had taken the lead, embracing non-payment, the 31 January protest, but also launching a political challenge against the establishment parties with mass participation of people at assemblies and meetings in working class communities this would have had a major impact. It could have consolidated the widespread anti-government, anti-austerity sentiment and given it further momentum.

Unfortunately, they stepped back from organising mass mobilisations, refused to organise mass non-payment and the unions involved in R2W initiated their political and electoral challenge in a limited way, with conferences made up of a relatively small number of invitees.

However, I don’t believe this opportunity has not been squandered irretrievably yet. The passing of the Marriage Equality Referendum by a healthy margin and in particular the overwhelming Yes votes in working class communities shows the potential still exists for further politicisation and radicalisation which can redevelop a trend away from the government and to the left. This potential can still and should be fully embraced by the forces leading Right2Water and the Right2Water trade union initiative.

Sinn Fein approach

Eoin O’Broin’s response to Ronan Burtenshaw’s blog is extremely revealing as to Sinn Fein’s approach to the initiative of the unions involved in R2W. While Eoin understates the impact of the anti-water charges movement on the opinion polls, he does correctly draw attention to the longer-term trends, which are overwhelmingly positive – indicating the historic decline of the traditional establishment parties.

However, his conclusions are contained in the following paragraphs about the Right2Water union initiative:

“The involvement of SIPTU in this dialogue is also welcome. Notwithstanding their support for Fine Gael and Labour austerity to date they need to be brought into any progressive alliance if it is to succeed.

“Indeed unpopular as it may be to admit, ultimately the Labour Party needs to be brought into the fold too. For a Left majority to exist it needs to have the participation of the social liberal constituency represented by the Labour Party.

“Meanwhile the decision of the Trotskyist left to try and drive a wedge into the Right2Water movement is as predictably as it is disappointing. They are neither interested nor capable of playing a part in building a left Government in Leinster House and are best left to their own devices.”

The reference to driving a wedge into the Right2Water movement is presumably a reference to the joint statements by the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People Before Profit Alliance and independent socialists (see here and here). These statements were a positive engagement with the process – in particular focused on three areas – calling for non-payment as part of a non-electoralist, struggle orientation; a call to rule out coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour; and a clear left programme, including commitment to debt repudiation and repeal of the 8th amendment.

His response to this call is clear – ditch the supposedly divisive ‘Trotskyist left’ in favour of the pro-austerity Labour Party. So much for a broad left project! But there is a logic to this. If Sinn Fein’s engagement with this process is to provide left cover for future coalition with forces of the establishment, including potentially Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, those critical voices of the left have to be forced out in advance.

A possible endpoint of the logic of trying to construct a “social majority” rather than basing yourself on an analysis rooted in the centrality of class is revealed here. If you have to construct a majority based on the current position of political parties in opinion polls, you conclude, as Eoin does, that “the Labour Party needs to be brought into the fold”. This appears to be not just a call for a future coalition government with Labour, but even for their involvement in the initiative of the union pillar of R2W.

Hated Labour Party

This is a party, let us remember, which was elected on the basis of breaking from “Frankfurt’s way”, sold out people’s hopes in them, and then happily implemented the austerity agenda along with Fine Gael. They combine it with a Thatcherite rhetoric, justifying their position by demonising the unemployed and describing themselves as a “party of work”.

The Labour Party historically was part of the left. It had an approach of trying to reform, rather than break from, capitalism and a pro-capitalist leadership, but it had a base amongst workers, in the trade union movement and in working class communities. That is clearly no longer the case. It has gone the way of PASOK in Greece, New Labour in Britain and PSOE in Spain – it has become just another party of the establishment – with a different name and a different tradition, but very little different in terms of policies.

The Labour Party is rightly hated across the country. The anger at Joan Burton displayed in Jobstown on 15 November  last year was symptomatic of how Labour is rightly viewed in working class communities  – as traitors to those they were elected to represent. Bringing Labour “into the fold” would be absolutely disastrous in terms of developing a genuine left movement – undermining its credibility and compromising it from the beginning. The same is true of the leadership of SIPTU who have been absolutely wedded to the Labour Party and have served as their defenders within the trade union movement. A positive orientation to rank and file members and activists of SIPTU who oppose the O’Connor leadership is warranted however.

The embracing of the Labour Party by someone who has a profile of being on the left of Sinn Fein is significant. It is an illustration that unfortunately Sinn Fein is prepared to be part of a government that will continue with austerity. This, of course, is in line with their approach in the North, where they have agreed to 20,000 job losses. It underlines the need for the project initiated by the trade unions to adopt a struggle-based and radical approach that in principle rules out implementing austerity.

Building a left majority in society

Instead of seeking to create a majority by looking at existing polls and seeing how to get to 51%, the job of the left is to create a left majority by winning support for left positions. That doesn’t have to mean just a repetition of old slogans – but engagement with people where they are at and trying to convince people of a left approach and policies.

Ruling out coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour is a central part of this. The left needs to be ambitious and inspiring – this means not settling for the old mistakes of coalition with the right, and betraying and disappointing people in order to get Ministerial positions. Instead, it means fighting for a real left government. A left government is not just one where people who describe themselves as left-wing are in government. It is one that implements a left programme – which reverses austerity measures, which pursues a strategy of debt repudiation, which stands up to bullying from the EU, which uses the wealth and resources of society for people’s needs rather than corporations’ profits and which tackles the oppression of women, migrants and LGBTQ people.

Creating that left majority in society requires two things – active struggle, which gives people a sense of their own power, and a left that puts forward a left programme and a radical alternative that inspires people. Winning the water charges battle is strategically central to the prospect of building a left that can fight for a real left government. A new left political initiative, if it is to be successful, must be rooted in and actively engaged in this struggle.

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Paul Murphy is Anti-Austerity Alliance TD and member of Socialist Party. For more see Anti-Austerity Alliance

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