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#Elections2019: The long wait for the left is likely to continue

Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada and party leader Mary Lou McDonald at the count centre for Ireland South in Nemo Rangers, Cork. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

After a decade of austerity the volatility that has marked Irish politics since the economic crash shows no sign of abating. 

The local and European election results have confirmed that while Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael remain resilient, barely half the electorate now see them as worthy of their vote.

In that context there should theoretically be vast swathes of voters who are attracted to the politics of the left. 

And yet after Friday’s votes the left remains as far away from power in Ireland as it ever has been.

Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats, Solidarity/People Before Profit, the Greens, and even the newcomers Aontú all claim to be on the left in some shape or form. 

And there is a huge phalanx of independents who also claim the left-wing mantle. 

Chief among these are Clare Daly and Mick Wallace both of whom rather bizarrely see being in Brussels rather than Dublin as better serving their constituents.

Irish politics has long been riven with contradictions when it comes to assessing the performance and prospects of the so-called left. 

Splits are commonplace as can be seen from the birth of both the Social Democrats and Aontú. 

The ambitions of those who classify themselves as left-wing ranges from the overthrow of capitalism to tempering the excesses of the right.

Clare Daly canvassing before last week's European Elections
Clare Daly canvassing before last week's European Elections

For Sinn Féin, the national question has always come first while for the Greens it is the environment.

For decades those on the hard left have been calling for ordinary working people to rise up and revolt against the establishment. 

The phrase ‘ordinary working people’ was beloved of Joe Higgins who had a chequered electoral career, the highpoint of which was his election to the European parliament in 2009.

Yet just two years earlier he had lost his seat in Dublin West at the 2007 general election when he was seen off by the first-time Fine Gael candidate Leo Varadkar and the soft left standard bearer, Labour’s Joan Burton.

The radicals of the Solidarity/People Before Profit and various other offshoots over the years could never quite understand how the working classes continuously put their faith in and voted for Fianna Fáil.

When Bertie Ahern proclaimed in late 2004 that he was but one of three socialists in the Dáil, he was widely derided and denounced by the purists on the left. 

Yet he led three governments who spent massive amounts of public money on a variety of infrastructural projects, ramped up social welfare payments to previously unseen levels, and oversaw large-scale public sector wage increases.

These all sound like pretty left-wing ideals. The vast public spending engaged in by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition didn’t suit the left’s view of how you pay for increased prosperity which is namely to tax the rich and large corporations.

The end of the Ahern years that brought the country to the edge of the abyss and led to the State losing its economic sovereignty in late 2010 led to a Labour surge in early 2011 when the party gained its largest ever number of seats (37) and share of the vote (19.4%).

Labour’s decision to then enter government in a coalition with Fine Gael was an entirely rational thing to do. It had been out of power since 1997. 

Its leading lights were not getting any younger and were likely to have only one last shot at power. Perhaps most importantly the country needed saving.

That decision — while in the national interest — doomed the party to electoral irrelevancy for a generation. 

Unmercifully attacked on its left flank by the Socialist Party People Before Profit axis for implementing austerity, Labour was decimated in 2016 and Friday’s elections shows the gargantuan nature of the task to return to electoral respectability.

Gains in Cork City, Fingal, Louth, Waterford and Wicklow position the party to be in with a shout to regain seats at the next general election but there are no guarantees. 

The problem, however, remains the absolutely woeful first preference vote in the local elections of just 5.7% and the wipeout of all three of the party’s candidates in the European elections. 

The party is all but irrelevant west of the Shannon and now faces a huge threat from the Green party, particularly in Dublin.

The Social Democrats will be pleased with winning 2.3% of the first preference vote nationally and having 16 councillors elected. 

Gary Gannon’s excellent performance in the European election in Dublin where he received 5.6% of the vote and over 20,000 first preference is also heartening. 

Yet the sense remains that he is at loggerheads with the party’s leadership.

The party’s long-term prospects remain relatively bleak. Beyond its dual leaders Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, and perhaps Gannon in Dublin Central, it is doubtful if the party will win any more seats in the looming general election. 

Gary Gannon
Gary Gannon

And it is very difficult to sustain a party with few TDs as Democratic Left found out in the 1990s.

These elections have been sobering for the hard left of the Solidarity and People Before Profit. Their vote is down by more than 2% from the 2016 general election to less than 2%.

Their problem remains that they are essentially protesters with little interest in power or getting their ideological purity soiled by going into government.

Any voter, even those who might instinctively be left wing, with an interest in having an elected representative who might actually go into government and get something done will have to look elsewhere given that they refuse to engage in any compromise with the parties of capitalism.

Perhaps they are right given the history of what happened to the Labour party but believing in the overthrowal of capitalism is a fool’s paradise. 

It is also instructive that ever since Sinn Féin made clear that it wanted to be in power its vote has stalled.

The left is comfortable with the politics of protest. Labour’s travails in office, and that of the Greens before them, suggest that the left when in power will be punished by its electorate who by their very nature seem incapable of being satisfied. 

There is no evidence that any progressive alliance will be presented to the electorate before the next general election. 

The result is likely to be a continuation of the old maxim the left must wait. The question remains, until when? 

All the evidence suggests a very long wait indeed.

Gary Murphy is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University

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