There is now a meeting of minds between Trotskyist TD Paul Murphy and a once neo-Thatcherite Leo Varadkar. They embraced the green agenda with gusto within days of one another. Leo went to the UN to trumpet a ban on oil exploration. Never mind that we have never brought a barrel ashore, and nobody knows how to explore for gas without finding oil if it’s there.
On big issues, it’s the big picture that counts. That probably explains why the civil service was blindsided by Leo’s barnstorm in New York. They’ll catch up, however. If the Taoiseach was the stuff of grand gesture, Paul Murphy’s new group — it’s not a party — Rise is taking the systemic approach of eco-socialism. Essentially, if you take the science seriously, only fundamental change in our model of private ownership and production for profit will deliver on climate change.
It’s all late in the day for right and left alike. It is a backhanded compliment to the Greens and fear of the electoral consequences of their rise. They are sanguine, sensing that a gathering emphasis on climate platforms them more than it squeezes politically. Only a hard Brexit and sudden economic dislocation threatens to shunt the environment out of a short list of main concerns in the next election. Short-term survival always trumps long-term sustainability. That’s why we ate our store of seed potatoes.
Meanwhile, the Frankenstein of unsustainable lifestyles bears down politically, especially for younger voters. That fear for the planet’s fragility echoes the economic precariat they are trapped in. Climate change is as much a metaphor for their lives as an elemental planetary concern. For them, and this is truly a generational thing, nothing seems sure underfoot anymore.
That is pretty much the feeling too in Solidarity, which until last week was three TDs, who, with three others from People Before Profit, were and remain a Dáil alliance of six. Until Murphy’s démarche, the three Solidarity TDs were all members of the Socialist Party. Solidarity is a broader, though not much broader, banner overarching its core, which is the party. It has its roots in Militant Tendency which was a major force in the British Labour Party, and was a presence in Irish Labour too.
The mothership internationally is the Committee for a Workers’ International, an international association of Trotskyist political parties. Thence the obvious emphasis on changing patterns of ownership in eco-socialism.
It’s easy to be dismissive about endless splits on the left, and in fact it’s fun, because some characters lend themselves to caricature. But serious issues are at stake. From a Trotskyist perspective a fundamental question is whether Murphy is correct in tactically moving to a greater engagement with others such as Repeal the 8th, the Occupy movement, and radical environmental groups. Others would say he is mistakenly basing his view on a perspective from a low point in the movement, and that his analysis is mistaken.
The Great Recession and the euro crisis that followed shook apparently immutable economic and political structures badly. Greece was the political flashpoint, and the 2015 referendum there saw the proposed monetary bailout rejected by 61% to 39% of voters.
It was a moment of crisis destined to see fundamental change ignited, but it quickly receded, leaving many of those who rode on Syriza’s coattails, including Murphy, deeply disappointed. At home, the water charges ignited protest politics on a scale previously unseen. They too have faded, though not before delivering a major increase in Sinn Féin and left Dáil representation.
In my view, Murphy’s byelection win in Dublin South West in 2014 was not just the decisive moment in ending water charges, it ended the impetus for reform and recovery begun in 2011. In 2015, on the Friday night before Budget 2016, Public Expenditure minister Brendan Howlin fundamentally changed tack and found €1.5bn to fund supplementary estimates, to raise the floor on budget day, so that the ceiling could be raised further for an election year. It did Labour no good, and there are only dotted lines between Murphy and these events, but that byelection was a catalyst that caused change.
It is change, however, that is nearing the end of its own momentum. Murphy is now repositioning, albeit on the basis of creative ambiguity about relations with Sinn Féin especially, and his relationship with the system he is committed to uprooting. From the Marxist perspective from which he seeks to explain his stance, he may lack perspective. He mistook hope for events in Greece and elsewhere for faith in the eventual outcome of a crisis or crises that must eventually come.
But in putting faith in existing left structures, that are inherently weak, he risks compromising the eventual outcome his former party exists to achieve. They believe, and it’s easy to see why, that a fundamental overturn of the existing system can only be based on fresh forces.
Murphy would contend that there is a difference between what is commonly called a United Front and sharing in selected actions. For Rise, this approach would be a win-win. It is more action on the ground when successful and it delineates the limits others are prepared to adopt. The Socialist Party, unlike People Before Profit, rejected Right2Change as a common platform at the last election. Sinn Féin wanted to channel that force into seats with which it could barter its way into government, alongside a larger establishment party.
Right2Change simply decanted left votes, into a right government. For Murphy, a commitment not to coalesce with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil is a necessary benchmark of left solidarity. If the move-on is subtle, the line of argument is clearer. What was unthinkable has been discussed.
In politics, cutting across ideology is the requirement to get elected. Neither of the two Solidarity councillors, who are also Socialist Party members in his constituency, have departed with Murphy. Reportedly fewer than 10 party members have either.
He was nominated by that party to replace Joe Higgins in the European Parliament. After being unsuccessful in defending that seat in 2014, he was nominated for the by-election caused by the election as an MEP of Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes. He was his party’s Dauphin and has now deserted. Murphy has a real chance of re-election in a five-seat constituency. But he needs a machine as well as ideas.
And Solidarity, and the Socialist Party within it, have a fundamental decision to make before the next election. This is their seat as much as his. It’s the cumulative work of 20 years. It’s nice that the separation now is amicable. But if there is a divorce, and an election effectively requires the sale of the family home, push must come to shove.
Murphy now needs to keep intact electorally a base which he no longer owns. As he says, it’s all about change in the model of ownership.