Ireland: Dublin West by-election – Labour wins but now the coalition must be broken!

Last Thursday’s by election in Dublin West came down to a three horse race between Councillor Patrick Nulty of Labour who won and Councillor Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party who came third, while Fianna Fáil (FF) squeezed into second place after a tie for second and third place – on the basis that they had more first preference votes.

Patrick NultyPatrick Nulty This is the first time since 1982 that a government party have won a by election for a Dáil seat. On the same day, Michael D Higgins a veteran Labour figure won the election for President of Ireland. Labour is still polling well, despite the fact that they are in coalition with Fine Gael, and despite the fact that they are responsible for implementing the austerity measures alongside their coalition partners. If Labour were to break with the coalition and were to fight on a clear socialist programme of opposition to the austerity it is entirely possible that they could win a majority or form a Labour and Left Government.

Both Fine Gael and Labour lost a certain percentage of votes in the by election, which illustrates that despite the assertion that the government was enjoying a honeymoon period, the general political and economic conditions are undermining their support. But as the table below demonstrates, Fine Gael lost almost 3 times as many votes as Labour.


General Election February 2011

Total First Preference Votes %

By Election October 2011

First Preference Votes %

% Change





Fianna Fáil




Socialist Party




Fine Gael




Sinn Féin



+ 2.8

Green Party








Also significant is the pattern of transfers. Labour gained almost three times as many transfers from the SP than were received by FF and Labour also

Round 5 transfers from the 3rd Place Socialist Party candidate to Labour and FG

46.7% second preference SP to Labour

17.4% second preference SP to FG

Round 4 transfers from the 4th Place Fine Gael candidate to Labour, FG and the SP

47.8% second preference  FG to Labour

19.4% second preference  FF to FG

8.5% second preference  FG to SP

FF made a certain comeback, but that was fairly inevitable given how far they had fallen in February. Labour lost some votes, but performed very well in the transfers.

It is evident that there was also a battle on the left between Patrick Nulty and Ruth Coppinger. Both candidates identify as socialists, with Nulty having lead the opposition to Labour going into coalition with Fine Gael, while Coppinger sees Labour as a bourgeois party that simply needs to be replaced by a new party.

According to the Socialist Party, Patrick Nulty will be a prisoner on the Labour back benches, while according to Labour adding one more TD to the ULA (United Left Alliance) group of five TD’s would not have made a huge difference either.

In terms of their programme, unfortunately, neither Patrick Nulty nor Ruth Coppinger was calling for Labour to break the coalition with Fine Gael. While it’s clear where Patrick Nulty stands on this, as he led the opposition to Coalition at the Special Labour Party Conference in March, the fact that he was silent on the matter during the election campaign is very significant. Certainly Patrick Nulty will come under enormous pressure in the Dáil to toe the line and stick to party discipline.

It was also very noticeable that the Socialist Party stayed quiet on the issue of Labour’s involvement in the coalition. This is worthy of some consideration.

The ULA performed well in February’s General Election winning five seats, but Labour doubled its vote and had some 37 TD’s elected. The vast majority of people who voted Labour – including in Dublin West – are workers. The Labour Party, in spite of its policies, continues in large measure to be seen as the traditional party of the Irish working class. The fact that almost half of the SP’s second preference votes went to Labour against 17.4% which went to FF illustrates that Labour still has important roots in the working class.

Meanwhile, the ULA is reliant on a handful of well known individuals. Ruth Coppinger did well in this election, although she is a sitting councillor, she was heavily supported on the doorstep by Joe Higgins, who has a very large personal vote. Certainly the SP vote was significant, especially considering that Michael D. Higgins walked the Presidential Election on the same day.

However, we would argue that if the task of the United Left Alliance and the Socialist Party is genuinely to create a new mass workers’ party in Ireland, then the issue of the Labour Party is really not one that can be ignored. In truth the real task of Marxists on either side of the border and internationally is to win the mass of workers to the programme of the Socialist revolution. To do this, however, it is first necessary to break the hold of reformism over the working class. That means fighting to replace the reformist leadership of the Trade Unions and also of the Labour Party.

The next period is likely to see Labour coming under increasing pressure as they attempt to impose more austerity. As we explained recently:

“At Labour’s Special Conference on March 6th, which ratified the decision to enter Government as the junior partner to Fine Gael, much was made of the role that Labour would play in moderating the political programme of Fine Gael and in defending the most disadvantaged in society. The argument used against the left; who argued that Labour should lead a principled opposition to Fine Gael, was that Labour could not wait until 2016, but must make a difference now.

“The problem with that argument however, is that unless the Labour leadership were to base themselves upon a clear intransigent socialist programme which posed an alternative to capitalism the Labour leaders would be trapped by the crisis in the economy and the strictures and impositions of the Troika. Coalition with Fine Gael of course would have been impossible. The only correct strategy would have been to fight for a majority of Labour and the left.

“What’s left instead is “reformism without reforms”, with Labour playing second fiddle to Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan, but taking the responsibility for cuts and attacks on working people and the most vulnerable people in society, through their “control” of key government jobs. First and foremost in this are of course Brendan Howlin, Public Expenditure Minister and Joan Burton Social Protection Minister.

“Far from defending the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society, the two ministers are taking the lead in what is a vicious assault on precisely the people least able to afford them.” (Fightback: Joan Burton attacks unemployed youth 18/7/2011)

Labour has fared badly in coalitions in the past, collapsing to its lowest point in 1987 after a five year coalition with FG. The objective conditions today are far worse than in the 1980’s. In the 1980’s, however, sections of Labour’s ranks moved sharply to the left in opposition to the coalition.

It is not sufficient to merely write off the Labour Party as another bourgeois party. What is necessary is a political struggle to break the coalition and to fight for a majority Labour and Left Government. However, that line is out of the question if you consider, as do the SP, that Labour is just another bourgeois party that can be ignored. In the past when the current leadership of the Socialist Party were, like ourselves, part of the Militant Tendency, Joe Higgins and others did fight for Labour to break the coalition. The perspective that they held at the time was for a big development of Labour once the mass of workers moved and a swing to the left if it went into opposition. As Joe Higgins and Ted Gannon wrote in the 100th issue of the Irish Militant in 1982:

“Labour must now move to reject the coalition strategy. In the Dail they should put forward their own nominee for Taoiseach on the Party’s socialist policies of nationalisation of the banks and major industry and ask for support from those T.D.s who support these policies. They should vote against both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s nominations for Taoiseach.

“It is clear that the members of the Labour Party and the affiliated trade unions are now more opposed to coalition than ever before. This is a major step forward. There must be no move by left-wing Party members to leave the Party. Neither should there be any move by trade unions to disaffiliate.

“The task posed is to step up the struggle in the Party to ensure that it is won back to the ideas of its founders James Connolly and Jim Larkin. The opportunity for success in this is now greater than it has been for many years.”

This article was written just after the 1982 General Election when a new coalition government had just been formed after Labour had been in Coalition with Fine Gael on two previous occasions, 1973–77 and 1981-82. Opposition had been building in the party for some time. We would argue that this article is fundamentally correct. However, now the position of the Socialist Party leaders is 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

In most of the countries in Europe there is more than one major workers’ party; usually one from the Social Democratic tradition and a Communist Party. In Ireland Labour is relatively small, while there are many left groups, including the Communist Party, the SP, SWP and other smaller groups, as well as the Left Republicans, such as The Workers Party, éirígí and the IRSP. It is quite likely that under conditions where the economy is in crisis and Labour is in coalition delivering austerity that the left could grow.

However, that is far from being an automatic process. It would require a dialogue with Labour workers and a friendly approach. The Left would need to counterpose the ideas of Marxism to those of reformism and win the confidence of workers.

When shortly after the Russian Revolution Lenin and Trotsky argued for the young new Communist Parties to enter into a United Front with the Social Democratic parties, it was to find a route to the working class and to fight for Marxist ideas. Their advice was to patiently explain their ideas.

In a later example in Wales in 1945, the Revolutionary Communist Party – the precursor of the Militant Tendency – stood a candidate against Labour when Labour was in coalition with the Tories in a national government during the World War. They called for Labour to break with the coalition and to fight for socialist policies. The RCP argued clearly for their own revolutionary ideas and for a vote for the RCP, but they also called for a Labour vote in every constituency where they weren’t standing and for Labour to adopt a socialist programme.

In the Irish electoral system that same general position can be summed up as calling for a second preference vote for Labour and for them to break the coalition and fight for socialist policies. They could even have called for a vote for the ULA and made an appeal to Patrick Nulty to fight for Labour to break the Coalition. The SP have expressly opposed giving Labour the second preference vote, while the SWP the other major player in the ULA have taken a better position. The SP position effectively builds a brick wall between themselves and Labour voters, when what is required is a dialogue.

The other key element, but the most important is the question of the ideas of the organisation. The programme of the SP in this election was a watered down version of the programme of Militant in the past – when, that is, the comrades were actually inside the Labour Party fighting against coalition and in favour of socialist policies. A Socialist alternative needs to be clear and unequivocal.

Ruth Coppinger’s election manifesto called for Democratic Public Control of the Banks and for a Socialist Ireland. But what type of democratic control of the banks? In the past Militant argued for Democratic Workers’Control of the Banks and big industry, also for a Socialist United Ireland. These are important points. In the same edition of Militant from March 1982 that we quoted earlier, John Throne called for Labour to fight for its founding aims and objectives, that is “a 32 county Socialist Workers’ Republic”. The present SP line is far less clear than this and does not clearly identify how much of the country the demand for a socialist Ireland actually applies to. Is the SP still in favour of a 32 county Socialist Workers’ Republic of Ireland?

Ruth also called for an “economic bailout that would help ordinary people in Ireland and throughout Europe”. Who would provide an economic bailout for ordinary people? Capitalism is in crisis. The only guarantee for working people is that capitalism means more austerity. Without a complete break with capitalism there is no prospect for an end to austerity for the foreseeable future. In the past Militant argued for a massive investment in a huge scheme of public works that would mop up unemployment and get the economy moving again, but it also argued that in and of itself this would be insufficient without a socialist plan of production. There is no prospect of “an economic bailout that would help ordinary people” on the basis of capitalism.

Ruth’s manifesto calls for a 1% increase in corporation tax and for an end to tax exemptions as well as a 10% wealth tax. While these are left reformist policies, in reality they don’t challenge capitalism. They are essentially reformist demands that most middle of the road Labour Party members would support.

Meanwhile over the next few years it is likely that pressure will grow within the Labour Party and the trade unions to break with the coalition. Under those conditions it is likely that the left will begin to re-emerge within the Party.

The by-election on Thursday was very significant in demonstrating that there is big potential for the left in Ireland – both in terms of the Labour vote and the vote to its left. The crisis of capitalism is creating the conditions where all classes and all political tendencies will be put to the test. The key demand for the left in Ireland must be for Labour to break the coalition and fight for a Labour and Left Government with a Socialist Programme.