Right increases votes in Irish general election - A recipe for future crisis

In spite of its social and economic policies – and the corruption scandals - the ruling Fianna Fáil party held its ground in the recent Irish elections. This can be understood on the basis of the prolonged economic boom and the lack of a credible genuine left alternative.

The election of May 24th in the Republic of Ireland produced an overall increase of votes for the right and a decline for the left. The ruling party, Fianna Fáil, is now likely to form a coalition government with the Progressive Democrats (PD) and the five independent TDs, although they do not rule out a coalition with the Greens to achieve the 83 TDs they need.

Some Labour Party TDs have come forward and criticised the pre-election pact between the LP and the right-wing Fine Gael (FG) as the reason for this increase in votes for the right-wing parties. Another feature of this election was that the bigger parties squeezed out the smaller ones and also the independent candidates, as the table below shows. Socialist Party TD, Joe Higgins, also lost his seat in West Dublin.

Seat in the Dáil 2007 2002
Fianna Fáil (FF) 78 80
Fine Gael (FG) 51 31
Progressive Democrats (PD) 2 8
Labour Party (LP) 20 21
Green Party (GP) 6 6
Sinn Féin (SF) 4 5
Independents 5 10

Most candidates and commentators, from the right to the left, including Labour Party representatives, attribute the success of FF to the continuing good performance of the Irish economy in macroeconomic terms. They say that the majority of voters did not want to put the economy at risk by voting for the alternative represented by FG and the LP. Only FG experienced any substantial electoral growth. As Labour Party leaders critical towards the LP/FG pact have indeed hinted, FG was able to capitalise on the discontent against the FF/PD government because people couldn't see any important differences between the two parties. So, many voted for the bigger party. The LP also provided some credibility for FG presenting it as a "progressive" party.

Before the election, the government had come under heavy attack in the media over the shortage of hospital beds, the privatisation of large parts of the health service, the lack of infrastructure such as decent roads, the high price of housing and the corruption scandals some of its representatives were involved in.

A pre-election survey had even predicted a change of government was about to take place. They also predicted that the Greens and Sinn Féin would make a breakthrough in this election. At the end, none of this happened. The question many are asking now is why is it that, in spite of the government's shortcomings in social policies and the corruption scandals, FF did not lose the election.

The End of the Economic Boom?

One key reason is that the economic boom the Republic of Ireland has experienced during the last ten years has made this country the fastest growing economy in the European Union and many believe that this may continue for a little while longer. The prediction of the government is that the national economy (GDP) will grow by 5.3 per cent this year and will keep growing at an annual average of more than 4 per cent until 2012, an opinion that the LP leaders also share (Irish Times, 2 June 2007).

In fact, a significant layer of working people still believes that they are doing reasonably well. However, this doesn't show the whole picture. Many couples have to work very hard and get into heavy debt to buy a house. For many, particularly those working in Dublin, two to four hours everyday in the car or on the bus has become normal to get to work. But they still believe that all this sacrifice is worth it and that it will pay off in the end.

The trade union leaders contribute to this feeling, as they believe that economic growth and profits are compatible with achieving decent working conditions and decent wages. It is this conviction that the market solves everything that led them to renew their social partnership between the unions and the bosses last year. This latest social partnership agreement only expires in 2016! But they have had to admit that in order to guarantee minimum living standards workers must "cooperate" in keeping the Irish economy competitive and profitable. That is, Irish workers are being forced to compete with workers of other countries in order to keep up profits. This will inevitably lead to the opposite of what is being promised: lower wages and worsening working conditions.

The economy in Ireland, however, is not as buoyant as they would like us to believe. According to the NESF (National Economic and Social Forum, February 2006) Ireland has become one of the most unequal societies of the OECD countries. The Combat Poverty agency recently revealed that 7 per cent of the population in Ireland live in absolute poverty, and 20 per cent in relative poverty (living on less than 60 per cent of the average wage). In their opinion, this is "obscenely high in a country as wealthy as Ireland." (Irish Times, 30 May 2007)

All this indicates that a significant layer of the population has not benefited at all from the "Celtic Tiger"; that another layer has to make very big sacrifices to achieve decent living standards; and that the real gains must be going only to a small minority.

On the other hand, the rosy picture of strong, albeit unequal, economic growth is very unclear. The global banking company Credit Suisse, for example, has forecast that the Irish economy will grow by only 3 per cent this year (2.3 percentage points less than the prediction of the government) as a result of increasing indebtedness in the household sector and high and rising interest rates. (Irish Times, 2 June 2007). The Central Statistics Office has also confirmed that the number of unemployed is now the highest for the last two and a half years. Thus the Irish economy, according to this non-government source, would be moving towards recession.

The Labour Party

The Labour Party did not discuss any of these issues during the election campaign. As the economy seems to be doing well for the moment, for its leaders it is only a matter of distributing the wealth a bit better. After meeting to discuss the election results, representatives of the Labour Party parliamentary group now express regret that Labour did not fight the campaign on economic issues rather than on public services alone (Irish Times, 31 May 2007).

At the same time, some Labour representatives are blaming the pre-election pact with the right wing party Fine Gael for the negative results. Wexford TD, Brenda Howlin (previous party leader and head of the wing that didn't support the "Alliance for Change Strategy" with FG in the last party conference), Dublin Central TD, Joe Costello, Dublin North East TD, Tommy Broughan, and Dublin North West TD, Roisin Shorthall were the first to express this view. The latter said: "we were always conscious of the fact that by us doing a deal with Fine Gael early on in the campaign, there was a possibility we would breathe new life into Fine Gael" (Irish Independent, 27 May 2007).

The last Labour Party conference approved the "Alliance for Change Strategy" with FG. But in David Leach's opinion (current Labour Party trustee and former national treasurer and national chairman of Labour Youth), the election result has vindicated those who oppose that strategy. For David Lynch that strategy was responsible for the extraordinary growth of FG (from 31 to 51 TDs). "We made Enda Kenny" (FG's party leader), he said (Irish Times, 31 May 2007).

However, his criticisms have gone even further. He has given credit to the polls indicating that people did not believe the assurances that the party leader, Pat Rabbitte, had given that the LP would not enter a coalition government with FF: "The public... were right. We and Pat were not to be trusted. We might have served in government with Fianna Fáil. Since we entered government with Fianna Fáil in 1992 it is simply not believable that we would not do so again in similar circumstances."

His proposal for Labour is "to concentrate solely on a positive and modern social democratic message different from that offered by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael." But then he adds: "We continuously mock the British New Labour project but it wins and we lose."

Therefore, for David Lynch it all comes down to "electoral strategies" to win seats rather than transforming society. That won't work either. To copy the New Labour project involves officially abandoning everything that the Labour Party stood for in Ireland when James Connolly founded it. It means accepting more privatisations, more people falling into poverty, and more inequality in society. How would such a programme differ from that of FF or FG?

As Labour TD Tommy Broughan and Labour Youth rightly argued after the election, Labour does best when it stands alone. Those were the words of James Connolly. But Connolly linked it to a programme on behalf of labour, not on behalf of capital. Such a programme cannot be based on mere electoral strategies simply aimed at gaining seats but on principles that lead to real change. The pact with FG was in fact the political equivalent of the economic pact between the unions and the bosses that the ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions), employers and government renewed last year.

What can be done?

In the near future the rosy picture of the economic boom could easily turn sour. Crisis in a market economy is inevitable. We must be prepared for a massive social radicalisation that will ensue from this crisis. Any movement that would develop out of this would find the present programme of the Labour Party far too weak. In actual fact in working class areas of Dublin, LP canvassers faced anger because the party was supporting the introduction of refuse bin charges. The party had opposed these charges before they were introduced, but later changed its position and now supports them.

Labour activists and representatives such as Eric Byrne (Dublin South Central Labour Candidate) stand out from the rest. He campaigned in his constituency for a decent living wage (a minimum of €11/h). Dublin South Central is a working class area in which many votes went to independent left candidates such as Joan Collins (Independent Socialist, who clearly had little chance of winning). Byrne didn't make it by just a couple of dozen of votes.

Although the Labour Party is dominated by a leadership that has abandoned socialism as its aim, and is heavily involved in making deals with bourgeois parties, not everyone in the party is in favour of bin charges or social partnership. The leaders of the Labour Party have not understood that if they want to make any inroads on the electoral front, the interests of the Irish working class must be put before any clever electoral strategies that cannot challenge the growing economic inequality in Ireland.

See also: