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Launch of United Left Alliance -- is this the way forward?
Sunday December 05, 2010 13:55 by Diarmuid Breatnach - personal capacity
The United Left Alliance was launched during the week on a socialist programme and planning to stand in the forthcoming elections. The meeting was well attended and addressed by speakers from People Before Profit, the Socialist Party and Unemployed & Workers' Action Group. The mood was upbeat and even euphoric. However, their charter does not mention imperialism and there were some prominent absences among their sponsors, including éirigí and Workers' Solidarity Movement. There was hardly a mention of work-place organisation and this essential work is not being focussed on by either the ULA or the 1% Network.
Despite snow, icy footpaths and some transport difficulties the United Left Alliance got a good attendance at its launch meeting in the Gresham Hotel on Monday (29th November). Approximately 350 gathered to hear speakers Richard Boyd Barrett (People Before Profit Alliance & Socialist Workers’ Party), Cnclr. Seamus Healy (South Tipperary Workers’ and Unemployed Action Group), Cian Prendiville (Socialist Party), Cnclr. Joan Collins (PBPA) and MEP Joe Higgins (Socialist Party). The Chair was Ailbhe Smyth (PBPA).
The audience included revolutionary and reformist socialists, along with some Republicans. A large part of the attendance were Trotskyist by ideology, members or supporters of either the Socialist Party or the Socialist Workers’ Party but also included many independents, i.e. activists who belong to no party.
The speeches of the main speakers predictably lambasted the current Irish Government coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party but also attacked the main parties currently in opposition and expected to form the next government. The Government, the audience were told, had squandered the wealth of the Celtic Tiger and then, when it collapsed through the greed of the speculators, builders and bankers, had bailed them out of public finances. Subsequently, they had agreed a loan from the IMF and others such as the EU and the British which was to be repaid again from public finances. These payments and repayments from public finances were to be funded through massive cuts in state expenditure on health, education and social programmes and employment, resulting in a further depressed economy, access to higher education restricted to the wealthier and a return to mass youth emigration. Of course all of this was no news to the left-wing audience and all of it had even been said by some financial pundits whose political ideas are far from revolutionary.
Speakers called for the putting of financial institutions and development land under “democratic public ownership” and to use their resources “for the benefit of people, not the profit of the few.” In addition they called for the taking of the Corrib gas field into public ownership and also called for a higher tax on corporations and on wealthy individuals. Other demands included full employment; reduced working weeks without loss of pay; reversing of previous cuts in health, education and social provision; the protection of the environment; full equality of opportunity; and building a “Real Left alternative in Ireland and in Europe.”
The speakers called for people to attend the demonstration about the budget on the evening of the 7th December and to generally organise in their communities, places of education and trade unions in order to oppose this Government and its likely replacement, Fine Gael and Labour, who had already indicated that they will implement the budget passed in the Dáil before them.
But the main purpose of the Left Alliance at this time, it was made clear, was to field a number of candidates to stand in the forthcoming elections, widely expected in January, not as before mainly with a view to using them for revolutionary propaganda, but with a real expectation that some of them would actually be elected. This was a distinct possibility, the audience was told, because Fianna Fáil and the Greens were likely to lose a huge amount of seats and that some of those could be taken by candidates of the Left Alliance.
The other purpose of the Left Alliance was stated by Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party as being to build “a mass worker’s party, a socialist party”. However, Richard Boyd Barrrett, speaking prior to Joe for People Before Profit but also well-known as a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, made no reference whatsoever to this objective.
Revolution was hinted at but never explicitly mentioned so the question of whether it was possible peacefully or whether armed action would be necessary because of capitalist resistance never came up.
As an Alliance of the Left, there were some striking absences from the sponsors of the meeting. Where were the Communist Party of Ireland or the Workers’ Party? Where was Sinn Féin? Where were the anarchists of the Workers’ Solidarity Movement or the socialist republicans of éirigí or of the Irish Republican Socialist Party? Indeed a question from the floor asked whether they had been invited.
Joe Higgins replied that the initial negotiations had been between his party and PBPA (or did he mean the SWP?) but that they would sit down and discuss with all who were prepared to sign up to the eight principles they had outlined earlier. Sinn Féin would not be eligible because they refused to rule out going into coalition with one of the right-wing parties and that was a requirement for joining the Alliance (point 2 of the introduction to the ULA’s charter http://worldwidesocialist.net/blog/2010/11/programme-of...land/).
The absence of the socialist republican éirigí from the ULA is easily explained, one would imagine (although their representative spoke at the street rally at the end of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ Dublin demonstration on the 27th). Nowhere in the charter of the ULA is there a mention of the occupation of a part of Ireland by British Imperialism, nor of its fostering of religious sectarianism and discrimination. Indeed there is no mention of imperialism whatsoever. This is a startling omission from any basic programme of the Left which years ago would have been impossible to contemplate. Of course, it is clear that on this question, the SWP and the SP could not have reached an agreed position other than in the most general terms – so they just side-stepped it. That may do for their two respective organisations but will hardly do for many others.
The absence of the anarchists of the WSM from the ULA is also easily explained by the concentration on parliamentary elections. Most anarchists do not favour taking part in such elections and even those who do would not put it high on their agenda of activities.
The absence of the others, the CPI, WP and the IRSP may have other explanations.
There were a number of other contributions from the floor which included the usual “I think this is a wonderful development” from supporters of the SP and the SWP (but without the usual swipes at one another) as well as from some others and a few that were mainly about self-promotion by the contributors.
The only contribution that stood out apart from the one enquiring about the absent groups was an interesting question about whether raising corporation tax would chase away foreign investment? The Left in Ireland is usually strong on rhetoric about social justice and polemics but not on economic analysis and explanation of alternatives. However, the question was answered from the floor and from the platform.
Joe Higgins, who had been assigned the role of “sweeper” for the questions and contributions, pointed out the huge profits made by a number of corporations and that, if the taxation rate were raised, they would still be making huge profits, just taking a cut.
Left parties in parliamentary elections usually have a trade union base – that gives them their mandate and serves them as an election machine. The ULA is essentially an electoral platform which does not have a trade union base. And the question of the trade union movement, is the most crucial question of all at the current time. It is referred to only in passing in the ULA’s charter and was barely mentioned once or twice in the speeches at the meeting.
Sadly, it is not being addressed either by that other Left alliance currently in existence: the 1% Network. This one was initiated by éirigí and by the WSM, along with some smaller groups and collectives, some months back. The activities of this network are mostly of a socialist and anti-capitalist propaganda nature but are not around workplace organisation. http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=143661105666744
In fact, neither the consituent groups of the 1% Network nor those of the ULA are undertaking workplace organisation in any serious way.
Why is it that the Government and the employers have been able to freeze recruitment and close hospitals in the Health Service, privatise services, pay the bond-holders from public funds and propose to cut employment in public services? The reason is because the trade unions in Ireland are largely supine, class-collaborative organisations which do not fulfill even their supposed primary functions, the elimination of competition among workers and the defence and advancement of workers’ conditions. Their leaders have become soft and distanced from the rank and file. The union structures do not facilitate workers’ participation.
Nothing new in that picture, perhaps. But when the ICTU promised a general strike to their many, many thousands of members who marched in February only to renege on their promise, why were they able to get away with it without serious challenge? Why were they able to foist the Croke Park Agreement on a trade union membership that mostly disagreed with with all concrete decisions of that Agreement? The answer is clear: because there is no strong grassroots workers’ movement (not to mention a Left alternative trade union movement) in the existing Irish trade union movement.
The absence of such a movement is largely a result of two factors:
• The failure of revolutionary socialists (whether Trotskyist, Anarchist or Communist) to seriously address this absence
• The inability of left-Republicans to see this task as an important part of revolutionary work
In those circumstances, it is hard to see the frequent calls of the SWP and the SP and others for a General Strike as more than wishful thinking or radical posturing.
And without building such a movement, capable of bringing about a general strike or series of strikes, of mobilising thousands of workers to take more advanced steps, to learn through a higher level of organisation and struggle, the attacks of capital cannot be successfully resisted, nor can be achieved the revolution that so many on the Left aspire to and see as providing the possibility of a socialist organisation of society.
The meeting ended on a positive note and even some euphoria. However, the reality is that a small number of socialists in a capitalist Dáil can achieve little. They cannot pass legislation of their own nor block that of others (except by voting with the opposition). They cannot, by their own principles, force concessions from a government with a small majority by supporting it in crucial votes. Even their speeches and statements will receive only such coverage as the capitalist media accords them.
The question is not whether or not to vote for ULA candidates, should they stand one in our constituency. The question is whether the main activities of the ULA (or for that matter of the 1% Network) really represent the way out of the hole in which we find ourselves. It is hard to see how the answer to that question could be answered in the positive.