Kathy Sheridan runs rule over no surrender socialist Joe Higgins
This courteous, entertaining, doggedly ideological man is in retreat from public life
Joe Higgins: I joined Labour in 1974 and if they had taken the advice of the left – which was stay out of coalition with right-wing parties, Labour would have been in power, many decades – and now they’re facing meltdown. Photograph: The Irish Times
The venue is a suburban house on the edge of Blanchardstown village, headquarters of the Anti-Austerity Alliance’s campaign to keep the vote for Ruth Coppinger, in the Dublin West constituency carved out over decades by Joe Higgins.
We position ourselves in a messy junk room, crammed with election paraphernalia, while energetic young activists rush in and out, hauling out posters or bringing tea, which Higgins drinks while nibbling some kind of rations rustled from a plastic bag.
It is strange to see this courteous, entertaining, doggedly ideological man in retreat from public life to take backroom roles such as director of elections. He is not running again in the general election, but hopes to help his Socialist Party colleague Coppinger, who joined him in the Dáil in a byelection in Dublin West in 2014, retain her seat.
The word “stress” pops up often enough to suggest there might be reasons other than giving the “new, younger generation of socialists” their chance.
He will be 67 this year, he says. But age is relative. Bernie Sanders – a US presidential hopeful – is 74. Higgins says he is in good health. It seems odd to retreat just at a time when his lifelong labours are bearing fruit. The suspicion is that Joe Higgins feels it is time to smell the roses.Because labour it has surely been.
Asked how he plans to spend his unfamiliar free time, he says hopes to get to the cinema. “I used to love the cinema but that went by the wayside 30 years ago” – though he urges everyone to see The Big Short. He wants time to read, time to develop his love for the arts and music. He might travel – for pleasure as opposed to his global perambulations for the socialist movement – “but travelling is expensive . . .”
This man, whose party holds the fundamental principle of “a workers’ TD on a workers’ wage”, lives on €30,000 a year. This represents the after-tax income of the average industrial wage of €39,700. That leaves about €20,000 remaining from his Dáil salary, of which €2,500 – the legal limit – is contributed to the party. The rest of his fiscal space is “used for the movement”, he says, “funding and supporting different movements and causes”, such as a 5,000-strong march in Blanchardstown a couple of years ago.
Can the party afford to be without his waspish, witty Dáil performances?
“I never personalised my own public representation. What’s important is the movement and I would be part of the movement . . .”
Yet he was the one who made a particular effort to make an impact at Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil. “Obviously I was on my own in the Dáil – as far as the left were concerned – for two terms. And it was a difficult time in a way because it was the boom time and it seemed to be against the stream and you had to fight to carve out a political position in terms of ideas . . .”
Humour was a weapon to “undermine the arrogance and the self-importance of the establishment to make them look ridiculous”, he says, but there has to be a balance. “You have to be careful or you could become a court jester. I could have said many more, really amusing, things when I was in there but I didn’t, precisely because I don’t want people to remember my time in the Dáil for being a comedian.”
Themes that surface again and again include the relentless work of carving out a socialist identity in a conservative country, the stress of election campaigns for a young party with no so-called safe seats, the constant dismissals and “shut-down” of socialist argument by what he calls the financial and political elite as well as the media.
“For the left – for the serious left – you have to work 10 times harder, because you’re working against a stream of establishment opinion etc. So every campaign requires a huge amount of effort. Even to carve out a position for the radical left – as opposed to the Labour sell-outs, which have long ceased to be on the left – is quite an undertaking. That’s for the movement, not just for me.”
The task is rendered tougher by the fact that there is no country in the world with the model he proposes. “No. There is no country that would represent the way we want society.”
And anyway, the notion of single-country socialism is anathema to Trotskyists, who see nothing less than a global acceptance of their ideology as necessary to the accomplishment of their goals. This is their starting point and is why any attempt to argue about politics in the current context is doomed to failure.
The answer, of course, is that it would not have ended up in that corrupt system in the first place, if it had listened to the Socialists. “If you confine yourself to the logic of capitalism and the financial market system, then you do what the government did. It’s their system. We don’t accept their system.”
But if, say, he had been handed control of the levers of state at that time, what would he have done – given that there was no money?
“What should have been done was to say, the market system is a disaster; this is dictatorship by financial elites. And we would break fundamentally from that system. We would take the banks into public ownership, put them under democratic control, and on that basis, reorganise the economy”.
After some debate, he adds that they would have “put major work public work programmes into effect to create the services that are needed, put people to work . . . and reboot the economy – from a socialist point of view”.
What form would the public works have taken?
“For example, building social and affordable homes. Look at the situation in hospitals . . .”
But the trained, professional staff would have left, surely?
“The crisis in the A&Es goes back to the 1980s, they weren’t resourced. If you don’t have step-down facilities and care for elderly people etc, that’s going to further intensify it. Rational planning of resources rather than whatever suits the markets.”
But remember, there would have been no money to pay for these services.
“The first thing you do if you don’t have the money is you don’t pay the people who have no claim to your money whatsoever.”
“It’s not a question of going back to the caves. It’s a question of taking control of the key levers of society and reorganising on a fundamentally different basis.”
Does he see that the notion of “taking control of the key levels of society” might be rather scary for some?
No. It would be for the public good.
It is ideologically pure, so pure in a fallible human world that perhaps the leftist movement is always doomed for the split? Clare Daly, the outgoing TD for Dublin North who resigned from the Socialist Party in 2012, might be an example of that?
With all due respect, he says that is “the Citizen Smith version of things . . . There’s no point in setting out to change society if you just lapse under the pressure. Clare Daly decided to resign . . . and we regretted that”.
Is he suggesting she had a choice? “On the basis of principles that we have fought for all our lives and on the basis on which socialists in the Dáil should work”.
So in order to remain with the Socialist Party, she would have had to disown Mick Wallace?
The party would never interfere in personal friendships: “She took a political decision.”
Has Mick Wallace redeemed himself in the AAA’s view? He looks startled at the question. “Mick Wallace is not a left activist or political figure ... He’s not of the left. He’s a former developer who crashed in the property boom.”
It seems there are not enough words in the English language to describe Labour’s treachery. What would he say to Ruairí Quinn, who asserts the Higgins brand of socialism simply wants to snipe from the backbenches and never wanted the responsibility of power?
“Garbage. I joined Labour in 1974 and if they had taken the advice of the left – which was stay out of coalition with right-wing parties, stand clearly as an independent party of the left – and be part and parcel of the campaigns and the living reality of the lives of working people, Labour would have been in power, many decades – and now they’re facing meltdown.”
Would he have anything in common with Sinn Féin, then?
He balks at the question. “I don’t think they describe themselves as a socialist party,” he says after a lengthy pause. “Sinn Féin has created a basis here as an anti-austerity party and anti-establishment party. But there are big contradictions within what Sinn Féin is doing. Implementing Tory austerity in Northern Ireland and opposing it here.”
On top of that they cravenly accept the “crumbs” of the so-called fiscal space. “Don’t look at the cake. Or the €17 billion that Apple has saved by a tax arrangement with the Irish government . . .”
So no coalition with Sinn Féin, then. Has he a “red line” for any negotiations?
He abhors the term “red line” because it has been “discredited by coalitionism generally – but an essential component would mean public ownership of the financial institutions, the major banks”.
Is the AAA experiencing any of the abuse and venom being visited on many of the others?
None, and certainly no colourful language.
He appears sincere in urging activists to be civil, saying intimidatory behaviour would “not be tolerated” in the AAA.
“I don’t agree with that kind of behaviour [foul language, intimidation]. I would ask people to be rational and reasonable in their objections. Language and articulation is one of the great conquests of humanity. It took us millions of years to get here so we should try and use it to express our feeling rather than resorting to more primitive signals, so to speak.”
The Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit ambitions stretch to seven Dáil seats, enough to give them official party status and to have a voice at Leader’s Questions, for example. “We are working day and night towards it. It is a good possibility but elections are a difficult arena and you never know. There is a certain momentum towards the principled left and that’s one of the stories of this election.”
After that, he will remain as an adviser to the newbies, guiding them through the intricacies of Dáil and how to “use it to best effect”.
Then, finally, time for Joe Higgins, to smell the roses.