Far left’s high profile contrasts sharply with modest electoral reach
Factionalism has long relegated fractious hard left to margins of Irish politics
Solidarity/People Before Profit TDs Mick Barry, Bríd Smith, Paul Murphy and Gino Kenny.
The alternative left, like all populist movements, relies on the contrivance of perpetual conflict between those they seek to portray as “ordinary citizens” and “the elites”. Appreciating their need to do so helps one understand why they get so exercised about what is said about them in publications such as this newspaper.
The footprint of The Irish Times in the sectors of the electorate in which the alternative left seeks to thrive must be relatively small yet their spokespersons spend much of their time and efforts on media and social media obsessing about and criticising how they are covered here. At one level it reveals the middle-class reading habits and origins of some of their most prominent leaders. At a broader level, however, their focus and attack on what, like Donald Trump, they characterise as “mainstream media” enables them to talk up the sense of perpetual struggle they wish to generate.
Another central need they have is to convey an inflated sense of their political relevance. They are political minnows in the Irish party system so they lay claim to being part of larger international movements or trends. This too is delusional. They have not reached in Ireland the levels of left-wing movements in other countries and there is little evidence they will come anything close to those in coming years.
Tracking the electoral performance of the alternative or protest left in Irish elections is not easy because of its tendency towards factionalism. The grouping now known, after another recent name change, as Solidarity-People Before Profit currently has six TDs. Solidarity was previously the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) and before that the Socialist Party. People Before Profit (PBP) was formerly the Socialist Workers’ Movement.
Their history is one of an inability to work with others and of deep personality conflicts between themselves
While Ireland is also experiencing a shrinking of the central ground, there is no evidence that the alternative left will be a major beneficiary. Indeed recent evidence is to the contrary. Notwithstanding the years of intense austerity, the collapse of the Labour Party and the opportunity presented by the mass anti-water charges protests, the alternative left made surprisingly little ground in the 2016 election. It was Sinn Féin, which is increasingly mainstreaming, and Independents from the centre or right who benefited most.
AAA-PBP did increase its TDs and there were some spectacular advances in individual constituencies but overall they still got only 3.9 per cent of the vote and just six of the 158 seats in Dáil Éireann. Shane Ross’s Independent Alliance got more first preference votes. Indeed, the Healy-Rae brothers in Kerry got more first preferences than Paul Murphy’s AAA did countrywide.
In an excellent study published this week, Independents in Irish Party Democracy, UCC political scientist Liam Weeks speaks of our “conductive, personality-driven and localised political culture”. This has meant that Independents have been better positioned to benefit from the political disruption caused by the economic collapse than the far left parties.
The other way in which these fringe deputies seek to talk up their relevance and convey their sense of being part of a movement on the rise is by suggesting that they could be central to an alliance of left-wing parties to create a mass of deputies large enough to implement real change.
This too is a facade. Their history is one of an inability to work with others and of deep personality conflicts between themselves. The Socialist Party was born after Joe Higgins, Mick Barry and other leaders of the Militant Tendency were thrown out of the Labour Party where they had been destructive.
There was talk at Solidarity’s press conference last week about a desire to establish a broad left alliance. This echoed the United Left Alliance which the AAA, PBP and Séamus Healy’s Workers and Unemployed Action Group put together before the 2011 election. They won five seats in that election but became a very disunited left alliance shortly thereafter. Healy and his colleagues withdrew from the alliance in October 2012. The Socialist Party left in January 2013.
The latter then split when Clare Daly, long-time sidekick and heir apparent to Higgins, fell out with them. In March 2013 she, with Joan Collins, who split from PBP and others set up the United Left Alliance, which morphed with Mick Wallace and Tommy Broughan into a registered political party called Independents 4 Change, which contested the 2016 election.
Even if one adds the four Independent 4 Change TDs to the Solidarity/PBP numbers and the vote share of other left-wing Independents such as Catherine Connolly, Thomas Pringle and Maureen O’Sullivan, it amount to less than 10 per cent of the national vote. It is as likely to fall as rise whenever the next election comes.
Collectively they are a small, impressive and high-profile group of deputies but they have nothing approaching the basis for a political revolution anytime soon.