United Left Alliance fails to reach full potential of its name

ANALYSIS: THE ONLY part of the United Left Alliance’s title that has been as good as its word since the general election in …

ANALYSIS:THE ONLY part of the United Left Alliance's title that has been as good as its word since the general election in February 2011 has been the "left" part.

In the great tradition of the Irish left, the ULA’s record of being an alliance, and being consistently “united”, has been far patchier.

The alliance only came into being two years ago, when a number of small left-wing parties including the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party as well as local campaign groups, came together with a view to contesting elections under a broad left-wing banner.

The rationale was obvious. Similar alliances had made significant political breakthroughs in half a dozen EU countries – Syriza in Greece (spectacularly); the left-wing bloc in Portugal; Die Link (The Left) in Germany; and the Red-Green alliance in Denmark.


It was the Socialist Party which proposed the alliance, initially approaching People Before Profit (another “elector-friendly” alliance of which the SWP was a member) and Séamus Healy’s political grouping, which has had strong political purchase in Tipperary for two decades now.

The experiment was a success and the ULA secured five seats in the general election. It agreed on a manifesto that opposed what it portrayed as the austerity agenda. At the time of its formation, there was – and there remains – consensus that it should gradually morph itself into a political party.

But it is the pace of that transition that has led to divisions. The SWP in particular has been keen to move towards party status as quickly as possible. Others are more cautious, the Socialist Party and Healy in particular.

But it is not just a row about timing. There are historical rivalries and tensions that have not been fully ironed-out. The SWP is a Trotskyist party and many of the smaller groupings emerged from the same ideological well, often from a split.

For its part, the Socialist Party, formed in 1996, grew out of Militant Left. Many of its leading figures like Joe Higgins were militants who were expelled from the Labour Party in 1989.

A flavour of the potential tensions within the alliance is illustrated in the following SWP internal communication from earlier this year: “The space that the ULA should occupy is now the realm of Sinn Féin spokespeople. The weakness of the ULA is a product of the sectarianism of the SP and the conservatism of Joan Collins and the Healy group . . .

“We suggested a common ULA strategy for the household campaign but this was shot down as the other components would rather not be tied to the SWP.”

The memo goes on to complain that the other groups are happy to marginalise the SWP.

The major point of contention at the moment is the ULA’s structure.

Each of the three groups – People Before Profit, the Socialist Party and Healy’s organisation – has two representatives on its eight-member steering group. The other two are representatives of Independents and individual members who are ULA members.

At present, the alliance decides on strategy and policies at steering-group level, and by consensus. The SWP wants that to change to a one-member-one-vote strategy for its estimated 1,000 members; in other words, to become a party quickly. That change is opposed by the SP, and possibly by Healy’s group.

“The ULA needs to be developed much more quickly,” says Richard Boyd Barrett of the SWP. “We need to see a more grassroots democracy established in the ULA where members and supporters of the ULA can get involved and drive it forward.

“It has been held up a bit by the ULA structure. The consensus-based system was very useful and necessary to get it off the ground. We need to move beyond that.”

But the Socialist Party is opposed to this approach. Its MEP Paul Murphy says: “If you turn the ULA into a party, the reality is that there is a strong danger of a negative dynamic between components and between various parties.”

Joe Higgins puts it more bluntly: “Just by naming something a party does not make it a party. We cannot wish something into existence that is simply not there. The circumstances are not there at present.”

The Socialist Party view is that if it happened now, there would be too much internal wrangling between it and the SWP.

It has argued that the ULA needs to attract a significant number of new members, radicalised by the current political situation, who would create the dynamic for the launch of a meaningful left-wing party. Neither say they will put a timeline on when that will happen . . . but it is not sometime soon.

Healy, for his part, is circumspect. He says the status at present is that of an alliance, stating he would prefer to wait until a little later into the autumn before making any further assessment.

Collins is in the People Before Profit Alliance but comes from a local activist background and is not a member of the SWP.

But she too is keen for a swift move to party status. “I want people to stand under the banner of a party for the local elections in 2014.

“We need an electoral alternative to cuts in the budget. There is a need for a principled opposition.”

When you parse the policies and views from each side, there is very little disagreement.

All elements are strong proponents of the anti-tax and charges campaigns, believe their lack of focus and coherence has given Sinn Féin an advantage and they have very similar views on the economy.

Higgins and Boyd Barrett also get on very well, despite a widespread (and wrong) perception that clashes between the two have held up progress of the ULA.

There still also remains an element of mutual distrust and suspicion between the groups that will take time to iron out.

Other differences are nuanced, sometimes to the point of invisibility, although Clare Daly’s resignation from the Socialist Party will inevitably lead to some tensions.

“There are still separate organisations and still some significant disagreements,” says Murphy.

“But things in the ULA are generally not bad,” is his upbeat assessment.

However, it would appear they are not generally good enough yet to herald a Syriza-like breakthrough.

Harry McGee is Political Correspondent