It is now three years since the Labour Conference voted to go into coalition with Fine Gael in Ireland. In the opinion of Gilmore, the Irish Labour Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Ireland has been to “hell and back”. While we - Fightback, the Irish Marxists - would agree that the capitalist crisis has put the Irish working class through hell, it is not at all clear that the process has ended.
Labour’s special conference this weekend was no doubt designed to boost the party in advance of European and local elections due in 3 months time. One thing that’s for sure is that Gilmore is in serious need of a boost. The latest Red C poll gives the party just 9% of the popular vote.
It is now three years since the Labour Conference voted to go into coalition with Fine Gael. In Gilmore’s opinion Ireland has been to “Hell and back”. While we would agree that the capitalist crisis has put the Irish working class through hell, it is not at all clear that the process has ended. A recent report indicated that Irish exports are now back to 2008 levels. But bear in mind that this isn’t because the exports are going up. It is in fact the result of a further fall, tied up with the continuing economic malaise in the Eurozone and generally depressed trade conditions. As Ireland exports something like 80% of what it produces then Gilmore’s claim is a bit disingenuous to say the least.
Labour leaders speeches of course tend to be short on analysis and long on sound bites. As the Irish Times reports:
The story of the past three years is a story of hard decisions taken, but it is also a story of roads not travelled. Of the cuts that could have been made, but were avoided. Of the jobs that could have been lost, but were saved. Of the homes that might have been lost, but were protected.
But it is also a story of welfare cuts, attacks on public sector workers, austerity and misery; to say nothing of three years of mass emigration. The scale of the austerity is enormous. The impact of Gilmore’s promise to defend working people at the time of the 2011 special conference has been marginal at best. Here’s what the British Economist magazine wrote at the time of the 8th Irish Austerity Budget in October 2013:
“Since 2008, successive Irish governments, in seven budgets, have taken €28 billion ($38 billion) out of the economy in spending cuts and tax rises, which amounts to 17% of today’s GDP. Mr Noonan, introducing the latest (eighth) austerity budget, has eased the burden of adjustment marginally, providing some relief to the public while throwing a political lifeline to Fine Gael’s junior partner. He took €600m less than the €3.1 billion in savings specified under the terms of a €67.5 billion bail-out programme that Ireland agreed with the European Union, IMF and European Central Bank in 2010.”
Without a determined struggle to fight for working people, based around a socialist programme the Labour leaders have tied themselves hand and foot to the programme of Fine Gael. That means accepting capitalist policies and selling workers short.
Labour’s historic vote in the 2011 General Election reflected the extent of the economic crisis and the hope that Labour would provide a genuine alternative. This was particularly the case in Dublin. In truth the Labour leadership have squandered that opportunity and now the party is suffering the consequences. As in the 1980’s the Labour ministers will get the blame for the austerity. The party stands to lose heavily in the next election.
The Irish Times reports further:
Mr Gilmore said Labour’s values are “openness, tolerance, fairness and freedom” and said its councillors and local election candidates will work to protect local services, and the “public space that we all share”.
For those workers made redundant during the crisis, the families whose welfare has been cut and the public sector workers on the end of the austerity these words will be of little comfort. The austerity may have given freedom for the capitalists, the bankers and the speculators to bail themselves out. But the freedom for many working people and the youth is merely the freedom to emigrate, to suffer poverty and insecurity.
James Connolly’s view of the values that Councillors should aspire to was somewhat different. Here is what he wrote in 1903;
The action taken upon the Local Government Act by the representatives of the trade unionists of Dublin is perhaps the most important step yet taken by the organised workers in Ireland ... We do not, however, labour under the belief that delegates so chosen will be socialists, or consciously in favour of socialist principles. On the contrary, we are quite prepared to find each and every one of these representatives solemnly repudiating the taint of socialism. But we do believe, and not only believe but know that every workingman elected to the Municipal Council of Dublin, if he be true to his class when elected, will find that every step he takes in the Council in furtherance of the interests of his class, must of necessity take the form of an application of socialist principles. The direct employment of labour by the municipality and consequent abolition of contracting, the rigid enforcement of sanitary laws, reductions of the hours of labour, increase of the wages of the lower grades of workers and reduction of the absurdly high salaries of superior officials, exceptional taxation of unlet property, in short, every measure for the betterment of the condition of the workers which our working class representatives in the Corporation could urge for adoption, has long since been adopted into the palliative programme of the socialists, and is, in greater or less degree, the result of socialist principles applied to the working of our civic life.
The austerity in Ireland is not going to go away easily. It is part of a much bigger crisis, a crisis of the whole capitalist system. There is no way back from hell on the basis of capitalist policies and neo liberal economics. Eamon Gilmore might have a get out of hell free pass, but for Irish workers the scenario is much like that of Sisyphus in the Greek myths condemned in Hades for eternity to push a huge boulder to the top of a hill only for it to roll back down again.
The key to combating the crisis and fighting for a genuine alternative lies in understanding the real dynamics of the capitalist economy and the system that rests upon it. Connolly understood that capitalism needs to be replaced, to be placed into the dustbin of history.
But there are no short cuts. The United Left Alliance foundered on sectarian squabbling and many of the best Labour lefts have now walked away from the Party in disgust at the austerity. There has never been a greater need for socialism and for a genuine Marxist Tendency in Ireland and for a political struggle to win the leadership of the working class.
An interesting point in Gilmore's speech talks about the role of the Social Democratic parties in Europe in fighting the extreme right. Ironically, this speech coincides with enormous demonstrations and rallies against the threat of a right wing coup in Venezuela. The scale of the demonstrations owes a great deal to the traditions of the Bolivarian revolution. The social programmes that were introduced under Hugo Chavez have made a significant difference to the Venezuelan workers and have given them the confidence to fight to defend what they have gained through struggle.
Meanwhile the contradictions within the coalition and the fear of an electoral rout may yet provoke an opposition within Labour, but it is most likely that the TD’s in particular will keep their heads down in the hope that the economy will improve. For the time being all that the Labour leaders can offer is more purgatory.