9 June 2005 Edition
What is political strength? BY VINCENT WOOD
The recent debate on Coalition options that have manifested in the pages of An Phoblacht have focused on the working out of potential electoral strength and its possible impact on our struggle.
This is an intelligent debate conducted from a left perspective and is therefore particularly welcome. However, I would be worried that the debate has created the premature expectation that we may be in a position where such an option is likely in the short term. By that, I don't mean that numbers won't necessarily stack up or that we won't be asked. It is that I don't believe that we are ready to be a prominent voice in any possible coalition yet. The nature of the debate so far also gives undue credence, in my opinion, to the notion that electoral strength equates to political strength.
To understand the nature of political strength is to understand that there are different strands of power, institutions and individuals who exercise political influence or strength. Vested interests come in many shapes and sizes and the status quo suits some powerful and entrenched people. Sometimes the interests of these people converge and some work on the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
When strategising on how best to build political strength, we have to factor in how we deal with the sum total of the political and economic actors in the field and not solely the other political parties. The point is that having 20 or 30 TDs and the majority (nationalist) position in the Six Counties of itself may not move us one iota closer to national liberation, whatever about socialism, if significant sections of the media, Garda/PSNI, civil servants, Institute of Directors and yes, trade unions, as well as the political elite, continue to set their face against it.
Therefore, the daunting, but necessary task we should set ourselves is to go above, around and under the entrenched and mostly hostile establishment, forge alliances and begin the process of winning hearts and minds towards progressive and revolutionary ideas.
Jim McVeigh, in his recent article, is right to point out that we need to dialogue with the grass roots of the left. For let's not make any bones about it, it must be the left that we work with. This will entail a process of engagement and yes, it will take time, possibly years, to break down prejudice and circumvent the vested interest of the trade union/Labour Party leaderships.
We need to ensure that we create the best possible opportunity to deliver on both national liberation and revolutionary social and political change. Dissolution of either will sell the people of Ireland, Europe and beyond short.
There is an understandable fear that arguments that break consensus are open to ridicule by the establishment parties and their friends in significant sections of the national media. But it is clear to me that the small number of vociferous political luminaries and their media fellow travellers overestimate their influence on the greater number of people. However much these people try to present a Joe Higgins, George Galloway, Tony Benn or Gerry Adams as marginalised lone voices, there is public empathy and understanding of the anti-establishment positions taken.
Many people are actually crying out for public investment at a greater level and greater commitment to plan for social inclusion. In other words, socialism (though that is not the terminology that is finding currency out there, but sin scéal eile). The fact remains many people are up for it.
The translation of this understanding into electoral support presents a challenge and we should, of course, continue to develop the party in this respect, but this, like so much of what we need to do, may take some time. Better that it does take more time than risk losing sight of idealism or principle.
Making a short-term tactical decision to coalesce with Fianna Fail, for example, would be seen by the Irish people as unprincipled and as support for the status quo, whichever way we try to suggest otherwise. Any such move at this stage would entail some acceptance of a system that is inherently failing the people. There is no room for growth there. It's a crowded field.
There is no political leadership on this island that currently measures up in terms of the absolute need to baulk the system and say what needs to be said about the erosion of the quality of life of the citizens of Ireland/Europe/the World and who are willing to break with the neo-liberal model. Some people argue that dealing in this paradigm is accepting Realpolitik. But if there is something rotten with that political reality, should we lend it credence or work for real change?
There is no way that neo-liberalism will or can deliver on equality. Michael McDowell summed it up succinctly when he stated that inequality was a good thing. Capitalism collapses without inequality.
As a measure of how far back basic advances are undermined by the right, look how the most rudimentary tenets of social democracy are under attack. The recent voting down of the EU Constitution by the French people has been almost universally reported by commentators and political parties here as a peculiar anomaly, where people defiantly and stupidly stood up for a 35-hour week and some understanding of society, rather than economy, as if this is some form of ancient madness.
Strong opposition by a party with a profile like ours to the neo-liberal consensus, which would certainly entail staying away from government with active proponents of it, could offer a significant platform for real opposition. There is a strong sense of the social out there and an understanding that this untrammeled capitalist project is negatively impacting on the quality of life of many and is positively condemning others to perpetual misery. We need to work on how to connect with all of that. The public airing of honest and decent political ideas in that context would have a significant impact.
If one has a platform, and we do, then we are obliged to use it to present an opposing view to the current consensus of the political elite. No doubt some would argue that this represents a view that could be seen as marginal and outside of the main body politic. It is my view that the 'marginalised' (ie the honest and decent) view needs to gain momentum and needs to be championed.
Picture a scenario where Sinn Féin holds the balance of power in Leinster House and all eyes are on us. The potential that would create for an entirely different (dare I say it, revolutionary) political discourse would then open up.
There has never been a more important time to present a radical alternative vision for the world. Much of the gains made for working people during the 20th Century and taken for granted by our generation are under attack by the Thatcherite policies championed by most political parties under the cover of what passes for the political norm or what is presented as the need to practice 'realpolitik'. There is a need for real leadership here.
A political arrangement after a General Election that may or may not bring the delivery of the Good Friday Agreement to fruition in of itself does not represent maximising the potential that exists in exerting the leverage of political strength.
Putting progressive revolutionary political ideas into the public domain, forging alliances with others who are committed to such change and empowering ordinary people must be central to the process of building political strength. If this makes for a slower, but sounder, delivery of the Socialist Republic that we are committed to, then so be it.