That is the gist of Vincent Browne’s provocative article in the Irish Times today. He sets out a challenge, a game-changing challenge, to transform the political landscape. In short, he calls for Labour – and by extension all progressives – to reject the dismal game being played out today; that Irish politics must always and inevitably be a choice between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. He calls for Labour and progressives to embark on a new course. And to do so together.
Now is the time. The old economics – the low-tax, low-spend model, the over-reliance on foreign capital, the deflationary policies, the shibboleths of tax-based investment and the assumed efficiency of private capital – are falling apart. Ireland has suffered not only its worst economic decline in modern times; it is one of the worst declines of any industrial state since the Great Depression.
As things stand, with Fianna Fail in a unique downward spiral, we are heading into a Fine Gael-led government. Regardless of the composition of that government, no matter how many progressives are in cabinet – it will be a government that reinforces the current game. Fianna Fail will become the government in waiting. Irish politics will be doomed to either those two parties leading subsequent governments. The current political divide will reassert itself. And progressives will continue to be relegated to a lower league, competing with other for promotion, but never strong enough to win the prize – leading a government.
That’s why Browne’s challenge is so welcome. It forces us to rethink in a radical and refreshing way. But where do we start this seemingly impossible task – of refiguring the political landscape so that progressives can form the majority in a Cabinet rather than be mere coalition add-ons.
First, in policy terms, we must mount a challenge to the economic and fiscal orthodoxy that dominates the debate. A good starting point is TASC’s open letter which calls for a radical redirection of economic policy:
- Rejection of deflationary policies based on public spending cuts
- A new investment stimulus strategy
- Substantial public intervention in the form infrastructural investment, a massive upgrading of public services, and a redistributionist strategy to fight poverty and low incomes
- New tax policies which focus on wealth and high income groups
If followed through in concrete terms, it has the capacity to radically transform our economic and fiscal approach.
However, we can immediately see a profound contradiction. For such an economic approach cannot be accommodated in the current game. Does anyone really believe that either a Fianna Fail or Fine Gael-led government can or will implement such policies? For to do so would constitute a defeat for their programmes – and parties that lead governments are, by definition, not defeated.
A radical economic realignment of economic policy requires a radical political realignment. This requires
- A rejection of the current divide between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael
- A sustained public campaign that neither can lead us out of this economic morass; that governments led by will be prisoners of the orthodoxy
Most of all, as Browne suggests, it requires a new alignment – a progressive alignment; one that will no doubt be led by Labour (the largest party) but one that is all embracing of progressive strands. This requires an immediate commencement of dialogue and common work.
When one suggests this, one immediately thinks about Labour, Sinn Fein, smaller left parties, Greens, etc. (to suggest that the Greens should not be part of a progressive alignment because of their involvement in the current government also suggests that Labour should not participate either because of their past involvements in right-wing led government). But a new progressive alignment must go beyond ‘parties’ and incorporate the wider political landscape – trade unionists, social and community activists, etc. This is a broad front, not one confined to the Dail.
How to proceed? First, declare your goal. For instance, there is a valid criticism that, if after the next election, Fine Gael has the highest number of seats but falls short of an overall majority, then it will be nearly impossible for Labour to refuse to support them. That’s true. After the election it is too late. That’s why it must be done now. We are not just campaigning for a new election and more seats; we are campaigning to overturn a decades-long divide that is inimical to our goals. That’s not a day-before or day-after election campaign – that is an everyday across-the-board initiative. The sooner we start, the sooner we will swell our ranks and make the goal more achievable
Is it likely that the ‘leadership’ of the various political and progressive interest groups will start that dialogue and work on issues of common concern? Put that way, not very. However, it is activists and members – regardless of their political, trade union or organisation labels – who can start this (many are doing this already). Waiting for action from the top is, in many instances, a recipe for endless waiting. The real leaders of this new progressive alignment will be those who work towards this goal and, so, lead their respective organisations towards this goal.
Of course, there will be the usual criticisms. We must keep our options open. However, that’s the problem because now there are only two options that are open to us – and neither comprise a left-led government. Keeping all options open constitutes no challenge, no change (Labour, for instance, has almost always ‘kept its options open’; in opposition they only went into a pre-election pact twice). In any event, now that Labour has ruled out coalition with Fianna Fail, in all practical terms it has only one and, therefore, no options.
Another argument that is we must retain our independence. I’ve never understood this argument. Trade unions operate independently but co-operate with each other. I am no less independent because I work with others of differing progressive hues. In any event, progressives have no independence now – for the irresistible weight of consensus is that we will end up in a Fine Gael-led government. The historical weight of the game is that progressives have no independence to pursue a left-led government. Indeed, to reject the current game is make us independent of a model that has done us down for decades.
The last argument is a seductive one. That progressives should get into office – regardless of whether Fianna Fail or Fine Gael leads it – because we can do ‘good things’. It’s seductive because it is true – to a very limited extent. A government with Labour or Sinn Fein will be, by definition, better than a government without them. Incremental measures can be taken, harsh measures can be softened. But participation in right-wing led governments cannot challenge the orthodoxy – not only because of the parties that progressives must serve under. More importantly, it’s because progressive parties have failed to win over the greater part of the electorate for transformative policies. And they cannot argue for such measures because that would, by definition, exclude them from a right-wing led government. It’s a trap – a very seductive trap one. But the price to be paid is high – the reinforcement of the current game.
At the end of the day, the main objection is that we don’t know what it would look like, don’t know how to do it, unsure of the work it would entail, fearful that it might not succeed and then wouldn’t we look silly. Like Grandpa Simpson, we step out of the retirement home but immediately retreat – because it’s cold and their wolves outside.
And wolves there would be. Imagine if progressive parties, organisations and independents together stated they will no longer serve – no longer be led by a Fianna Fail or a Fine Gael-led government. Could you imagine the reaction? The combined strength of the Right – from parties to media to employers’ organisations – would denounce us a delusional, selfish, suicidal, etc. It would be orgy of derision, contempt and opposition. For many progressives, that might be too much to stomach.
But does anyone believe we will somehow lead a government by stealth, by the vagaries of the 4th and 5th preference, by being as meek as possible to those who values and principles we are seeking to overturn?
We will change the game by courage and vision, policies and activism, and a set of sophisticated tactics to counter our enemies. But mostly we will change the game by maximising, through enhanced cooperation, the strength of the progressive sections of society which are not inconsiderable. We have our own psephologists – those wonderfully nerdy types who spend their late nights over polling results, election returns, maps and Excel charts. Hopefully they will start their good work – so that we can be better informed about our current strength and future potential. For now, I’ll just leave it to Browne:
‘Labour and Sinn Féin, along with the other parties, groups and citizens of the left would form a critical mass that could be transformative.’
The critical words here are ‘could be’.
The fact is we won’t know until we start changing the game.