A very significant surge for the Greens, huge loss of seats for Sinn Fein, and losses for the Left were the headline stories of Local and European Elections May 2019. While the elections absolutely did not represent any ringing endorsement for the Government or political establishment, the combination of the impact of a late Greens surge, and a low turnout amongst the harder pressed sections of the working class, impinged significantly on the Left’s vote. Within this, disappointingly, Solidarity (formerly AAA) and the Socialist Party lost seats, retaining just four councillors out of 10 (with one of Solidarity’s 11 former sitting Councillors not standing). Others on the Left also unfortunately sustained losses of council seats, including People Before Profit Alliance and the Workers’ Party, as well as a number of Left wing independents and Independents 4 Change also losing seats.
Many various local factors impinged and impacted on our votes including boundary changes, but losses for Solidarity and the Socialist Party were for the most part as a result of the combined factors of a decrease in turnout amongst a harder pressed section of the working class, and the further squeeze of our vote from the surge to the Greens which developed momentum as a phenomenon in the latter part of the campaign, particularly in its final days.
This is despite the fact that the elections took place against the backdrop of a deteriorating housing crisis, worsening crises in health, wage stagnation and a general rise in the cost of living, most notably in rents and childcare. It’s important to note that despite being one of the fast growing economies in Europe there is manifestly no generalised “feel good factor”. The neo-liberal capitalist recovery has failed to deliver on the aspirations of the majority of workers and youth and this is keenly felt in the day to day lived reality of making ends meet.
Disengagement and Low Mood in Working Class Communities
That said, the primary mood ‘on the doors’, in the workplaces and working-class communities in regard to the election was one of disillusionment. The reality of a lack of a recovery for large swathes of workers impacted the mood. Broadly speaking this mood relates to a disappointment that the challenge to the capitalist establishment of the water charges movement five years previous has not been fashioned into a cohesive working-class political alternative and opposition. Disengagement from the election and the lack of any sizeable mood or consciousness that the elections could be used as an outlet to express working-class interests and aspirations, was compounded by the fact that working-class and social struggle at the moment of the election was at a low point
Contrast the backdrop of 2014 in which the Socialist Party and the AAA (now Solidarity) won two By-Elections and got 14 councillors elected. It’s chalk and cheese. Five years ago, the water charges was becoming the issue in which working-class anger and opposition to austerity crystallised in a mass movement from below which ultimately resulted in a stunning victory. The Socialist Party had played a crucial role in helping to achieve a 50% boycott of the household charge in 2012/2013, launching a new working-class political voice, the AAA (now Solidarity) with many new working-class anti austerity activists who we worked alongside in this struggle.
The 2014 elections were seen as an opportunity to reject the Government, and the Labour Party in particular for their anti-working class politics which was seen as a betrayal by large sections of the working class. (Labour have failed to recover in 2019, receiving a similar vote to 2014 percentage-wise, gaining a handful of local seats, and failing to challenge for any European seats). Fundamentally, there was a failure to build a major new left political alternative for workers and youth out of the incredible water movement victory. Instead, there was a mistaken attempt to channel the energy of the water movement and the new working-class activists it developed into an alliance led by Sinn Fein. This was a wasted opportunity.
Failure by Union Leadership to Build Struggle a Factor
Any disappointment felt by workers today because of a sense of a failed potential for the building of a significant working-class, struggle-based, political alternative glimpsed through the water charges struggle, is not inevitable. In reality, it’s a knock back because a broader lead has not been given, most especially by those with positions at the head of the trade unions. In 2016 there were important transport strikes led by militant bus and rail workers. At the time, these workers themselves referenced the water charges revolt as an important inspiration and reference point for their stance. Had the leadership of the trade union movement sought to further develop these struggles both to block privatisation measures and to build upon the fighting spirit of these workers to launch a more generalised challenge to the assault on workers’ living standards, things could have been different. Included in this could be that the organised workers’ movement could have played a more active role in the vital repeal movement, which was another mainly unorganised explosion of struggle from below that delivered the historic ‘Yes’ to abortion rights in 2018.
More recently, right before the May elections of this year, had the INMO and the PNA leadership not accepted and recommended a poor deal to their membership after the nurses’ strike, which drummed up phenomenal solidarity amongst the working class very broadly, the factor of an active class struggle and movement could have changed the low mood – moods being temporary, variable and passing phenomena – which existed in the working class and affected the turnout and outcome.
The main issue that Socialist Party and Solidarity activists and candidates were campaigning on in the local elections, was the question of the housing and homelessness crisis. From overcrowding, to the poverty living conditions that renters are forced into, to the fact that many workers are unable to get a mortgage, to homelessness itself, the housing crisis is affecting the working class in a widespread way, as well as sections of the middle class. However, the solution – the en masse building of public homes as well as real rent controls / rent cuts, requires a significant struggle and movement to force it against the will of the whole business and political establishment. Without a sufficiently strong lead from a mass force such as the unions, this can seem distant to sections of the working class who would in fact support and enthusiastically get behind such a struggle.
With central poster and billboard slogans in Solidarity local election campaigns such as “Housing, Childcare, Transport: Public Need, Not Private Greed”, “Ban Evictions – Cut Rents: Public Housing Now”, “Public Need, Not Private and Landlord Greed”, Solidarity’s message in the elections was hard-hitting, but in the context of an ebb in struggle and mood within the working class, all of which is a temporary question, this wasn’t enough to boost working-class turnout in the way Solidarity and Socialist Party campaigners tried to engender. Some of the unions sponsored a demonstration on the issue of housing a week before polling day, but doing so without any real intent to build for it amongst their membership, or without any intent to build a significant struggle which would including taking meaningful action such as strike action, and ultimately a national strike, this did little to alter the dynamic and provide a lead.
No Ringing Endorsement for Political Establishment
There was no ringing endorsement of the Fine Gael minority government in this election. Fine Gael finished second behind Fianna Fáil in the Local Elections with 25% of the vote, improving by just 1% on its result five years ago, when their unpopular austerity government took a drubbing. They did somewhat better in the Euro elections, reflecting primarily personal votes for their candidates, but mainly at the expense of Fianna Fáil.
A week before the election, the comments of Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy that young people should be ‘’excited’’ to live in co-living arrangements where up to 40 people share a single kitchen, exposed the real attitude of this government towards working class people and the young struggling with the housing crisis. Furthermore, the saga around the provision of rural broadband with a private consortium consisting of billionaire and tax dodger Denis O’Brien benefiting from the privatisation of telecommunications was a telling insight into the nature of the political establishment.
Though it did make some gains including in some urban working-class areas, talk of a Fianna Fail recovery in Dublin is exaggerated. Fundamentally FF benefitted from the low turnout from working-class communities where an older working-class vote came out to support them, or perhaps returned to voting for FF after a brief shift away. The combined vote of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael stood at just 52% in the local elections and 46.2% of the vote in the European elections. Even in the context of economic growth both parties are only capable of mustering historically low votes, reflecting an international trend of the undermining of support for the traditional parties of capitalism.
Losses for Solidarity – Low Turnout and Swing to the Greens
Solidarity won four council seats, Kieran Mahon and Sandra Fay in Dublin South West, John Burtchaell in Dublin West and Fiona Ryan in Cork, down from 10 going into the election (with one sitting Councillor of Solidarity’s 11 not standing again). Another 60 votes or so would have also seen the election of Matthew Waine in Ongar and Eugene Coppinger in Swords who was eliminated by only four votes, and would likely had gone on to take a seat. We’ve explained the context of the losses of seats for Solidarity, conditions that affected the Left generally. Here are some examples explaining these developments further.
Dublin Bay North: The old Beaumont/Donaghmede ward was divided, but the more affluent Raheny St. Assams from the old Clontarf ward was added to Donaghmede and the turnout from there was significantly higher than in the rest, which skewed the outcome. The turnout in Raheny St. Assams was 54%, but just 40% in the rest of the area. Michael O’ Brien increased his vote in the Donaghmede part compared to 2014, up from 6.4% to 7.5%, but came last in the more affluent Raheny St Assams electoral district, meaning his overall vote came down to 6.7%. This area boosted the Greens and the Soc Dems. Overall in this Donaghmede ward in the North East of Dublin, which was one of the communities at the epicentre of the water charges battle in the Autumn of 2014, turnout fell from 50% to 42%. When you exclude the more affluent parts of Raheny that were added into the ward the turnout was 40%. The votes for the Solidarity candidate in this vote and Socialist Party member Michael O’Brien were highest in those boxes where you had the lowest turnout from hard-pressed working class areas, and lowest where you a higher turnout in the more middle class areas of the ward. Unfortunately, this and the swing to the Greens resulted in Michael losing his seat.
Limerick: In Limerick where Solidarity lost two seats, the turnout was marginally down in one ward and up marginally in the other two. However within this, there was low turnout in working class communities and significantly higher in more affluent areas. In Limerick City North, in Moyross the total poll was down 14% and the total vote for Solidarity dropped from 8% to 1% in that area.In the more affluent parts of that ward the turnout was up 17%. There was also a significantly higher turnout in rural areas and two of the wards have significant rural aspects. There were no Green candidates in 2014, in Limerick City North, they polled 11.8% in 2019. As well as the Greens and working class turnout being a factor, with no movement or major class issue dominating, that for those who did turnout who played a role on the very locally based issues was a factor which also squeezed us. Solidarity polled 4% across the city.
Dublin West: In the Ongar ward, where Solidarity lost a seat, the turnout went down from 38% in 2014 to 35% in 2019. Specifically in the Hartstown area the turnout dropped by 7% (41 to 34%), an area where the Socialist Party has had a base of support over decades. The Green candidate went from nothing to 9% in Ongar. In Castleknock, where Solidarity lost out, the vote was affected by turnout in the Blakestown / Mountview area. Furthermore, the Greens were a factor, going from 3.6% to 11.3% in this part of the ward that is historically strong for Socialist Party / Solidarity.
Cork: Lower turnout, Mick Barry not on the ballot, alterations in the boundaries, a flat mood in working-class communities and a swing to the Greens account for much of the drop in Solidarity’s vote in Cork, resulting in retaining one seat, and losing another. Turnout in North West of the old City ward fell from 50 to 37% and that fall is overwhelmingly in working class areas. To give an example in a polling station where Fiona Ryan of Solidarity and the Socialist Party topped the poll (Shandon area), the turnout was just 26%. In one where Carol Brogan of Solidarity and the Socialist Party topped the poll (Blackpool area), it was approx 33%. Its complicated in terms of boundary changes to make comparisons. In 2014 the Greens only stood one candidate in a northside ward, getting 235 votes. This time they stood in both the new wards and got 1,743 votes.
DSW: In Tallaght South, the centre of the Jobstown struggle that Solidarity was at the heart of, the vote for Solidarity went up in percentage terms. In Tallaght Central, the turnout was down from 45.4% to 41.7%. The Solidarity vote went from 22.5% to 12.3%. In Tallaght Central, there was no Green previously, this time they got 7.7%, winning a seat. In Tallaght Central, Fianna Fail and independents also did well, indicating a focus on local issues. FF got 28.5%, up from just under 17%. This seems to be reflective that the more active section of the working class voted less, leaving more of an older layer who are also more open to FF.
Dublin Euro Elections Socialist Party stance:
In the European elections, Socialist Party member Rita Harrold ran as a first time candidate, winning 4,967 first preference votes or 1.4%. This electoral stance was primarily about trying to connect with workers and young people in Dublin city centre politicised by repeal, by high rents, and by the climate crisis and gear them into helping to build active struggles and the socialist movement. We had the central aim of raising the Socialist Party profile in this campaign, and building our forces and did not run with any expectation to challenge for a seat. 150 people left details with us in Dublin city centre who were interested in finding out more about the socialist movement.
Pre-election polls had shown Rita on 3 and 4%, with a fantastic performance on the Claire Byrne show coming after this. Rita’s campaign had been aimed particularly at young people and would have been particularly squeezed by the swing to the Greens in the final days of the campaign. Ciaran Cuffe, who topped the poll for the Greens, went from 11% in a poll a week out from the vote (a poll in which Rita Harrold was on 4%), to achieving 17.5%. An exit poll indicated that 42% of young people aged 18-24 voted for the Greens in the Dublin Euro election. Despite a relatively low vote, albeit within a very crowded field with 19 on the ballot paper, Rita’s campaign succeeded in developing important connections with young people interested in socialist ideas and becoming active in the Socialist Party.
Some commentators have implied that the slogan on Rita’s poster “A Socialist Feminist Voice – For Workers, Women and the Planet” was off-putting or unattractive to working-class voters, otherwise open to a left position, particularly citing the “socialist feminist” aspect. This is a conservative point, removed from the reality which is that the urban working class have been in the driving seat of progressive changes in attitudes on abortion, LGBTQ rights, and church and state in Ireland, as illustrated by votes for repeal and marriage equality. Failing to recognise this unfortunately echoes a prejudice that it’s the middle class that have led on these issues in Ireland.
Points have also been made that intimate a crude distinction between social and economic issues, including that after repeal in 2018, the focus is now back on economic issues. The truth is that there is no Chinese Wall between the two. Abortion is an economic issue if you don’t have the money to raise a child, just like the astronomical price of childcare is an economic question, but also serves to reinforce backward gender roles with women workers in particular opting to work part-time or stop waged work, not out of choice but out of necessity. The unprecedented #MeToo phenomenon has shed a much needed light on how prevalent sexual violence is in capitalist society. When it’s happening in the workplace disproportionately to low-paid and precarious workers, it’s also a potentially radicalising factor to organise, inextricably connected with the fight for a living wage and permanent contracts for all workers.
In fact, during Rita’s campaign, we received an especially strong response amongst young, female, migrant and precarious workers in Dublin city centre for the idea that the trade unions must take seriously the organising of young, precarious workers including taking up the need to end sexual harassment at work, and a €15 minimum wage. In fact, the 82% ‘Yes’ to the divorce referendum on polling day, as well as the fact that 85% of those who participated in an exit poll suggested that they were happy that Ireland has become ‘more liberal’ in recent years, 90% of respondents wanting Government action on climate change, and 89% wanting more policies to resolve the gap between the rich and poor, illustrate the broad desire of workers and young people for social and economic change broadly. Paramedics who are the forefront of rebuilding a militant rank and file within the trade union movement, currently engaged in an industrial dispute linked to the question of trade union recognition were an active point of support for Rita’s Euro campaign, speaking at a rally organised by ROSA Socialist Feminist Movement, and helping with posters and leaflets. The fact that these workers’ primary slogan is “Our Union, Our Choice”, echoing the “My Body, My Choice” rallying cry of the abortion movement, also speaks to the interplay of social and economic questions within the working-class struggle.
Rita’s leaflet, delivered into over 200,000 homes in Dublin, had the main slogan “Let Us Rise”, an historic rallying cry of the labour movement in Ireland, with the sub-head “For Public Need Not Private Greed”, and a major focus of on-street campaigning was helping to build for the May Housing and Homelessness Coalition national housing demonstration.
Losses for Sinn Fein
The lower turnout amongst a harder-pressed section of the working class in the elections was a factor in impacting on the fortunes of Sinn Féin, which saw it lose half its seats, going from 159 council seats to 81 in the local elections. This includes going down to just two seats in Limerick, for example, after winning 6 in 2014. Sinn Fein also lost two out of its three MEPs. Our analysis of the impact of the rightward trajectory of Sinn Fein has been borne out by these losses – with such a large representation on councils, and with a significant 21 TDs, Sinn Fein have been in a position to be a factor in the situation and set the agenda, as opposed to the comparatively modest forces of Solidarity and other Lefts.
Despite large resources, Sinn Fein have been unable to enthuse a working-class base that propelled them into these positions fuelled for the most part by anti-austerity, anti-establishment aspirations. Sinn Fein’s continued shift to the right and its willingness, indeed eagerness to embrace coalition with the traditional parties of capitalism meant that it failed to appeal to a working-class electorate, unlike in 2014 when it adopted a more fighting rhetoric. The concrete reality of Sinn Fein’s programme as played on local councils was also a factor. For example, in Dublin City council, its councillors voted to privatise public land in the midst of an appalling housing crisis.
The Green wave
The late swing to the Green Party happened precisely in the context of a dead election, where lack of engagement and enthusiasm, but also persistence of dismay at the political establishment reigned. In this context, the surge to the Greens occurred, precisely as a means to express a positive aspiration for action in relation to the climate crisis. For a section of workers, and primarily for young people, the election overwhelmingly became an opportunity to register a point on the question of the environmental crisis. It’s a very important positive that this has occurred and the environment and climate crisis is now recognised as a vital question. Part of the Green surge was stronger in more affluent sections and could be analysed as a shift from Fine Gael representing a somewhat conservative vote.
Nonetheless, the amongst the youth who voted Green, there is little to no memory of the Party’s role in government between 2007 and 2011, and in the main, the Green surge represents a majorly positive indication of a desire for action on the climate crisis and a hope that the Greens will deliver on this question. Unfortunately during the Green’s previous governmental spell they not only implemented policies that saw the banks bailed out to the tune of €64 billion at the expense of working-class people, but also allowed Shell to refine its gas off the coast of Mayo in direct opposition to the local community, implemented cuts to public transport and oversaw the building of Ireland’s first waste incinerator in Dublin Bay.
The aspiration for a rapid and just transition to renewable energy is something that cannot be achieved on the basis of a “for-profit” centred approach. The “system change”, which in reality needs to challenge capitalism, that so many young people have demanded on the recent protests and school strikes, are in contrast to the actual policies of the Green Party. For example, when Socialist Party member Rita Harrold questioned Ciaran Cuffe of the Greens, now an MEP, in the Euro Elections debate on RTE, it was clear that he was unwilling to even stand clearly in support of a measure to bring in free public transport in Dublin, let alone wider measures that will challenge the rule of a capitalist system that is destroying our planet in the interests of private and short-term profit. The Greens have now pulled together coalitions with Fianna Fail on all four Dublin Councils, in line with the lead from the national leadership, and in contradiction to comments from young Green candidate, Saoirse McHugh (who polled very well while failing to take a seat in the Euro Midlands North-West constituency), that opposed coalition with right-wing parties.
As a Party, the Greens have been committed to neo-liberal policies that pass as “environmental taxes”, such as water charges and the carbon tax. These are regressive charges that will further undermine the living standards of working-class people that do nothing to challenge the rule of the top 100 companies that are responsible for 70% of CO2 emissions. This is the sword that the Green surge could fall on – the Party’s plans to act on climate and the environment will be massively restricted by its pro-market economic policies. Unless that is broken, and a real commitment to implementing a just, green transition that does not harm working-class living standards, its surge will be curbed. The youth who’ve voted for the Greens, and who are energised by the fight for climate justice, are not fixed supporters of the Green Party and the building of an environmental struggle that necessitates putting questions of public ownership of wealth and resources front and centre, can bring these youth into play in the building of a working-class orientated, left, pro-environment struggle and movement.
If the Greens in any way become a vehicle for such youth to organise for a period, that can create tensions within the Party and will be an important development for socialists to connect with, as we aim to win the workers and youth to a socialist programme that points to the need for investment in free public transport, a rapid and just transition to a zero carbon economy, and democratic public ownership of energy companies and the wider sections of the economy. More likely, there will be explosions of struggles on environmental questions that the Greens will not be in a position to fully reflect, struggles that the socialist left must aid to build and organise, including bringing them into the trade union movement. This includes now helping to build for a mass school student strike on 20 September in schools, colleges, and with workers pressing their own unions to support and join the action.
The Need for a New Mass, Working-Class, Left Political Force
The recent elections are a passing snapshot of the juncture of the class struggle, which is temporarily at a low ebb. The nurses strike in January and February, and the enormous support it garnered, along with the battle for union recognition by paramedics and ambulance workers, shows the potential for struggle if a real lead is given. The failure of the leadership of ICTU to take a fighting stand on the question of housing, wage restraint and the chronic conditions facing our public services has fuelled a certain sense of helplessness among working-class people – a temporary phenomenon – but nonetheless a factor in the backdrop of the recent elections. It’s precisely this question of the failure to build such a lead and alternative, including in the aftermath of the water charges victory, with a mistaken approach taken that tried to funnel the explosion of working-class radicalisation and activism towards boosting Sinn Fein, that’s key to understanding the election outcome and setbacks for the Left.
The conditions of capitalism, and the brewing economic storms, are preparing the basis for explosions in struggle and the further pushing of consciousness to the left, and a rejection of the economic status quo. The water charges and repeal movements are clear indications of how such explosive movements of working-class and young people can emerge. The 82% Yes vote for reform in divorce laws and the fact that both Cork and Waterford voted to reject the government’s plans for directly elected mayors, who would live on a salary of the €130,000 per annum, is indicative of a mood for progressive change and an anti-establishment mood. Young people, and working-class youth in particular, who are faced with a future of not being able to acquire a home, precarity and oppression, all in the context of economic growth will be a key factor in accelerating a movement for change in our society.
There is a need for a new party of the working class in Ireland. The existence of such a mass party organised in communities and workplaces, and based on a real socialist alternative, would give the confidence to struggle against the neo-liberal and capitalist policies that are eroding the future of our living standards and that of our planet. A glimpse of this can be seen in the US, where the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a prominent Left figure, articulating an opposition to the rule of the billionaire class, has fed into an upturn in industrial movements in the last year and a significant section of society embracing the idea of socialism, however vague the understanding of that is. This is combined with the realisation on the part of working-class people that low-paid jobs and unaffordable housing are now the norm of modern capitalist society, as well as radicalisation on movements against oppression in society.
The conditions to build such a major and mass left political force will be forged as result of the material impact that capitalism is enforcing on working-class and young lives, and the consequent growth of an understanding (that is already emerging), that issues such as housing can only be resolved when we challenge the rule of capitalist profiteering . The active struggles of workers, women and youth will be a crucial factor in such a development. These elections are undoubtedly a setback for Solidarity and the Left generally, but they are only a short-term one, which can quite rapidly be reversed when we see tumultuous movements of the working class for fundamental change in our society.