Over the last few months discussions have taken place between left leaning parties, independents, social groups and trade union movements with a view to presenting a united left alternative to the electorate in next year’s general election.
The initiative to bring together parties and individuals on the left was coordinated by an organisation called ‘Right2Change’. Born of the ‘Right2Water’ campaign; Right2Change is effectively a mass social movement generated out of what was initially the anti-water charges movement which saw dozens of demonstrations across the country bringing tens of thousands of people out onto the streets.
The protests from the beginning have been supported and attended by parties and independents on the left of Irish politics such as Sinn Fein, People before Profit, the Socialists/Anti Austerity Alliance and a number of left inclined independents.
According to David Gibney (spokesperson for Right2Change) a study conducted by the National University of Ireland Maynooth found that while the Right2Water campaign was originally a single issue anti-water charges initiative, over time it has attracted the support of people from wider society concerned with many issues including, austerity, inequality, unemployment, poorly paid working contracts and underinvestment in housing and public services to name but a few.
The end result is that Right2Change has become a mass social movement looking for a political home. It has issued a set of policy principles (not to be confused with policies), and will support all left leaning parties who are willing to sign up to those principles. Gibney says the Right2Change initiative would like to see politicians take their minds off their parties and focus more on human-rights based policies.
“At the core of it is, we began this process concentrating on policy instead of parties, trying to get people to think about human rights-based policies and stop thinking about parties, personalities and egos and start thinking about what the people actually want in terms of policies,”
Political groups and individuals were asked to decide by Friday 30th October, if they were willing to adopt the initiative and work together to achieve the maximum number of left-wing seats in the next Dail. Sinn Fein were the first grouping to sign up. Speaking after the party announced its agreement to support the initiative, Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald said the enterprise offered an opportunity for voters to elect an alternative government.
The Right2Water movement has evolved and grown from the initial sole concern around water charges to other issues. As a result of very long discussions and consultations, broad policy principles have been agreed which we in Sinn Féin are happy sign up to and to endorse.
This policy provides a space for political parties and progressive independent candidates and a platform to fight the next election. It doesn’t replace any political party’s manifesto, but it does represent those points of commonality, where we agree, and represents a real opportunity in the forthcoming election to maximise the number of progressive TDs elected to the Dáil, and the potential for an alternative government.
Important to note here is the fact that parties will still have their own manifestos to sell to the people but those manifestos will have to reflect the broad principles as laid out by the Right2Change movement. Opponents of Sinn Fein have been quick off the mark accusing the party of putting its self-interest first, arguing that it has struggled with attracting transfers in the past and has only signed up to the initiative for selfish political gain.
However, Sinn Fein can counter that it has for some years now called on the left of Irish politics to unite and ‘challenge the establishment political parties’. It can also argue that its success at attracting transfers has improved somewhat; as shown in this year’s Carlow/Kilkenny by election and the local/euro elections of 2014.
Nevertheless, there is no escaping the point that if Sinn Fein continues to stall in the polls, a pact with the broad Left of Irish politics could help to turn a poor election performance into a good one. This is especially true in urban areas such as Dublin Cork and Limerick where smaller left parties and independents do particularly well.
Their transfers added to a healthy first preference vote could give Sinn Fein a much needed lift when the time comes. Of course, it is not a one Way Street, those who stand in constituencies that vote in preference for left candidates such as Richard Boyd Barrett (PBP) in Dun Laoghaire (Dublin), could also benefit from the life blood of second preferences courtesy of Sinn Fein voters.
Not everybody on the left is completely happy with the exercise. The newly formed Social Democrats have politely declined and the Anti-Austerity Alliance / Socialists are not comfortable with Sinn Fein’s proposal for a voting pact.
The socialists don’t seem to accept Sinn Fein as a true party of the left and are suspicious of a possible coalition deal between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail after the next election. (Joe Higgins socialist TD, RTE Week in Politics, Sunday November 1).
Sinn Fein for its part have said they will ask their voters to transfer down the line, even if others fail to reciprocate.
Right2Change has announced that along with Sinn Fein a number of smaller parties and independents are on-board. It also states that the organisation intends to identify up to three candidates in every constituency who support the group’s banner principles.
Its activists will openly back these candidates but will not instruct voters on transferring their vote. However, instruction will most likely be unnecessary, if the movement can hold together those who have agreed to run with the initiative, the likelihood is that sympathetic voters will transfer their preferences within the group without needing much of a prompt.
The support of so many trade unions who have agreed to either call on their members to vote and transfer within the group, or to simply inform their members of the various candidates aligned with Right2Change will be crucial in the final weeks leading up to the election.
The union movement in Ireland has traditionally been associated with the Irish Labour party. Labour have for decades been linked officially to almost all the major trade union movements in the country. This connection has existed on the basis that Labour were the natural party of left wing politics.
Recently however the broad union movement have lost faith with the party particularly on the issue of water.
The famous catch call ‘Labours Way or Frankfurt’s Way’; delivered during the 2011 campaign by the then leader Eamonn Gilmore now haunts the party and in terms of providing ammunition for its opponents (particularly on the left), it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
It would appear that the damage done in terms of relations between the trade unions and Labour is for now at least irreparable. Most of the main Unions have come out in support for parties and independents who are willing to sign up to the Right2Change campaign, those who are not willing to tell people how to transfer their vote have stated they will be informing their members which parties and individuals are aligned with the Right2Change campaign in the run up to election, effectively suggesting they cast their vote accordingly.
For my own party Sinn Fein, apart from the obvious benefits of vote transfers, the party might also benefit from having a number of other parties and independents onside. Opponents of Sinn Fein have been accused of engaging in a smear campaign against the party.
Issues such as the existence of the IRA, and claims that senior members are possibly connected to criminality, have created a bed of hot coals under the party.
Interestingly however, over the course of the last week none of the parties associated with Right2Change have raised such issues as a concern in deciding whether or not to jump on board.
If the polls are to be believed almost half the electorate now reject the traditional parties of government; Fine Fail, Fine Gael and Labour. This week on RTE’s The Week in Politics; Aine Lawlor put it to Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit that “a once in a lifetime opportunity” has opened up through the Right2Change campaign but parties of the left will have to get in harmony if they have any hope of convincing voters; a task made difficult by the Anti Austerity Alliance rejecting a voting pact and refusing to support a Sinn Fein led government.
Boyd Barrett responded by saying the media coverage during the week has been sensationalist and that there was no pact nor has there been a split. The PBP leader said he believed the focus should be on the Right2Change principles and the parties and individuals who have agreed to share a common platform.
He appears to be buoyed by the chances of success, voting pacts or not. Mary Lou seems equally excited:
“We believe there is a great opportunity now in the forthcoming election. We believe that we need an alternative and a progressive government. Sinn Féin wants to be part of that and we believe that parties and candidates who share this platform and who agree on these principles should, whilst attending to their own election campaigns, equally encourage people to transfer to other like-minded candidates.”
This is the first time that a broad alliance of political parties and independents on the left of Irish politics have agreed a platform upon which to fight an election backed by a mass movement across all sections of civil society.
The refusal of the Anti-Austerity Alliance/ Socialists to play ball might signal that the left in Ireland simply cannot put together a united front strong enough to convince voters. It is also unclear if it will scupper the entire exercise before it has had a chance to really get going.
However, it must be remembered that the coordinating group around this initiative is not one particular political party, it is a social movement providing an umbrella for others. Essentially, the initiative does not depend on one particular party or individual to pull the cart and keep the horses in line.
Right2Change as a group have taken the initiative and are the driving force behind the expedition, they might also be inclined to referee between their passengers should the need arise. The job of course is to mobilise voters out to the polls, given the success of the right to water campaign in getting tens of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets, one assumes they will have little difficulty getting the same people to polling stations on Election Day.
With about four months to go there is plenty of time to coordinate, mobilise and build on momentum. However, given the failed attempts to unify the left in the past, all parties will have their work cut out staying on track and defending against the avalanche of assaults certain to fall upon them during what is sure to be a blistering campaign.