How federalism failed the Irish left
The United Left Alliance (ULA) was launched in Dublin in late November 2010 to contest the southern Irish general election a few weeks later.
Liam Mac Uaid explains why it is falling apart and what we can learn from the experience.
Normally such a move would be electoral and political suicide. In this case the gamble paid off handsomely and in February 2011 the electoral coalition won 2.6% of the vote and five seats in Dáil Éireann, the neo-colonial parliament.
At that point the ULA consisted of the Socialist Party (the Irish sister organisation of the British group), the People Before Profit Alliance, a front organisation for the SWP, some ex Labour Party members and the now departed Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG).
Circumstances were unusually favourable for a radical electoral challenge. The southern Irish economy was in free fall; Fianna Fáil, the party which had engineered a period of rapid economic growth based on fraud and property speculation, was facing electoral annihilation at the hands of an electorate which was seeing itself become impoverished, unemployed and debt ridden as the southern political class meekly accepted an appalling programme of austerity imposed by the European Union. This was combined with an electoral system with proportional representation which makes it possible for smaller parties and independents to win seats.
If ever there was a need for a mass radical socialist challenge to the old parties and the new austerity it was in the post Celtic Tiger twenty six counties. Not only was there a need but the fact that an ad hoc coalition of socialists won five of the one hundred and sixty six seats within a couple of months of its launch showed there was an appetite for it among a radicalising section of the working class.
How did the major players in the ULA conceive of its development? Was it to become a new party of the Irish working class born from the fight against austerity? The Socialist Party certainly didn’t think so. In a statement in January 2012 they wrote:
“The ULA is not the new party, nor is it likely to just become the new party at some future date.
The ULA is an alliance that fights on issues, outlines a left and socialist alternative and crucially popularises the idea of a new party. A new party will most likely come from the likes of the ULA combining with community and workers’ campaigns and struggles.”
So, an organisation that working people looking for an alternative have voted into parliament doesn’t have the potential to become a party. The advice given in capital letters at the end of the article is that readers who agree should instead join the Socialist Party. Completely absent is any conception that there is a relationship between people’s daily struggles and actively working towards transforming the ULA into a party which they can control.
In practice the SWP has voted with its feet. It has relaunched People Before Profit and in the statement announcing its withdrawal from the alliance the WUAG said “The SWP has prioritised recruitment to the SWP over building the ULA.”
The ULA now looks like an electoral organisation which is not going to survive to a second election. Rather than quickly move to consolidate it as a membership party its component parts preferred to maintain it as a brand to which they could attract people they wanted to recruit to their own organisations.
At demonstrations it has a much smaller profile than the SP or SWP and it times this becomes darkly farcical. After the massacre at the Marikana mine in South Africa Dubliners has a choice of protesting at two separate demonstrations called by the two major players in the ULA.
All the major political decisions were made in private with members who didn’t belong to the leadership of the SWP or SP not having any meaningful mechanism through which they could influence the alliance’s direction. This involved grotesque compromises such as the SP making it a matter of principle that the ULA not organise in the north of Ireland. In effect an organisation which should have been home to the most combative activists in Ireland had to accept the imperialist partition of the country as a key part of its programme. For socialists claiming the mantle of James Connolly, the Marxist who organised an insurrection while Britain was fighting a war, this was quite a novel reading of his ideas.
The Irish working class is paying a price for this refusal to transform the ULA in a broad class struggle party. Mass migration is once commonplace; hospitals are unable to treat patients and incomes have dropped by 20% in four years. Yet despite all this the south of Ireland has not seen anything comparable to the inspiring mobilisation in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Austerity has been imposed with very little opposition and the big political beneficiary has been Sinn Féin now has fourteen members in the Dáil due to its success in presenting itself as the radical anti-austerity party. That this is a spurious claim is evidenced by the fact that a hundred miles up the road in Belfast they are in coalition with the creationist, homophobic, hard right DUP. Yet the hard fact is that working people see them as a coherent party which stands in elections. This is not true of the ULA.
There are lessons in the collapse of the ULA.
The federal structure which allows its components to enforce a veto is profoundly anti-democratic. It privileges the narrow perspective of one organisation over the rest of the alliance. It also takes away the possibility of winning a political debate by politically winning the argument. Everything is reduced to horse trading and block voting, characteristics of established bureaucracies. It is also a serious obstacle to the recruitment of working class activists who want to join a fighting party but are not interested in signing up to a pre-existing Marxist current.