I would like to begin by thanking the organisers on behalf of The Workers’ Party for the invitation to speak here today, and for their work in putting together this conference. As we all know, we are at a moment of real opportunity for the left in this republic. For the first time since the foundation of the state, this election may see the destruction of the old civil war political alignments. We may see the end of a politics dominated by two wings of the same party – the party of the propertied elite that rules in the interests of the few at the expense of the working class. We may even, in this fluid and unpredictable situation, see the possibility of a left-led government for the first time in the history of the state. We know that the people are angry; we know that they are looking for change. We know that people want an alternative. We also know, however, that the institutions that serve capitalism – the political establishment and the media in particular – are telling them that There Is No Alternative: no alternative to falling wages, worsening working conditions, higher prices, and reduced living standards. It is not inevitable that the collapse of neo-liberalism will produce a swing to the left. As in the last local elections, there is a risk that while the left will do quite well, the real winner will be Fine Gael. We know that to convert that anger into growth for the left will take hard work from all of us.
If the left is to take advantage of the current opportunity to make this truly a turning point, if we are to carve out for ourselves a permanently larger presence in political life and within civil society, then this election must only be the beginning. The imperatives for the Workers’ Party and the rest of the left at this time are firstly, fighting against the continuing programme of cuts endorsed by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who now have their strings being pulled by the EU and IMF; secondly, the articulation of the socialist alternative, which focuses on protecting and developing public services, and on job creation and economic development through deploying the immense economic power of the state; and thirdly the deepening of cooperation across the left in both the short and the long term.
If we are to ensure that we benefit from the current situation, and if we are to broaden the range of possibilities open to us in future, our political strategies and our policies must be determined by a recognition of both the opportunities and the dangers inherent in the current situation. For too long, left cooperation has been hampered by the legacies of the past, and by allowing our disagreements to cloud what we have in common. Already in this election campaign we have seen elements of this. Whatever our differences, we must act in common, not only in opposition to the cuts, but also to promote a different vision of what our society can be like.
In a society and political culture like ours, which have traditionally been deeply conservative, the only way we can possibly mount an effective opposition is by mobilising the entire broad left, and by attracting new people to it. As we have seen with the trade union sponsored demonstrations, the broad left as a whole can mobilise a huge section of the population that dwarfs the numbers that individual parties or even alliances of left parties can hope to achieve. While we may disagree with elements of the worldview, programmes, or actions of other parties, trade unions or community organisations, we must seek to build an alliance of all those committed to certain basic progressive policies. In the current context, I would suggest that those policies are opposition to the cuts and to giving our money to speculators at home and abroad, the defence of public services, progressive taxation, the defence of mortgage holders from parasitical banks, and government stimulus for job creation. We must seek cooperation with all those who can agree to that minimum programme.
What then should the policies of the Irish left be over the next few years? As said earlier, we must promote socialism as the alternative; and follow the strategic goal of building a serious radical left presence not just in electoral politics at the local and central level, but also in trade unions, in community groups, and on the streets. This involves not just the traditional kinds of hard work in workplaces and in communities, but also serious work that must be done to elaborate and articulate our vision. This means, for example, drawing up more detailed economic development plans, and we in political parties must build on the good work being done by the like of TASC so that we can demonstrate to people that socialism is not just a moral concern with fairness. It is a hard-headed, practical programme grounded in the reality of people’s lives, and with the power to transform our healthcare system, our education system, our economy, and social relations between our people. To overcome decades of propaganda to the contrary, we must be able to demonstrate it as far as possible.
This means building an alternative culture, and it is here that progressive community organisations have a vital role to play. In alliance with trade unions and political parties, they can help us involve wider sections of the population, especially young people, in the struggle for progressive change in our society. A centre-piece in building a stronger progressive and working class culture must be May Day, and it should be a strategic aim of the left to radically improve May Day in
Dublin and elsewhere in the next few years, and use it to draw in new people. Our aim should be to make May Day the centrepiece of a festival of working-class culture and progressive politics in as many cities and towns as possible.
May Day and cultural activities can also become a focus for greater left cooperation. The Workers’ Party has in the last year or so transformed our publication LookLeft into a forum for broad left discussion and debate precisely as a means of both building left cooperation and in making left politics more attractive to people who have left sympathies but are not involved in any political organisation. LookLeft continues to expand its readership, distribution network and its range of writers. We feel that it has played a positive role so far, and that it has the potential to play a greater role in future as the left expands over the next few years.
The left must seek to play a prominent role in culture as well as politics, especially in today’s world when generations have been told that politics does not matter, that nothing can change, that capitalism is the natural order of society, that there can be no other way. Although we still regard politics and the state as being at the centre of the struggle for socialism, building class-consciousness is more than a matter of building political parties, and we must exploit the opportunities offered by culture and by new means of communications to do so with more dedication than we have done in the past.
There are many possibilities for the left, then, over the next few years, both in terms of elections and within society generally. Taking them will require a clear vision and coherent strategy under which we can forge as much left cooperation as possible, and to begin to move our politics and society leftwards. We are now in an era when both the need and the desire for left cooperation is greater than ever, as is our understanding of the need to move beyond traditional forms of politics. We must continue to work not just on economic demands, but also to push for the final separation of church and state in areas like education, and to end corruption and increase democracy within our republic, but always with an eye on the goal of building this state’s first left-wing government, and beyond that the socialist transformation of society.
* Michael Finnegan was speaking, on behalf of the Workers' Party, on the theme.: The future of the Irish Left: Policies, Political Strategies and Future Possibilities. This session was one part of the conference: Political Change and People Power - ‘New Political Possibilities in Ireland for all Left-Wing Parties in Partnership with Civil Society’. The conference was held on: Saturday, 5th February 2011, in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin.