Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

The Socialist Party leaves the United Left Alliance

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Socialist Party leaves the ULA

by Henry Silke

Last Saturday the Socialist Party (CWI) posted an article on their website announcing the end their membership of the United Left Alliance. This was one of the least surprising political events of the Irish left as the Socialist Party had been steadily moving away from the alliance for over a year.

The SP have given two reasons for leaving the alliance firstly it’s unhappiness with ex Socialist Party TD Clare Daly’s continued political relationship with Mick Wallace, a left leaning populist who became embroiled in a tax evasion scandal. Clare Daly had been closely allied to Wallace in the promotion of an abortion rights bill and most recently in the exposure of a practice where privileged members of society were being cleared of driving charges, something brought to the TDs, by whistle blowing members of the Irish police force. Clare Daly herself had resigned from the Socialist Party (and re-designated herself as a ULA TD) some months ago citing the Socialist Party’s lack of enthusiasm towards building the ULA.

While both sides on Clare Daly’s resignation were technically correct the respective positions fall short of offering a clear picture as to Clare Daly’s dramatic move away from the Socialist Party leadership, something neither side has elaborated on. The highly personalised split was something the already weakened ULA was not ready for. The SP also cited a weakness on the part of the independents in the ULA and the Socialist Workers Party in tackling Clare Daly on the issue of alliances with Mick Wallace, quickly forgetting it was the Socialist Party (while Clare Daly was still a party member) who prevented the ULA taking a clear position when the scandal first broke the previous April. The Socialist Party representatives on the steering committee vetoed the motion for the ULA to call for Wallace’s resignation that had been proposed by the independents and supported by all other the other factions. Rightly or wrongly independents in the ULA found the SP’s sudden obsession towards Daly and Wallace’s relationship many months after the initial scandal to be more about politically attacking the ex SP TD than anything else. A particularly ham fisted ‘us or her’ attempt by the SP to ambush Daly at a delegate council meeting before Christmas failed to win any support, and probably finished the SP’s participation. The fact that Clare Daly’s profile rose immeasurably over her (and Wallace’s) earlier stance on abortion catapulting her into the headlines after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar  (a woman living in Galway who was refused a termination and later died) didn’t help matters leaving no time for things to settle between the parties.

The second reason given by the SP leadership to the failure of the alliance is that the ULA was unsuccessful due to the objective conditions of the political and social situation. Although Ireland is in the throes of a devastating recession political consciousness and struggle remains at relatively low ebb. Due to these factors, according to the SP, the ULA didn’t attract sufficient numbers to be a viable project. There may be some basis to this factor though there is an underlying assumption that uniting already existing left forces would not be a positive factor in itself.

For the independents in the ULA the objective conditions are not the only factor in this narrative, the subjective factor that is the leadership shown by the component parts is also of importance. While being applauded for the initial initiative the two major factions the alliance, the SWP and SP, have come under some criticism. It is felt by many that the Socialist Party was conservative when it came to developing the alliance. The Socialist Party rank and file membership never really engaged with the ULA as individuals, nor took part in its activities; the SP was represented in the steering committee by leadership members with little or no involvement in political discussion by the rank and file SP membership. From early on only full time party workers and party officers attended ULA related activities or meetings. Even this low level was pulled back on well over a year ago (and long before the SP-Daly split) when the SP pulled back from any ULA activity outside of parliamentary work.

Around that time (January 2012) the SP’s general secretary Kevin McLoughlin wrote an article proclaiming that the ULA is not a worker’s party, ‘nor is it likely to just become the new party at some future date’ (What next for the United Left Alliance 17/01/2012). dealing a severe political blow to the project and indeed begging the question to why anyone would join at all?

On the streets and in protests the ULA never had any profile as the two main components the SWP and SP continued to exclusively organise and recruit separately, on one occasion the two groups even managed to organise a meeting on Education cuts (following a teachers’ protest) in the same hotel and at the same time where a single ULA meeting would have made sense. In the Dail (the Irish parliament) the TD’s never gelled and acted more as a number of independent politicians sometimes collaborating but more often not. The lack of strategy by the TDs offices was apparent from early on especially between the SP and SWP. Of course the SP were not the only component who have come under criticism, the SWP the second major component launched a front organisation ‘Enough!’ within weeks of the 2011 election (Where the ULA had won five parliamentary seats). Early into 2012 the SWP then went on the re-launch the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) as a direct rival to the ULA .

Many cynics at the beginning of the process maintained that the SP and SWP would not be able to work together after decades of intense rivalry. Unfortunately as the SP rank and file didn’t engage with the ULA sectarian barriers were not broken down. A more nuanced view might be that the SWP viewed the alliance as a ‘popular front’ to recruit from while the SP viewed it as solely an electoral alliance, neither wanting the ULA as such to develop into a party as such. Another view is that while the components were serious about the initiative, ‘they were so at different times’, while another is that the Irish left ‘were not ready for the alliance’, and that the ULA ‘had won TD positions too early into the alliance and had no strategy of what to do with them.’ On the social media there are arguments between Socialist Party members who say they never wanted the ULA to develop into a party, and independents who feel that the SP at best were ambiguous in the early recruitment drive and around elections. Certainly Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins gave many speeches in the early days of the ULA which suggested very clearly the development towards a party.

The SP position may well be correct that the objective conditions were not correct. On the other hand there is the prospect of a self fulfilling prophecy of a leadership who were not quite ready to share political power.. On a more positive note the SP leadership believes that the current anti home and water tax campaign (CAWHT) has the potential to become a mass radical campaign and could form the basis for a new working class party. Critics have pointed to the obvious inconsistency in that while that the objective conditions seemingly are impossible for the ULA, the same objective conditions are favourable to a new formation on a much lower political level. The Party thus far has not dealt with this critique. There is also no guarantee that the kind of problems that beset the ULA will not reappear and that the SP and SWP will be able to overcome their decades of competition. Nor any guarantee that single issue election candidates or indeed membership will favour the building of a mass left workers’ party. The campaign is further complicated by new laws which allow the Irish revenue to collect the payment directly from wages (replacing the voluntary tax, which was successfully boycotted by the campaign). However certainly at the moment it is the only serious national resistance to austerity policies.

The future of the ULA is uncertain at best – the basic notion of even non-aggression has already collapsed as the SWP, in a highly sectarian manner, are targeting ULA TD Joan Collins seat, and the SP are also said to be planning to run a candidate against Clare Daly. While the SP challenge will probably have little affect on Daly, and they have made no formal decision, the SWP is running a serious candidate that could easily split the vote and lose the seat. The remaining independents are due to meet with Clare Daly and Joan Collins to discuss a way forward on the second of February, but it is unlikely that Collins and the SWP could remain in any form of alliance with the SWP threat hanging over her. Whether ULA independents are ready to continue in the husk of the ULA is an open question.

One of the positives of the ULA experiment has been the coming together of a wide layer of left independents and every effort must be made to keep this network together in some form or other. If it is the case that the SP and SWP lack either the drive or the innate ability to build a new workers party it may be time that attempts are made in that direction by the independents.

8 Responses

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  1. On the one hand on the other hand on the one hand on the other hand on the one hand on the other hand… this is one view, this is another view, this is another… some say this, but it could be said that…

    Sorry, Henry, but you have to make some actual political judgments at some point.

    Is the Socialist Party correct that, while various mistakes were no doubt made by all involved, the reality of an absence of significant ongoing struggle outside of one solitary campaign meant that the ULA was limited in its potential growth chiefly by objective circumstances rather than by some subjective lack of commitment or effort?

    The answer to that question is yes. I suspect that when you are pushed on this issue you will agree. But what you won’t do is take this as your starting point and work out your political conclusions from it. You would prefer to spend most of your time dealing with this or that relative triviality, repeating all the usual old cant you get from anti-sectarian sectarians.

    On the other points you raise:

    1) There is no mystery why Clare Daly left the Socialist Party, no reasonable confusion. Clare left because she valued her political connection with Mick Wallace over her involvement in the Socialist Party. Since she left, others in the ULA have been unable to prevail upon her to change her attitude on that score either, as you are no doubt aware. Clare is a gifted debater, a tireless activist and a born fighter and I have no desire to disparage her, but she is completely unreasonable on this one issue.

    2) There may be “arguments” between the Socialist Party and some people who insist on hearing only what they want to hear “on social media”, but this again does not mean that these arguments are reasonable. The Socialist Party explained over and over and over again that it saw the ULA as potentialy a new step towards a new party of the working class and were not interested in any way, shape or form in turning the ULA into an “integrated” little party of the existing left. That some people did have this as their project (or at least as an interim project) and absolutely refused to hear that this was never going to be on the agenda is regrettable but not the Socialist Party’s fault.

    3) It is simply false to say that only “leadership members and party officials” from the Socialist Party were involved in ULA structures. In fact, that’s a straightforward insult to the various members of the SP who built most of the launch meetings around the country and who kept many (nearly empty) branches going for months on end before giving up. It is certainly true that later on there was very little enthusiasm amongst rank and file SP members for the ULA, but that was a direct result by and large of pouring large amounts of resources into it earlier with no response at all.

    It is also entirely misleading of you to mention some minor SP and SWP meeting clashing with each other as if that’s remotely meaningful, or represented some significant factor at all. It’s just a way for you to get back to the usual moaning about the affiliates and, as usual, the stark facts about where the ULA’s resources came from aren’t mentioned. Let’s be clear about this. Since the ULA was founded, the SP has organised more ULA public meetings than SP public meetings. It provided the ULA with an office, and a full time worker. It organised most of the launch meetings and sustained many branches for a period (to no purpose it must be said). It used its public positions to heighten the ULA’s profile. It proposed the creation of the ULA. It then proposed that an individual membership be created. It then proposed a way to give those members representation on the leadership body. I have my criticisms of the SWP, but they also put substantial resources in at various points.

    4) The notion that member of different organisations sharing branches together tends to notably erode “sectarian barriers” is all very nice, but it’s the same kind of magical thinking that thinks that “unity” in and of itself will lead to success. The problem in ongoing close collaboration on the existing left isn’t some irrational set of “sectarian barriers”, which would go away if only we all got to know each other better. The problem is different and incompatible political ideas and perspectives, which will exercise a centrifugal pressure on collaboration between leftist groups in an empty organisation. And indeed pushing people with very hardened political views on top of each other to argue the toss over and over again without any wider set of participants who can both adjudicate and offer their own alternative perspectives is likely to cause more ill will rather than ease it. It’s the tie cats in a sack version of building left wing cooperation, but some people just refuse to let it go..

    I wish the small group of ULA “independents” luck. They are by and large a decent bunch, although I think that their desperation to have some kind of political home has led some of them to make certain serious mistakes. I’ve no doubt that most of them will end up in some kind of project aimed at moving towards working class political organisation and representation with us at some point in the future. Until then, the Socialist Party remains willing to cooperate with them and others on issues of shared concern.

    In general I have no wish to point too many fingers at people who were involved in the ULA with us. I could go on about the unrealistic expectations of some independents, the SWP’s near constant attempts to set up rival bodies to the ULA or the behaviour of our other TDs at great length. And I think I’d be making fair points if I did so. But ultimately that would serve little purpose and would in its own way amount to the same kind of staring at a single tree to avoid seeing the woods that I believe you and soe of the other independents are engaged in. As I see it, the ULA was a reasonable attempt to test the water, to see if there were significant numbers of people willing to get involved in radical political activity. As it turned out, there were not. And that isn’t the SWP or Clare or the independents fault either.

    Mark P

    January 29, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    • Hi Mark

      Thank you for your long and colourful reply, I should begin I think in explaining my method, this is not an article with a pre-conceived party line to defend or an article to attack the SP. It is an exploration of the issues around the latest split. The politics of the situation is not necessarily clear or as black and white as you suggest and it will take many more articles and discussion to come to definitive conclusions. I am also trying to express some of the ideas on the situation (from different actors) in a dialectical fashion, it is a methodology that I think in the long run is much more fruitful than jumping to immediate conclusions and engaging in a-priori arguments without considering any other ideas or evidence.
      For my own political judgement I think the issue of democracy and structure is proving to be a key issue in both the Irish and British left and that question will be key to the future. For more thoughts on this issue I have an article here:

      http://www.irishleftreview.org/author/henry-silke/

      There are numerous articles originating in the UK discussing the slate system and the a-historical degeneration of democratic centralism as practiced by Irish and British Trotskyism which I am sure you are aware of. There are a number of links posted below the article, and there are more appearing daily on various websites.

      on your points:
      1: On point one I disagree, it is not at all certain that Clare Daly’s alliance with Mick Wallace preceded her split with the SP leadership. In fact it is far more likely the break with the leadership came first.
      2: Again I disagree, at best the SP was ambiguous.
      3. The level of engagement by the SP rank and file was minimum.
      4: That may be the case, but not talking and not working together certainly doesn’t do anything to help. You are right in the sense that it would of course need comrades to work in branches and make decisions based on the meetings themselves, rather than solely voting on pre-arranged lines which take no consequence of arguments made there.

      On your final point, well you did just make those political points, which is fine, the independents are a group of individuals with various political ideas rather than a single entity with a line. The independents did indeed make mistakes as a collective thought I think there was little we could have done vis a vis any of our allies.
      I hope that clears up any misunderstanding. I should finish by adding while I have some fundamental disagreements with the party and its orientation I think it is and will be not too difficult for a more organised independent group and the SP to work together on most issues.

      All the best Henry

      critical media review

      January 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm

  2. Hi Mark

    Thank you for your long and colourful reply, I should begin I think in explaining my method, this is not an article with a pre-conceived party line to defend or an article to attack the SP. It is an exploration of the issues around the latest split. The politics of the situation is not necessarily clear or as black and white as you suggest and it will take many more articles and discussion to come to definitive conclusions. I am also trying to express some of the ideas on the situation (from different actors) in a dialectical fashion, it is a methodology that I think in the long run is much more fruitful than jumping to immediate conclusions and engaging in a-priori arguments without considering any other ideas or evidence.

    For my own political judgement I think the issue of democracy and structure is proving to be a key issue in both the Irish and British left and that question will be key to the future. For more thoughts on this issue I have an article here:

    http://www.irishleftreview.org/author/henry-silke/

    There are numerous articles originating in the UK discussing the slate system and the a-historical degeneration of democratic centralism as practiced by Irish and British Trotskyism which I am sure you are aware of. There are a number of links posted below the article, and there are more appearing daily on various websites.

    on your points:

    1: On point one I disagree, it is not at all certain that Clare Daly’s alliance with Mick Wallace preceded her split with the SP leadership. In fact it is far more likely the break with the leadership came first.

    2: Again I disagree, at best the SP was ambiguous.

    3. The level of engagement by the SP rank and file was minimum.

    4: That may be the case, but not talking and not working together certainly doesn’t do anything to help. You are right in the sense that it would of course need comrades to work in branches and make decisions based on the meetings themselves, rather than solely voting on pre-arranged lines which take no consequence of arguments made there.

    On your final point, well you did just make those political points, which is fine, the independents are a group of individuals with various political ideas rather than a single entity with a line. The independents did indeed make mistakes as a collective thought I think there was little we could have done vis a vis any of our allies.

    I hope that clears up any misunderstanding. I should finish by adding while I have some fundamental disagreements with the party and its orientation I think it is and will be not too difficult for a more organised independent group and the SP to work together on most issues.

    All the best Henry

    Henry

    January 30, 2013 at 2:11 pm

  3. The workers divided will ever be defeated!

    Luke Weyland

    January 31, 2013 at 12:28 am

  4. […] First posted at Tomás Ó Flatharta. […]

  5. […] Alliance didn’t last very long and split within two years, some details on this can be found here.   In 2010, however, the split was not a foregone conclusion and indeed there was serious […]


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