The Centre Cannot Hold

15th February 2020


Sinn Féin break the mould in the Irish general election

The Left in Britain should take heart from the outcome of the recent General Election in Ireland, where Sinn Féin broke the stranglehold of the centre right consensus in Irish government, in the form of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which have dominated the political life of Ireland for eight decades.

Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has set about the task of attempting to form a People’s Government with the support of smaller parties and independents in the Irish Parliament.  It may take time to put together such a coalition but the fact that Sinn Féin are even in such a position is a huge leap forward.

In a statement on the election outcome the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) made the following assessment,

“This election result has grown on the rejection of EU-imposed austerity and the polices that give priority to the needs of capital, of the rich and powerful, at the expense of workers, policies promoted by all the establishment parties, including the Labour Party, and the establishment media. It follows from the mass struggles on water, housing, health, Repeal the 8th, and marriage equality.

The election only confirmed that housing, health, pensions and child care were central questions that have had a great impact on the working class.”

However, as the CPI go on to warn, Sinn Féin must remain vigilant against the efforts of the Irish establishment to incorporate them into the system and blunt the demands which have propelled them into such a strong position.  A coalition with one of the establishment parties could very well lead to a watering down of the programme on which Sinn Féin were elected.  As the CPI go on to state,

“In the next few weeks we will witness the behind-the-scenes negotiations and back-room deals being pulled together to see which combination of parties will form the next Government. The opportunism of the Labour Party, Social Democrats and Green Party will make them very amenable to forming or supporting a Government with Fianna Fáil.

While Irish communists welcome these progressive developments, we are mindful of the history of class struggles and the fight for national independence and sovereignty, of how easily the demands and the energy of working people have been smothered in the past, promoting the blind faith that the electoral system alone can deliver real or lasting change.”

In the words of Irish poet WB Yeats , “the centre cannot hold.”

The election in Ireland does illustrate that Left policies can prove popular, as the Labour Party in Britain demonstrated in the 2017 General Election.  The contest for the leadership of the Labour Party has now been narrowed to three candidates, with Emily Thornberry failing to make the cut for the final ballot.

Kier Starmer remains the clear front runner, based upon Constituency Labour Party and trade union nominations, with Rebecca Long Bailey and Lisa Nandy also in the frame.  The election now goes to one member, one vote with all 500,000 Labour Party members eligible to make their choice.

Only Long Bailey has presented a platform which is consistent with the progressive positions Labour has developed over the past four years under Jeremy Corbyn.  Her demonisation by the media is in proportion to her support for left wing policies and every effort is being made, by both the media establishment and the establishment within the Labour Party, to undermine her position.

Starmer has recognised that he will not win without some left wing support and has made conciliatory noises, suggesting that Corbyn’s leadership and policies had some merit, and that the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water.  This is rich coming from him as Starmer was one of the key architects of Labour’s defeat, in arguing to ditch the policy of support for the referendum outcome, while lending weight to the so-called People’s Vote campaign.

Lisa Nandy is the current darling of the soft left and is likely to garner votes from those determined to see a woman leader but not brave enough to vote Long Bailey.

Whatever the outcome of the Labour leadership election the successful candidate can be sure of a media vilification campaign, if not on the scale of that directed at Corbyn, at least sufficient to pose questions about their leadership competence and economic credentials.  Even Starmer, the safety first candidate, will not escape this.

Nor can the centre hold in Britain any more than it can in Ireland. Whoever lands the Labour Party job can be sure that they will face a Prime Minister whose primary objective over the next five years is to secure a further five years in office.  The effective sacking of Chancellor, Sajid Javid, heralds a move to centralise economic decision making in the hands of No.10 and a determination by Boris Johnson to increase public spending on infrastructure projects, the green light for HS2 being just the start.

It is Johnson’s calculation that such spending will not only prove popular but will boost the economy, at least sufficiently, to gain him a second term.  However, it will take more than fast trains to turn around some of the structural issues of poverty, which have been compounded by ten years of austerity and biting welfare reforms.  It is ironic that HS2 will not even reach those Northern seats that Johnson has characterised as ‘lending’ him their votes.  It may not be long before many voters realise they have been short changed.

Johnson has been equally determined not to raise taxes, leaving him in the position of fuelling his spending plans through increased borrowing, albeit at favourable interest rates, or breaking the tax pledge.

In Britain, as in Ireland, it is hard to see how things will not, at some point fall apart.


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