Michael Taft: A Modest Strategy For Progressives


From top: voting in Drumcondra, Dublin during the 2007 Generel Election; Michael Taft

This post follows on from last week’s post which suggested we don’t have to see Irish politics as defined by a two-way contest between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

There is a potential for a three-way contest that includes the combined progressive parties.

Now that the election has effectively been called we can reasonably assume there will be no pre-election alliance among the progressive parties. However, this should not be fatal to the progressive project.

Let’s look at Portugal.

In 2015, after four years of austerity policies implemented by the centre-right PSD government, the Portuguese went to the polls. The result was a minority Socialist government supported by the Left Bloc and Communist Party.

In the run-up to and during the campaign such a formation was not considered nor did it appear on the agenda of any of the progressive parties – in large part because Portugal never had such a government.

The race was seen as between the PSD and the Socialists. When the result was in, both parties fell well short of a majority. However, even on election night the Socialist leader Antonio Costa seemed to reject a progressive coalition.

Nonetheless, a progressive government eventually emerged after protracted negotiations, a failed attempt by the PSD to form a government, and a hostile President.

Though progressive politics in Portugal and Ireland are not comparable (Portugal has a strong Left tradition with a European left/right divide), there are some potentially interesting parallels:

* Such a governmental arrangement was not contemplated during the campaign; not by the public nor any of the political parties.

* It only became a prospect after the election, especially with the strong performance of the Left Bloc which did not come at the expense of the either the Socialists or Communists.

* The parties – especially the Socialists and Communists – overcame their historical conflicts to cooperate in the new arrangement.

* It was a unique arrangement, never having been tried before, except briefly in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution.

The individual progressive parties worked separately prior to the election and, without planning, ended up together. Could that happen here?

Grassroots Action

The reality is that a progressive consensus can only be forged in a post-election scenario – and even here this will depend on political will and the relative and combined strengths of the parties. Therefore, what we do and say during the election should help lay the ground for what could happen afterwards.

We shouldn’t expect the parties themselves to take the lead. They will, as organisations, be understandably concerned with their own agendas, manifestos and constituency campaigns.

But this doesn’t mean the grassroots can’t act – party members and activists, trade union and civil society activists. Two small things that can be done:

Propagate a progressive analysis: quite simply, put forward the idea of a three-way contest wherever they can – in the media, social media, in meetings and engagements of every kind.

This would help put greater public (including media) focus on the individual progressive parties without precipitating any decision a party might make after the election.

Keep the votes in the progressive house: to help drive up the number of seats and create progressive cohesion – call for transfers to other progressive parties. As shown in the last blog post, without any guidance, voters for progressive parties are increasingly transferring within the progressive bloc.

One doesn’t have to name names; a simple call to ‘vote for the progressive party of your choice and transfer to other progressive parties’ would help.

We don’t have to rely on, or wait for, party leaderships and executives to act. Any supporter of progressive politics can take these steps in whatever small (or big) way they can.

A Modest Strategy

This still leaves open the question of what happens after the election. However, as the 2015 Portuguese election showed, a positive result is not predicated on pre-election agreements.

We can make this work to our advantage. If progressive parties won’t rule out a post-election accommodation with either of the conservative parties (and most won’t) then consistency would at least mean they don’t rule out acting cohesively, as a bloc. This can help insinuate the logic of a three-bloc contest into the debate.

Maximising gains across the progressive spectrum is more likely to increase options. A poor result would make it easier for the conservative parties to co-opt one or two progressive parties.

A strong result, however, would require the conservative parties to deal with almost the entire range of progressive parties. This sets up the potential for those parties to construct a common purpose based on their own policy similarities.

And a very strong performance could even open the possibility of a progressive-led government. Or force the two larger parties closer together, opening up the possibility of a progressive realignment in the medium term.

Irish politics teaches us to be wary about predicting post-election scenarios.

* In 1989 Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats entered into a pre-election alliance, but following the election the PDs entered into a coalition with Fianna Fail. This was notable for being the first time Fianna Fail entered a coalition, in a deal between two long-time enemies: Charlie Haughey and Des O’Malley.

* In 1992 Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring tore strips off one another prior to the election but entered into a historic coalition afterwards – the first time Fianna Fail and Labour coalesced.

* At the same time John Bruton declared he would never enter into coalition with Democratic Left, accusing them of still having links with paramilitaries. Two years later they were coalition partners.

* In 2016, Fianna Fail formally supported a minority Fine Gael government, a first for these parties.

Things can change dramatically and unexpectedly following an inconclusive election. And this includes a cohesive progressive intervention.

This is a modest strategy. This is not about generals moving pieces on an electoral chessboard that doesn’t reflect political conditions

. The point in any progressive struggle is to root strategy in reality, to identify what is possible, to make a credible assessment of the actors’ capacity in any particular conjuncture.

The priority is to rule-in the possibility of a third bloc in the public debate. This requires maximising cooperation, respecting the legitimacy of other parties’ positions or strategies (even if we don’t agree with them) and ending sectarianism.

In some corners of the progressive landscape, sectarian attacks are still made. This undermines progressive cooperation and reinforces the rule of the conservative parties. Fortunately, the propagators of such attacks are becoming less influential.

The post-election scenario could be a lengthy affair. In 2016 it took over two months to reach a post-election conclusion. Election 2020 could see an even longer period, depending on the result and the number of parties involved in negotiations. Therefore, there will be considerable time to make arguments and interventions.

Some will be concerned that such an open-ended strategy would allow some parties to take the gains and subsequently reject any post-election cooperation, choosing to go it alone.

That is, of course, a risk. Is it worth taking? Is it worth participating in a broad, if messy, church where there is always the danger people will do things that we oppose?

If we don’t think the risk is worth taking, we can always retreat into our small contented chapels. But we know where that leads.

So let’s go out and support our respective parties and candidates, talk up a three-way contest, ask supporters to keep their transfers within the progressive house, refrain from sectarianism and do everything possible to push up the progressive vote so we can maximise opportunities following the election.

And on the day after the results, let’s start the debate about how progressives, if they act together, can achieve a lot more than if they act separately.

Michael Taft is a researcher for SIPTU and author of the political economy blog, Notes on the Front. His column appears here every Tuesday.


4 thoughts on “Michael Taft: A Modest Strategy For Progressives

  1. Cian

    Whatever way you split it, there most likely outcome it that FF + FG together will have more than half the seats. The “progressive parties” won’t be able to form a government without either FF or FG.

    Unless either FF or FG surprise us and are able to get a majority with the support of one collation partner, then we’re back to Fine Gael formally supported a minority Fianna Fail government or vice versa.

  2. GiggidyGoo

    The photo above created the image of the last years of the ‘I’m a party voter’

    ‘Go on Da and uncle, cast your [insert FF or FG party name here] vote’. Sure didn’t he fix the potholes here 10 years ago.

  3. V

    Would I be allowed call the current Government (the worst in the history of the State – imo anyway)
    A combined Government

    Shurely FG plus the Alliance TDs plus the eFFers C&S plus the Blueshirt strays
    Even the Alliance Sextet brings in its own colour wheel – from Ross to Zappone

    A FG/ SF contraption is not out of the question btw
    The other possibility is FF/Labour/ Greens / SDs – God help us all

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