Election 2020: the view from Dublin Bay North

Councillor John Lyons running for election in Dublin Bay North, pictured in the evening on a ladder, smiling as he lifts a post with a large poster of his head and shoulders, on which is written Vote No.1, Cllr John Lyons, Independent Left.
Councillor John Lyons is running for Independent Left in Dublin Bay North and has a real chance of a seat.

Nine days into the campaign, how does the picture look for Independent Left?

When senior Fine Gael members took the decision to dissolve the Dáil on 14 January and began campaigning for a general election campaign they were feeling complacent. The other parties were looking towards a May date and were caught without election materials to hand, while Leo Varadkar had his posters up before the election had officially begun. The timing seemed right, not least because Fine Gael anticipated benefiting from the fact that Varadkar appeared impressive beside Boris Johnson in the negotiations around Brexit and the Northern Assembly was up and running again, with the Irish government having played a part in this.

Moreover, in the champagne bubble that surrounds Fine Gael, the world looks extremely positive: the number of millionaires in Ireland has increased by a third since 2013, to 78,000 and these millionaires are paying income tax at the same rate as people earning the average wage. Many of Ireland’s wealthy are landlords (a third of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail TDs are landlords) and are enjoying a growth in their incomes from tenants who are desperately squeezed. In North County Dublin, average rents rose by 5.6% in 2019 to €1,728, having risen by 11% in 2018.

With unemployment below 5% and economic growth levels relatively healthy compared to the rest of Europe (around 5% in 2019 and a predicted 4% for 2020), Fine Gael strategists rubbed their hands and set out for what they assumed would be a very good election for them.

In fact, it is going to be a very bad one.

The problem with elections, from a Fine Gael and Fianna Fail point of view, is that you have to go outside the champagne bubble and listen to voices that don’t normally concern you. And while the 78,000 millionaires are powerful voices and highly networked to these parties in the day-to-day running of Irish society, they are vastly outnumbered when an election takes place.

Fine Gael suffering a backlash in Dublin Bay North

By now, Fine Gael have discovered that there exists a huge body of people who far from enjoying increased prosperity are suffering enormously. For the majority of people in Ireland in 2020, life is extremely stressful. Yes, we have jobs. But the money we earn disappears into rents and mortgages, into childcare, into bills, including medical ones when the services we need urgently aren’t there. Everywhere, there is pressure on our living standards and obvious neglect of public services, especially health, education and transport. And alongside these very immediate causes of stress is the wider issue of a planet that is getting distinctly warmer and jeopardising our futures and that of our children.

Not one person has mentioned Brexit or the Northern Assembly in our canvassing. We hear awful stories of long waits for health services, which bear out the figures that, for example, that Dublin North has 2,400 children on the waiting list for speech and language therapy (in contrast to the waiting list of 10 for Dun Laoghaire, and 0 for Dublin South East).

The anger at Fine Gael is palpable and while Richard Bruton’s seat is safe (Dublin Bay North has its affluent areas and in a constituency that voted heavily for Same Sex Marriage and Repeal, the government might get some credit for those referenda), he won’t be able to bring home Catherine Noone.

Fianna Fail share the blame for deprivation and neglect in parts of the constituency

A lot of the same anger is directed at Fianna Fail too, understandably given the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement that meant Fianna Fail propped up Fine Gael. It’s very common to hear a mistrust of politicians all together from those we canvass. And for communities in Dublin Bay North that have experienced far more than a decade of neglect such anger is entirely justified. In the circles that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail move, there is no consequence for creating pockets of real poverty, desperately poor services, feeble civic amenities, or schools deprived of facilities. For the rest of us, an approach which has favoured the wealthy has resulted in very severe consequences. There has been a rise in drug use and in the appeal of criminal gangs for young, disenfranchised people. Many people have said they are afraid to go out of their homes and there are parents in parts of Dublin Bay North that simply cannot let their children run out and play, instead they take buses to get to safer areas. And since Fianna Fail are as complicit in the creation of these circumstances as Fine Gael, they are not likely to be able to bring in Deirdre Heney, though Sean Haughey is certain to keep his seat.

Is there a seat for Independent Left in Dublin Bay North?

With both Finian McGrath and Tommy Broughan retiring, the consensus among the political correspondents of RTE and the Irish Times is that this will boost Labour and the Social Democrats relative to everyone else. Yet from our canvassing and from what we can learn from the 2016 election, it seems like Councillor John Lyons of Independent Left is currently best placed to appeal to those who voted Tommy Broughan and has a lot to offer those who voted Finian McGrath. The two independents were very different of course. Tommy Broughan was a Labour Party TD opposed to coalition with Fine Gael and who – quite rightly – on 1 December 2011 stood firm on the issue of not extending the ruinous bank guarantee scheme. As a result, he was expelled from Labour and subsequently worked with left independents like Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly, Clare Daly, Maureen O’Sullivan, Thomas Pringle, and Mick Wallace, with whom he formed the Independents4Change technical group in the Dáil.

On a whole range of policies around housing and health and especially on the principle of not going into government with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail, Tommy Broughan is far more closely aligned with John Lyons than Aodhán Ó Ríordáin (Labour) and Cian O’Callaghan (Social Democrats). A consistent theme of Tommy Broughan’s political career was the need to challenge the two main parties of the right and this has to be reflected in the values of his voters. 

By contrast, Finian McGrath obviously did believe it worthwhile to join with Fine Gael in government. It’s not at all clear, however, that his voters would agree that this was a success. Not only has Finian McGrath to share responsibility for the housing crisis and the failure to reduce hospital waiting lists, but even in his own remit, as Minister for State for Disability Issues, his record cannot be considered a success. The one section in Irish society for whom employment did not rise under the Fine Gael-led government is that of people with disability, two-thirds of whom do not have jobs. In primary and secondary education, while the number of SNA employed has risen, their hours have been reduced, and along with the fact that the number of children in need of support have increased, the situation for children with special needs is worse than at any time since the savage Fine Gael-Labour cuts to their service of 2013.

From the transfer patterns of the 2016 election, it is likely that many of Finian McGrath’s voters would be disappointed in his decision to join a Fine Gael-led government and his record when in cabinet. Only dribbles of transfers came his way when Stephanie Regan and Naoise Ó Muiri of Fine Gael were eliminated and there was no obvious gain either for Finian McGrath from the elimination of Deirdre Heney of Fianna Fail. His former voters certainly seem likely to favour the non-government parties but it’s not clear at this point that they will focus on Labour and the Social Democrats, more likely is that they will spready fairly evenly, also coming in part to John Lyons, Denise Mitchell (Sinn Féin) and David Healy (Green Party). Which brings us to the Greens.

Have the Green Party made a terrible mistake in Dublin Bay North?

Given the surge in support for the Green Party in Dublin, it’s understandable that Paddy Power would make David Healy a 2/9 favourite to win a seat in Dublin Bay North. David Healy is the Green Party’s spokesperson on climate and that is definitely an important issue for people we have been talking to. Our own view is that the Green Party will not deliver a radical enough solution to significantly alter Ireland’s contribution to global warming. Partly, this is because they are ready to go into coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail, despite some internal opposition, but also because their big idea is a heavy carbon tax, which is not going to be a socially just way of tackling climate change. Even so, the Green Party are set to do well as an expression of people’s concern about the state of the planet.

Yet the candidate they have selected for Dublin Bay North is out of line with the official Green Party policy and with voters here in one very important way: he was against the Repeal of the Eighth amendment, voted ‘no’ and expressed support for the ‘no’ position at the time. Dublin Bay North had the second highest turnout in the country for that referendum and with 74.69% yes, was one of the strongest regions for repeal. By contrast with David Healy, John Lyons assisted in the formation of Dublin Bay North’s Repeal the 8th campaign, and, as one person put it on Twitter, was tireless in working for that campaign.

A screenshot of a Tweet (in dark mode) which reads: I know that people are keen to support candidates with a good track record on Repeal. On my first canvass with @DBNRepeal, I was trained in by @CllrJohnLyons. His work on the #repealthe8th campaign was extensive & tireless. Lucky for us he's running in #DublinBayNorth #GE20
One of many tweets highlighting the pro-choice record of Councillor John Lyons of Independent Left, a candidate in the General Election 2020 in Dublin Bay North

Kate Antosik-Parsons of the Dublin Bay North Repeal the 8th Campaign explains why she will be giving her number one vote to Councillor John Lyons.

The Green Party had other potential candidates for the constituency of Dublin Bay North and ought to have been set to take a seat at this point in the campaign. Now, however, there will be hundreds of voters who are unsure about returning an anti-choice candidate, no matter how supportive they are of other Green policies.

What is the likely result in general election 2020 in Dublin Bay North?

The constituency has five seats. With Sinn Féin running a strong campaign nationally and having just the one candidate in Dublin Bay North this time, Denise Mitchell will consolidate her seat. Richard Bruton (Fine Gael) will do well and be elected after the elimination of Catherine Noone. Sean Haughey will probably improve on Richard Bruton’s 2016 performance and take the top spot, not only because of the indication of the national polls, but last time around Avril Power took some of the Fianna Fail vote.

There will then be two seats left and our estimate is that three candidates will be close: John Lyons, David Healy and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, with Cian O’Callaghan a little bit off the pace. The main difficulty Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has is not only the awful record of Labour when in government, which people haven’t forgotten, but the fact that the national party is so anxious to position itself as respectable and responsible, that they have policies to the right of Fianna Fail, who cynically know when to make promises on housing and health that they won’t deliver on.

Whereas Independent Left have no fear of offending developers and those pushing for privatisation of health, or those on high incomes who we would tax for the resources that public services need, Labour are looking anxiously over at these same people in the hope of appeasing them.

For that reason, we are backing ourselves to win a seat and for the Green Party to edge out Labour, despite the fact that David Healy was on the wrong side of the Repeal referendum.

Thomas Daly of Darndale FC, endorsing Councillor John Lyons for Dublin Bay North in election 2020.

The UK election of 12 December 2019: what can the left learn?

A picture of Westminister Parliament from the south bank of the Thames, it is just after sunset and the building is lit up with yellow and orange light reflected on the water. This is where the Tory part will hold a majority in the light of the 12 December 2019 general election.
The results of the 12 December 2019 UK election were a huge blow for socialist ideas. What are the main lessons for the left?

With the decisive victory of Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn, the left needs to come to terms with what was a crushing defeat for a political agenda that on paper was much closer to a radical socialist one than anything that has been on offer to the UK electorate for decades.

In the immediate aftermath of the Tory victory in the UK election of December 2019, very many left groups rushed out an analysis. And often this analysis boiled down to one takeaway message: if only Corbyn had adopted our politics, he could have won. Thus, for those who favoured a ‘Lexit’, a left support for Brexit, the problem for Labour was that they moved away from a position that respected the June 2016 Brexit referendum result to one that argued for more negotiations and possibly a second referendum. For left parties that were for Remain (and Independent Left are among them) the analysis runs the other way. Labour would have done much better had it been clearly and unambiguously the party of Remain.

Thus, the pain of the defeat is eased and the old certainties of these parties continue undisturbed.

It could well be that had Labour caved in to the racism of the pro-Brexit side as figures such as Stephen Kinnock wanted, it might have done better. It could also be true that had Labour more firmly tried to rally the Remain population and say that it too would get Brexit done – by killing it off – Labour might well have improved its performance too (with Remain being the better option, both in terms of challenging anti-immigrant racism but also in electoral terms, as @johnross43 showed on his Twitter post).

A black and white table with four columns, on the left, a list of parties, arranged by whether pro-Brexit or Remain. Then their 2017 vote, then their vote in the election of 2019 and the final column being the difference.
Between 2017 and 2019, Labour lost approximately 2.58m votes to Remain parties and 0.35m to Pro-Brexit parties

How strange, that two positions in apparent opposition to each other might both be true. As is often the case with such conundrums, they represent half-grasped insights into a deeper dynamic that makes sense of them both.

What unites the two arguments (Labour should have been more for Brexit / Labour should have been more for Remain) is an electorate who desperately wanted an end to the protracted and painful divisions over Brexit. By trying to steer a middle course on Brexit, Labour offered months, if not years more, of a debate that to many was infuriating. Back to the EU for more negotiations, then a second referendum on the result of those negotiations. And no commitment to advocating for its deal in such a scenario. This was a line that could only be drawn mathematically: by finding the centre of gravity between competing forces and trying to balance them. Sometimes, this kind of politics, of finding a position that doesn’t alienate anyone too much, can work. De Valera was a master at it. But with Johnson knowing full well how disenchanted large swathes of the public were with the delay to Brexit, Labour’s position didn’t come across as far-sighted and statesmanlike, it seemed cowardly.

In hindsight, the parliamentary manoeuvres that prevented Johnson from crashing out in a no deal scenario do not look as clever as they appeared at the time. Yes, Johnson was boxed in, but all the time he was boxed in and being refused an election, he was gaining potential energy from massive discontent with further delays to Brexit, so that when the election came, he could spring forth, like a jack-in-the-box, crying, ‘get Brexit done’ and release that frustration.

My conclusion in regard to Brexit, the all important theme of the election, is that Labour, by half-moving to Remain took a very difficult position. To have won despite this sense that they were sitting on the fence would have required the public to be more concerned about other issues, such as the NHS than Brexit, which ultimately was not the case.

Was the Labour manifesto too radical in 2019?

Naturally, the right in the British Labour Party and the Irish too, have been quick to conclude that the December 2019 UK election proves that radical socialist policies are unelectable and that the UK Labour party should move back to the ‘centre’ ground of Blair and Brown. For ‘centre’, read neo-liberal, austerity politics.

The reality seems to have been a public – and especially working class communities — who much preferred Labour’s manifesto to that of the Tories. As one Labour canvasser wrote:

Once I had made common ground with people, I encountered no prejudice, and little rugged individualism. I did this by talking the language of class, which is something the left have not done well, even under Corbyn. When I asked them about public services, about the Labour manifesto and its promises, they were very enthused, and yes, even those people who had voted Tory or who were abstaining because they ‘hated all politicians’.

Fifty-nine percent of Labour voters said they: “preferred the promises made by the party I voted for more than the promises of other parties”, the second most popular reason for voting Labour (the first being that they trusted Labour’s motives more). Whereas for the Tory voter, it was not about policy, it was about Brexit. Labour’s policies were not vote losers, in fact they were vote-winning, especially among younger voters. The graphic about this is extraordinary.

As @electionmapsuk on Twitter noted last year based on polls, the Tories would win no seats if the only voters were those aged 18 – 24 and the Ashcroft survey after the election of 2019 bears this out.

A map of the UK with constituency boundaries, which is nearly entirely red except for Scotland, mostly pale yellow, and a dot of green in Wales with some dots of orange. It illustrates the fact that if voters in the UK in 2019 had been limited to the 18 - 24 year old group, Labour would have won 600 seats.
The astonishing picture if voters had been limited to the 18 – 24 year old group is that the Conservatives would have been wiped out entirely by that generation.

What hurt Labour beyond Brexit, was not the policies as such, but the questions around them. How much would they cost and, especially, how would Jeremy Corbyn deliver them? Wasn’t he just making promises for votes, the same as all politicians do?

Here there was a difference between Corbyn versus May in 2017 and Corbyn versus Johnson in 2019 and the difference was not just a matter of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Tory leader. Corbyn had the better of both in terms of debating issues that working class communities care about. In 2019, however, he also bore the legacy of two years of parliamentary games, during which time the sense that he was different wore off.

Of course, there was a horrible smear campaign against Corbyn from the UK’s media. They were worse in 2019 than in 2017 and on the issue of anti-Semitism, utterly hypocritical given that anti-Semitism in the Tory party is far more prevalent than it is in the Labour Party. What gave Corbyn difficulty in resisting the media attacks this time around was in part that over the intervening months he became normalised as a politician. That’s something which is very difficult to avoid if you are the leader of the UK’s Labour Party. It is also fatal for someone whose main strength in resisting the Tory-controlled media messages is that of being the outsider, the anti-establishment figure, the person who actually is sincere about causes and willing to fight them.  In 2017, there was a sense that Corbyn was all these things and that rant and rave as the billionaire class might through its media channels, the people, and especially the younger people mobilised at massive, inspiring rallies by Momentum, could shrug it all off and sing his name with passion. Of course the media froth against Corbyn: he’s ours not theirs. He’s outside of the box.

In 2019, there were nowhere near the same levels of turnout for mass rallies to take Corbyn to heart and use alternative media to build a space for him that was free from control by the elites and one which could spread to politicise wider numbers. Corbyn had, by the logic of his role over the intervening months, to play the game of politics in the usual way, among the usual public schoolboys, in the usual chamber from where the voice of working class communities has largely been absent. He had become (and, of course, to a large extent has been all his life) that despised creature, a politician.

In 2019, Momentum played a magnificent role in terms of winning the battle on social media, even with a fraction of the budget available to the Tories. And one positive from this election result for all the left going forward would be to study Momentum’s productions and campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and Instragram. Yet the higher level of co-ordination and planning by Momentum activists in 2019 compared to 2017 was met by a less passionate response. Gone were the chaotic but electric mass rallies of the earlier election and in their place, much less inspiring events.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto was more left-wing than that of 2017 but the context of a weaker mass movement around Corbyn meant, with the exception of the promises around the NHS, it looked unconvincing. My second takeaway for the left from this election is that advocating socialist policies as a response to years of austerity is unproblematic. There’s no need to rush back to the centre. What matters are our connections to communities willing to be active participants in the process of winning the goals set out in manifestos. One demand arising from a politicised working class (e.g. abolish the Water Charges) is worth a dozen from a think-tank or 1930s transitional programme. And in the period between elections, if the left have not been focused on whatever options to campaign exist outside of parliament, then we do lack credibility if we suddenly promise a golden age of socialist policies come an election.

Can the left revive after the UK election of 2019?

Easily.

On the night, the UK election result felt like a terrible blow for the left. And it was. Once again, the right and especially the anti-immigrant racist feel triumphant. This is no light matter. Yet an election should be understood as a snapshot of feeling rather than a fundamental change in the social landscape. By which I mean, for example, that the defeat of the miners in 1984 – 5 was a far worse defeat than this election result. When the best-organised, most economically strategic group of workers are crushed and eventually laid off, it’s no wonder that in industry after industry, the axe subsequently comes down on workers’ incomes and rights.

An election result, even this one, where it was so polarised, changes very little in terms of the capacity of workers to mount campaigns and strikes. And when you consider that Labour was way ahead among voters aged 18 – 44 even in purely electoral terms, that indicates a comeback in the future.

Moreover, there are features of Johnson’s victory that mean his position is not as stable as having a big majority of MPs suggests. On his right, there is Nigel Farage. There is enormous mistrust and outright anger from the hardline Brexiters towards Johnson. Tactically, they had to retreat from challenging the Tories or split the vote and let Labour into government but they hated doing so and will be seeking ways to ‘reapply pressure’ on the Tories, as Farage put it soon after the election.

On Johnson’s left, within the Tory party, are those who do not want to make a dash out of Europe at the cost of severe trading penalties. In 2018, 45% of the UK’s exports were to EU countries (and 53% of imports). This means there is a sizeable number of people in business — the natural base for the Tories — who hate Brexit. They have come to terms with it, though, as judged by the bounce in Sterling and the UK’s stock market after the election. Given a divided consensus among the Tory party’s business network and a UK population who will experience all kinds of unexpected hardships once Brexit is concluded, there’s no doubt at all that the left will bounce back. And it doesn’t have to be a matter of waiting five years until the next election. Not only are there no shortage of issues for the left to campaign on right now in the UK, the frustration of the younger worker and of trade unionists as a result of this election mean that significant strikes and protest movements are very likely to spring up in 2020