Independent Left Reply to People Before Profit

Socialists and left unity in Ireland 2020

To members of People Before Profit,

We commend your initiative, ‘let’s bring the left together to fight this government’.

Although the formation of a conservative government is a threat to working class communities, it is a threat that we can meet.

The fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been obliged to come together is historic. For decades, the main voice of opposition to whichever of these parties has led a government was the other party. And as we are all well aware, this was no real opposition at all. Discontent was carefully channelled down pathways that were safe for the Irish elite. Now, however, there is an opportunity to escape into entirely new and radical ways of thinking about the world and to popularise socialist answers to a massive, global crisis.

Sinn Féin will be the largest voice of opposition. This is a significant step forward compared to the old Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael posturing. And because Sinn Féin connect to the same working class communities that we do, there will be plenty of opportunity to both work with them, but also alert our class to the limitations of that party and offer a much more fundamental, revolutionary, change than does Sinn Féin.

When the crisis of 2008 hit, we were not well placed to resist the ‘shock and awe’ policies that saddled Ireland with enormous debt and cowed the trade unions with the scale of cuts that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agreed were necessary to save the Irish ‘economy’ (the wealth of the Irish elite).

The crisis of 2020 and 2021 will be worse, economically. But this time there is a very different mood in the country. One where people will question the government’s priorities and loyalty to an elite who have grown enormously wealthy over the past ten years. Young people, especially, have been emboldened by referendum victories.

A coherent socialist vision for a world in which the wealth is taken off the rich and large businesses to solve the needs of housing and healthcare is going to be crucial. A vision which can assist movements take off at the speed of the Black Lives Matter protests and amplify them when they do happen. Not just on the streets, as you point to, but also with the return of the mass strike: the most powerful form of protest we have.

The role of socialists within these movements must be democratic and open. We can learn from and be led by these new movements. Our spirit should be in keeping with the disability rights slogan of the 80s: “nothing about us without us”.

This vision, as you rightly say, has to be identified with, ‘fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.’ Of course, too, socialists should be proudly identified with the campaigns of those with disabilities for equal access and equal opportunity and with the need to help farmers make the transition from a cruel and unhealthy livestock industry to a climate and animal-friendly one. We should demand that public services such as health are taken into full state control, as we have seen the possibilities of doing this during the COVID-19 crisis. We should fight for public housing on public land. We must resist cuts to youth and community services.

The endless growth required by a capitalist society cannot deliver us the technology we need to create a sustainable planet faster than it makes our planet uninhabitable. A society that prioritises money over welfare cannot be green.

With these goals in mind, we look forward to working with you and others in creating a fruitful conversation that does indeed bring the left together.

The members of Independent Left

Reading Lenin in the light of the collapse of the SWP and the ISO

A comparison of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party with Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party

A clear, deep blue sky against which is a sunlit statue of Lenin, pointing to the viewer's left, palm open. His own left hand hold's the lapel of his coat for balance and his expression is determined. A 1954 Communist vision of Lenin.
The ISO self-destructed, the UK SWP shrank to a rump and the Irish SWP dissolved: what does that mean for the interpretation of Lenin that they shared, one derived from Tony Cliff’s book Lenin: Building the Party?

In 2013, not long after the British SWP went into dramatic convulsions over the way their party failed to support a young member in her allegation that a very much older and more senior member had raped her, I had reason to be in Chicago. While there I met up with the International Socialist Organisation (at the time a relatively successful example of a revolutionary party), gave a talk on Ireland’s revolutionary years and attended a dayschool of theirs on Lenin and the revolutionary party. The bookstall had copies of studies of Lenin by Lars Lih, Paul Le Blanc and Tony Cliff.

Anyone wanting to encourage the development of a revolutionary party has, of course, to form an opinion of Lenin. Before the ISO fell out with their British equivalents (i.e. the SWP), their approach to Lenin would have been profoundly if not exclusively shaped by the British SWP and in particular by the leading figure in that party, Tony Cliff. It interested me that the ISO had a wider outlook on the subject than was usual in the SWP and the enthusiasm of the bookstall organiser meant that I came away with a copy of Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.

The cover of Paul Le Blanc's Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. A collage of a picture of Lenin speaking outdoors with a march of women workers. Black and white with a red bar dropping down from the top right corner with the author's name.
The cover of Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party

This book was first published in 1990 and I had never read it because having inhabited a rather closed-minded organization, I felt there was little that someone closely aligned to the politics of Ernest Mandel would have to say on the subject that would be useful. After all, as I was told and believed at the time, I had been guided in my understanding of Lenin by someone with vastly superior politics to those of Mandel: Tony Cliff. More than this, as an SWP organiser in the UK and then in Ireland I had always used Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party as the essential text for explaining the theory behind SWP party-building methods to those members who I anticipated would go on to play leading roles in their branches and nationally.

A photo of the jacket of the 1986 edition of Tony Cliff's Lenin: Building the Party (Bookmarks). The title is in thick black letters across the middle of a white cover, beneath a picture of a barricade taken during the 1917 revolution. The word Lenin is in mauve, in. the bottom right corner.
1986 edition of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party (Bookmarks)

The ISO – in the words of one of their organisers – said at the time that they drew on a canon of the best of other traditions and individuals to inform their attitude to Lenin and the lessons for today in regard to the revolutionary party. This sounded admirably open-minded. But I couldn’t help wondering if this willingness to promote other studies of Lenin than that of Cliff was, in fact, a watering down of the revolutionary Lenin in favour of a more Occupy-friendly version.

Given the 2019 collapse of the ISO, it is also reasonable to ask whether a move away from their traditional, if one-sided, reading of Lenin contributed to the crisis?

Then too, there was the 2018 submergence of the Irish SWP (I was a member at the time they voted to become a network within People Before Profit, yet I had no opportunity to vote on the decision; no documents were sent to me for consideration; no invitation was made for me to offer my views. I accidentally discovered from an online post that the party I thought I was a member of had gone). When you combine this with the self-destruction of the ISO and the rape-apologist behaviour of the UK SWP, the word ‘crisis’ is barely strong enough to encapsulate what has happened to parties of this type, who were once all thriving and united in a common organisation: the International Socialist Tendency.

It seemed evident to me that the failure of these parties meant that every aspect of SWP theory had to be looked at again with new eyes. Moreover – somewhat reluctantly, since it was time consuming – I felt that I had to make more of an effort to re-examine my attitude to Lenin. Without doing so, I was missing out in regard to developing my own understanding of the issues of party of class in an age when new means of communication mean some of the the old certainties, such as the essential role of the physical newspaper (a major topic in Cliff’s book), were fast becoming obsolete. So I reread Cliff and studied Le Blanc.

Side by side: Tony Cliff vs Paul Le Blanc on Lenin

The first thing to say about these books is that the story they tell is an inspiring one. Lenin became a Social Democrat (i.e. Marxist) in 1893, at the age of 23. Twenty-four years later, at 47, he led the successful Russian Revolution. Trotsky met revolutionaries in 1896 at the age of 17; he was 38 when he oversaw the October insurrection. Reading again the story of Lenin reminded me that when I became a revolutionary, during the great miner’s strike of 1984-5 in the UK, I thought that by now I would be living in a post-revolutionary era. After all, it took only twenty-four years for Lenin to go from next-to-nothing to the 1917 revolution.

It is worth noting that the experience of Western revolutionaries 1985 – 2020 has been a low-key one in comparison to the storms experienced by Lenin and Trotsky’s generation or that of the next. This, of course, is about to change and one reason why I’m delighted to have come through the experience of having COVID19 is because socialist politics are clearly going to be relevant in the 2020s.

At the deepest level, the crisis of the International Socialist Tendency is explained by this relative historical quiescence. Although the specific problems that arose in the UK and the USA deserve close analysis (with particular attention being paid to the question of who controlled their assets, worth a great deal), there’s a reasonable chance that the flaws in these parties and especially the emergence of a predatory male elite would not have become fatal had their members been engaged with the ebbs and flows of profound social upheavals such as those dealt with by Lenin. They would have been more deeply rooted in working class communities who would not tolerate the kinds of behaviour that ultimately brought them down.

Lenin’s efforts to build a revolutionary party from 1893 onwards are fascinating and deserving of scrutiny because they culminate in his having decisive influence over the October revolution of 1917. The twists and turns and dialectical inversions and leaps of the development of the Bolshevik party, even in the quiet years, are compelling to read about, because each argument at every stage really mattered. Each conference, debate, new pamphlet, new recruit, split, had consequences that rippled out over time to affect millions. Both books grasp this process well and while Le Blanc’s is the more scholarly in an academic sense, Cliff’s holds up surprisingly well in terms of the effort he made to contextualise each moment of the drama.

Neither author was able to access untranslated Russian source material directly. Cliff was perhaps the more eager to seize upon a tiny detail in a memoir to illuminate a particular moment. Le Blanc prefers to sum up contextual situations by reference to a secondary source, usually a work, to be fair, that is based on a detailed study of the Russian sources. Opening Lenin and the Revolutionary Party at random and finding an example, this type of statement is typical (p. 234): ‘As Hasegawa writes, “by the fall of 1916 the [Menshevik] workers’ group was obviously losing ground to the Bolsheviks and to regain its lost influence among the workers, the workers’ group turned leftward in December 1916.”’ This methodology is often unsatisfactory, as often the point being made by the secondary work comes across as an assertion without foundation. I wanted to see the primary evidence for the point being made.

Another difference between the books is that Le Blanc makes more of an effort to contrast his reading of Lenin with those of right wing or social democratic authors. This works to a certain extent, in ‘rescuing’ Lenin from the stereotype of the ruthless Machiavelli, but it surrounds the story with a commentary that is much less interesting than Cliff’s if your focus is the question: what does this all mean for revolutionaries today? In other words, there is no question but that Le Blanc’s is a much more helpful book for a student battling against ideologically driven attacks on Lenin. But for building the party, Cliff’s approach, potentially, has the advantage. At various points, Cliff puts the breaks on the narrative to digress with generalisations about party building and it is these generalisations that served for years to inform the practice of those on the SWP branch, district and national committees both in the UK and Ireland.

Cover of the 1994 pamphlet, The SWP versus Lenin by Ian Land. Mostly black, a white stencil of Lenin's face is in the lower two-thirds, with the details of the book at the top. Red, white and black colours only
Ian Land’s 1994 critique of Cliff’s view of Lenin remains the most insightful

I say ‘potentially’ because of course, the conclusions about the revolutionary party that Cliff drew do not, in fact, have the emancipatory power I once thought they did. Here, I think the best critique of Building the Party comes from Ian Land in 1994.

The cover of Lars Lih's Lenin Rediscovered. A Kandinsky background, mostly yellow, with the book details in a brown box in the centre upper half.
Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered

Lars Lih does an impressive job of overthrowing various paradigms concerning misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Lenin (not only those of Cliff), using 600 pages of densely sourced argument in his book Lenin Rediscovered. And that is very valuable. But to understand what particular lens was distorting Cliff’s view of Lenin you only need a few lines. In Cliff’s experience of leading the SWP, you had to battle hard for a new orientation for the party and the people you were battling against were those who had most immersed themselves in the old orientation. Your weapons? Exaggeration and youth. Cliff was expert in galvanising the openness of new members to new tactics to turn them against older members who might resist the new course.

So we learn this about the young Lenin from Cliff:

This readiness to bend the stick too far in one direction and then to go into reverse and bend it too far in the opposite direction was a characteristic that he retained throughout his life. It was already clearly apparent at this early stage of his development as a revolutionary leader.

Later, in discussing the rules of the party, Cliff wrote:

An overformal party structure inevitably clashes with two basic features of the revolutionary movement: (1) the unevenness in consciousness, militancy, and dedication of different parts of the revolutionary organisation; and (2) the fact that members who play a positive, vanguard role at a certain stage of the struggle fall behind at another.

If you are trying to explain to a party member why, having campaigned on a certain issue in a particular fashion, the party is now doing something radically different, these formulations are a great help. They address an important truth, which is that the currents of revolutionary politics are fast changing and the party has to be able to make swift turns and not be trapped, for example, by the moralism of a declining campaign, into substituting for a real movement. Nor must a revolutionary party be afraid of pouring every resource behind a critical strike, say. But Cliff’s formulations address this truth in a one-sided fashion.

Is it accurate to characterise Lenin as believing he was being excessive but that the outcome would justify his exaggerations? In other words, was Lenin willing to deliberately present a distorted picture of the world to win his perspective? In short, the answer is ‘no’. Le Blanc and Lars Lih and my own reading of Lenin’s works convince me that fundamentally at every stage Lenin believed that the truth was on his side, at least until events proved otherwise. Holding doggedly to a particular focus and task for the party is not the same as telling the party something which deep down, you do not actually believe, but which you consider expedient.

Here’s how one staunch defender of Cliff puts it in more recent times:

Cliff had learned from experience that shifting an organization of several thousand members (as oppose winning an academic or historical debate) from one strategic orientation and one way of working to another to meet the challenge of changed circumstances, required an almighty great tug on the relevant levers and, sometimes, a certain exaggeration. For Cliff achieving the desired end was more important than terminological exactitude or consistency and he rather thought, as do I, that Lenin felt the same way. http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.ie/2006/11/lihs-lenin-review-of-lars-t-lih-lenin.html

There is an evasion here. The argument is not whether Lenin was fussy about terminology but whether Lenin ever felt it necessary to deliberately exaggerate ‘to achieve the desired end.’ John Molyneux believes so. I do not. Lenin was fully aware the dialectics of revolutionary socialism do not allow for the separation of means and ends. The means you adopt will shape the end you arrive at. The moment you cease to tell the truth, no matter how unpalatable or how it works against the point you want to make, is the moment you abandon the prospect of realising a socialist society. I say this for entirely practical as well as moral reasons.

Secondly, look again at the question of party structure. It is an observable fact that all revolutionary parties are uneven, Cliff’s (1), but (2) is not as clear cut as it seems because it contains a value judgement. Who decides whether a member is falling behind? While another member is being ‘positive’? The true test has to be in regard to how effective the respective members are in changing the world. And judging that effectiveness is a complicated matter, where collective decision-making, honest accounting and democratic forms are essential. But in Cliff’s hands, this piece about rules can be read as follows: rules are all very well, but when some idiot is dragging the party down, it is necessary to find those who are getting results and use them to smash the conservatives, even if that means violating formalities.

Anyone expelled – or rapidly thrust from leading bodies within the SWP – by Cliff in the UK or Kieran Allen in Ireland will be familiar with what this depiction of Lenin meant in practice. But I think this depiction of Lenin also helps explain something of the attitude of those who have been in these parties for a long time and unfailingly endorse the initiatives of the leadership. Such long-term members have internalised the same ideas as profound revolutionary truths, which leads them to reason along the following lines: ‘I don’t want to be like the committee-men of 1905 who resisted the party’s turn to the class, therefore I will overcome my reservations and embrace the latest line. After all, this is the best way to test a perspective.’

Over time, the membership of the party learn to accept (and justify to themselves and others) that they have no meaningful input into the creation of new initiatives or the party’s position on crucial issues. This is in marked contrast to the vigorous and lively internal life of the pre-1917 Bolshevik party.

As a guide to the nature of a successful revolutionary party, Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin’s approach to rules only works if the party leader is always right. But who judges the judge? Who corrects the leadership when they are wrong? History? History has made its judgement upon Cliff’s party and its associates.

If Cliff’s Building the Party is flawed in this way, i.e. flawed at the points where it addresses the methodology of ‘stick bending’, is Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party the better tool for guiding revolutionaries in the theory and practice of building the revolutionary party? I don’t believe so. In fact, despite the criticism I’ve just made, I’d rather give someone Cliff’s book, mainly because of its activist focus. Le Blanc’s is a very good history written by someone with a clear understanding of the political stakes in the various debates but it has half an eye on academia. This means the standard of scholarship is high, but at the cost of the book being less of a manual for revolutionaries. It also has some political weaknesses, perhaps the most important being the failure to articulate the full scope of Lenin’s anti-imperialism. The author has a soft spot for the Sandinistas, bringing them up to the level of the Bolsheviks, and also for Cuba. This means Lenin’s emphasis on not giving anti-imperialist movements ‘communist colouring’ is entirely lost.

Where does this leave me in regard to reading Lenin? I’m faced with a situation where an uncritical approach to Cliff’s works no longer serves, but where there is no obvious single alternative. Best, then, to read a variety of books from different perspectives and, of course, the works of Lenin himself.

Pro-Life Fianna Fáil Mayor of Dublin elected with the support of the Greens and Social Democrats

At a special meeting of Dublin City Council, a pro-Life Fianna Fáil Mayor, Tom Brabazon, was elected on 24 February 2020 with the support of the Green Party and the Social Democrats. Picture of the front of City Hall, Dublin, with a blue Dublin City flag flying above the building. It is a grey day with a white sky above the pale stone building.
At a special meeting of Dublin City Council, a pro-Life Fianna Fáil Mayor, Tom Brabazon, was elected on 24 February 2020 with the support of the Green Party and the Social Democrats

On 24 February 2020, Raheny Fianna Fáil councillor Tom Brabazon was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin at a special meeting of Dublin City Council. His victory came in a vote of 34 to 26 (three absences) against independent candidate Anthony Flynn. In 2015, Tom Brabazon let slip an extremely conservative view of women, when he wrote an article for the Northside People against gender quotas in politics and said, ‘we should want real women with real life experience of the education system, the workplace, childbirth, childcare…’ He went further on the Sean O’Rourke show on RTÉ (9 March 2015), saying that women who had actually given birth were best placed to discuss abortion.

Tom Brabazon in a blue suit, wearing the Mayoral chains of office for Dublin City and while wearing a smile, looking a little uneasy, with clenched right fist and hunched shoulders.
Tom Brabazon, Lord Mayor of Dublin from 24 February 2020, thanks to the votes of the parties in the ‘Dublin Agreement’

Immediately, this drew a huge reaction from women who considered themselves perfectly real without having to give birth or raise children.

Slapped on the wrist by Micheál Martin, Brabazon issued an apology and retreated to the extent that he said he did not intend to be hurtful. The new Lord Mayor did not, however, revise his core conservative beliefs in regard to women and this became apparent during the Repeal campaign. On 5 October 2015 and again on 6 March 2017, Brabazon voted against a DCC motion that called on the government to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment of the Constitution. During the campaign he put his name to a Pro-Life statement in support of the ‘No’ position.

Independent Left’s Niamh McDonald said, ‘As the chair of Dublin Bay North Repeal group I am disgusted that such a man was voted in as Lord Mayor. His past history and comments have shown him not to be in favour of women’s empowerment or women’s equality. Dublin constituencies voted overwhelmingly for women and pregnant people to have reproductive choices and if our new lord Mayor had his way this would never have become a reality.

‘What I feel is a real betrayal of the Repeal movement comes from those parties such as the Social Democrats, Greens and Labour who were active in the Repeal campaign in Dublin Bay North and beyond, who have now agreed to Tom Brabazon’s nomination and who have voted him in. These parties won votes from the Repeal campaign in order to get elected and have now used those votes go against this movement.

‘Repealing the 8th was only half of the battle to ensure everybody has reproductive justice. Our current legislation is too conservative and narrow, it excludes many in society who are already marginalised. At a minimum, we need exclusion zones and to end the three day waiting period.

‘We have a review of the current legislation in less than two years and we need representatives who are willing to stand up to those who want to remove the gains we have made and also who will fight for more.’

Brabazon’s conservative family values fit with his connections to the previous generation of Fianna Fáil politicians. A strong supporter of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, Brabazon tried to challenge the popular perception of Haughey as corrupt by proposing that Dublin’s port tunnel be named in Haughey’s honour: ‘You would like to think that somebody whose public life was dominated by goodness would have a memorial,’ said Brabazon in 2006, apparently without smirking.

Why did the Greens and Social Democrats vote Fianna Fáil?

After the local government elections of 2019, Fianna Fáil did a deal with Labour, the Green Party and the Social Democrats to get control of Dublin City Council. “The Dublin Agreement 2019 – 2024” is the excuse that the Greens and the SocDems (Labour don’t seem to feel the need to excuse voting for Brabazon) are now giving for their support for Tom Brabazon as Lord Mayor of Dublin. The agreement itself is ten pages of dry, well-intentioned phrases. But the practical action arising from the document does not serve the real needs of the people of Dublin, nor our desire for urgent action on housing. This agreement allowed the sell-off of public land like O’Devaney Gardens and the wasting of millions on a white-water rafting facility.

Many people who voted for Green and Social Democrat candidates in general election 2020 just cannot understand why these parties would support Fianna Fáil in general and an anti-woman figure in particular. The vote on 24 February 2020 in Dublin’s council chamber seemed to completely contradict the spirit of ‘vote left, transfer left’ that swept through working class communities in the general election. It would have been easy, in the light of the general election results, for the Greens, Labour and the SocDems to leave the Dublin Agreement, saying that it was clear there was now a mandate for change. No doubt far more of their supporters would have agreed with such a stand than will agree with their vote for Tom Brabazon.

The explanation for the apparent contradiction in the behaviour of these parties is to be found in their history and their politics. Elsewhere in Europe, Greens can be found who are definitely on the left and side with working class communities but in Ireland that has never been the case. The Irish Green Party is a particularly conservative one, highly networked to Irish business (Ciaran Cuffe is a millionaire who notoriously held shares in General Electric, Chevron Texaco, Merck, Citigroup, Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson before this information became public). With honourable exceptions, they have often been hesitant on the struggle for abortion rights, preferring silence to leading the way towards change, and while their decision to run David Healy, a candidate with pro-life views, in Dublin Bay North was terrible, it was their attempt to escape the issue when it was raised that is the real indicator of their weakness in this regard. Although the general election campaign raised hopes that the Green Party had changed since its shocking, anti-working class performance in coalition with Finna Fáil 2007 – 2011, essentially, it has not. Its commitment to helping run Irish and international capitalism as a context for its policies means that even on issues to do with climate action, it will do little more than provide cosmetic, trivial changes.

As for the Social Democrats, they were born from a split from the Labour Party and have the same politics as Labour except with a pleasant purple colour-scheme and a lack of support from trade unions. They too start from a premise that they must be ‘responsible’ in respect to the economy and that any changes on behalf of working class communities can only be introduced insofar as such changes are acceptable to the wealthy and the owners of businesses and property. This attempt to mediate between us and the rich wasn’t particularly successful for Labour even in times of prosperity, where there was a certain amount of space for improved spending on housing and health. Sitting on the fence can be tricky and it is particularly difficult to be on a fence that is wobbling. In the 2020s, politics is highly polarised, such as is evident in the vast difference in beliefs between Bernie Saunders and Donald Trump in the USA. And what the vote for Dublin Mayor demonstrates is that when forced to come off the fence, the Social Democrats (just as with Labour) will jump down on the side of the elite.

What does the Dublin Mayoral Vote show for the future of Irish politics?

At the time the vote for Mayor of Dublin was made, the national picture was unclear, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael looking to form a government that excluded Sinn Féin, one that would need a willing partner or two from among the smaller parties. While the Social Democrats ruled out joining that particular combination, they conspicuously did not rule out joining with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in a different alignment. The Green Party are equally willing to participate in government alongside one of the right wing parties. Whatever combination of parties eventually emerges to create the Irish government (or, if there is another general election), we can draw a number of conclusions from the vote for Tom Brabazon.

Firstly, the exciting and positive vote for change in general election 2020 is only the beginning of a process of a widescale move to the left in Ireland (and especially in working class communities). As people who want decisive and urgent action on climate, housing and health see that the Social Democrats and Greens (and Labour) won’t take that action, it’s likely that parties to the left of these will grow.

Secondly, even if we had a left government that was trying to tackle these challenges in a manner that – for once – favoured working class communities, the Greens and the Social Democrats would not make for reliable partners. Probably, a government reliant on them would face the same issues that Syriza in Greece faced in 2015. When international pressure from businesses and powerful politicians came to hammer down on Greece, the left government caved in and backtracked on all its radical ideas. If the Greens and the Social Democrats can’t even bring themselves to stand up to Fianna Fáil in Dublin City Council and ditch the Dublin Agreement and a pro-Life Mayoral candidate in favour of a housing activist (Anthony Flynn), we aren’t going to see Che Guevara-style t-shirts being worn of SocDem and Green Party leaders. They are bound to give in to the demands of landlords and business.

A screenshot from 12 February 2020 from People Before Profit's Facebook feed, with the headline: Form a Left Minority Government - Mobilise on the Streets.
On 12 February 2020, People Before Profit posted on Facebook that it was their duty to join with Sinn Féin, Greens and Social Democrats in forming a left minority government

Thirdly, on a smaller point but one that might prove important in the long term, the results of the election led to a difference in approach on the socialist left. While People Before Profit considered it a duty to enter a left government alongside the Greens and Social Democrats, the Socialist Party and Paul Murphy (RISE) were, quite rightly, more cautious. Supporting such a government from the outside is much better than being part of it. As soon as even a small strike or protest breaks out against the government, if you were outside of government you’d have your hands free to support the protest. If you were inside, you’d have to bring the government down, which might not be the worst outcome (the worst outcome would be if you sacrificed the cause of the protestors to your presence in government) but it would make it look like you were dishonest in your negotiations around the program for government.

Finally, and the most important conclusion for us in Independent Left, is that the campaigns for change that are bubbling away in Ireland, such as over childcare, pay equality and housing, must continue. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t a government. Even a ‘left’ minister might fail us, while the caretaker ministers and the senior civil servants can be forced by successful strikes and protests to implement the changes we need. Waiting for a Sinn Féin-lead government could take months and ultimately could lead nowhere. In the meantime, we can use the boost provided by the election and especially the demoralisation among Fine Gael and their supporters to galavanise existing campaigns and launch new ones.

What can we learn from election 2020 and the Dublin Bay North results?

Inside the RDS stand a group of Independent Left supporters, smiling, fists raised, many of them wearing red 'Vote No.1 John Lyons' T-shirts. In the centre, in a blue coat, is John Lyons. On his left is Niamh McDonald. Behind them is a yellow placard from the RDS count centre saying: Dublin Bay North.
Independent Left had a vibrant and energetic campaign in Election 2020, Dublin Bay North

Fine Gael called this election and rubbed their hands with excitement. Full employment, Leo Varadkar looking great in dealings with Boris Johnson over Brexit, property incomes soaring. What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything that can go wrong when you live in a champagne bubble and have no insight into the struggle of those on medium and low incomes. You speak with complacency and in ignorance, you are contemptuous of the electorate and you think, ‘a future to look forward to’ is a clever slogan.

Ireland has 78,000 millionaires in 2020 and they certainly have a future to look forward to. For the rest of us, unless something changes, we can only see more pain over the fact our incomes are eaten up by mortgages and rents; more difficulty accessing health services our families need, with longer waiting times; and more deprivation and anti-social activity in our neglected communities.

There was a roar of anger released in this election and it was channelled behind Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin are a working class party in the sense that their activists are generally drawn from the working class and they know the challenges working people face. So their policies and their articulation of that roar led them to becoming the lightning rod for our fury at Fine Gael and also at Fianna Fáil. We hadn’t forgotten who landed us with massive tax burdens by bailing out their banker friends and who backed Fine Gael with ‘confidence and supply’.

Understanding the rise of the Sinn Féin vote

Our class found a way to lash out at Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and it was through Sinn Féin, whose spokespeople did a great job of expressing how we felt and offering well-informed refutations of right wing lies (remember how Leo Varadakar said during a TV debate that the rent freeze in Berlin hadn’t worked? It has been agreed but hasn’t come in yet). Even though the large newspapers and television stations did all they could to hammer down the Sinn Féin vote in the last days of the campaign, the electorate in working class areas wasn’t budging.

Some of the tallies as the boxes opened were incredible. Eighty, ninety percent Sinn Féin and just handfuls of votes for the right wing parties.

The transformation of the Irish political landscape in election 2020 is exciting for those of us on the left and humiliating for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

In Dublin Bay North, as elsewhere, at first it seemed as though the socialist voice of the working class was going to also be swept away by the growth of the Sinn Féin vote. The Green vote too, might have been a challenge for socialists (although it was more of a challenge for Labour and other middle-ground and middle class parties). But as the counts went on, the transfers from Sinn Féin were strongly to the left, much more so than had been anticipated, although there were some losses to the presence of radical socialists in the Dáil and as activists with the advantages that being a TD brings to helping organise campaigns. We were sorry to see Ruth Coppinger and Séamus Healy lose their seats but delighted that after a difficult looking start, on the whole, the socialist left held their ground. In fact, we should have gained a seat in Dublin Bay North and at the expense of Seán Haughey of Fianna Fáil, who before the election had been a twenty-to-one favourite.

A list of candidates from Dublin Bay North and the details of all fourteen counts of Election 2020. The top candidates, in order of their first preference vote, were Denise Mitchell, Sinn Féin (21,344); Richard Bruton, Fine Gael (11,156); Cian O'Callaghan, Social Democrats (6,229); Aodhán Ó Riodáin, Labour (8,127); Seán Haughey, Fianna Fáil (6,651); David Healy, Green Party (5,042); John Lyons, Independent Left (1,882).
Fianna Fáil failed to get a quota in Dublin Bay North and Haughey staggered over the line only by being deemed elected on the elimination of the Green Party

It must have come as an unpleasant shock for Fianna Fáil that far from winning a second seat, Seán Haughey was down at 6,651 first preferences and ultimately, even after 13 rounds of transfers, couldn’t get a quota. Our own first preference vote was a disappointment, at only 1,882 for our candidate Councillor John Lyons. This seemed to be at odds with the very strong energy for change we’d been encountering on the doorsteps but the transfers of poll-topping Denise Mitchell for Sinn Féin clarified what had happened. There was indeed a massive vote against the establishment and for the left but it had first found a channel in Sinn Féin.

A photo taken of the large screen at the RDS on the day of the count, 10 February 2020, for Dublin Bay North and the transfer of Sinn Féin Denis Mitchell's surplus. Highlighted in red boxes are three candidates John Lyons, Independent Left, who gained 1,823 votes, Bernard Mulvany, SPBP, who gained 1,960 votes and Michael O'Brien, SPBP who gained 1,193 votes. Between them the socialist left could have won a seat on these figures had they not split the vote.

The split left vote saved Haughey’s seat

Elsewhere, the huge Sinn Féin transfers were bringing in candidates of the left and that should have been the case in Dublin Bay North too. Except that that the nearly 5,000 transfers for socialists got split three ways. Instead of one candidate reaching around 9,000 votes and pushing Haughey into sixth place by the end of the election, the Fianna Fáil candidate got lucky. Inevitably, transfers get diluted: even between members of the same party, 50 – 60% is typical. So around half of the votes expressing a desire by working class communities to vote Sinn Féin then vote left were thrown away and in the end, John Lyons, the best placed of the socialists, went out on the thirteenth count with 6,421.

In advance of the next general election, there needs to be a good-faith conversation among the potential left candidates about local government and Dáil seats, in the hope of avoiding this situation arising again.

Positive outcomes for Independent Left from GE2020

Despite the fact that John Lyons did not win Independent Left’s first ever Dáil seat, there are a lot of positives from the election for our small party. With no national presence, financial support, media presence or infrastructure we ran a fantastic campaign which in other circumstances would have brought about a shock for the right and a terrific victory. It helped that our election material was absolutely in tune with our audience. Our theme was ‘a tale of two cities’ and we both listened to and helped articulate the feeling that while the very rich and the landlords were getting richer, the rest of us were being left behind.

Eóghan Richard Ó'nia  in a red, 'Vote No 1 John Lyons' t-shirt is on the left, one hand raised, explaining to a journalist while another journalist watches and a third films with a camera, that the two party political system in Ireland is over.
Eóghan Richard Ó’nia of Independent Left, explaining to the media why the two-party system is gone for good

We got energy too, from the Childcare Strike and the Teachers’ Strike, which we connected to in Dublin Bay North with a lively contingent on the childcare march and support for the picket lines at the schools around the constituency.

Another big positive for us was meeting new people who have joined Independent Left and have added to our mix of socialists, environmentalists, trade unionists, parents, students, young and old. We are still a project that is evolving but it was really interesting to see how the joint effort of the election brought out a variety of skills and expertise among us and also bonded us in the common effort. Modern socialist parties can be a lot more freeform, dynamic, lively and conversational than the traditional model of a small, centralised handful of people with years of expertise directing everyone else. Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, etc. allow for everyone to have an opinion and – in our case – a lot of laughs too. If you have been supporting Independent Left in this campaign, you’d be welcome to join us.

What will happen next in Irish politics after GE2020?


Nationally, a discussion is taking place about government formation and it seems that Sinn Féin are positioning themselves to enter government with Fianna Fáil and a smaller party or two. Probably, there is a huge debate within Sinn Féin about this and we hope that the anti-Fianna Fáil voices win. Why? Because Fianna Fáil might well offer a border poll. they might even allow Sinn Féin to introduce a rent freeze, which of course would be very welcome. But the price for these would be too high, because the wealth of the very rich and especially corporations would be untouchable, because it would be business as usual in every other regard. Worse, it would disillusion those people who made the effort to vote for change. While Independent Left have been offering hope, diversity and solidarity within working class communities and trying to direct the alienation people feel against the real causes of this, the system we live under, there was a far right presence in this election who offered despair, division and a violent, racist and homophobic turning inwards of our communities. They will try to capitalise on the sense of betrayal if Sinn Féin backed a Fianna Fáil government.

But isn’t the alternative a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael government? Wouldn’t that be worse? Actually no, it wouldn’t. Because the ability of any government to impose policies that harm working class communities is set by the willingness of people to stand up and organise and resist the government. We defeated the water charges and with a popular Sinn Féin party in opposition, we can not only throw back anything the government brings at us, workers can push now for pay equality, pay increases, while working class communities can challenge for more resources. This is a much better scenario and one that has a very strong prospect of leading to a left of centre government next time around, than one where for the sake of a few policy gains the excitement currently alive in working class communities subsides into apathy and disillusionment.

Regardless of how the political consequences of election 2020 develop nationally, Independent Left have emerged from the election as a stronger force in Dublin Bay North and we look forward to playing our part in the campaigns to come.

Message from John Lyons to his supporters after the count for Dublin Bay North on Sunday 11 February 2020.