election posters on the street illustrating the focus on electoral politics

The dead hand of electoralism

With the local election results just in, why is the left seen as a marginal and ignored voice among a majority of people?

It seems that politics in Ireland is personality-based, and this has led to the situation where support for such politicians as Paul Murphy, Richard Boyd Barrett, Luke Ming Flanagan and Clare Daly—whatever the merits of the individual, the parties, and the type of politics they espouse—will be based on the strength of the individual and their personality more than on the politics that they champion.

The number of electoral fronts and the number of independent candidates is a clear sign of the individualist-style politics of the left, and its reliance on and obsession with elections.

It is very apparent that what we have are individuals advocating a movement that is on the fringe of society rather than a popular movement advocating individuals to represent them. This power relationship between individuals and a political movement needs to be inverted.

This is not intended as a criticism of those who run candidates in elections, or of the candidates. However, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that engaging in electoral politics can bring about the necessary and fundamental changes of state power and change the class forces that dictate our national and foreign policies. Let’s not sink to being both opportunist and dishonest. Once we engage in the electoral process, whether aware of it or not, we are within the remit of bourgeois democracy; and bourgeois democracy will always be run in the interests of the ruling class, the owners and beneficiaries of capital.

Without trying to be patronising here, it is perfectly acceptable to choose either to engage or not to engage electorally, and it is up to the party to decide whether diverting resources to elections is the right strategy at a particular time. However, building an electoral platform has been the main focus of left parties, and everything else is secondary, so we do have to question whether left parties are so naïve that they actually believe in electoral politics as the motor of change in determining and changing class power and class rule; or are they hiding a revisionist agenda behind socialist rhetoric?

Either way, it does not and has not advanced the working class.

It can be argued that elections and electioneering have continuously and consistently weakened the working class and have stunted the growth of class-consciousness, because elections in Ireland (and elsewhere) are based on building a network around an individual, and not on individuals building a network around a movement.

Even worse, often parties and individuals cynically engage with the issues of the day (this is not to deny that there are honest politicians doing trojan work for the working class—it’s just that they are in the minority), especially just before an election, and they dive head-first into declaring their support for this, that and the other campaign that they can add to their CV come canvassing time.

But what happens to the campaign and the movement once the dust settles after the election? It withers away; because the time, energy and resources needed to sustain a long-term campaign, building into a movement, is not focused on building political education, supporting and engaging community activists or work forces but on shaping, grooming and planting potential for future elections.

As a case in point, in 2016, at the height of its influence and after a number of marches that reached to more than 100,000 people, the Right to Water and Right to Change movement had a hundred candidates endorsing its programme. At last month’s local elections that number had been whittled down to a mere sixteen candidates; and come the next elections no doubt the figure will be reduced even further.

From what was the largest and most energised political movement of the past decades it now looks like becoming just a historical footnote, a “what might have been” in Irish labour history. It had all the ingredients for becoming a mass left movement, based on local engagement and self-sustaining in local areas. It had the potential to become a centre of organising, educating, and agitating; but the Triad movement (community, trade union and political) was—not to mince words—betrayed by those political parties that could not see past an orgy of votes come election time.

Once the movement was brought into the electoral swamp and taken off the streets and out of community organisations, the power of the movement was lost.

It was the many thousands of people over a sustained period, connected, talking, educating, and building, that struck fear into the heart of the Government, that was the real strength of the movement—not the candidates standing on its platform and getting elected to the Dáil.

Where is that strength now? Have we enshrined the public ownership of water in the Constitution? Where is that “left” now? And what can it deliver for the people?

The real tragedy of it all is that instead of a strong, militant and growing left movement that could have gone on to champion its further demands on the state and deepen its class-consciousness, the Right to Water and Right to Change movement has been shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. Even worse, this has allowed extreme right-wing and racist views to gain a foothold, attracting more attention than any left party running in the local elections. And the results make this very clear.

The CPI, to its credit, has never put electoral politics above the task of developing class-consciousness within the working class. It has always stood firm on the importance of political education over political elections, even if that has been to the detriment of the growth of the party by not engaging in crass opportunism and using campaigns and issues as a way to increase the profile of potential candidates.

This can be seen in the many articles over the years in Socialist Voice warning about such opportunism, and those within the movements warning against such exploits. Time and time again, campaign after campaign, we have witnessed multiple parties of the left explicitly using campaigns as a way to springboard their own profile.

One sure way to kill off any campaign such as the Right to Water, Right to Change, the various housing campaigns, workers’ solidarity campaigns, and many others, is to allow them to be taken over by political personalities seeking to increase their political stock, clambering over each other for photo ops. Once that political opportunity is gone, or has served its purpose, there is no need to direct resources to it; and the activist network, left standing, starved of the opportunity of developing class-consciousness from engagement with the campaign, will eventually—through burn-out, disillusionment, inactivity, and betrayal—abandon the campaign and be left to just wither away.

It is high time that people began to mature politically, wake up from their unconsciousness, and abandon the electoral fetishism and individualism that is prevalent in Irish politics. Once the fanfare of these local elections is over, can we not sit down and really begin to do the work that needs to be done to repair the damage done to the potential in the water movement?

Let us analyse today’s concrete situation and our concrete conditions so as to set about the task of building a movement that is solidified around a left programme and unifying those involved with that programme.

Movements, if they are to reach their objective, cannot be driven and decided by individual personalities—on the contrary, the individual who represents it needs to be decided, directed and driven by the movement.