A young Irish Labour Party activist from Dublin spoke to Solidarity about discontent against the party leadership's cuts policies.
Q: What is the attitude of grassroots Party activists to what the LP is doing in government, in particular young activists?
There’s huge frustration among young activists, verging on despair. As each new story comes out about what’s going to be in the budget (student fees, cuts in social welfare, increase in VAT etc.) it just becomes harder and harder to have any faith in the party leadership, or to ration.alise the role the party is playing in government. There’s massive anger.
Among the party more generally it’s a bit different. Labour Youth opposed going into government, but the vast majority of the rest of the party supported it. I think the majority still support the leadership, but dissatisfaction may be beginning to grow. At a recent local meeting a minister spoke defending cuts and was greeted by deafening silence, no applause. That was encouraging.
Q: How is the Party leadership defending its actions? Do these defences hold weight with ordinary members?
The basic line is that they have no choice. They say there’s no alternative to because the deficit is out of control , and secondly they say that the IMF is making them do it, that they are compelled to bring through these cuts and continue socialisation of the banks’ losses by the bailout deal made by last government, even though even the IMF will tell you that’s nonsense.
It does hold weight with a lot of ordinary party members, though not youth members. As I said, I think things may begin to change ones the budget comes into effect. But then I look to the Greens in the last government, and the way the members stuck with the leadership’s line to the very end, and I do fear the same thing may happen with us.
Q: Trade unions fund the party and have 10% of the vote at conference. What is the attitude of the general secretaries of the affiliated unions (which unions are affiliated?) to the LP's policies? Do they oppose them? - and is there any attempt by the rank-and-file of the unions to hold to account the Party which their dues fund?
There are eleven trade unions currently affiliated with the party. The biggest is the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), which has about 200,000 members. Another important affiliate is the Irish wing of Unite.
There’s a few problems when it comes to unions organising to oppose the leadership. The influence of unions on the Labour Party is much smaller than in Britain. Not only is their share of vote smaller, but the dues from trade unions only form a small proportion of the party’s funding, which mainly comes from a government allowance.
Secondly, the country’s unions were effectively neutralised over the course of 20 years by an extremely ineffective form of social partnership with business and governments which only broke down a few years ago. That means that the whole culture of the main trade unions at the moment isn’t exactly militant .
Finally, there was a deal which unions made with the last government called the Croke Park Agreement, in which the previous government agreed not to impose public sector layoffs or further public sector pay cuts in exchange for cooperation with wide-scale public sector reform. There’ve been a lot of calls for this to be renegotiated for public servants to take more pain, which in a way is something the government can hang over unions in case they get too vocal about its policies.
That said, there are encouraging signs. Unite in particular is a very strong force of opposition, in fact they were one of the only organisations along with Labour Youth to oppose coalition, although unfortunately they’re fairly small here. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has also published a very progressive alternative budget proposal, and is organising a march against cuts next week. So things could be very interesting by the time conference comes around next year.
Q: What alternative policy to the cuts do you think the LP should follow?
The budget is supposed to make a fiscal correction of €3.6 billion according to the Memorandum of Understanding with the IM and EU but it’s open to negotiation as to where those savings are made. Numerous budget proposals have shown that savings of well over €3 billion could be made in progressive taxation measures; for example introducing a third rate of tax on high incomes, a wealth tax and ending tax reliefs on property and pensions. A stimulus package could also be introduced without even affecting the deficit, using money from the pension reserve fund and European Investment Bank.
Then there’s the question of the banks. The government is set to repay €3 billion in bank debt every year for the next twenty –or-so years. That’s insane and should be renegotiated immediately. The government has a 99.6% in AIB, one of the country’s main banks. It’s socialised the losses, but not the profits or strategy. That has to change as well.
Our political leaders are worried about upsetting Europe and the IMF, but that’s an incredibly stupid attitude. If you compare Ireland and Greece, Ireland has received glowing praise from international leaders for being the “good student among countries who have made debt deals with Europe. Meanwhile the Greeks have been the bad boys of the situation. But now Greece has a 50% write-down on its debt and we have nothing like that.
Q: What do you think of the call from some parts of the Left for Ireland to respond to the crisis by quitting the Euro and the EU?
I’m completely against this. Firstly, the economic consequences of leaving the euro would be catastrophic. Secondly, the EU needs more integration, not less. The only way global capital can be resisted is through international cooperation. It’s true that the current EU system is incredibly undemocratic, but simply by its existence it gives the possibility of building something better in the future. Giving up on the EU project would, in the long run, amount to surrendering all our power of action of global capital.
Q: What was Labour Left and do you see any prospects for creating something like it today? How should the left in the LP fight for an alternative policy to the leadership?
Labour Left was a an organised group within the Irish Labour Party in the 1980s that was calling for the Labour Party to end its strategy of entering government as a minority party. It called for a much more radical form of industrial developmentalism and intervention in the economy than the more moderate stance of the party leadership. It was eventually effectively neutralised by the leadership but it had a major longer-term impact on party strategy.
It’ll be harder to organise now than it was then. In 1982 40% of the party membership voted against going into government, earlier this year it was less than 10%. But only the other hand it is incumbent on us to do something to change the current dynamic. I think in the period between the budget and party conference next spring there needs to be the development of a coherent and concerted opposition to leadership policy, and some sort of confrontation at conference, even though we will still be a minority.