The meaning of Sinn Féin's triumph

By breaking a political duopoly born in 1922 the the Republican party has reopened the possibility of a United Ireland

In 2017 I was invited to speak at a Sinn Féin summer school, deep in a rural part of Ireland. The agenda was what you would expect from any party affiliated to the European Left: Trump, the alt-right, the housing crisis, the challenge of automation. On arrival I wondered whether anything would survive of the romantic, guerilla tradition of the Republican movement that the party was trying to leave behind.

[A version of this report first appeared in German in Der Freitag on 13 February 2020.]

The short version is: it had most definitely survived, and was in fine voice until 3am. And as the party’s strategists mournfully related, this meant that, at every election, no matter how popular their social programme was, Sinn Féin would always fade in the last two weeks of the campaign as the media stoked up fears about its former role as the political wing of the IRA.

Today Sinn Féin stands on the brink of government, either at the head of a coalition of social-democrats, Greens, Trotskyists and independents or - more likely - as an equal partner with one of the two centre-right parties that have run the Irish state since its foundation.

Profound result

"This was the most profound election result in the history of the state" says Eoin Ó Broin TD, Sinn Fein's parliamentary housing spokesman.

"It was driven by a dramatic increase in our support among two demographics: first, 18-35 year olds, where we had more votes than the two main parties combined; secondly among home-owners in their 30s and 40s. On the doors they were saying: we're fed up with the high cost of living and poor public services, so we're going to give you a chance."

The cause of Sinn Féin's sudden surge was threefold: economic discontent; frustration at the two-party system of patronage bordering corruption; and a desire among young, educated voters to leave behind the remnants of the confessional Catholic political system.

Since being bailed out by the IMF and ECB during the Eurocrisis of 2011, the Irish economy has surged, but in the process created levels of inequality straight out of Thomas Piketty's textbook. The "wall of liquidity" that flowed into Ireland over the past decade enabled the class of speculators who had caused the crash simply to hoover up their own bankrupt assets and kickstart a new speculative building boom. House prices rocketed, but wages could not keep up.

As a result there are 10,000 officially homeless people, and tens of thousands more of the hidden homeless - often young people in a job, "sofa surfing" across their friends and families living rooms from week to week. For those with a tenancy it is often insecure - and rents are extreme. Dublin, the capital, is now more expensive to live in than Tokyo, Sydney or Singapore. Average real wages there have fallen by 28% in five years, according to Deutsche Bank, while average rents on a two-bedroom apartment have risen by 23%.

Social liberalisation

But the economics are only half the explanation. In the past 20 years civil society in Ireland has undergone a revolution. Though the state broadcaster RTÉ still plays the Angelus bells at noon, same-sex marriage is legal and, thanks to a determined campaign led by young, working class women, restrictions on abortion have been liberalised. Key to the change in attitudes were revelations of widespread child sexual abuse, physical abuse and even child murder by members of the Catholic clergy, spanning decades.

In a country where the informal influence of Catholic institutions had been pervasive, it seemed suddenly to evaporate - certainly among the young and in large towns and cities. It has been replaced by the same kind of a cosmopolitan, socially-liberal, civic nationalism you find in Catalonia, Quebec and Scotland.

But until now, this new spirit in Ireland struggled to find political expression. Granted the current prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is the country's first openly gay head of government - but the official politics of Ireland's two centre-right parties remained rooted in the the past. The "old boy" networks formed through selective private schools, elite sporting clubs and bourgeois cultural institutions simply transplanted themselves into agribusiness, finance and property speculation.

Meanwhile there was a vacuum on the left. Labour collapsed to single figures and then split. The Greens could not break through. Two ex-Trotksyist groups were able to maintain a small foothold in the Dail. Sinn Fein grew, but could never quite complete its evolution into a viable contender for government.

[Eoin Ó Broin TD, Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman]

But all this changed last week. As Sinn Fein surged in the opinion polls, RTE was obliged to let its new leader, Mary-Lou Mcdonald, onto the official televised debate, where she proceeded to wipe the floor with the stale, male neoliberalism of the two main party leaders.

Ó Broin says. “There was a broader change in the political mood: people were fed up with the cost of living, low pay - but some of polls also confirm: there is a growing constituency in the Republic for whom the United Ireland is a bigger issue than you would think”.

Collosal misjudgment

In addition, says Ó Broin, the government made a “misjudgement of collosal magnitude” by trying to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary, whose auxiliary division - the so-called Black and Tans - terrorised pro-independence communities during the War of Independence. “Lifelong Fine Gael members were sending back their membership cards because the RIC killed their grandparents, or ransacked their city”.

Sinn Féin came top in the popular vote, with 24.5% but due to the single transferable vote system it will have only the second highest number of MPs, at 37 out of 160 seats. The Greens also surged, and are on 12 seats, with Labour, the Social democrats and the far left Solidarity-PBP on six seats each. That means an Irish Red-Red-Green coalition - if it could be formed - could only garner at maximum 66 seats - and would be short of a parliamentary majority. 

Given the two centre-right parties have claimed they will not form a coalition with Sinn Féin, it is possible that they will try - yet again - to govern alongside each other. But unless they are prepared to ditch the free-market cronyism that has marked the past decade, such a government would be neither stable nor popular.

In particular Fianna Fáil, looks susceptible to losing even more voters to Sinn Féin if it tries to carry on with a mixture of free market economics, pork-barrel politics and blocking progress towards an all-Ireland referendum on the border.

Citizens Assembly

Ó Broin tells me that the result could have a profound impact on the possibilities for a united Ireland (which is possible under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement if there is a majority in a referendum both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland).

"The Irish government can't trigger a referendum on its own. But we had a very successful Citizens'Assembly on equal marriage and the abortion debate. The incoming government could call an all-Ireland Citizens Assembly on reunification. It could start a national conversation. At the same time, taking the lead from the Scottish experience, we could publish a detailed White Paper on how a United Ireland might work."

Thus, at one stroke, the project of Irish reunification has moved from a romantic ideal to a clear possibility.

A White Paper modelled on the Scottish Government’s 2014 document, says Ó Broin, could cover the nuts and bolts issues, like merging two health systems, small business regulations and the different education systems.

Once they have stopped grieving over the “another victory for populism” the British government and the EU will have to get their heads around the fact that a United Ireland is now just as real a prospect as Scottish independence.

Ultimately, the result in Ireland shows that - even if encumbered by associations with the past - the left can win if it is prepared to think big, find young, engaging leaders, and project optimism.

Analysing Labour's defeat

A short reading list of articles that made me think...

The real meaning of Labour's defeat on 12 December will not be calculable until we see the scale and shape of the Tory attack - on democracy, the welfare state and working class living standards. However, since the defeat there have been some thoughtful and detailed responses - and accounts of what went wrong. Here's my top five so far. Interestingly, none are by political journalists and none were published int the mainstream media…

1. Understanding our defeat - Callum Cant

Callum Cant argues that the strategic failure was to build Corbynism from below:

“2017-19 will come to be seen as a period where we were attempting to play a game of reverse Jenga: we had a socialist as the leader of the Labour party, an increasingly socialist programme for government, and hopes of electoral success - but no base in a mass movement, beyond the half million members of the party (many of whom were either unrooted in their local areas or completely inactive in the party.) The moevment’s highest acheivements were left balancing on a structurally-unsound base.”

2. Letter to the people I represented - Laura Pidcock

Laura Pidcock, the defeated Labour MP for Durham North West tells of the mixture of "fury and apathy" she met on the doorstep:

"Brexit was without a doubt a fog that descended, and no issue could penetrate it. It was frustrating that, so often, no other issue could be discussed, that doors would close and that, in the minds of people that I cared so much about, I was lumped in with a political establishment I desperately wanted to fight.”

3. Reflections from the doorstep - Dan Evans-Kanu

Dan Evans-Kanu describes the atomisation of working class life in Bridgend, with people on zero hours and zero security voting Tory because they believe they are entrepreneurs:

"As well as media influence, we have to appreciate the extent to which this isolated, relentless working environment and culture of ‘flexibility’ militates against class consciousness, collective action and solidarity. The fact is that this is the experience of work for many people south Wales today. It is the polar opposite of the forms of work which gave rise to the sets of social relations which gave rise to the Labour movement.”

4. The revolution will be networked - Paul Hilder

The Datapraxis CEO describes his unsuccessful attempts to get Labour to embrace the networked campaign sphere, and draws similar conclusions to the authors above about Labour's failure to create a movement and a story into which its political offer could resonate...

“Ours will be a party, and a politics, we can only build for our own times, together. It will take millions of us, with very different life experiences, perspectives and capabilities, to get it right. If we want to win decisively and govern transformationally, we must start living up better to Ralph Miliband’s warning that the internal life of a radical party must prefigure the society we seek to establish in government. The hard truth is that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party hasn’t yet fulfilled that ambition.”

5. Labour's economic plans: what went wrong? - James Meadway

Former Shadow Treasury adviser James Meadway outlines the strategic mistakes that led Labour's fiscal policy offer falling flat with voters. Like me he does not think it was the decisive factor but it contributed to the malaise and this is the best quasi-inside account of why it happened:

"We lost sight of the political challenge and disappeared down the rabbit-hole of policy. The post-2017 election rhetoric of ‘a government-in-waiting’ probably didn’t help here, and neither did the belief that Theresa May’s government was on the verge of imminent collapse.”

Finally here's three of my own contributions over the past nine days.

  • snap analysis for the New Statesman day after the result. 

  • I've explored the new threat to democracy arising from the Johnson administration in this Vice article.

  • And my full analysis of the defeat and where next is available to download free in the new e-pamphlet After Corbynism. It concludes:

"If this election teaches us one thing above all, it is that the new cultural divisions of Britain cannot be overcome by economics alone... If we create agency in the diverse communities we represent then, even if their cultural values and lifestyles diverge, there is a chance that - at the crucial moment of the next election - their separate narratives converge into a single story: of hope, social justice and a plan to meet the climate emergency.”


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After Corbynism

Where next for Labour

Here’s my e-pamphlet on the aftermath of the British general election and where Labour goes next. Please read and discuss. Click here.

Labour defeated. Brexit certain.

As Scotland hurtles towards independence we need an internationalist left and new electoral alliances

It’s clear Johnson’s Tory party has won a big majority. I still expect Labour to take seats in the working class areas of southern England, but those gains will be overwhelmed by a swing to the Conservatives in small town Labour seats in the north and midlands.

If the final score is 42% for the Tories, having absorbed most of the Brexit Party and UKIP vote, that means there was still a majority for parties opposed to the Brexit deal. But Brexit will happen and most likely Scottish independence will follow.

That will need a major strategic realignment for both the centre and the left: around the defence of democracy, the defence of European values and a European trade orientation above a USA-first project.

In the short term we have to become the resistance. The vibrant and massive membership campaign has left Labour as an organisation in good shape to lead the fightback - and it's possible we can grow the membership much higher than 500,000.

Detailed analysis of the results will show Labour in England and Wales is still the party of those who work, of ethnic minorities, of young people and precarious workers. It is also the greenest of all parties when it comes to fighting climate change. But it has lost the elderly former industrial workforce to a toxic offering of nativism, nationalism and selfishness.

We are facing what Hannah Arendt called “the temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”. The only answer to it is an alliance of the left and centre. 

The form that has to take needs to be the subject of reflection, because disastrous though the Labour result is, the centre has almost disappeared (in England at least).

We tried to avoid this election becoming a referendum on Brexit and the tragedy is, we half succeeded. For the progressive majority of working class people it was about health, privatisation, wages. For conservative workers and their middle class allies it was always and only about Brexit. They cemented an alliance; the left and centre refused to do so.

The Labour left is now subject to three lines of attack. 

-       We should have supported Brexit

-       We moved too far left

-       We should not have backed Corbyn

I reject them all.

To understand how much bullshit is being talked about Brexit take a look at the polling averages for 2019. Between April and June Labour’s support slumped from 32% to 22%, while the Libdems surged, at the very moment we rejected the second referendum. If we had followed the advice of the Lexiteers we would have started this election neck and neck with the Libdems, and probably lost numerous activists to the Greens and disillusionment.

As a result of the line imposed by Corbyn’s inner circle and the Unite/CWU general secretaaries, we had to spend the entire summer and autumn fighting to regain 10+ percentage points lost to a liberal centrist pro-Remain party. That was time we could have spent working in the constituencies we have now lost. Instead we spent the summer in the ludicrous position of worrying about losing Brixton to the Liberal Democrats. 

The move to the left on economic policy was not the major problem on the doorstep. Elements of it could have been sold better; and there were too many promises and not enough narrative.

The manifesto became, as Richard Tawney complained of Lansbury’s manifesto in the 1930s, a glittering forest of Christmas trees with presents for everyone.

But a large section of voters wanted only one Christmas present: Brexit - and on terms no Labour party, left or centrist led, could agree to.

Jeremy himself however did become a major problem. On the doorsteps of Leave areas I heard time and again that issue #1 was Corbyn, and only #2 Brexit. We managed to move the conversation beyond Brexit but not beyond Corbyn.

There are many reasons for Corbyn becoming an electoral problem, and despite our gratitude and solidarity to Jeremy for enduring the past two years we need to be honest about them:

-       First, the absolute levels of vilification and slander aimed at him by the right wing media and the neoliberal centre.  

-       Second, his indecision over Brexit. For a man sold to the electorate as a conviction politician, to dither for months, and go into the election neutral on the biggest issue of the day, was fatal

-       Third, his abject failure to get a grip over the antisemitism crisis, which became reputationally damaging for the entire 500,000 activist base. The low point of this was when his advisers tried to rewrite unilaterally an internationally accepted IHRA definition, against strong advice

-       Fourth, his decision to surround himself with people determined to build walls around him instead of alliances; the use of bureaucratic means to impose wholly unsuitable candidates, and to delay the selection of candidates to facilitate this. 

He went into the May EU elections unpopular with Leave voters in the north; he came out of it equally unpopular with the Remain voters of the big cities. He abandoned the mantle of insurgency but never looked competent in return, and in the campaign never discovered the ability to engage voters he showed in 2017.

The bigger picture is this: like it or not there is a culture war in Britain. 

Corbyn already symbolised the cultural enemy for the Express reading nativist workers in places where we've lost. After May, for many progressive workers in Labour's big city heartlands, he looked disinterested in championing their values. His strategy was to refuse culture war but it engulfed him.

All this was clear in the Spring of 2019 – yet those of us who tried to change things - even minor things like his advisers - were vilified and excluded by the tight circle around the leadership.

Jeremy should now stand down. He's done his best with the available situation but we've been defeated. I want to pay tribute to his resilience and humour in the face of the worst vilification campaign in modern history. 

I don't want a long interregnum or “period of reflection”: we need a leadership contest in which an internationalist left takes control of the party and builds a genuine alliance with the centre left based on respect and compromise. 

The new leadership's job should be to cement the left economic programme, democratise the party further and turn it into a mass social movement.

Corbynism, for about the past 12 months, has been less than the sum of its parts – because the pro-Remain internationalist left and the Lexiteers were fighting each other over the most strategic issue. 

Meanwhile the party machine remained unreformed, sluggish and inept. It was better than 2017 but on all available evidence was once again outperformed by Momentum - in terms of activism, organisation and digital strategy.

Clearly we will have to rebuild confidence and support among voters in the north and midlands of England. But there cannot be one step back from our commitment to open-ness, tolerance, anti-racism and internationalism.

To the extent that we cannot regain support in those areas, we have to build a new electoral alliance – and potentially a series of electoral pacts, based around the promise of electoral reform.

The SNP’s massive victory tonight arguably gives them a moral mandate for independence even before the 2021 Holyrood election or a second referendum. The English and Welsh left now need to begin planning for a post-UK future, a development which again means that only constitutional and electoral reform. Scottish Labour needs to be given complete autonomy, so that the party in England can seek wider alliances with the radical Scottish left.

For me, who leads the Labour Party now is an urgent but secondary issue.

What’s important are the candidates’ answers to these questions.

-       Who supported us and who deserted us, and why?

-       What are the new class dynamics of Britain?

-       Where does this leave Britain in the global order?

-       What kind of party do we need to win the 2024 election?

-       What survives of our radical economic and climate programme?

-       What is our programme for constitutional change, and what alliances are we prepared to make to achieve it

Finally congratulations to all the new, radical MPs joining the PLP. The PLP will be younger, more diverse and more left wing than before, shorn of the Cold War relics and many Blairites. What it needs to do now is show imagination, and political leadership – a role that it was never allowed to perform under late-stage Corbynism.

This is my initial analysis. I will be producing a substantial e-pamphlet over the weekend. 

Labour launches £82bn tax and spend plan

This is it. The biggest shift in wealth and power in a generation

Labour just launched its manifesto - leading with a windfall tax on oil/gas companies, a £250bn green transformation fund and a 5% pay rise for public sector workers. It’s a transformative agenda and as I predicted the whole offer on investment, jobs and growth is framed around combating climate change.

The detailed focus for economists - and economic journalists - will be on the tax and spend plans for day-to-day spending.

Labour will hike taxes on the rich and big business to the tune of £82 billion a year and spend it on the most radical programme of economic renewal proposed since the war. That's the message of the Labour manifesto launched today, and the deep detail contained in a so called Grey Book, shows John McDonnell's treasury team are prepared to go mano-a-mano with right wing economics profession to show it can be done.

The Grey Book, constructed like a shadow budget, shows where Labour intends to raise taxes and where it intends to spend the money. 

The main pledges are:

20bn extra for local councils

10.8 billion to introduce free personal care for over 65s

7.7 bn to abolish student tuition fees

8 bn to reform Universal Credit and extend maternity/paternity pay

5.6bn to expand early years education and Sure Start

7 billion on the NHS and free dental care

5.5 bn extra for schools

With other measures and improvements to public sector pay the spending plan comes to 82.5 billion - much bigger than the £49 bn Labour promised last time. So how are they going to raise it?

Labour will phase in a two tier corporation tax, with small firms paying 21% and big ones 26%. This, they say, should raise £24bn by 2024, with a further £6bn raised by changes to the taxation of multinational companies.

Capital gains and dividends will be taxed at the same rate as income tax, bringing in an extra £14bn

Only £5bn of the extra revenue is expected to come from taxing people earning over £80k and £125k. And while Labour reckons increased growth will drive higher tax revenues, McDonnell's team have allowed only £5bn to be raised this way.

The 44 page document contains a detailed arguments and calculations. Unlike last time, Labour has tried to build in "behavioural responses" from companies and rich individuals, marking down its ability to collect tax at the headline rate. 

As always, think tanks like the Institute for Fiscal Studies are queuing up to rubbish the plans. Because Labour's investment plans are funded by £400bn of borrowing, it's hard for the elite's ideologists to say "it can't be done": government borrowing is cheaper than at any time in living memory.

So the focus will be on this £80bn. The critics will claim:

- you can't raise the money because companies will change behaviour to evade taxation

- you can't tax high earners because they will structure their wage-deals to avoid the new thresholds

- growth will suffer because rich people will pull their money out of Britain

- there's not enough capacity in the economy to absorb the new spending.

Let's take these arguments one by one.

On "you can't raise it" Labour has tried to factor that in. But if the behavioural change is bigger than expected, Labour has clear fiscal rules that would limit borrowing to make up the shortfall. The hard fact is that, if the right wing economists are correct, and the tax isn't raised, some of the spending has to be delayed. But we have no idea whether their fears are justified because no government has ever tried to seriously make the rich and the speculators pay their way.

On high-earners, there's so little of the £82 billion actually raised from income tax, that it's a secondary issue whether a few of them evade or avoid the new taxes. Labour has already accounted for most of this anyway.

It's true a few billionaires might Head to the Concorde Lounge at LHR, once they are being made to pay their way. But Labour's massive spending boost should draw in serious money from investors in wind, solar, railway expansion, public housebuilding and broadband technologies, not to mention the boost to the university sector that will come from abolishing tuition fees and paying them direct from the state.

Plus, if Labour wins, there's a good chance it will stop Brexit, and even if Brexit happens, we will remain close to the single market and in a customs union: years of uncertainty will end and the auto, aerospace and pharmaceutical industries should be ready for a new round of investment. 

The capacity issue is a challenge. Embarking on a massive programme of housbuilding, wind turbine building and rail upgrades will mean the pump has to be primed by more planners, architects, construction workers etc.

But if we take the wartime approach - rapidly training workers now doing jobs like cleaning and coffee bar work into skilled jobs building the new economy; and if we end the madness of new immigration controls on foreign workers; the country should be buzzing within 6-12 months of this programme being implemented.

The whole fiscal programme is a much bigger deal than 2017 - it is heavily focused on green investment and unlike last time it doesn’t privilege student fees over benefit restoration and local council spending. If they achieve only half of this, neoliberalism is gone as a system - and a new kind of transformative, just and sustainable future opens up for Britain.

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