The words “up is down, left is right, right is wrong, behold the new politics” were spoken by Blairite MP David Lyons in James Graham’s witty analysis of the British Labour Party, Labour of Love, which ran in London’s West End in late 2017. For years in Britain, and in Europe as a whole, the left-right divide has played a crucial role in politics – two ideological behemoths clashing in election after election. Ireland, however, stands out as a remarkable exception to the rule, with two centre-right parties dominating political discourse in the form of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and a dearth of strong, popular parties representing the left.
The lack of left-wing input in Irish politics has long been a source of interest for sociologists and political scientists alike. Regardless of one’s views on the desirability of a left-wing government, few could argue that the clear absence of strong left-wing parties doesn’t warrant investigation. Globally, we are in an age in which the left-right divide has become increasingly pronounced, with figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders revitalising the left while the likes of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage give political legitimacy to far-right ideals. In this light, Ireland’s deviation from the norm is both baffling and intriguing, and a myriad of theories have been put forward as explanations.
A common theory links the lack of class-based politics in Ireland with the nationalist struggle. Speaking to The University Times, Dr Bill Kissane, author of Explaining Irish Democracy and Associate Professor of Politics at the London School of Economics, says the two issues are intricately connected: “The familiar argument is that in the 19th century the enemy was the British state and the mobilisation of the ordinary people was done in the form of nationalism.” He says that the struggle for Irish independence involved so much mobilisation and garnered so much support that “what was important was the nation rather than the class”. It is this argument that gives Sinn Féin the political capital to consider themselves Ireland’s left, despite the fact that, as Kissane sees it, “they’re not particularly radical on social and economic issues”.
What was important was the nation rather than the class
The significance of history to Ireland’s current political landscape is an idea that carries great weight in academic literature. Labour Party Senator Ged Nash concurs with Kissane’s analysis of nationalist ties to leftist parties, seeing a distinct pathway between the foundations of an independent Ireland and the current political arena. Speaking to The University Times, he claims that “the State was not born necessarily out of a struggle for a better society, fairer economic model and a vision for social justice but out of a narrow form of nationalism”, emphasising that in the early days of the Free State, “by and large, your party political preferences were influenced by the question of which side your family took in the civil war”. This emphasis on the civil war is a recurring theme, with seemingly endless articles and textbooks having been written on the subject. Whether it still rings true in today’s society is, however, an open question. Kissane is doubtful of the theory’s relevance to modern-day society. “I think that there’s a lot to the civil war argument”, he offers, before checking himself with the caveat that it’s unclear “whether it can really explain where we are now after 100 years”.
Indeed, whether these historical arguments can be used to explain the current state of the nation is a contentious topic. Speaking to The University Times, Dublin City Councillor and People Before Profit Representative for Dublin South Central Tina MacVeigh argues that while nationalism once held great influence over politics, “that is definitely changing now”. Meanwhile, fellow Dublin City Councillor and Social Democrat candidate for Dublin Central Gary Gannon asserts that although issues such as national identity and lingering civil-war allegiances play some part in Irish elections: “People do very much vote along class interests in this country.” Middle-class sentiment, he adds, is “the reason why Sinn Féin don’t get many votes in Rathgar”.
This raises an interesting point. Many scholars and politicians argue that middle-class interests dominate political discourse, potentially steering debate towards the centre. Kissane frames this idea in a historical context once again, explaining that “Ireland is quite unique in having completely missed out on the industrial revolution”. This, he continues, meant that Ireland “never had a very big industrial working class and that meant that there was no social constituency available for socialist parties”. His assertion is confirmed by Nash, who links quite naturally the lack of an organised working class to the absence of “a mass labour and trade union movement the equivalent of Britain”.
This idea is deeply linked to the relatively high concentration of rural voters in Ireland. Common opinion would seem to place such voters on the more conservative side of the spectrum. MacVeigh accredits this to the grip centre-right parties hold over rural constituencies: “The traditional establishment parties would have had very strong bases within rural communities”. She acknowledges, however, that while “they’re very deeply rooted traditions” this urban-rural political landscape is “slowly changing”.
Gannon claims that many voters from rural constituencies are “more entrenched into a particular mindset. They’re less likely to come into contact with people of different beliefs or different kind of ideas”. He counters this, though, with the idea that when such rural voters move to urban areas “they inevitably end up in parties like mine”.
The belief that urbanisation would lead to a greater support for left-wing causes has long been raised as a point of optimism for the left. Kissane, however, is not so sure: “At the end of the day Ireland has become quite urbanised in the last fifty years”, he says, but little change has been observed. Perhaps it’s time, then, to abandon the traditional view that rural voters are conservatives and urban ones liberal. Kissane describes the recent same-sex marriage referendum as an issue on which “what you’d call ‘rural’ Ireland were very liberal”. He contends that this implies that the “generalisation is not true anymore”. Gannon similarly argues that ultimately, left-wing values can be appealing to all voters, claiming that “not reducing your tax at particular times when we actually can’t afford to, investing in public services, they’re all ideas that make sense to people across the spectrum when you actually sit down and explain it”.
In a way the centre has moved to social democracy although clearly the ‘left’ in Ireland hasn’t benefited electorally from that
All these reasons aside, it still remains clear that the left in Ireland is by no means in fighting shape. Excluding Sinn Féin, which continues to run primarily on a nationalist platform, the Labour Party won more seats than any other leftist party in the 2016 general election, with less than five per cent. Could it be that left-wing voters are becoming disillusioned and abandoning all hope of a majority government? MacVeigh argues that this comes from a fundamental distrust of the centre-left, and a belief that left-wing parties are likely to move to the centre upon election and “suddenly find themselves in a situation where they have to make these ‘tough decisions’ because they have to save capital and in order to do that they have to cut public services, they have to cut wages”. Gannon agrees with this analysis, citing recent Labour-Fine Gael coalitions as situations in which the party “had people in positions of influence who probably neither then nor now would describe themselves as being particularly left-wing”.
Kissane, however, feels this tendency to the centre has more to do with the political system as a whole than the failings of a particular party, arguing that the Labour Party “would have suffered” in the eyes of the electorate “even if they had stood aside and said ‘we’re not going to go into coalition with Fine Gael’”. Instead, he argues, “they’ve exercised some influence and have given some rewards to their supporters and their members”, though he still recognises that ultimately “the result is of course that we don’t have a strong left and that’s definitely the case”.
This idea of left-wing parties moving to the centre and “abandoning” the ideas that they once held sacred is something that pervades left-wing movements the world over. Perhaps the most famous case is the Blairite movement in Britain’s Labour Party, which led to the abandonment of the party’s pursuit of public-service nationalisation and the movement toward a party that supported the free market in the early 2000s. The traditional argument surrounding such movements has been one between those who wish to maintain the socialist ideals and credentials of left parties and those who favour “modernisation” and electability. Nash attributes this, at least in part, to the attempts by the right to become “catch-all parties” and for a broad spectrum of parties to appeal to left-wing voters: “In a way the centre has moved to social democracy although clearly the ‘left’ in Ireland hasn’t benefited electorally from that”. He adds that ideas such as the need for a welfare state and equality of opportunity have become universally approved, making it difficult for left-wing parties to run on such platforms. “Historically, these ideas were opposed by conservatives on the centre-right”, says Nash, “but now one would be hard-pressed to find anyone on the centre-right who would not say that the welfare state is to be valued and supported”.
One would be hard-pressed to find anyone on the centre-right who would not say that the welfare state is to be valued
Can the left conceivably mobilise its disjointed and disrupted support base? Will there ever come a time when a left-wing government, or even a strong, viable left-wing opposition, becomes foreseeable? A sense of optimism still remains among left-wing parties and academics. Nash argues that “now is the time when a strong and progressive left is most required in Irish society”, and claims that the “vision that most of us on the broad left spectrum have would be better served if some on the left used their energy and talents to co-operate on initiatives we can all support, working on what unites us rather than on what divides us”. This theme of left-wing unity shows up time and time again in the discussion around the current political landscape. MacVeigh feels that such unity is what gives the centre-right its greatest advantage, as such parties share “a singular ideological principle”, while “there’s the battle of ideas on the left”. Gannon, too, feels like now is the time to mobilise cross-party support for left-wing ideals: “If we want to have a left-wing majority government in this country, we may need to sit down with people we don’t personally like, but probably share a lot of our beliefs with.”
Ultimately, though, talking about these issues can only get the left so far, and Kissane questions whether any left-wing government would actually be able to deliver on its promises: “My question about all of this is that even if you had a left-wing partner in government with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, would they really be able to change that much? And what exactly is the target of left-wing politics in Ireland? Is it to create a more liberal society? That’s happening anyway. Is it welfare spending? Welfare spending is comparable with any European country. Is it the health system? The education system? I don’t know what the priority is for left-wing government.”
There are some who will feel that the time has passed for a left-wing party to occupy a relevant position in Ireland. Others may even feel that the left-right paradigm is an outdated way of viewing Irish politics. Many on the left, however, believe that now truly is the time for change. “We have six Trotskyist TDs who come from a Marxist tradition in the parliament”, says MacVeigh. “Show me any other country in Europe, or the world even, where that’s the case.”
If now really is the time, an understanding of the causes of Irish centre-right hegemony, and of the obstacles standing in the way of the left, will be invaluable in promoting a cohesive, coherent and worthwhile opposition to the existing prominent parties. Asked if a left-wing government is foreseeable in Ireland, Gannon is decisive: “It’s the reason I get up out of bed in the morning.”