A new social democracy must fill hole left by Labour
Published 25/05/2014 | 02:30
Last Monday I went to St Andrew's School for a rehearsed reading of According to His Need, a one-act comedy by Oliver Eagleton. Although he is still a student at the school his play has been accepted for the Edinburgh Fringe. Deservedly so, because it does what comedy should do: makes you laugh while making you think.
The laughs come from the comic premise. According to His Need is about a frustrated young man who joins a small left- wing party to pick up hot girls but is taken in hand by a hard-line female socialist. But in a classic comedy role-reversal he falls in love with Marx, while she falls in love with him.
The plot points to a fringe Trotskyite party. Back in my time frustrated males in the big socialist parties, like Labour and the Workers' Party, would frequently complain that fringe parties seemed to attract the hottest females. What they missed was that fringe parties also attracted wealthy males.
The comrades were not consoled when I analysed this in Marxist terms. Engels had explained the connection between marriage and property. Fringe parties attracted posh males who wanted to faff around for a while before spending the family fortune. Hot girls looking for husbands took up Trotskyism like they took up surfing.
But while Oliver Eagleton's play was funny, it also gave me food for thought. Coming up to the elections it reminded me of the continuing relevance, not of socialism, but of socialist values. And of the huge hole in our politics that must be filled by a mass party of social democracy, rather than a nationalist-populist party like Sinn Fein.
The elections' results confirm that the Labour Party is largely a lost cause. The blame for this belongs not to the traditional Labour Party, whose natural leader is Joan Burton. It belongs to what I call Blue Labour, the still powerful rump of former Workers' Party/Democratic Left members whose nominal leader is Eamon Gilmore but whose natural leader is Pat Rabbitte.
Most pundits lazily blame Labour's collapse on broken promises. But voters in all democracies accept that circumstances force parties to break promises. No, what revolted voters was the craven way that in every crisis, from the Kevin Cardiff controversy to the Alan Shatter shambles, Rabbitte and Gilmore acted as political bodyguards for Fine Gael.
Behind that betrayal was the bigger betrayal of going into government in the first place. My problem is not with coalition as a principle, but with the stupid practice of it in this particular case. Labour left the working class to the mercy of Sinn Fein – without securing a basic social democratic programme in exchange.
The dire need for such a progressive programme must dictate the formation of the new party which will surely follow from the elections. There is talk of a new centre-right party. This would be a political and moral mistake and put private sector workers totally in the pocket of Sinn Fein.
What working people need is a serious social democratic party with three attainable aims: a public housing programme, a free health service and a universal pension policy – to be paid for by a progressive tax policy rather than by raiding the pensions of the private sector.
Calling for a social democratic party is no sudden whim on my part. And I have a paper trail to prove it. Back in 1989, while a member of the Workers Party, I wrote a pamphlet called The Necessity of Social Democracy which repudiated statist socialism in favour of social democracy.
Anticipating the collapse of all socialist states, I asked "What can we not salvage from the past?" And answered: "State ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Single-party states. The myth that we can manage without a market. And the word 'socialism'."
So what could we salvage from the past? My answer back in 1989 was the same as it would be now: "Socialist values, the public principle." In sum, social democracy.
These ideas deeply influenced Proinsias De Rossa's speech at the Workers' Party Ard Fheis held in April 1989, two months before the General Election. To the shock of the Student Princes in the party, he subjected socialist shibboleths to searing criticism and embraced social democracy.
Given that Gorbachev was under pressure from hardliners, De Rossa's denunciation of statist socialism was crucial to winning middle-class support in Dublin. Two months later at the General Election of June 1989, the Workers' Party got its reward, reaching a height of public support it would never see again, winning seven seats and topping the poll at the European elections.
Everybody in politics saw the clear connection between De Rossa's adoption of social democracy and the electoral success of the Workers Party. But not the grim group I dubbed the Student Princes. Six months after the election success, in November 1989, they called a meeting in Buswell's Hotel to denounce the De Rossa speech which had helped them win their seats.
Coming out, I challenged a Student Prince supporter. Could she not see the connection between De Rossa's April speech denouncing statist socialism and the June electoral success of the party? Her reply reached a new depth of dumb dogmatism:
"So I see they say in the papers."
Shane Coleman, in the Sunday Tribune, summed up what happened to me then: "[Harris] produced his highly prescient pamphlet, The Necessity of Social Democracy, which correctly concluded socialism would not survive the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the document met with resistance in the Workers' Party and a frustrated Harris left the party."
But within a matter of years those who had binned my pamphlet on social democracy, and forced De Rossa to renege on his 1989 revisionist speech at the Ard Fheis of 1990, had slunk away from socialism, formed Democratic Left, and finally bedded down in the same fat-cat bed as Fine Gael.
This came as no surprise. The Necessity of Social Democracy contained a clear warning. "Social democracy in this sense. . . holds out no comfort for those politicos around the left who think social democracy means putting on a suit and getting on Questions and Answers, or who see the Workers' Party as a machine for putting them in Dail Eireann."
Today, 25 years on, the core beliefs of The Necessity of Social Democracy are more relevant than ever. Among them is what I call the dialectics of change. This means accepting that what people want is in constant and sometimes contradictory flux.
Things change. So no policy can be set in stone. The primary task of politics is to keep up with the people. Just now that means leaning more to the left than to the right. And the last words of my 1989 pamphlet are still true today. "People want a lot. They want the State to leave them alone. Then the frying pan goes on fire. Now they want the State to send the fire brigade. Yesterday. People want the sun, moon and stars. And sooner or later that is what people will get."