Friday 30 September 2016

Why messers on the Left should be Green with envy

The Left has learned a lesson from the fate of the Green Party, but it's entirely the wrong one

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett Photo: Tom Burke
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett Photo: Tom Burke

Bruised by rejection, it may seem to many in Fine Gael like adding insult to injury that the first onus for cobbling together a coalition should fall to them, when the party was only marginally ahead of Fianna Fail, both in seats and the popular vote. But that is how governments are formed in a parliamentary democracy.

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Serious politicians shoulder the responsibility and get on with it without, to borrow a contentious word, whinging.

That is also why one of the figures to emerge from this election with most credit was Eamon Ryan of the Greens.

Labour might think it took some hard blows this time round, but the Greens were wiped out in 2011 as a result of their support for the FF-led government of the day. If anyone could be forgiven now for taking a "once bitten, twice shy" approach, it would be them; but Ryan didn't even flirt with that painless option.

Instead, he was clear from the start that the Green Party was ready to talk to anyone to build a stable government.

It's a pragmatic stance, insofar as the Greens' only chance of getting what they want is by cutting a deal in return for supporting a larger bloc. But it's also a principled stance, because it puts enacting policy that makes a difference to people's lives ahead of ideological purity.

Disgracefully, this election has confirmed again that most on the hard Left are, by contrast, amateurs and time wasters, who would rather faff about on the Opposition benches, making speeches, than actually do something.

The election seems an age, rather than a mere week, ago. Within hours of the votes being counted, the Left was back to business as usual, insisting that it wouldn't do deals with 'capitalist' parties, knowing full well that this means none of its wish list will be met.

The Greens accept the system in which they operate and the country in which they live. They might not like it. If they could start at square one, they wouldn't want it to be like this. But it is. So they roll up their sleeves, prepared to get on with the task of getting as much of their programme enacted as they can in what remains, as the election has confirmed again, an innately conservative country.

If we still won't swing sharply to the Left after 10 years of brutal recession, then it's just not a credible prospect in the foreseeable future.

In 2011, People Before Profit had 1pc and the Socialist Party had 1.2pc. This time around, the Anti-Austerity Alliance/PBP grouping had 3.9pc.

What rate of incremental growth are they anticipating until they can form a majority government? The Greens under Trevor Sargent in 2007 got roughly the same level of support (4.7pc) as the hard Left this time and a similar number of seats (six).

By going into government with FF and the Progressive Democrats, the Greens had, by the end, overseen the introduction of a carbon levy and a new system for vehicle registration tax based on carbon emissions; enforced regulations to make all new homes energy-efficient and to impose penalties on landlords offering sub-standard accommodation; the rate of electricity generated by wind power had doubled; there was major investment in wave power for the first time; they protected funding for education and the arts; got recognition of civil partnership for same-sex couples; there were significant changes in planning laws; and, if this sort of thing floats your boat, they'd even banned incandescent light bulbs.

Did they get everything they wanted? Not by a long shot. Did they alienate some supporters by, for example, backtracking on the Shell To Sea campaign? Undoubtedly.

But they got something. What will the AAA-PBP have at the end of this government, however long it lasts, in return for their six seats? Nothing.

What, for that matter, will SF have for its 23 seats?

So what is the Left's plan? Sit out another 100 years in pursuit of an overall majority?

These are not the actions of politicians serious about making a difference to the real lives of ordinary people. They are the actions of messers.

If those on the Left genuinely cared, they'd cut a deal to build 100,000 social housing units in return for supporting a coalition government. If they cared about hospital waiting lists, they'd cut a deal to pump more money into health.

At the end of their time in office, they wouldn't have established a socialist paradise, but 100,000 families would be off waiting lists and living in new homes and hundreds of thousands of people would have received the medical treatment they need. Those would be solid, demonstrable achievements.

Instead, Richard Boyd Barrett was back standing outside St Vincent's Hospital on Wednesday with a sign saying "More Beds Now", even tweeting a smiling picture of himself, hashtagging it #health and #trolleys, as if hashtags are any use to patients.

The Left would rather ignore the reality of compromise in order to wallow indulgently in a fantasy of ultimate victory. "Next year in Jerusalem" is always the motto. The Greens at least prioritise what they can get this year, right now; and what's most honourable about that position is that they don't do so in the expectation of any electoral reward.

On the contrary, Ryan knows that, in all likelihood, the Greens would be punished again for their support of any government, just as Ciaran Cuffe predicted before the party entered coalition negotiations in 2007 that they "would be spat out after five years and decimated as a party".

He was equally unsentimental about their partners: "Can you change it (FF)? No."

"But… would it be worth it?" he went on to ask.

That "but" is where all real politics happens, not in adolescent utopian safe spaces. Even last week, on Prime Time, Eamon Ryan was refusing to adopt facile populist positions.

For small parties in a multi-party system, elections are always a matter of 'Boom and Bust'; but in a political structure that requires coalition, small parties such as the Greens and Labour get to achieve more of their policies by going into government than Gerry Adams and Boyd Barrett ever get by staying out.

Gino Kenny, newly elected TD for the AAA-PBP in Dublin MidWest, probably gave the game away. "Civil war politics was over a long time ago," he said last week. "What we're going to have now is class warfare… when there are strikes or upheavals, we'll be there."

Fellow newcomer Brid Smith was equally blunt, saying the priority now was "mobilising resistance". Don't say we haven't been warned. In a democracy, governments should be formed by elected representatives in the Dail, not by mobs on the streets.

Sunday Independent

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