Sunday 25 August 2019

Sean Sherlock: 'Left and Green can work together for a better future'

Labour, the Green Party, and the Social Democrats, have many values and goals in common, writes Sean Sherlock

Sean Sherlock
Sean Sherlock

Sean Sherlock

The ink is hardly dry on election results to hand at this stage of the weekend. There will be more to come today and tomorrow, as the political composition in membership of 31 local authorities and Ireland's representation in the European Parliament becomes clear.

Notwithstanding a proven relativity, in terms of a snapshot in public opinion and portent, I am also conscious that local and European contests can be different animals to a general election.

The last few weeks, however, have been an opportunity to engage in a massive conversation. In that time, I have become a father for the second time. I am thinking more than ever about the future of the world we live in and what that future holds.

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I do think that left and green in Irish politics can act as one on what - to borrow that familiar Irish political phrase - has been "coming up" in that conversation. Such topics as building sustainable communities and acting on the climate emergency are common ones for us.

It was in reaction to the consequences of greed and exploitation, in order to enshrine liberty, fraternity and equality in all that we do and to promote the concept of society that labour and social democratic parties organised towards political power across Europe. Caring about the environment in which one was growing up was always part of the left-wing narrative.

Today, it is as important as ever to be "for the many, not the few". If that approximation informs us on the political left - in terms of looking at society (and the economy) and curbing the excesses of individualism - it is no less relevant for those who think "green".

It is the same "many" that I have in mind, and to which my politics is dedicated, that will benefit from acting on such things as the primary descriptions of what its website says the Irish Green Party is about:

  •  "Vote climate, vote community."
  •  "Real change only comes when we act together."
  •  "We stand for smart, long term solutions to build a better life for everyone in Ireland."

"Reshaping Ireland, for the people, by the people," says the Irish Social Democrats party.

"Serving the community" and a "Social Europe" were the respective titles of Labour's local and European manifestos in these recent elections.

We, the Greens and the Left, can be described as adhering to all of the above and are seeking an alternative to the status quo.

Throughout continental Europe, a common interest in a sustainable environment and a just society for its people brings red and green together in political movement and in government.

Populism and right-wing politics, in my view, offer little in the way of action on climate change, basic income, collective bargaining and health care reform - when compared to green and social and democratic and labour parties joining force with environmentalists.

The Labour Party in Ireland is a component of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Our sister party in Sweden is in government there with the Greens. Action on protecting the environment is also one of the prerequisites being set by the Social Democrats, as they shape a new government for Finland following their narrow win in its recent general election.

Speaking at our most recent conference, Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin signalled a way forward for this form of progressive politics in Ireland.

Howlin's call for Labour supporters to ensure they passed on their preferences to candidates from the Green Party, Social Democrats and other progressives in a general election was repeated in terms of last Friday's local and European elections.

In Co Louth, there were electoral areas that didn't have a Labour candidate and likewise there were places the Green Party weren't contesting. I was delighted to note that the Green Party urged people in Drogheda to vote No. 1 for Labour candidates. Labour sought the same for Green candidates in Dundalk.

The logic of what happened in Co Louth can be brought forward into local authorities where Labour, Green, Social Democrats and other progressive councillors sit as elected members.

The old Irish language phrase, "ni neart go cur le cheile" (no strength without unity) can be brought to bear. Ultimately, campaigns for a fair society and a clean, safe, sustainable environment will be better for it.

On the national stage, Labour has already worked well with the Greens, the Social Democrats and other progressives. We were on the same side this time last year in the 'Repeal the Eighth' referendum. The campaign to re-elect Michael D Higgins as President of Ireland, to champion his vision of society as opposed to that of the others in that race, was underpinned with strong, organised political support from the green left.

In between, these parties have been on the same page as regards legislation in Dail Eireann. When Grace O'Sullivan's bill to ban the use of microbeads fell, I took up the baton with my own bill on the same issue. We forced a response with a draft Bill to ban microplastics now ready to go.

Green and left being on the same page is necessary when the planet is being undermined but also when society is threatened in the same way.

In fashioning labour and other laws to ensure that new ways of working aren't new ways of exploitation, such political co-operation is equally important.

Doubtless, I and colleagues in the Labour Party will be poring over elections results in the coming days and we'll be discussing the way forward for the party - seeing as a general election will be the next opportunity for people to go to the polls.

I will be expecting small but significant gains for Labour. There may be disappointments too. If it's a thing, for example, that we don't get as many Labour MEPs elected as we would like, I don't think you'll see us begrudge any success that would come the Green Party's way in that respect.

It has been a challenge to get people who think Labour, to vote Labour. We have made mistakes that didn't help.

The Greens made mistakes too but, thankfully, have recovered political support in their quest to make people think and act for climate action.

On the Climate Action committee, Labour and the Greens have led the way on ensuring that workers who have to make a transition in the Midlands away from peat production are treated fairly and that such a transition, called the Just Transition, is negotiated and no one gets left behind.

Such cooperation seems like an obvious move to me. Imagine, if you will, banding the two challenges of meeting our emissions targets and ensuring that workers don't get left behind as part of a pact or some such coalescent political movement, then I believe that we can form a strong alliance.

It would be a pity if personalities, old enmities or maybe a fear of change, of doing things differently, got in the way of potential for change itself.

I tweeted last week about advocating a merging of green and left thought, by which I meant our parties working together and seeking electoral support to achieve common goals.

It probably doesn't need to involve the creation of a new party at this stage. We have enough parties. A clear and strong alliance that would challenge the hegemony of FF and FG is where my thinking is at. Whether there is traction for this idea or not, remains to be seen.

  • Sean Sherlock is a Labour TD for Cork East.

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