A new force of the left

Post by Michael Marsh

In his Irish Times column today Vincent Browne once again called on the Labour Party to form an alliance with the forces of the left and create a real alternative to the centrist and right of centre governments we have seen in Ireland in the past. Analysis of the weakness of the Irish left have traditionally focussed on a range of factors ranging from the strategic errors of the Labour Party as the State was founded, to the power of the sternly anti-socialist catholic church and the facility of Fianna Fail to be all things to all people. As the last two of these seem to be losing their aura, perhaps the prospects of the long awaited realignment of Irish politics along he left-right axis which characterises party competition in most of our older EU neighbours is now a realistic possibility?

Interested readers of this website might like to look at the website of the Irish National Election Study, which can be used to explore the potential constituency for such a party. The site allows the reader to browse through a survey of of Irish voters between 2002 and 2007. The median Irish voter is right of centre. On a scale where 1 is left and 10 is right, the average voter places themselves between 6 and 7. Less than 1/5 locate themselves left of centre, between points 1 and 4.

This suggests the Irish electorate is much more right wing than its EU neighbours. If we explore the content of attitudes in some respects the electorate looks slightly leftish. There is moderate disagreement with the statement that ordinary people get their fair share of the nation’s wealth, and mild agreement with the statements that Income tax should be increased for people on higher than average incomes and Income and wealth should be redistributed towards ordinary people. Some inequality however is accepted: a majority agrees there is nothing wrong with some people being a lot richer than others. Yet there is general resistance to increasing State control over the economy. A majority favours private over public enterprises, and there is no great enthusiasm for greater government intervention in the economy.

More interestingly though, the attitudes that might be expected to be associated with being ‘left’ or ‘right’ show a very tenuous link with one another: attitudes to equality are not associated at all with those towards public/private ownership. In most other countries they are.

This may be taken to suggest the basis for a significant left alliance is weak, although it is arguable that the purpose of a movement of the left would be to change, or mould public attitudes, to bring ordinary people to the realisation of what was in their best interest. If so, there is a long way to go.

4 thoughts on “A new force of the left

  1. Arguably, though, the label of “left wing” means something quite different in Ireland to the average voter. Across the EU, there are relatively clear left-right cleavages, and a history of that term having economic meanings.

    In Ireland, though, because there isn’t such a clear left-right party structure, you could argue that, to Irish voters, being left or right has a much greater social dimension than economic.

  2. Browne assumes that a ‘unified’ left force would be greater than the sum of its parts. We’ve had this unity on the left before – Democratic Left merged into (and took over) Labour, but it has failed to beat the 21 seats that Labour & DL took into that merger, and has come nowhere near the 38-39 number of left-leaning TDs elected in 1992. And why would it? Given the electoral system doesn’t disincentivise small parties particularly, a merger on the left produces a party that covers less policy space and allows room for competition from the left flank or right flank depending on where that new, unified party positions itself.

  3. Vincent has finally talked himself into the highly vocal constituency of “something must be done” without ever asking what precisely this “something” should be or from a practical politics viewpoint “how” this something might be achieved.

    The broad left in Ireland appears on the surface at least to share a set of goals, but it is in the means that they deem to be required to achieve those goals that they differ. Any debates they participate in never get beyond broad stroke platitudes about protecting the weak, and taxing the rich. In a debate on detail, they fall apart.

  4. While the INES study may be useful for projecting how a united left might fare, the real question is the extent to which attitudes may have changed since the INES study was carried out (during the bubble years 2002-2007) or will have changed as a result of the current crisis?

    Other countries may have overcome
    1) the ‘tribal’ nature of many aspects of our way of doing things eg. banking policies being worked out on a “green jersey” basis only (yes, I mean to the exclusion of any other criteria,;
    2) the ‘strong farmer’ (a la Joe Lee) culture that is present ie. the possession ethic versus the performance ethic.

    It strikes me that we in Ireland have not yet gone through the kind of paradigm shift represented by a Gemeinschaft – Gesellschaft distinction.

    Is our default position Gemeinschaft?
    I suggest that the default position in the US, Germany, Netherlands, Scandanavia is Gesellschaft.

    To what extent is this kind of analysis present in the INES/

    I think we have two issues to deal with
    1) we want the kind of standard of living that seems to be associated with societies more oriented to Gesellschaft;
    2) we are not aware of what that implies, in practice – in terms of actually using law (instead of nudges&wink, government by whimsy, arbitary interference), good governance in all kinds of places, duties of care (towards all, not just those we know), limiting the scope fo excess by the powerful – elected and appointed, checks and balances, designing good processes for public administration

    Regardless of a left-right split, I believe that neither will have any lasting influence unless we find ways of improving how we govern ourselves. This is more than studies of factors influencing the outcome fo elections or re-alignment of political parties.

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