By Frank Connolly.
The prospect of an alliance of left-wing, trade-union and progressive organisations in advance of the general election took a tentative step forward following a meeting hosted by the Communications Workers Union in Dublin on Mayday.
A gathering of up to 200 political, trade-union and community activists heard speakers from the Syriza government in Greece and the Spanish social movement, Podemos, describe how they have built a progressive alternative to the traditional conservative and social democratic parties in their respective countries.
Syriza activist, Konstantina Tzouvala, explained how Syriza grew from student mobilisations in 2006 and 2007 when the main universities were occupied for over a year and campaigns against the privatisation of water and austerity in more recent years. Since its election the new Syriza-led government has restored the minimum wage, reinstated many public-service positions, ended compulsory HIV testing for drug addicts and sex workers, released immigrants from detention centres and of course, battled its EU partners over debt repayments and bailout terms.
In Spain, Podemos, according to Eduardo Maura, has broken the traditional two-party system in place since the death of Franco in the mid-70s and has built on the successes of the Indignados movement in 2011 to build a new force “not left, not right but at the heart of Spanish politics”.
While some of those present took exception to his dismissal of traditional political dividing lines he argued that the new movement was seeking to build a social majority and last year secured 1.2 million votes and 5 MEPs in the European Parliament elections.
Both speakers eloquently described the crisis of legitimacy in their respective countries and the “kidnapping of democracy” by the corrupt elites – which can only be challenged by a united movement of the people. The Syriza activist who was subjected, arrogantly, to some patronising criticism by some of the purer Leftists in the room about her government’s failure to unilaterally renege on its debts responded that it was a promise that was never made by her party. She accurately identified, and criticised, the tendency of some on the Left to indulge in the “fetishism of small differences” and to behave as the “professionals of disagreement” in remarks that resonated with many of those present. Berlin Water Movement activist, Dorothea Haerlin, also spoke.
The meeting included representatives from the four unions involved in the campaign against water charges: the CWU, Mandate, UNITE and the CPSU; as well as from SIPTU, Sinn Féin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People Before Profit and other left-wing groups and think tanks. The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia King, also attended the event which was formally opened by Congress president, John Douglas
A number of left-wing independent TDs including Catherine Murphy, Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Thomas Pringle and Roisin Shorthall were present along with TDs Mary Lou McDonald, Joe Higgins, Ruth Coppinger and Richard Boyd Barrett representing their respective parties.
In a powerfully presented analysis, economist Michael Taft argued for an alliance of the Left that could unite progressive parties and independents, unions and community activists and which was based on credible and workable policies. Wealth has to be generated before it is distributed and the provision of decent public services depends on the collection of sufficient and fair taxes to fund them, he argued. Paddy Mackel of the NIPSA trade union spoke about the campaign against water charges and privatisation in the North. Maynooth university lecturer, Rory Hearne, delivered a paper on the political analysis of the Irish water movement, while Stephen Nolan of Trademark addressed the meeting on “Political Economy: Democratising Knowledge”.
With over 40% of voters supporting parties and candidates standing on Left policy platforms in 2011, the responsibility of those seeking a progressive government is to develop a platform of economic, fiscal, taxation and social policies which a majority of voters can support and which can survive the forensic scrutiny of the right wing parties and the media.
The meeting was presented with a list of ‘Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government’ which included proposals on water, health, education, housing, decent work, debt justice and democratic reform.
All of those present, who were largely Dublin-based, were asked to consider the document and submit responses and proposals on the policies outlined and any other ideas, before a follow up event in mid-June.
The participation of 200 activists of the Left for an afternoon of discussion on the experiences of progressive movements in Greece and Spain and their willingness to engage in detailed discussion on policy proposals which could form the basis for an agreed election charter for progressive parties and candidates is a positive development. Hopefully it will be advanced without “inflating the significance of our