Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A Lesson from Ireland

The Irish general election has effectively seen the emergence of a new party system - the centre-right Fine Gael party has stormed to victory in a likely coalition with the Labour Party, between them polling over 60% of the vote. They have eclisped the previously dominant Fianna Fail, notionally to the left of centre but, as someone on an English Green Party board posted, more closely associated with a mafiosi-style of pork barrel politics.

But it is not just the collapse of Fianna Fail that is of note - the election produced significant results in two other respects: one was the rise of anti-establishment parties in the shape of Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance (a grouping of leftwing socialists) who between them have ended up with 18 seats and 12.5%; and the other was the collapse of the Green Party which had been in a rather unholy Coalition with Fianna Fail. The Greens' vote collapsed from slightly under 5% to just 1.8% and their parliamentary presence was eliminated.

It is a hard lesson, but not a new one - if you are a radical party seeking the challenge the system, it does not pay to sign up to the system for the sake of trying to appear "responsible" or to "work from the inside.". The Irish Greens used this latter argument to justify combining with Fianna Fail. And they did gain some environmental kudos - Eire increased investment in alternative energy. Yet at the same time, Greens had to support airport expansion and motorway building. As the economic crisis swept over the country after some ludicrous dealings by large construction companies and the banks that financed them, any social justice measures were quickly swept aside by the Year Zero economics imposed by the IMF. Consequently, precisely at a time when the Greens could have been showing Eire a viable, radical alternative to "business as usual", they are impotently relegated to the sidelines.

In England in recent weeks, with local councils having to set budgets that, by law, must comply with central Government strictures about cutting services to save costs, Greens have been confronted with the dilemma of whether to vote for budgets required by central diktat, or to vote against at the risk of being portrayed as either dreamers or schemers - or both. In our local area, Kirklees, the four Green Party councillors were the only party group on the Council to vote against a budget that will reduce spending on services by nearly a quarter over the next four years - including taking £20 millions out of adult social care.

The debate can be seen here and it is about a damning an indictment of the standard of political debate in British local authorities as you will find anywhere. The hostility to the Greens and the Independent who spoke against the cuts budget is palpable, the three big parties repeatedly sneering and deriding their opposing viewpoints. There is no engagement in debating the issues - simply an announcement that the budget proposed by the three big parties is the "least worst option" and any variation will not work.

It would be easy in such circumstances for Greens to accept the oft-cited argument that Councils have to set legal budgets and so vote for cuts. But only by opposing them at local level can the counter-argument be put against the received wisdom peddled by the Coalition Government that cuts in spending are essential. Greens have never accepted this approach and so why should they vote for it on the councils where there is Green representation? If they did, who would be speaking up for the alternative?

By contrast to the Irish, the Scottish Greens have worked on a case by case basis with the SNP Government over the last four years, carefully maintaining their independence and avoiding being sucked in too deep by offers of jobs and influence. Consequently, if current polls remain solid, they hold the not unrealistic hope of an increase in MSPs from 2 to 6 or more at the elections in May.

So for Green radicals, it seems Ireland is a warning signal - short term gains are just that; short term, limited and, if you are wiped out for missing the tsunami of social and economic issues confronting your voters, any small gains will as likely be not be wiped away in the twinkling of an eye. Hold steady and an electorate increasingly wearied of the mind-numbing sterility of the Establishment parties may begin to turn and look for something genuinely new.

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