There ain’t no left unity, and there never was

Cathal Kavanagh
7 min readAug 4, 2020

Illusions that the current left-right divide in Dáil Éireann might see the emergence of unity among the left-wing parties — as a prelude to a Great Shining Leftist Coalition on the Hill being established after the next election — ought to have been roundly destroyed by events of the past week.

There is an endemic tendency among party-political activists across the world to fight the last war, strategizing for the future based on the options made briefly available by the outcome of the last election.

Thus the calls for the British Labour party to embrace electoral reform and proportional representation, on the logic that FPTP is increasingly making a habit of screwing the party over; and that a PR system would allow a progressive alliance of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the no-longer-excluded Green Party to form a coalition and turf the Tories out of office.

This hopeful, Brexit-influenced speculation disregards the fact that the current system works better for Labour itself than any of the proposed alternatives. All else being equal, if there is a choice between working withthe Lib Dems to beat the Tories, and brutally disembowelling the Lib Dems to beat the Tories, neither Keir Starmer nor any other Labour leader should have a hard time opting for the latter.

See also the obsession among Democrats and the liberal media in the United States with seeking to revive the party’s fortunes through acts of supplication in the kind of Ohio road-side diner whose patrons, we are constantly reminded, in many cases voted twice for Obama before opting for Trump — all while there is a substantial chance that Joe Biden’s road to victory in November ends up running through the Sun Belt states of Florida and Arizona, thousands of miles away.

In the spirit of the above, the fact a massive leftist coalition was briefly considered a viable option by Irish activists after the February election means absolutely nothing when it comes to the operation of the current Dáil, or the behaviour of the relevant parties as we approach the next election.

The Great Shining Leftist Coalition on the Hill, which would banish the haunted evils of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael forever, seemed briefly possible only as a result of the stalemate between the three largest parties in terms of seats.

There has been a widespread, if implicit, belief on the left since the election that, with a few slight shifts here and there, the next election can produce an outcome amenable to the GSLCotH actually getting going — say, with Sinn Féin on ~50 seats, Solidarity-People Before Profit, the Social Democrats, Labour and the Greens with 30 seats between the four of them, and the votes of half a dozen leftist independents rowing in to secure a majority.

Such thinking is a fundamental mis-characterisation of what is actually happening, and of what is about to happen.

All political parties tend towards pursuit of their own domination of the relevant ideological space. The specific strength of this tendency may vary, depending on the incentives thrown up by the particular electoral system, but in the vast majority of cases, given the choice of either increasing their own seat count or “co-operating” with other, neighbourly parties in service of a common goal, rational political parties choose the former.

To that end, the message to non-Sinn Féin leftists going forward must be: Sinn Féin is not your friend. They want to destroy you, and are actively planning to grab your party’s seats.

Conversely, the message to any Sinn Féin activist who was briefly taken in by the ‘left unity’ rhetoric must be: Solidarity-PBP, the Soc Dems, the Greens, Labour, Independents 4 Change and assorted independents are not your friends. The current predominance of Sinn Féin is as nothing to them, compared with even the slight chance of advancing their own prospects and seizing the mantle as the head of the movement for “change”.

In February, of the 11 constituencies in Dublin, Sinn Féin won 10 seats. They received an average of 1.43 quotas, meaning if they hadn’t deselected candidates in the lead-up to the election, they would have won second seats in more than just Dublin Mid-West. They received above 1.43 quotas in six, and would have stood a good chance of bringing home two TDs from all of them.

Increasing the votes they received in each constituency by 15% for a national vote share of 28.75% — eminently possible if the emerging Sinn Féin/Fine Gael polarisation continues — they stand to gain eight extra seats in the capital at the next election. That’s Sinn Féin up to 45 seats already, and we aren’t even off the M50.

Similar processes will repeat themselves across the country. Sinn Féin left enormous surpluses behind them in Carlow-Kilkenny, Cork North-Central, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow in February. If they ran second candidates in all those seats, got the same overall vote share in all of them, and also saw their Dublin vote share increase by that 15%, that’s the five extra seats to 50. Similar increases in the party’s vote share nationwide and Sinn Féin are vanishing up the road.

Faced with this reality, what are Sinn Féin likely to do? Seek to co-operate with their fellow leftists at every opportunity in the current Dáil, stand with them in procedural disputes, such as Thursday’s fracas over speaking order and time, and sit at the centre of an extra-parliamentary alliance that seeks to unite the Opposition in service of a common programme?

Or are they likely, as we saw this week, to stand by while the Government shapes the dynamic of ‘Us v.s. The (Shinner) Opposition’, working towards a 2025 election where Mary-Lou McDonald stands alone as the only option for a non-Varadkar Taoiseach? Assuming that the latter is the case, a lot of left-of-centre TDs can rightly expect to be worried at the prospect of losing their seats in the next Sinn Féin wave.

When Sinn Féin activists look to the future and imagine their ideal scenario for 2025/2030/whenever, what do they see?

A united Ireland.

Obviously.

Second to a united Ireland is Sinn Féin in government both North and South of the still-existing border.

Assuming that the second option is the more likely in the immediate-term, Sinn Féin will take a government with themselves as the unquestioned top dogs, going into coalition with the battered husk of Fianna Fáil if necessary, long before they go in with three, four or five smaller parties, many of whom don’t really care about a united Ireland, and who stand as potential challengers to Sinn Féin’s status as the leaders of the Irish left.

Sinn Féin’s electoral strategy for the foreseeable future is likely to be a replica of the tactics to have served Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael well for decades: run two candidates everywhere as a matter of default, reverting to a one-candidate strategy only when there is a compelling, on-the-ground reason for doing so. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both ran over 80 candidates each in February’s election. There is no reason in the world to believe that Sinn Féin won’t also run enough candidates at the next election to give themselves at least a mathematical shot at winning an outright majority. This is all perfectly normal behaviour, and any of the smaller parties would do the exact same if it was them in this position.

In all the excitement of Sinn Féin’s success in February, it is easy to forget that the first-preference vote share of Labour, the Social Democrats and S-PBP all went down compared with 2016. There is no reason to believe that this trend won’t continue as Sinn Féin seek to consolidate, albeit neither is it inevitable. But it’s clearly what Sinn Féin want to happen. If you’re a supporter of Gary Gannon, Jennifer Whitmore, Mick Barry or Duncan Smith, the electoral strategy Sinn Féin is undoubtedly currently concocting should make you very, very nervous.

None of this precludes instances of genuine cooperation between the various left parties on the major issues that stand to dominate the coming years, as Ireland attempts to crawl out of its Covid-induced stupor.

Nor does it preclude any of the smaller parties having some success in defining themselves in opposition to Sinn Féin, making inroads among voters who disapprove of the government but, for various reasons, don’t want to vote for Sinn Féin. And despite the cold electoral reality, party activists should seek to establish transfer pacts, either formally or informally before the next election. But they should do it with their eyes wide open.

Because on current trends, asking voters to #VoteLeftTransferLeft is going to mean the smaller parties getting a lot of third preferences or lower, after Sinn Féin gobble up as many 1s and 2s — and as result, seats — as they possibly can.

These are just my thoughts on what I think is actually happening or likely to happen in Irish politics. I’m not endorsing or advocating for any particular outcome* outlined in this article, and I’m not saying anything I say for partisan reasons. I’m simply suggesting that it may be what’s happening in reality.

*Except for Labour to disembowel the Lib Dems, that I do want to happen.

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