October 9, 2002
DOC really knows how to hurt me. In a post on Marxmail he challenges me on two counts — by far the worst in my book being that my account is Anglo-centric. Secondly, he challenges me for being factually incorrect. Both those charges hurt me greatly, particularly as, on reflection, I have to partly plead guilty.
Firstly, on the factual incorrectness, I would plead that my guilt is only partial. I have always understood that the electoral system in the Irish Republic, and now in the Northern Ireland Assembly, had a significant proportional representation aspect, in the sense that in multi-member constituencies the optional transfer of surplus votes to other parties had much the same effect as a straight-out PR ballot. But the way DOC explains it, this may not be exactly the case.
In these sorts of questions, there is no substitute for accuracy and detail, and I’d really appreciate it if DOC would explain exactly how the electoral system works in the Irish Republic and the six counties, and compare them, if possible, with a straight PR system. That would be very useful to me and I would incorporate it in further analysis, which I will try to make more specific. I also have an underlying feeling that it might be useful to others in this discussion, some of whom seem to me to not take differences in electoral systems — and electoral systems themselves — with the seriousness that they warrant.
On the more serious charge that there was an Anglo-centric aspect to my analysis of England and Wales, I have to very reluctantly plead guilty. On consideration, grouping England and Wales together is quite wrong. Clearly, it’s necessary to group Wales with Scotland and Ireland, because of both the political set-up in the devolved Welsh assembly and because of the historic national question in the United Kingdom (so-called).
The validity of the charge of Anglo-centrism particularly hurts me because I’ve had a long association with support for republicanism in Ireland and I’ve been involved in agitation on the question as far back as Bloody Sunday in the early 1970s.
In 1981 a small but energetic socialist group of which I was one of the leaders managed to combine with our activities in the Australian labour movement in unions, the ALP, etc, an energetic agitation in support of the Maze Prison hunger strikers, at the height of which we organised a three-week, 24-hour continuous picket of the British high commission at Sydney’s Circular Quay. This event involved many Irish migrants to Australia and a number of labour movement activists.
That year we also conducted a rather fierce agitation at the June conference of the NSW ALP in solidarity with the struggle in Northern Ireland, which much embarrassed the Catholic right in the NSW ALP, many of whose members privately indicated agreement with us but publicly resisted our battle to get the conference to call for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. For all those reason a valid complaint against an Anglo-centric aspect of my analysis hurts me deeply and I will correct it forthwith.
Examining how I arrived at this Anglo-centric deviation is a bit educational for me. I have always previously, probably through a lack of sufficient attention to detail, tended to place Plaid Cymrhu in the same bag as the Scottish National Party, as an essentially non-socialist grouping. You and Ed George present me, rather forcefully — and Ed George in a way that I think is generally useful, supplementing his analysis with real statistical evidence — with further evidence about Plaid Cymrhu’s significant socialist aspect, of which I wasn’t previously aware. I’m always willing to learn in these matters. I’d like you and Ed George to improve my education about Plaid Cymrhu.
A bit like Alan Thornett, as quoted by Ed George, I didn’t take sufficiently seriously the aspect of Plaid Cymrhu emerging as a kind of socialist alternative to Labour, which is why I quite mistakenly proceeded as I did.
I don’t withdraw any of the general thrust of my analysis of Australia, England, Scotland or Ireland, however, except to say you misunderstood my point about Sinn Fein being an obstacle to small socialist groups in Northern Ireland. In my world there is no doubt that Sinn Fein is a mass, reformist, socialist, nationalist grouping and if I was indigenous to Northern Ireland there would be no question that I would operate as a Marxist in Sinn Fein.
I have absolutely no problem with the necessary military aspect of the nationalist and socialist struggle from time to time in Ireland. I’m in total solidarity with Sinn Fein against the current machinations of the British state. I’m sure the Sinn Fein comrades who’ve been lifted are not guilty, and anyway if some republicans were gathering intelligence in the British state apparatus I’d regard that as an entirely legitimate activity, although I’m sure the specific changes being made now are a British state frame-up.
If I was indigenous to Northern Ireland I’d argue that small socialist groups like People’s Democracy and the IRSP should join Sinn Fein. If I was in Sinn Fein, I would argue for a tactical united front strategy towards the SDLP. I would work as hard as possible to increase the SF vote and minimise the SDLP vote, and if — as you assert in a slightly colourful way — there will be a holocaust of the SDLP vote to Sinn Fein in the coming Stormont elections, I would regard that as an entirely good thing. Nevertheless I would still argue for a tactical united front of the republican, nationalist, proletarian community in Northern Ireland.
In the Irish Republic, it seems to me the tactical problems for socialists are a bit more complex. Sinn Fein, while it has a strong basis in the always present and extremely durable republican tradition, is only one grouping among the four that I consider significant.
The Irish Labour Party, while dominated by a reactionary bureaucracy, still has important links with the working class and trade unions. Sinn Fein is also an important nationalist and socialist organisation with some base in the working class and some support in rural areas. The Socialist Party is also important, with one TD, and despite its treacherous, Stalinist aspect, the Workers Party is also significant (personally, I wouldn’t touch the Workers Party with a bargepole, but it can’t be ignored).
Whichever group I decided to work in, if I was indigenous in the Irish Republic, I would still call for a tactical united front of all those four currents. That’s how I see class politics in Ireland.
Concerning Sinn Fein, if I was in it, I would campaign in a non-sectarian way as a Marxist. One of the political problems in any Catholic country, such as Ireland, where religious belief has a real grip on the masses, is the tactical task presented to serious Marxists by this sociological, cultural and religious fact.
I have always regarded James Connolly’s pedagogic approach to this question as an excellent guide. In his 1910 pamphlet Labour, Nationality and Religion, a discussion of the Lenten Discourses against Socialism delivered by the Jesuit priest, Father Kane. Connolly, despite his private religious scepticism, addressed the question publicly and pedagogically as a Catholic trying to reconcile the tenets of the church with his basic socialist and Marxist convictions. This very effective polemic has always seemed to me an admirable way to address the religious question.
I don’t regard the strong presence of Catholic cultural influences in Sinn Fein as any reason for not participating in it and the republican movement.
But there are obviously some serious sticking points for a modern secular Marxist like myself, of Irish Catholic background who still has some cultural identity with the Catholic community.
In Sinn Fein I would try hard to carve out space for the defence of divorce, abortion rights, etc, even though they conflict with the tenets of the Catholic church. The degree to which I’d raise those questions would be a tactical decision within Sinn Fein, but nevertheless I’d fight for the space to raise those demands in Sinn Fein and in the country at large, particularly in the current context, in which the younger section of the population is in wholesale revolt against neanderthal practices and beliefs in relation to divorce and abortion.
I understand that these questions are complex and visceral in Ireland and I would not raise them in a stupid, propagandistic way, but nevertheless they are inevitably present both in workers’ organisations and in society at large and Marxists in and out of Sinn Fein ought to be on the side of the secular, modern angels on these questions. Of course, my pontifications about these religious and cultural matters obviously suffer from my distance from Ireland and I’m quite open to any corrections of emphasis on these matters that comrades who have to operate in the cultural environment in Ireland might want to make. Such a discussion might be educational for all of us on this list, which is a way of having serious internationalist discussions without too much Cominternist pomposity.
It ought to be possible to express opinions on many matters from a geographical distance without too much self-important over-confidence that one can always get it totally right. That’s a function of internationalist discussion.
One final, reasonably important theoretical point: in considering Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the role of British imperialism still has major importance, but it seems to me that factor has diminished in the Irish republic. While the republic suffered mightily over the past 500 years from British imperialism, it now has the major characteristics of a rather internationalised and Europeanised modern capitalist state and the tasks now are the more or less normal working-class and socialist agitation in a modern capitalist state.
Again, this is a theoretical approximation tossed in from another country some distance away for the purpose of discussion between comrades in different countries and situations.
I’m grateful to comrades Ed and DOC for correcting me concerning Wales and I tremble in fear that we may have opened up a new line of serious discussion on Marxmail that may drive our genial sorcerer, Louis, and my patient editorial mate, Steve, slowly round the bend.
October 9, 2002
In response to DOC, thanks for the comment and the clarification about the electoral system in Ireland. The system you describe is, broadly speaking, one of the two systems that we describe as proportional representation in Australia.
The element that is common between the Irish system and the Australian PR systems is the when striking a quota it is the number to be elected plus one, with eliminations from the lowest number of votes up, including the surpluses from elected candidates in the same way, with the persons elected being either the last ones standing or the last standing with a majority.
That’s one of the systems understood in Australia to be proportional representation. It’s the system that prevails in the Australian Senate, and in the NSW, WA and SA upper houses. There are some variations. WA is divided into regions, in NSW the vote is all-in for the whole state, but both systems are regarded as PR.
Tasmania also uses a PR system called Hare Clark. It’s extremely complicated and I won’t even try to explain it, but take my word, it’s also a PR system. I wasn’t as guilty as you initially persuaded me I was concerning the electoral systems. The difference is semantic.
Mostly agreed with everything you had to say in your last post. My accusation of “anglo-centrism” was leveled because of the position on Wales and that the countries you chose to assess. I am glad to retract it.
The problem with getting a good appreciation of Wales is the dominance of English history books and media. Wales, like most colonial countries, has had its history told by a foreign tongue. Indeed, if you talk to English people they generally accept the over-statement that Wales has been pretty much integrated into their country over the last 800 years of occupation. I know a little about the country as I lived there for a year in my youth and my mother's family are all Welsh. There is certainly a tendency in South Wales for working-class socialists to disparage the need for devolution even, never mind independence — but this is reflective of two things — the existence of a deep socialist vein in South Wales society and the dominence of British cultural forms in those areas. Elsewhere in Wales, there are whole patches of almost entirely colonised areas (e.g. “Little England beyond Wales” in the far Southwest) — these areas are populated by large numbers of English retirees and holiday-home owners — who dislike anything more than a little Welsh culture (suitably commodified and packaged, of course). In North Wales there is a much more dispersed rural population with strong Welsh Nationalist tendencies.
I think the last twenty years in Wales have seen a variety of changes from this more traditional situation — the growth of the Welsh language throughout the population has clearly reinforced a greater Welsh consciousness, the closure of mines and steelworks in the industrial South has created huge swathes of an industrial underclass and areas suffering some of the highest levels of deprivation and crime in Western Europe, the complete failure of New Labour to stand against the neo-liberalist concensus has led to previously hard-left heartlands transferring to the more left-wing Plaid Cymru.
As far as the exact policies advanced by Plaid goes, I cannot help hugely — Ed may be able to give a better direction. In the short-term, Plaid may act to radicalise Welsh Labour by positioning itsself to its left flank — and Welsh Labour, despite all its failings, is very clearly part of many Welsh communities.
On PR V STV (please skip this if you're not a psephologist). Voting in the Free State is consistent for both Leinster House (parliament), Strasbourg and the various county councils. You have names and photos and you vote down the card 1,2,3 … until you get tired. When they count the votes in your area they find out what the quota will be by taking the total number of votes cast (and not spoilt) and dividing by the number of seats to be filled plus one. That figure is then added to one to yield the quota. Any candidates with tallies above that figure are automatically elected and their surplus (divided pro-rata in electronic counting) is then distributed to their second preference. If by this stage someone else is over the quota the process continues. If no one gets over the quota then they look to see how many of the lowest polling candidates can't get elected on surplus and then exclude them and transfer their votes to the remaining candidates. That continues until they are all elected or only two unelected candidates remain (in which case the highest polling one wins).
Clearly, such a voting mechanism is much more fair than first-past-the-post because people's preferences get counted. However, its a long way from PR — which is one vote and then seats allocated from lists in proportion. The only (alleged) advantage of STV is that it retains a geographical link between candidates and the area they represent. PR tends to lose that. The difficulty with the system is that it favours larger parties over small ones. You could theoretically get 15 per cent first-preferences in every constituency and fail to get a seat (in a five-seater, the quota is 16.667 per cent). The other thing is that transfers tend to favour more moderate parties.
The system in the North's elections is the same for both Council, Assembly and Strasbourg elections. For Westminster it is first-past-the-post. The same voting methodology is used for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.
I am glad to see we look at involvement in SF in much the same way. As for a united front with the SDLP — I guess that's the pan-Nationalist Front. Although it seems to have gone off the rails over the past two years. The SDLP are facing meltdown and they are dodging like a rabbit in the headlights between “post-nationalism” and “nationalism”.
Bob: In the Irish Republic, it seems to me the tactical problems for socialists are a bit more complex. Sinn Fein, while it has a strong basis in the always present and extremely durable republican tradition, is only one grouping among the four that I consider significant.
In a sense, I can understand this. The twenty-six counties is as you say much more of a typical modern EU state it's no longer trade-dependent on Britain. The problem of the North can be ignored to an extent and instead bread-and-butter focused on as Partitionist Labour and the Socialist Party do to varying degrees of success. However, outside of Dublin, this approach will have only limited success. People in rural Ireland are still pretty Nationalistic and Fianna Fail has built a near hegemony in many areas over the past 80 years. In regional urban centres, it is much more difficult to get established although I think that the way the host of Sinn Fein leaders are on TV most days helps greatly. As for the Worker&8217;s Party, I think that they are pretty much finished — most of them are now journalists, writers, commentators, partitionist Labour TDs. The good ones are working as independent socialists (John O'Neill on this list is an example). There is definitely a mood within SF to create a progressive opposition in the 26 Counties — that will include ourselves, the Greens, Socialist Party, Workers and Unemployed Party and the independents. I think that we are also looking towards Labour to form linkages with them but Ruairi Quinn's last few utterances about the necessity of IRA disbandment are the sort of thing which doesn't help.
As for your comments about what we need to focus on, I am in broad agreement. There are differing views about the tactical ramifications of tackling issues like abortion. As you might imagine it’s a subject which would seriously damage any party broadly reflective of the people. I know many religious people who don’t vote Sinn Fein simply as a result of our relatively lukewarm position on abortion. Your ’Catholic cultural influences in Sinn Fein’ is not something I would have noticed hugely. Even Phil Ferguson, the great champion of a “pure” republican socialist coalition, will admit that he saw little of that in his time as party activist. It's something you hear about in British papers and in sectarian screeds against us.
This conversation ia much more useful than the nth Trotsky-Stalin re-run.