Mayday Conference – Time for a Radical Alternative to the Political Establishment.

On Mayday, the five unions fighting water charges held a conference in Dublin. The aim was to bring union members, community groups and political representatives into dialogue around a progressive alternative to the current establishment. This is an exciting prospect as R2W seeks to build a political alliance that reflects the anti-austerity struggles of the last eight months. To this end, around 200 people were invited, split roughly into the three main groups.


The first session was led by international speakers from Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the Berlin Anti-Water Charges Campaign. The general theme was resistance to austerity and privatisation. The details from Greece and Spain were particularly interesting. Syriza came to power at the end of January on the basis of a radical (Thessaloniki) programme. Their mandate was to end the humanitarian crisis, gain debt and tax justice, deepen democracy and end austerity. This was an amazing achievement which was rightly celebrated by the international left.


Unfortunately Konstantina Tsouvala, admitted that since their election, Syriza have been under constant attack by the EU elites. In her words Greece faces ‘a silent coup’ as the Troika threatens to bring down the Greek economy by starving the country of financial liquidity. Tsouvala expects that there will be a direct confrontation with the Troika over the coming weeks, but worryingly this will not involve cancellation of the banker’s debts.


This is important because the size of the debt is truly astronomical. Greece officially owes €320 billion or 175% of its entire economy for a year. This debt is not sustainable and if forced to pay it, the Syriza government will have no choice but to continue implementing hated austerity. When asked directly would Syriza be willing to cancel the debt her answer was very clear: Syriza is not in a revolutionary period and has no plans to implement any unilateral cancellation of debt.


Turning to Podemos, the general theme was the emergence of a mass movement rooted in an anti-establishment politics against corruption in the Spanish State. Eduardo Maura gave a highly informed analysis of how the movement was built. Podemos has engaged millions of people on a grassroots basis (it currently has around 250,000 registered members), but it began as a movement built from above. Most of the main leaders of Podemos are radical academics who have prioritised the importance of democracy, anti-corruption, anti-establishment and anti-austerity.


Instead of the politics of left and right, Podemos prefers to talk about insiders in the political elite and outsiders in the rest of the population. This may have helped them to build their base, but it poses real dangers when it comes to taking on the power of capital. Like Syriza, Podemos have ditched any aspiration to cancel the debt. Instead they have vowed to renegotiate Spanish ‘obligations’ with the Troika.


Watching Greece we should be under no illusions as to how any such negotiation would likely develop. Podemos would be under the same economic terrorism as their Greek counterparts and would face extreme pressure to continue with the very austerity they were formed to eradicate. The lessons for Ireland should also be clear. Gaining power is extremely important, but the need to resist the bully boy tactics of the EU necessitates a willingness to write down debt and restructure the economy in the interests of the majority.


After the international session attention turned to building an Irish alternative to the austerity agenda. After sessions on political economy and a case study on the Northern Irish water campaign, Rory Hearne from Maynooth University gave an analysis of responses to an anti-water charges survey. In the main the results were extremely positive for the left in Ireland. More than 90% of the 2,500 people surveyed said they won’t pay their water charges. The respondents also recognised the importance of grassroots protest, signalling that the mass demonstrations had pushed the government back and forced water to the top of the political agenda.


More than three quarters said that protesting was the way to bring about change, whereas less than 30% thought contacting a TD was effective. When asked about their political affiliations 32% said they would support AAA/PBP; 27% said left independents, 24% said Sinn Fein and only 6% said the right wing establishment.


The R2W unions quite rightly want to capitalise on this left-wing sentiment. To this end, they have written a set of Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government as a launch pad for further discussion. Alongside the founding principle, Right2Water is calling for real and meaningful rights to health, education, housing and decent employment. In addition, they are arguing for debt justice and democratic reform. Genuine political reform must aspire to include as many layers of anti-water charges activists as possible and on the final page of the document the authors explicitly state that they “want to develop this discussion further and…are seeking your input”.


As a grassroots campaign led organisation People Before Profit recognises the progressive nature of the Principles document. That said, we believe that a number of additions need to be made.


First off, we believe that any Principles Document must rule out coalition with Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour. These parties have had 100 years to protect the rights of Irish people and they have failed repeatedly. Any government of the left must commit to govern without the pro-austerity parties.


Secondly, we must have proper costings of the proposed rights. In particular, we must ensure that the cost of ensuring these rights is placed on capital and big business as opposed to any taxation of working people. This will immediately bring any progressive government into conflict with the EU elites as we are currently seeing in Greece.


In order to withstand this pressure the Principles Document must also commit to upholding these rights even if it means breaking the rules of the European Union. A progressive Irish movement must be willing to cancel debt unilaterally particularly if the alternative is to keep implementing austerity to satisfy the Troika.


Fourthly, any proposed political alliance must not be seen as a replacement for the grassroots struggles that have brought us to this point. We won’t wait for a progressive government to abolish water charges. This must be done by the power of the movement through an organised boycott and continuing the protest movement on the streets.


Finally, we need a far more democratic assembly on 13 June. The first R2W conference was by invite only. The next one must be opened up to the hundreds of thousands of people who are becoming politicised through the water struggle. In practice this means allowing the various groups to send elected delegates. In this way the movement will remain genuinely democratic, vibrant and capable of demanding the rights that the unions have identified.


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