As the dust settles and everyone tries to get their head around what happened, and what it means for the future, our political editor shares some thoughts on the Assembly Elections and the successes of the left.
As protests broke out against sectarian violence and in support of deals like the Good Friday Agreement during the 90s, one of the slogans that captured the mood of those times was ‘No Going Back!’, a call for breaking away from the conflict. Eight years after the beginning of a global economic crisis, a crisis that was followed closely by austerity, privatisation and job losses, we are beginning to see the same defiant mood of those days emerge as people decidedly said no going back, voting for left wing candidates instead of opting for age old tribalism with a solid measure of cynicism.
The victories of People Before Profit and the Green Party, returning four MLAs between them, are rightly seen as a watershed moment for the left. Even ‘Craft Beer Socialists‘ (WTF?) are excited by the wins, if only for the realisation that Alliance can’t deliver.
Good Friday Generation
As commentators try to grapple with what the fuck actually happened last week, expect the analysis of victories to be contained to individual personalities and not the trend in the political situation that binds them. This isn’t down to conspiracy – it’s largely down to our media being unable to look at what happens here outside of its convenient Green-vs-Orange-skirmishing lens.
The election of Corbyn as UK Labour leader and the heroic struggle of Bernie Sanders for the Democrat Presidential nomination have forced a conveniently ideologically vague demographic called ‘Millennials’ – People born after the mid 80s, saddled with debt, working for low wages and struggling with high rents – on to the agenda.
As this election was the first that allowed people who were born around the time the Good Friday Agreement was signed to vote, the phrase ‘Good Friday Generation’ was born. The BBC even held a debate for these people to scrutinise candidates, the debate showed that this generation of people are largely fed up with ancient legislation prohibiting the reproductive rights of women, the denial of equal marriage rights as well the corporation tax cuts for the rich, which, if passed, will be paid for with the slashing of our public services.
They may have voted for the first time, but this ‘GFA Generation’ have been angry for years, and Stormont is unlikely to do anything to elate that anger anytime soon. Which creates an opening for the left to direct this anger effectively and agitate towards a new movement against the ‘Dinosaurs on the Hill’.
Unlike in previous elections, we’re now seeing a greater push in debates and across the media for ‘official opposition’. Commentators seem to believe that an opposition in Stormont – as opposed to the arrangement of the ‘big five’ all getting their slice of the executive pie – will hold Stormont to account and ‘normalise’ politics here.
We don’t know who will go into opposition. Mike Nesbitt’s Newsletter interview would suggest the UUP might want a skinny dip in the Executive hot tub, but doesn’t want to tell anyone yet. The SDLP Coffin Ship ought to go into opposition, but Eastwood wasn’t clear during the debates whether they’d pursue that road – sure, why pass up a good opportunity to get one ministerial post in the name of conviction?
Sinn Fein dropped much of its anti-Tory rhetoric entering this election, with one eye on the South and another on West Belfast. The diluted message that was sent out presented SF as the best choice for leadership, public services etc. All suitably vague and missing any commitments.
People Before Profit’s victories in West Belfast and Foyle show that Sinn Fein’s faux left spiel doesn’t work, when it’s challenged by a left force. The greatest sting of this election may not be the bad result for Sinn Fein, but the fact that they lost seats in strong areas and could now be firmly seen as part of the establishment here.
‘No Going Back’
This election has played witness to a momentary lapse in the tribalism that some believe is inevitable and insurmountable. Gerry Carroll’s poll topping vote was only beaten by Arlene Foster. As well as the successes of those elected, the left and progressives forced breakaway points in the old Green vs Orange ballot duel elsewhere.
In North Belfast, Fiona Ferguson polled an impressive 1286 1st preferences for People Before Profit. In South Belfast, Seán Burns polled over 871 votes for Labour Alternative – the highest polling for a radical left candidate in nearly 25 years.
The impressive results are not limited to Norn Iron’s big cities either: Hugh Scullion stood for the Worker’s Party in Mid Ulster and polled over 1,778 votes.
These results highlighted what many knew from knocking doors in the weeks before polling day; the idea of ‘no going back’ has returned in a small but not insignificant way. This time four MLAs were elected with one or two narrow misses; next time the left will be in a great position to articulate and build on the anti-sectarian, anti-austerity sentiment in society and start taking council seats.