Review: Democratic Left: The Life and Death of a Political Party


Kevin Rafter's “Democratic Left: The Life and Death of a Political Party” is a study of its short lifespan from 1992, when it split from the Workers Party (WP), to 1999, when it merged with the Labour Party. As such, it can be seen as a companion piece to Scott Miller and Brian Hanley’s “The Lost Revolution”, a history of the Workers Party. Rafter’s work, however, is somewhat different as it has an academic style, being his PhD thesis, which some may find off-putting. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining read for those with an interest in the dynamics of political organisations. All of the main protagonists were interviewed as part of Rafter's research and internal party documents are widely referenced, so his version of events is reasonably accurate, one would suspect.

From an anarchist perspective, the book is primarily a lesson in the problems faced by small political organisations with limited resources dependent on a small number of people carrying the workload. Given that Democratic Left (DL) were in power as part of the “Rainbow Coalition” with Fine Gael and Labour from 1994 to 1997, and arguably punched above their weight in that arrangement, it may seem surprising that Des Geraghty, a leading figure in DL, wrote in 1993 that the party was “suffering from uncertainty, insecurity and self-recrimination (when we are not exchanging recriminations)”. In March 1998, an activist in Dublin North Central wrote, “DL is internally dysfunctional and incapable of coherent activity.” Whether in government or not, throughout their existence, DL were characterised by high levels of disorganisation, low member participation, confusion over their ideological allegiance, and financial difficulties. Meetings frequently involved long discussions about names and logos, whether the party was democratic socialist or social democratic and long strategic debates that presumably went nowhere given that it was eventually suggested to curtail meetings rather than address the problems faced. Indicative of the malaise, only 192 of the putative 900 members attended their final conference when it was decided to wind up the party.

Rafter identifies a number of reasons for the failure of DL to survive as a political entity. Their position on Northern Ireland (being close to that of unionism) no longer differentiated them from other parties as the “peace process” gained momentum. Many of the social issues that the party had campaigned on, such as divorce and abortion, were resolved (to a point) during the 90s. The party was also unable to outline a coherent economic programme, being unable to distinguish itself from any other brand of social democracy amidst the post-Berlin Wall ideological collapse of state socialism. While a lack of a clear political identity is not necessarily a problem (as evidenced by Fianna Fáil), for a small party it was critical, and the votes DL secured were largely for high-profile individuals rather than the party itself. Given all of the above, and ongoing financial difficulties (which were only resolved when Labour took over the DL’s debts post-merger, DL had been moving towards revoking their ban on corporate donations in 1998 to deal with the problem), some form of alignment with the Labour party became inevitable.

There are some problems with the book, including poor editing with some repetition of content. Rafter also puts a lot of store in an “expert” study on various policies of the political parties in the state in trying to demonstrate the problems DL faced in differentiating themselves from the pack. This study seemed to involve little more than reading party manifestos and the author’s liberal usage of its conclusions seems somewhat at odds with his own in-depth research. Also, his interviews are all with those who were either in the upper echelons of the party or government with no real attempt to get a DL grassroots view of events. So, for example, the decision to curtail meetings mentioned above could conceivably have been an effort by the leadership to restrict membership participation in policy formation.

There is still another story to be told in the history of the WP/DL as conflict between these new Labour Party members and the old guard did not go away after 1999 but, given the current cabinet positions of former WP/DL members Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte, it will be some time yet before that gets an airing.



This article is from Workers Solidarity No 121 published May 2011