“Socialism is back in this city. The left is back in Belfast”, was the announcement made by Gerry Carroll having received a remarkable 6798 votes in the West Belfast general election.
The scale of the achievement is extraordinary. People Before Profit went from having one Councillor elected in 2014, to becoming the second biggest party in West Belfast. Once the constituency with the highest majority for any party in the UK, West Belfast now boasts the largest socialist opposition, with PBP gaining 19.2% of the overall vote.
It marks an extraordinary breakthrough for the radical left in Belfast, and puts a positive spin on an election which, otherwise, seemed business as usual for politics in the North; with sectarian pacts, polarisation along religious lines, and people employing tactical voting to ‘elect the best of a bad bunch.’
On the ground in West Belfast, however, the situation was very different. An area with some of the highest levels of deprivation, unemployment and poverty in the North had begun to stir, and a conversation took hold about what type of society we were aiming for, and how we could improve our lot.
Carroll’s 6798 votes represent a significant shift to the left for a large section of West Belfast, and marks a break from the plan of economic recovery outlined by the Assembly. Enshrined in the Stormont House Agreement, this strategy relies on Celtic Tiger style economics, centered round the creation of a low wage, low tax economy for big business through the reduction of corporation tax. Austerity measures will mean massive cuts to public services such as Health and Education, a voluntary redundancy scheme, which will lead to the loss of 20,000 jobs.
And on top of this, we are faced with the wholesale dismantling of the community and voluntary sector, with groups across the North losing funding.
Anger over this strategy proved to be the major factor for voters when they went to the ballot box in West Belfast, and the vote for PBP shows that where there is a credible left wing alternative, it can make substantial gains.
Our arguments against the Stormont House Agreement won the hearts and minds of many in West Belfast, as thousands recognised the contradictions of Sinn Fein’s self-proclaimed reputation as the party who ‘delivers’. With the highest levels of poverty and deprivation for any constituency in the North, West Belfast also has the highest level of public sector workers. The Royal Victoria Hospital employs 8,500 staff. The cuts set to be implemented would, arguably, affect West Belfast more than any other constituency and this was something the People Before Profit campaign highlighted.
By keeping the focus on the Stormont House Agreement PBP’s campaign harnessed the anger felt by public sector workers, the unemployed, young people, and most notably, by first time voters, who shook off political disillusionment to come out and vote for a radical socialist who provided a message they could relate to.
PBP’s campaign had all the hallmarks of small social movement, as opposed to a run of the mill election campaign. Scores of new activists came out to help leaflet, canvass, and put up posters, along with many hundreds of others who campaigned on PBP’s behalf: be it in conversations in bars, coffee shops, or on threads on social media.
In marked contrast to other election campaigns in the North, PBP’s was led by, and comprised mainly of young people. With this came all the dynamism and vibrancy associated with youth; fundraising events involving local musicians, soccer matches with local football teams, and a high profile social media campaign which took on a life of its own, with young people from across West Belfast turning their facebook pages into mini propaganda tools, canvassing for Gerry amongst friends and relatives.
A young generation disillusioned with tribal politics, and tired of listening to anti-austerity in rhetoric but never by way of deed, was given confidence by the hundreds, if not thousands, of public sector workers who fought PBP’s corner in communities and workplaces across West Belfast.
Gerry has built a reputation over the years as a hardworking representative, now Councillor for the area, by campaigning on the ground, being visible in communities, and standing alongside workers on picket lines. The slanders and lies directed at him by bigger parties, in particular a whole series of personal attacks carried in the Andersonstown News, a local paper owned by Sinn Fein’s Máirtin Ó Muilleoir, did not weigh up in the minds of those who’d seen the hard work he had put in over the years.
The result means that large layers of people have now broken from the established parties, putting their faith in a radical, left wing alternative in the form of People Before Profit. This presents a massive opportunity for socialists, with the potential for rooting a radical left which can shift the dynamics of politics to the left across the city.
Along with building this broad left it will be crucial to maintain revolutionary politics within it, and to understand that to ultimately change society, working class people must get organised and fight against the system itself.
PBP broke new ground by becoming the first radical left party to poll strongly in a general election in a generation. It is also the only elected only party that is prepared to canvass both the Shankill and the Falls, not limiting itself to campaigning on ‘one side’ of the community like other parties.
PBP is committed to fighting for a shared future from below, one that we can all have a stake in. We can’t break down divisions overnight, but when we unite and fight in common struggle the makings a movement which can challenge sectarianism become possible. To do this we need to get communities and workplaces organised in a sustained fightback. This is a challenge PBP is up for in the coming years, in West Belfast and beyond.
Gerry Carroll’s speech on election night
Today’s vote shows people in West Belfast are unhappy with the cuts and that they’re unhappy with the Stormont House Agreement. I think the parties pushing through the Stormont House Agreement have two options after today’s vote: to listen to people who’ve come out and said ‘No More Cuts’ or to feel the pain in the Assembly elections next year.
In PBP we’ve been campaigning in West Belfast for years. Every time we’ve stood our vote has gone up, our vote has increased. We’re about doing politics differently. We’re about mobilising in working class communities, we’re about standing up, we’re about people power, fighting back and bringing change in society. And there’s two reasons why people voted for us in this election. The first was austerity. And the second reason was because we’re on the ground, working hard in working class communities.
We were the only ones to canvass on the Shankill and on the Falls. Some parties are only about campaigning on the Catholic side, or campaigning just on the Protestant side. Some parties are happy to sit on the fence. We’re about something different. We’re about smashing down that fence! We’re not Nationalist! We’re not Unionist! We’re Socialist!
What this vote shows is that Socialism is back in Belfast. People Power is back in Belfast. The Left is back in Belfast. And we arent going anywhere.
To the people in other constituencies who didn’t have an alternative to vote for, PBP has a simple message for you: we’re coming for you, we’re coming to you.
We’re fighting for a better world. Join us in that fight!