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Irish Labour’s desperate gamble

As Fine Gael is set to form the next government of the Irish Republic, it is tempting to see the General Election as following the typical pattern of politics in the 26 counties, with power alternating between two conservative parties; Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But the voting figures show a more complex pattern, with a drop of 24.1% of first preference votes from Fianna Fáil since the last general election and a gain of only 8.8% for Fine Gael. Whereas left parties have grown, Labour’s vote up 9.3% since 2007, Sinn Féin up 3% and the far left up 1.6%. Overall, the left parties won over 31% of the national vote.

However, even these figures understate the volatility of the situation, created by the desperate state of Ireland’s economy, and the reckless and irresponsible damage that has been caused by the austerity policies of the Fianna Fáil / Green Party government. Back in June 2010, the Labour Party, for the only time in the Republic’s history was in the lead in the opinion polls at 32%. At that time, Fine Gael stood at just 28%. Enda Kenny, the Fine Gael leader, was seen an electoral liability and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore had a 46% approval rating to be the next Taoiseach.

What is more, in December 2010, the Labour Party was standing at 24% while Sinn Féin were at 18%; which factoring in the United Left Aliance vote, suggests that almost half the electorate were prepared to vote for the left. Given the busted credibility of Fianna Fáil, then a grand coalition of FF and Fine Gael would have been improbable, and therefore the door was open to a Labour led left coalition. UNITE the union, who have been at the forefront of challenging the thinking behind the austerity programme, and who have advocated a growth led recovery, argued in the general election for a left vote, and a Labour led coalition to deliver it.

For a British audience, it is necessary to understand the similarities and differences between the Irish Labour Party, and the British one; and not simply transpose assumptions based upon British experience. The Labour Party has had a much more marginal influence in Irish politics; not since the 1920s has it been the main party of opposition; and while it does have trade unions affiliated to it, this is a much more tenuous connection. The Labour Party has never had the weight in Irish politics that is has in Britain; and the party’s history of entering coalition governments as a junior partner has meant that a distinct culture of labourism has not developed to the same extent.

The Labour Party gained only 6.6% of the vote in the 1987 general election; and in this period were in danger of total eclipse by the Workers Party, an avowedly Marxist organisation that had its origins in Sinn Féin. The majority of the Workers Party TDs then split away on a more pragmatic programme to form the Democratic Left; who then merged with the Labour Party in 1999; indeed the current leadership of the Labour Party comes from the Democratic Left, and provide its intellectual direction. The strategic objective of the Democratic Left was to normalise Irish politics around a left/right axis; along the more conventional European model; which is what they hoped to achieve through merger with the Labour Party. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael prefer what they call the non-ideological model of two party politics as practiced in the USA.

Measured against those objectives, then the performance of the Labour Party has been poor; as it now seems poised to join a Fine Gael government; not only taking responsiblity for a disastrously anti-working class economic programme, but also further perpetuating the exceptionalism of Irish politics.

How did Labour slip from 32% in the polls to 20% during the course of the last few months, when Fine Gael have a disastrously uncharismatic leader, and are effectively promising to continue with Fianna Fáil’s austerity policies, notwithstanding a promised renegotiation of the IMF rescue package?

Judged in purely conventional electoral terms, Labour were fighting on two fronts, while on the right Fine Gael had no competition. The loathsome Thatcherites of the Progressive Democrats have disappeared from Ireland’s electoral landscape; and FF themselves are in melt-down, so Fine Gael was the only centre right party. Despite some challenges from locally popular independents, Fine Gael was able to question Fianna Fáil’s competence and trustworthiness without needing to pose any alternative to the austerity measures.

The background is that Ireland’s economy was especially vulnerable to the global recession; although it had no budget deficit prior to the banking crisis, the Fianna Fáil / Green Party government embarked upon a dangerous experiment of huge public spending cuts; meanwhile accepting responsibility not only for the state’s sovereign debt, but also for the private debts incurred by the Irish banks. This was done in an economy much more fragile than the UKs; and where the Irish state have no control over the levers of their own currency. The result has been disaster, with rising unemployment, a generation of the young lost to emigration, a cut in the minimum wage, and rising inability of people to repay personal debt and mortgages.

However, the left were slow to develop a critique of these policies, and allowed the initiative to remain too long with the pro-austerity parties, as a result the Labour Party were in a potentially vulnerable electoral space. As Eoin O’Malley explained:

The Labour party,… was squeezed from both sides. If it wanted to position itself in the centre, it had to be careful not to concede too much ground to ULA or Sinn Féin candidates. The delicate balancing act it had to manage was exploited by Fine Gael. Each time Labour mentioned more tax than cuts (to protect its left flank) Fine Gael could attack it as a high tax party – something that wouldn’t play well with Labour’s middle class support. Most Irish people, by a margin of two to one prefer cuts to taxes according to an opinion poll taken in the autumn. On the other side Sinn Féin and the ULA characterised Labour as part of the consensus of cuts.

Labour fought a disastrous campaign, in the early stages concentrating its criticism on the far left and Sinn Féin, rather than against Fianna Fáil. In the televised leader debate, Labour’s Eamon Gilmore,  rubbished  Sinn Féin’s economic policies of closing the deficit through economic growth; even though SF’s policies are shared by unions affiliated to the Labour Party, and Sinn Féin’s economics are arguably closer to a mainstream Keynesian economic consensus than the slash and burn vandalism of Fianna Fáil.

The result was that voters could not be clear exactly what the Labour Party’s economic policy actually was, as they seemed to run with the fox and the hounds at the same time. What is more, once Labour had categorically ruled out any possible coalition with Sinn Féin, then Labour had effectively ruled out any possibility of a Labour-led left government. Their strategy not only damaged Sinn Féin, it also damaged themselves.

This meant that Labour were faced with a choice of joining Fine Gael as a junior coalition partner; or leading the opposition. Here we see a big difference between the British and Irish Labour Parties. Instead of forming the opposition, and seeking to hold Fine Gael to account – which would be the natural assumption of the Labour Party in Britain, the Irish Labour have been almost indecent in their desire to share a bed of infamy with the blueshirts.

Former Democratic Left TD, Pat Rabbitte, moaned to RTE that “it would be difficult for Fine Gael to discuss Ireland’s economic situation with European counterparts, if the government were dependent on Independents“. All along Labour have argued that the most important outcome is a stable government; stability that can of course only be achieved by their participation in it.

We should note is that this is the end of the road for the Progressive Left project, with the abandonment of their core objective of creating a counter-hegemonic left-led block in Irish society. To create a progressive alliance requires working with the other progressives that actually exist, and that means Sinn Féin. The strategy of delegitimising any prospect of cooperation with Sinn Féin was particularly odd from a party whose leaders themselves had former links to the Official IRA.

Coalition with Fine Gael will be justified by the Labour Party as constraining Enda Kenny’s government, and protecting the poorest. In that objective they will fail. Fine Gael have the authority of having won the election, and will insist on governing largely as they see fit, especially as FG will effectively be backed by the rag-bag “profit before people” independents. Joining the government will be a huge gamble for Labour, with much more to lose than to gain.

So although only the fourth largest party in the Dail, the burden of parliamentary opposition will fall upon Sinn Féin. (Despite having individual TDs of enormous talent, the United Left Alliance will be unlikely to pose credible alternative policies for government, and as such may liven things up, but will not be presenting themselves as a future government of the Republic).

3 Comments

  1. Guido Fawkes says:

    Article might have more authority if you spelt Fine Gael correctly.

  2. Jon Lansman says:

    Thanks Guido – very helpful! Now corrected.

  3. andy newman says:

    #10

    If I was concerned about my ability to spell/type correctly, I would have given up blogging years ago.

    I have dyspraxia, which means my fingers don’t follow what my brain says; and I rely totally on spell checkers, as anyone who reads my unspell-chacked comments will testify.

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