Politics in Ireland seems to be in a peculiar situation these days.
While the public mood has , even according to mainstream commentators, been moving to the left in recent years, the Irish Labour Party has been moving determinedly to the right, while dissent and discussion in the party is tolerated less and less.
Polls show that the Irish public is generally disillusioned with the coalition government of which Labour has been a junior member (with the conservative Fine Gael) since 2011, against the continuation of the severe austerity policies which have now been inflicted in five successive budgets, angry with the banks and the political and economic culture which led to Ireland’s economic difficulties, broadly supportive (though with some contradictions) of social democratic policies and in favour of higher taxes on the rich.
To most of this, the supposed leading leftist party in Irish politics has seemed strangely oblivious. In spite of the government’s broad unpopularity, and the fact the Labour seems to have suffered much more considerably in terms of popularity than its right-wing senior coalition partner, the party leadership has chosen to embrace its involvement in government wholeheartedly and unreservedly.
The party’s leading historian, Niamh Puirséil, has written that: “The problem for Labour is that the party has little identity within the government. In previous coalitions, most notably under Dick Spring in the 1980s, Labour was a critical member of government. Not so now.” The Irish coalition government has implemented successive austerity budgets that have focused on spending cuts and indirect tax increases and that have been found to be distributionally regressive by independent analysts. Yet the party’s government ministers have, at least in public, tied themselves enthusiastically to Fine Gael and spoken of their pride in the broad sweep policies implemented by the government – showing little reservation about the fact that the government has pursued an overall agenda that should really be inherently problematic for a purportedly social democratic party.
In the last five years, Ireland has witnessed successive cuts in numerous social welfare payments and supports, healthcare, education and public sector pay and conditions. The next few years will, if the government is to meet its targets, require further cuts. Yet when Ireland ended its dependence for funding on the IMF and European Union late last year, the achievement was celebrated by Labour party leader and deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, not by a promise to reverse or even ameliorate these measures. Rather, he promised a cut in income tax. He has even gone so far as to promote a discourse that entirely falsely suggests that Ireland is a high-tax economy with a progressive tax system in international terms.
The approach of the party leadership and its advisors appears to be driven by an attitude that, in some ways quite out of step with the times, views economic policy in largely apolitical terms. In one of many echoes with the Liberal Democrats’ situation in the UK, this is indicated by an electoral strategy that seems to justify Labour’s participation in the coalition solely through socially progressive leglislation such as minor liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws and a referendum on gay marriage. What is more, there now seem to be strong suggestions that the party leadership wants to run in the next election seeking the return of the coalition.
Gilmore’s tax cut declaration was made at the Labour Party’s annual conference in November. It was the crowning insult that added to the injury a conference that was even more stage-managed than usual. The party leadership’s traditional approach at conference has been to use various tools to rig votes on motions that were in any way problematic for it, and where this failed to simply ignore the decisions of conference. It made things much simpler this time – such motions were simply not allowed on the agenda. This included motions that were critical of elements of government policy, constitutional motions that attempted to democratise the party structure and even motions that were vaguely out of step with party’s intended PR for the conference. Branches that submitted such motions were not even informed of the decision to exclude them. When I and a number of other people attempted to query the exclusion at the start of conference, our requests to speak were simply ignored in direct contradiction of the supposed rules of conference.
Perversely, the disillusionment that has taken hold among many party members seems to be serving the leadership well in its bid to control the party. Many members discontented with the party’s policies and organisational centralisation have either drifted away from active involvement or left the party outright. Four members of parliament and two dozen local councilors have left the Labour party in the last two years. A number of us established a ginger group, called the Campaign for Labour Policies, eighteen months ago to campaign for a change to the party’s approach. By last summer, however, despite significant initial successes in gaining support, many of those centrally involved in the group had left the party. Disagreements over the right approach to take in pressuring for change has also mitigated the extent and effectiveness of opposition. The fragmented character of member involvement further hinders attempts at extensive grassroots organisation.
None of this means we should lose hope, however. For the left in Irish Labour, as in other democratic socialist parties, the growing pessimism of our intellect in large part simply requires an even more optimistic will in response. I think that the deep-rooted nature of the party’s organisational and ideological problems means that they will inevitably lead to further dissatisfaction and dissent. Most ordinary members active in the party are still, I think, aware of deep problems in the organisation. The main difficulty is uncertainty and disagreement about how to work to tackle those problems. The leadership’s tax proposals and intolerance of dissent of ludicrous enough to provoke significant opposition action that is taken is broad enough and inclusive enough. These could be the basis for the promotion of new alternative for the Irish Labour Party in 2014.