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Collateral damage: The latest casualty of the Mullingar Accord… Pat Rabbitte resigns August 23, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics.
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So, the political catastrophe for Labour that was the Mullingar Accord continues to work its dark magic. First it skewers the Labour Party in the General Election, now it fells Pat Rabbitte.

I have two reasons to thank Pat Rabbitte for assistance he gave me over the years. So while politically I fear his tenure will be seen as a period of retrogression for the Labour party I still wish him well. But I am convinced that his leadership was, if not quite a disaster for Labour, one of the most pointless interludes in that party’s existence.

A strange time to choose and in a way an unusual man. Clearly very clever, but with almost completely the wrong personality for the job at hand as leader. The conference this afternoon seemed to typify that. The references to ‘regime change’, ‘a party more united than it had been since 1922′ and such like seemed a tad too glib. He told us he ‘gave it his best shot during the election but he failed’… Well, yes.

He reminds me of other examples of clever men who arrived in positions of leadership in various political parties, one thinks of Alan Dukes, etc, etc. Each personally clever, indeed in some cases brilliant, but each lacking some intuitive capacity to connect with either his own base or the general electorate. And that former problem is as important, if not more, than the latter. Knowing people in Labour I was struck by the bitterness of those who might be termed ‘old’ Labour to the new arrivals from DL who had carried out a reverse take-over of the higher reaches of the party structure in the early 2000s. I’m used to political bitterness, the circles I was in thrived in it. Come to think of it they still do.

In a way what was most striking about his leadership was the almost complete avoidance of a defining ideology. For a man who had come from one ferociously ideological party, and been a member of another which was reasonably clearly defined there was no sense that he had any vision which linked into a broader sense of what it was to be ‘left’ in this society. But why is this such a puzzle. Even in the WP I never had any feeling that Rabbitte was an ideologue. His popularity with the media seemed always to be a function of his closeness to journalists down at Doheny’s. Never the best constituency upon which to base a judgement of broader popularity. Although he was a pleasant man in such company, being both witty and quite generous. This personal warmth never translated to the larger canvas of the Dáil chamber or the party conference. Indeed in these contexts a certain autocratic aspect, whether true or not, seemed to be evident.

Add to that a career littered with the extravagant, the exaggerated, the simply incorrect (who now remembers about the documents that would – and I paraphrase – ‘shake this state to its very foundations’?) was one which quite frankly should have given Labour pause for thought when they elected him leader. Because that style, born of student politics but clearly impossible to transfer to the more staid world of party leadership in this democracy, was not what was going to be presented the electorate.

And it wasn’t. Instead we had Rabbitte the rather dull. Not bad by any means. Just nit-picking. Hesitant to strike, hesitant to withdraw, and in that respect more similar to Enda Kenny than some might imagine (albeit without Kenny’s clear ability to organise, an ability that probably secures him the leadership of FG for a number of years yet – although who knows?). That first little contretemps regarding the Ahern finances said it all. The aggressive politician of yesteryear unwilling or unable to risk a throw of the dice (a la Dick Spring in the early 1990s) for fear of what? Losing the mantle of sober gravitas – something Irish politicians seem to think in and of itself is sufficient preparation for government? It’s not guys, because it’s so transparetn. Eventually that left the sense that this was a version of the Labour party that was averse to any risk taking at all.

The egregious errors that he made as leader now seem almost incomprehensible. The oddity of taxation policy, making gestures that simply didn’t resonate with the public (or worse alienated parts of the party support). The inability to publicly countenance coalition with Fianna Fáil. Great, in theory, if one wishes ideological purity. But an awful awful strategy for a group of politicians looking at the wrong side of 50 with no clear alternative route to power. And awful awful too for anyone who wanted even a hint of social democracy added to the political mix over the next five years. And not just an inability to countenance it, because soundings I took with people I knew in Labour indicated to me that there was, and I have to be honest, a hugely cynical agenda that if the nod came Labour would make a deal with the evil ones.

Which made the retention of the Mullingar Accord up until the vote for the Taoiseach all the more inexplicable, since it thereby allowed those seeming neophyte Greens the opportunity to race ahead of their larger and older rival and place their feet firmly under the Ministerial tables. And look, I still suspect that one Bertie Ahern would, given the opportunity, have much preferred to do a single deal with Labour than multiple deals with Independents and the PDs and GP had it presented itself to him. The faces of Labour in the subsequent time period as the reality of a relatively solid Fianna Fáil government sank in told its own story. Lashed in the public mind to a Fine Gael that was resurgent within itself but still unable to connect more widely the slight nod to Sinn Féin perhaps indicates that there is a recognition that the centre ground is perhaps a little too crowded for the party.

So no agenda, no ideology, no clear path forward. If anything just a sort of muffled complaint against an Ireland that had ‘changed’ in some remarkable fashion, particularly and specifically in relation to leaving Labour the also ran – except it hasn’t. Ireland has over the best part of a century taken a look at the Labour Party, and bar one shining moment in 1992 it’s hasn’t particularly liked what it has seen. Now, one can take away a number of lessons from that. One might be that Fianna Fáil remains the predominant ‘workers’ party. Another that ideology is of little interest to the Irish people. A third might be that the left is better served by a number of competitive formations than ‘one smallish party’. A fourth that Labour has never seemed particularly serious about taking any measure of state power except with Fine Gael. And so on.

I can’t state this enough. If anything this is a vastly more social democratic society than it used to be – particularly in the 1980s, but terrifyingly that has little enough to do with the Labour Party. We’re more social democratic (and I mean this in the sense that civic society is vastly more complex, that benefits have been extended and so on) because we’ve been able to afford it and Fianna Fáil remains hostage in no small part to its own populism, but if things go sour, well then perhaps some who haven’t had the pleasure may have a chance to experience 1983, and those of us who did will have the chance to relive it all over again). And part of that process will be an FF which willingly talks populist and acts centre right.

But for FF to act even half way decently it is necessary to have a left which is confident of being a left. With Labour, whatever the evident sincerity of those involved this seems strangely unfocussed.

And Rabbitte’s talk this afternoon begins to seem strangely in keeping with this. Vague talk about a need to change, a need to relate to Irish society. But in what way? The wild mutterings about name changes seem of a piece with this too. Now it has to be said that some of these mutterings appear to come from beyond the party itself, but even so.

This is a society that on a profound level requires some alternative vision of the future, some sense that the nostrums of the right and the market are not uncontested,

But what next? More of the same? Can they afford that? And in fairness to Rabbitte I look at the selection of potential contenders and it strikes me that for all his faults there’s not one that I could say with all honesty had he or she been there for the last five years they would have done better.

Could anyone? Will anyone?

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Comments»

1. Pidge - August 23, 2007

Has Labour genuinely drifted away from “the left”, though?

I got the impression – from the members I know, anyway – that they still thought of themselves as being left-wing, and still wanted that to be reflected in their policies.

Seems to me that they simply did their compromising for power before the election, instead of after.

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2. WorldbyStorm - August 23, 2007

Actually I’d agree with you that there was a disconnect between much of the membership and the leadership, or at least elements within the leadership, at least from what I could see on the outside… and from my numerous WBS moles… ;)

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3. soubresauts - August 23, 2007

“A disconnect between much of the membership and the leadership…” Now who does that remind me of? Blair and New Labour for a start, but there’s someone else…

And “compromising for power before the election, instead of after…”

Ah yes, the Irish Green Party. Though there was also a lot of compromising for power after the election.

Anyway, I marvel at WbS’s ability to discuss these things in such breadth and depth so quickly after the news breaks.

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4. Ed Hayes - August 24, 2007

Gilmore’s address to the Greave’s school looks like it might attract some publicity now…

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5. WorldbyStorm - August 24, 2007

Slow summer, that’s the only reason soubresauts. :) Oh, and a topic closer to my heart than most…

Yep, I’ll be there Ed.

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6. Occupation government deemed not pliable enough « Splintered Sunrise - August 24, 2007

[...] was going to write something about Pat Rabbitte falling on his sword, but WorldbyStorm has that well covered, so instead we’ll consider all this crack about Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of the Iraqi [...]

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7. Damian O'Broin - August 24, 2007

WBS, while much of the overall thrust of your post is, I think, correct, there are a few things I’d take issue with.

This ‘reverse takeover’ for a start. Don’t forget that Rabbitte won not just a majority of all Labour votes, but a majority of ‘old’ Labour as well.

And as far as not publicly countenancing coalition with FF goes – that was the platform Pat stood on, and was elected to the leadership on. And the strategy endorsed by the party at conference.

And I would disagree with you regarding Bertie and his preferred deal. If he’d wanted a FF/Lab coalition he would have pushed for it and I think, sadly, would have got it (minus Pat). But as with 2002, the deal wasn’t there.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Pat. I cast my first ever vote for him, and voted for him at every election afterwards (until I left Dublin SW). While I think his leaving is the right thing for him and for Labour, it is tinged with regret on my part.

I don’t think the last five years have been a period of regression. Stasis perhaps. But I’m honestly not sure what the best strategy for Labour is, faced with a prosperous economy, a popular Taoiseach, a formidable FF machine and a ‘content’ (to quote Galbraith) populace.

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8. WorldbyStorm - August 24, 2007

Damian, I was being a bit rhetorical re ‘reverse takeover’. I know, I know, Rabbitte was elected by acclaim, hence the relatively quiet mood of the party in subsequent times when the going got tough. And I agree that holds true too WRT FF and coalition.

I’m not as sure as you about Ahern. One deal as against six? A party leadership that was desperate for power, but equally desperate not to show it (I’m talking about Labour here). I think that if Labour had done a Finian McGrath on the night of the count then they would now be there. After all, consider how unlikely the current set up actually is. The PDs and Greens together? Michael Lowry and Finian McGrath… oh yeah and BCF?

Mind you we share precisely the same conclusion… I think the problem is greater now than three months ago. The Greens like power, just as the PDs did. I could easily see them cosying up in 2012. Very very difficult for Labour.

PR bought me a couple of pints on one occasion. That’s more than effin McCartan did… I remember these sort of things. What can I say? I’m a petty petty man….

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9. Damian O'Broin - August 24, 2007

I always found him a bit aloof on the odd occasion I met him, But he sent me a nice letter when my mother died… The things that matter eh?

As for the Greens. I understand precisely why they went into govt, but they’re in a delicate position. Of all parties, their supporters were least likely to transfer to FF. If they don’t deliver, or aren’t seen to deliver, they could be in big trouble next time out.

There’s another debate to be had about whether the priorities of Green voters is the same as Green members – I suspect a bunch of the former are less animated by climate change and more by a dissatisfaction with the last govt. How they react to FF/Greens may decide the fate of Gormley et al.

Back to Ahern’s preferences – the strength of the current deals is the very fact that there are six. No-one can leave. If the Greens aren’t happy with progress on climate change and pull-out? The rest carry on. FF has a series of relatively painless deals and pretty good insulation. Labour would not have been so easy.

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10. splinteredsunrise - August 25, 2007

I just received my Phoenix and notice they’ve been caught out badly by Pat’s timing. Pat’s departure though does open up a bit of space for debate – it should be interesting to see who takes advantage of that and, more to the point, what they have to say.

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11. WorldbyStorm - August 25, 2007

It’s the old problem for the Phoenix, isn’t it? They can’t quite function in the context of ‘news’…

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12. Idris of Dungiven - August 27, 2007

It wouldn’t matter so much if their cartoons and ‘humour’ section weren’t so unremittingly awful. . .

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13. WorldbyStorm - August 27, 2007

Well, when one takes Private Eye as the model with just the faintest tweakings for the Irish market…

Still and all, I buy it most every edition.

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