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…there was no widespread enthusiasm for the new government outside their own parties and most of the media. February 23, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, The Irish Right Orthodoxy, The Left.
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The Sunday Business Post Backroom column this weekend makes an excellent point in relation to the upcoming first anniversary of this government. Actually it made a couple of excellent points, so it’s worth considering them all.

In a run-through of the events underpinning the election it notes that the campaign was a ‘slugfest’. It continues that:

Labour thought it could run on the idea of changing national politics, but nearly got engulfed in a tidal wave of Fine Gael local and national promises in the first weeks of the campaign. Labour’s rapid decline was only halted when it went on a binge of promising things it had no intention of delivering (like no university fees) and attacking Fine Gael for policies it knew it would have to implement (like increasing Vat).

This may be true, but it might be more accurate, if true, to say that some in Labour ‘started promising things they had no intention of delivering’.

Because clearly there are a number of Labour politicians and members who believed that those commitments were solid. Moreover, in a way it’s irrelevant whether they believed it or not because the voters who gifted the LP their vote did believe it.

And Backroom is far from wrong in suggesting that:

While it wasn’t much commented on at the time, the way the two parties campaigned set a trap for them in government. Unlike in most countries, where a long-lived and widely disliked government loses office, there was no widespread enthusiasm for the new government outside their own parties and most of the media. There were no cavalcades and street celebrations other than the now-traditional ‘local boy done good’ Mayo demonstration.

This wasn’t, and I hesitate at even attempting to draw the comparison, London 1997 after more than a decade and an half of Thatcherite Toryism. Let alone a genuinely revolutionary change. The UK Labour comparison is instructive. For all the myriad flaws of that government it took one egregious war, a multitude of somewhat lesser slights and three elections to chip away at the strength they had amassed in that election. For our incumbents no such luck as regards a solid store of electoral goodwill. Numbers have been dipping since the end of the first six months or so. The small peaks in enthusiasm have been incidental and tended to focus on external actors, such as the Obama visit. Instead there was a relief that Fianna Fáil was gone, but an absolute trepidation as to what the future would hold and little or no confidence that either FG or the LP could make much difference.

How could it? As the column continues:

It was a government elected on the basis of only one big idea (we’re not Fianna Fбil) and a mountain of small promises. They made lots of noise about change and renewal, but the core of their campaigning was much more basic. This was an unsustainable approach for actually running the country, and their biggest problem is that they have yet to come up with a new narrative to replace it.

But being ‘not Fianna Fáil’ only worked up to the point where they entered government and rapidly became…well…Fianna Fáil albeit under different branding. I’m not saying that the LP or FG are FF, but that functionally they’re running the show well within parameters that would be acceptable to FF were it in power. Indeed one might argue that in some respects its run slightly further to the right than FF due to the sheer numbers of FG TDs in situ.

And Backroom rightly points to the fact that the last twelve months have been characterised not by any grand vision, let alone a means of implementing it, but instead ‘ a whole series of disjointed decisions, many of which bore no relationship to what was being claimed on their behalf’.

In a way all this doesn’t matter, not even the point that Backroom makes that “This is a relatively unpopular government led by a reasonably popular Taoiseach.”. Nor even that “It has not managed to shake its reliance on campaign tactics, and this is what lies at the growing sense of drift around its programme”.

The Government retains its enormous majority. A majority that oddly is sometimes hidden by the sheer diversity of the Opposition. As a friend said wonderingly in the first few weeks of that majority, they – FG and LP – could lose near enough half their TDs to defections and what ever and they would still retain power. That’s what will keep them stable for longer rather than shorter. This isn’t FF in 2010/11 with a tiny majority subject to an attrition of its TDs [and let’s be honest, even then there was no end of those parading their adherence to the ‘national interest’ amongst those dissident FF TDs and Independents]. But if it is unloved now then where will it be in a year, or two or four years time?

And who could dispute the central point that Backroom fixes upon when s/he notes:

Instead of spending the next few weeks claiming to have created a new dawn, the government would be better served finding a way to show exactly what its overall strategy is. That assumes, of course, that it goes beyond “something will turn up”.

Given that the basis for the FG/LP coalition was that they weren’t FF why should we expect anything much more of them?

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1. Damian O'Broin (@damianobroin) - February 23, 2012

I don’t think there was particular enthusiasm for government even within the Labour Party.

Several Labour Party people I spoke to in the last days of the campaign expressed the feeling that in many ways it would be a lot easier all round if FG managed to sneak that overall majority.

And while the vote at the conference was overwhelmingly in favour of government, I think many voted reluctantly. There was definitely no sense of celebration about the day.

As to the uptick in Labour fortunes during the campaign (or the reverse of the slide), it really co-incided with the final, awful, begging strategy of ‘please put us in govt to keep an eye on FG’. And this came after a sustained attack on Labour as a left wing, tax and spend party from FG which clearly drove down the poll numbers.

I’m not saying this to defend the first year in office. The most charitable analysis would be to say ‘could do (an awful lot) better’. But I think we have to remember (as Mary Murphy pointed out at the Members’ Forum on Saturday) that we came within a whisker of giving a right wing neo-liberal party and overall majority.

Labour went into the election on the back foot, with a tepid manifesto, cut a deal from a position of relative weakness, and have had to deal with a raging crisis. They really need to take stock, assert themselves and try to push things towards the left.

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ejh - February 23, 2012

How many examples are there of minority parties voting against going into a governing coalition immediately after a general election?

How many examples are there of minority parties in a governing coalition reaching the next general election with their vote and their reputation enhanced?

I’d guess that there were few enough of either.

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WorldbyStorm - February 23, 2012

Interesting points. I think in the case of the Irish LP their experience of government in the past has always seen them shed support and numbers in the Dáil. But then given the opportuntiy they’ve never eschewed coalition.

In a way I don’t entirely blame them for that, given that they’d more than likely see their numbers diminish further if they did turn aside from coalition under assault from a furious media. But what’s equally interesting is that it’s never been clear from the off (and this was true of the GP in the FF coalition last time out) what their bottom line actually was, or if they had one as they participated in government. Take the privatisation issue. Programme for Government said 2bn in cuts. They accept with FG 3bn under some pressure from the IMF/EU. That’s not a bottom line whatever else it is.

By the way, the same charge could be made about SF in government in the North. It’s not so much that they’re in there, and I’ve been one to defend that partiipation for reasons I’ve articulated more than once here, but what is their exit strategy if they have one and what would make them leave?

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LeftAtTheCross - February 23, 2012

Government isn’t like a personal relationship, it’s not a long-term commitment, there aren’t kids to consider, there’s no jont bank account and mortgage to divvy up, no emotional trauma of separation and rejection to deal with. There has to be a principled basis for short-term co-operation, and no more than that. There has to be the capacity and willingness to walk away. But it was clear pre-election that the LP didn’t take that view, they were going into government at any price. Ultimately, unless you’re prepared to tell the other side to f-off you’re going to be taken for a ride by the dominant partner. That’s the LP for you, happy to be ridden, no princples worth walking away to uphold. Principles are for the ragbags of the far Left it seems.

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WorldbyStorm - February 23, 2012

I think there’s a problem though with much of the LP. It’s not simply that they have no principles, but that what principles they have have been captured – so to speak – by a sort of orthodox consensus. They genuinely buy into the TINA narrative as well, albeit with trimmings of social justice at the edges. Or at least many of them do. And they see no alternative but austerity etc. I’ve said it before, I was amazed about three years ago to be having lunch with a person well inside the party machine who admitted that they’d be doing more or less precisely what FF was doing at the time – though not giving hostages to fortune such as cervical cancer vaccine etc. And there was little or no sense of a broader vision of what governing as a Labour Party might mean, even if it was in tandem with FG.

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ejh - February 23, 2012

Well quite, but my point is (at least in part) that the minority party is rarely prepared to stand up to the major party, perhaps fearing that it will always be blamed if it does so. And they end up blamed anyway.

Of course there’s a parallel with social democratic parties who hold office during economics difficulties – there’s damned few examples of any of them imposing cuts on their own supporters and surviving the next election.

In either instance, the experience is so relentlessly poor and yet people keep on doing it…

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WorldbyStorm - February 23, 2012

Absolutely. It’s an almost impossible position for them. What’s telling is they never try to do it differently. Once a small party hits a certain size it always seems to go for it.

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2. Mark P - February 23, 2012

WbS said:
Because clearly there are a number of Labour politicians and members who believed that those commitments were solid.

I do not believe that there was even one Labour politician quite stupid enough to believe that. All of them knew what the party was about. One of two of them, like Nulty, might not have liked it, but they all knew it.

Damian said:
But I think we have to remember (as Mary Murphy pointed out at the Members’ Forum on Saturday) that we came within a whisker of giving a right wing neo-liberal party and overall majority.

Instead we gave a coalition of two right wing neo-liberal parties a vast overall majority. It takes a peculiar kind of pollyanaish disposition to see that as much of an improvement.

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WorldbyStorm - February 23, 2012

Fair point re reps.

Re the other point I understand their mindset but would point. But I’d point to the outcomes.

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3. antonu su gobbu - February 23, 2012

Mark P hits the nail on the head:

Instead we gave a coalition of two right wing neo-liberal parties a vast overall majority.

As to what LP members and politicians thought, the question I think is whether the problem lies with their intelligence or their integrity. Labour went into the election with no intention of reversing the bailout, leading a default, nationalising oil and gas or resisting core EU financial policy. In other words whatever the details (even had Labour done well enough to provide the Taoiseach) it was always going to be an austerity government implementing neo-liberal policy (whether joyously as with FG or loyally as with LP hardly matters outside the limited world of political parties – for the rest of us the effect is the same).

How dim did you have to be, as a member of a political party, not to realise this and join the dots? Or is it fairer to say that LP activists did realise this but chose not to notice?

Answers on a postcard please.

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que - February 23, 2012

it was said off FFers that the one thing their members loved was fighting the election. Hence even in 2011 they could get out the drones.

Same true for Labour? Too many of their activitst love the electoral struggle but ideologically have a paper over left wing ideology that nominally places them on the good guys side but in reality they’ll concede on it all.

That analysis feels instinctively a bit off but I look at what their base supports and wonder if its not the case.

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WorldbyStorm - February 23, 2012

It’s certainly true that electoralism can blind people to long term aims and the means to achieve them. I felt there was a lot of that in the numbers game during and after the election. 30x TDs was great, but what was the point of it? What were they meant to do?

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