What did for Labour? 1992, 1994, 1997 and the slow slow decline of the Irish Labour Party… October 25, 2006Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Uncategorized.
Continuing our dissection of 1990s politics, and why not? It’s more than time to cast a jaundiced eye over that particular period because it reveals more than enough about the contemporary situation, a discussion on P.ie (Politics.ie) caught my eye recently regarding the 1994 change of government in the Republic of Ireland. The basic thesis was that this change was essentially undemocratic since there had never previously been a transfer of power without a corresponding election in Irish history and that Labour, who had just breached 30 seats (a vast improvement on their usual mid to high teens) had made an historic error by joining the Fine Gael led coalition with Democratic Left.
I don’t really buy into the idea that the change of power was undemocratic due to the lack of an election. Firstly it was entirely constitutional, and perhaps particularly in the context that the requirement is a majority of TDs voting for the Taoiseach (or at least not voting against). Political parties are not a prerequisite of change in the Republic. Secondly 1992 saw the chips fall in an FF/Labour coalition, an outcome that was probably as much of a shock to Labour who had spent the previous years excoriating the former party as it was to the general public. But it could have equally easily happened that FG/Lab and DL had made an alliance. In either case the will of the people is impossible to determine. In any case it happened. The constitutionality was never challenged (as far as I know, or certainly not successfully. So we might as well accept it and move on.
However, a more interesting question is whether Labour was wise to jump ship in 1994 two years into the life of the government. Let’s refresh our memories as to exactly why it jumped…
The reason was that the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, had insisted on appointing the former Attorney General Harry Whelehan to become president of the High Court. Unfortunately Whelehan had been AG when that office had made a disastrously misfiring attempt to extradite a paedophiliac priest to the North. Labour walked out of cabinet. Reynolds apologised before the Dáil, Labour left government still not satisfied and Reynolds resigned.
Bertie Ahern, Reynolds successor attempted to patch up the coalition but was unsuccessful and Labour left for coalition with FG/DL.
Now in retrospect it’s difficult to see the situation being as severe as was believed at the time – I seem to recall Pat Rabbitte mentioning a document that would “shake this shake to it’s foundations”, a document which never actually saw the light of day. Yes, the Attorney-General had made a serious error. Yes, the appointment by Reynolds of the A-G to the High Court was wrong. Yet he openly apologised before the Dáil for the error, and it’s difficult to entirely understand if one limits the issue to principles why Labour walked.
On a pragmatic political level however, Democratic Left, now working well with Fine Gael (a party that in 1992 had refused to enter coalition with them), had increased their numbers from four to six TDs at two subsequent by-elections thereby making an FG/Labour/DL coalition feasible. A cynic might suggest that Labour saw an opportunity to cut and run from a coalition they had never been entirely comfortable with in the first place.
If one believes many Fine Gael members (and many Labour members as well) it was the original Labour/Fianna Fáil coalition that sealed Labour’s fate in 1997. That ‘original sin’ was the breach of trust that turned the electorate against them. Yet the poll readings make a less clear cut case. And for them one could look at this (a little difficult to read, but worth the effort).
It is certainly true that there was a precipitous drop in percentage terms from just after the election where the Labour poll rating went into the mid-twenties. However it’s worth noting that on the election day a rather less stellar if still sound 19.3% was achieved. Good enough to get 30 plus seats.
However once they entered government the ratings fell to a solid 16% (not bad considering they currently run at 10-12%). Over the course of the FF/Labour government they continued to decline but remained in or around 14-15% for most of the duration and even spiked a bit higher in mid 1994. While entry to the new coalition of FG/DL brought a spike upwards to about 18% this rapidly slid down to 10% and lower for the rest of the term. Come the June 1997 Election and they polled a fairly disastrous 10.4%.
So what to make of it? Essentially it seems that while the poll ratings were in decline from 1992 onwards these were initially rapid and then slowed and even recovered a bit during the FF/Labour coalition. It was when Labour finally jumped again that the real damage appears to have been done with them flat lining at or around 10%. How to explain this? Most obviously Labour irritated a considerable segment of it’s vote by entering government with FF. It jettisoned at least 3% immediately, and a further two or three percentage points during the first two years in office. But it also lost a further five percent after entering coalition with FG a five per cent that it never recovered.
Granted it’s possible that it would have lost all this support during a full term with Fianna Fáil, but one wonders. Five years of government might have solidified them better in the public mind as a solid serious party of power. The alarrums and distractions of 1992 to 1994 gave them (to my mind at least) an undependable and fickle image. ‘Flip flop’ is a damaging accusation for any party to face, but the concept of ‘flip flop’ once embedded in the public consciousness is difficult to budge.
Surely it’s more persuasive to argue that having shrugged off the more pro-FG element of it’s 1992 vote by entering government with Fianna Fáil it then lost the more pro-FF element post-1994 and was reduced to it’s core support. Each of these elements seems to have amounted to around 4.5%, which would bring us up to 19%, their original vote in 1992. Most interesting is that the tracking Fianna Fáil support indicates spikes down when Labour was spiking up, so it seems reasonable to suggest that a reasonable portion of their support was coming from centrist or FF inclined voters.
Anyhow, it does seem logical to posit that the electoral melt-down that was 1997 might have been ameliorated if not avoided by continued presence in the FF government. Even a couple more percentage points might have led to the retention of five to eight more seats leaving a more substantial parliamentary presence. And yet one can’t help looking at the polls and thinking that 1992 was an anomaly. The rise of the Workers’ Party in 1989, the Robinson Presidential Campaign, the ‘Spring Tide’, not the great left millennium but simply the electoral ballast shifting in the hold as the Cold War ended, ballast that would tip back and forth between left, centre and right in subsequent elections. That same ballast that holds the centre ground so tenaciously in the current Irish political landscape.
Am I sorry that it worked out this way? Not entirely. While there were significant social reforms introduced by the FF/Lab government I’m dubious as to whether a divorce referendum would have been held during an extended term (and I wonder whether the incoming FF/PD government would have been willing to fly that particular kite in 1997). Secondly while the FG led coalition was pretty dismal from the point of view of the Peace Process it’s difficult to see how the situation would have moved much more quickly under Reynolds. The reality was that all the players (including PIRA) were waiting for Major to leave the stage and Blair to arrive. On the other hand, the possibility for Labour to develop a relationship with Fianna Fáil that might have endured into another term was always possible, and one of the few absolutes of Irish politics is that it takes FF to drive real change and influence, as the PDs have learned to both their cost and benefit.
Funny too isn’t it how some of the same players are still around today. Of course FG is more or less entirely changed, but Labour less so, while Fianna Fáil sails serenely on with Ahern… Perhaps some are calculating already as to the possibility of similar events to 1992, hungry for power and willing to go with FF if the FG enterprise should collapse, but I wonder if they’ve learned the lesson of 1994 that power has to be held onto tenaciously through thick and thin, a lesson we’ve had a perfect demonstration of over the past month or so. Now, that the electorate, bless their souls, seem to respect.
By the by a most educational post by Cllr. Seamus Ryan of the Labour Party on Irish Election which takes Sinn Féin to task for not ruling out support for a minority Fianna Fáil government. One can only suppose Cllr. Ryan, who appears to be a personable guy, is making a small bit of mischief for both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil with this stance (although surely he got the heading wrong on his piece and it should read A vote for Fianna Fáil is a Vote for Sinn Féin – I’m almost certain that’s what he meant;)) in view of the absolute anathema on the part of his party and Fine Gael to any form of electoral pact with Sinn Féin.
Good stuff, particularly in view of the fact it was his party, not Sinn Féin, which has the historical track record of entering government with Fianna Fáil under the most counterintuitive circumstances.
I particularly liked his comment about how ‘this may yet come back to haunt them [Sinn Féin] as I believe the public are waiting in the long grass to deliver a damning verdict on this tired Fianna Fail-led government and will not thank any party for keeping them in government’.
I’m fairly certain, and I speak this as someone who is neither a supporter nor member of SF (but admires them from afar for their position on certain issues – such as their staunch defense of immigrant rights and the strides they have made in moving towards the political), that if SF manage to get 8 to 10 extra seats, influence power here, and exercise it in government in the North then Cllr. Ryan’s warnings will fall on muffled ears… in fact I’d be surprised if SF wasn’t angling for seats around the Cabinet table in those circumstances.
Incidentally lest I sound too critical about this sort of ‘advice’, just now if I were in FG and Labour I’d be doing everything I could to move the debate on a bit so that the memories of the past few weeks recede a bit and something like normal politics resumes… I don’t blame them one bit for trying to reshape the narrative. Every little bit helps…
Still I’ll return to this later in the week with a bit of mischief of my own and another small suggestion for the Fine Gael/Labour coalition…