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Where next for Labour? Or the new party system. 2 and one halfs and two quarters and a twentieth… and counting. February 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Sinn Féin.

Reading smiffy’s thought provoking post here and some of the responses to it, what strikes me most forcibly about this period of Labour history is how it has ceased to be a national party (the 1/2 in the dreaded 2 and 1/2 party system) and is now one of a number of parties of and on the centre left. I’m not certain whether this is an inevitable byproduct of structural change in Irish politics, or down to individuals (I tend towards the former view, but no doubt individuals by their actions or inactions have assisted this process), but happen it has and to the detriment of the opportunity for the left to gain any serious measure of state power.

Telling, is it not, that centre-left and left progressive parties have been eyed up on an individual basis for coalition with the larger parties, but not on a collective basis despite the rhetoric of the ‘Rainbow’ coalition consisting of Fine Gael, Labour and perhaps, maybe, or arguably never the Green Party?

There is little or no talk of the Green Party and the Labour Party as part of a left progressive axis, and none at all except on the margins – such as here – of a Labour/SF/Green axis that might bring a pragmatic alternative to the people. Of course self-definition is a tricky thing. The Greens, although clearly of the left, do not in some respects see themselves of it (or perhaps more accurately some of their number do not see themselves of it). Sinn Féin is, to some degree, in a similar situation. And as we know mutual hostility between these formations is strong and deep rooted.

And also telling is the rhetoric out of the Labour camp which presumes that it retains a hegemonic hold on the ‘left’ in Ireland which it doesn’t (although Rabbitte has said publicly that all parties are shifting towards the centre). I’m fairly certain neither the Greens nor SF will make very large gains in the forthcoming election, but…should they together equal or exceed the Labour tally then we’re looking at a very interesting situation on the left.

And it’s difficult to see Labour retaining it’s current position into the future (even if we disregard the most recent RedC poll which sees it gain 2%, and this following it’s Annual Conference).

Still, it’s dispiriting stuff for those who would look for a broader consensus moving forward.
I was at the merger conference back in 1999 between the DL and Labour. An ironic day for me, if only because I attended in the name of a party I didn’t belong to any longer and to see a party I had no intention of joining. Why not? Because I couldn’t see the purpose of the exercise (on a strategic political level as distinct from the point of view of those within the DL and Labour who were thinking tactically). The membership and outlook of the two parties struck me as quite different, an impression I’ve had no reason to alter in subsequent years. Moreover it struck me that the two parties addressed rather different sections of the left/liberal electorate that a combined party wouldn’t be capable of albeit this could only be done if the parties acted in concert which for the first couple of years DL most certainly didn’t with Labour. If anything I was a little surprised at them eventually merging with Labour given the history of those involved.

But this cannibalising the left hasn’t really worked for Labour. So far we’ve seen at least three groupings join it over the past fifteen years, the rump of Jim Kemmy’s DSP, the socialist organisation in Sligo centred on Declan Bree and the DL. None has brought significant gains. And in fairness to Pat Rabbitte the temptation to look to further fields must be very great indeed. The problem is that those further fields don’t appear particularly socialist, or even very social democratic. And it’s that problem that is in part the genesis of policies such as the 2% tax cut. Labour has to break away from centre left pack. But to do so it musn’t appear too centre left, which leads to disenchantment (at best) from the left and a further loss of support to the Greens and SF. But what is there about Labour as an entity that makes it a particularly attractive home for those tired of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael?

I don’t see it. And that’s why I wonder if this project is flawed from the start.

This new political landscape appears to be emerging as one where there are ‘flavours’ of centre leftism, Green, Republican, Social-Democratic and so on. That’s all very well, but it seems to me that in such a context the emergence of say Sinn Féin or the Green Party in a hegamonic position replacing Labour is unlikely. Instead we’ll have three, or perhaps more (if the SP increases it’s number of TD’s, and as an aside that will create some interesting pressures within that organisation) parties in or around 8 to 12% of the vote vying for the left vote. If so the opportunity exists to broaden the left through incrementalism across a range of fronts rather than placing hope in a single political entity.

But for that to be successful some serious thinking needs to be done about how to generate some degree of cooperation amongst the major groups on the left. There is no apparent sign of that. And if one or other element does enter coalition post-election any prospect of serious cooperation will be put back at least another three or four years.  That would be seriously bad news for anyone who seriously hopes that some sort of differentiation in Irish politics from the current situation will develop, and seriously bad news too for the left.


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