Collateral damage: The latest casualty of the Mullingar Accord… Pat Rabbitte resigns August 23, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics.
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?